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<nettime> The rise of the Independent Media Center movement - Modern Day
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<nettime> The rise of the Independent Media Center movement - Modern Day Muckrakers [Indymedia article]

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Subject: Modern Day Muckrakers [Indymedia article]

Modern Day Muckrakers


The rise of the Independent Media Center movement

By Theta Pavis, <theta {AT} thetapavis.com>
OJR Contributor
January 15, 2002

Philadelphia - This is not your average newsroom. For one thing, it's been
set up in a church basement.

On one desk, a top-of-the line G4 Mac hums along; on another, a salvaged 
computer tossed in the trash by a college student is being brought back to 
life by the tech department.  

Like any media operation, it's busy. Deadline pressure permeates the air. 
Editors and writers call back and forth to each other, sweating the details of 
story length and content. Someone gets up to make a coffee run. Unlike other 
newsrooms however, the entire space will be empty in a week. Welcome to 
the Independent Media Center, in this case, the Philly operation-
headquartered for the moment at the Calvary Church in West Philadelphia. 
Like all IMCs, the Philly center uses the Net as a medium for dissident news. 
The nonstop activity both on and offline attracts hundreds of volunteers. 
"There is a frenetic pace which draws people in," said one longtime IMC 
member. "A mix of revolutionary protests and dot-com like caffeine-fueled 
energy of technology" keeps them coming back.  

                    Justice Journalism

The very first Independent Media Center (IMC) sprang to life in Seattle, during 
the fall of 1999. In November, the World Trade Organization and hundreds of 
international delegates were preparing to come to the city. At the same time, 
young activists, galvanized by years of anti-globalization work, were asking 
themselves how they could impact the meeting and get the word out about 
protest marches and rallies. Part of the answer was to create an alternative 
news source that would cover the demonstrations and the issues behind 

The Seattle IMC attracted scores of media activists who provided round-the-
clock coverage of what came to be known as "the Battle in Seattle." 
Members said the Web site they built got about 1.5 million hits during the 
WTO protests. Like everything else, the ISP services were (and still) are 
donated.  When the site traffic skyrocketed, a staff person from the ISP 
braved the tear gas in downtown Seattle to bring the IMC a second DSL line. 
(Tech members today estimate the entire network gets about 400,000 page 
views a day.) After Seattle, IMCs began to pop up around the world, from 
South Africa to New York City. At current count there are more than 60 
centers in 25 different countries. Some, like Seattle and New York, have 
permanent, physical offices. Others, such as Philadelphia, live mostly on the 
Netwith meetings taking place online and in the homes of local members of 
editorial collectives. This model is replicated around the world. In Barcelona, 
for example, the IMC is a year old and has a core of about 20 people. "We 
have needed no money until now," Carmen Hurtado wrote in an e-mail 
interview from Spain. "We got a few old computers that the tech people 
mounted for all to use. When the ink for the printer runs out, we collect some 
money just for this, or somebody with an extra mouse might give us his." 
International, bi-weekly meetings are held online, and there are scores of 
different IMC e-mail lists http://lists.indymedia.org ranging from general 
discussion, to talk of finances, translation and technical issues. When an 
event occurs that requires specific attention, the attention of independent 
journalists fed up with what they see as an increasingly corporate, 
mainstream presscenters get busy. "The mainstream press censors its own 
journalists and in Indymedia we have had cases of journalists coming to us to 
publish the news they cannot publish in the publications they work for," said 
Barcelona's Hurtado. "Social organizations and related movements come to 
us to publish their news because the mainstream press won't do it. They will 
not publish when a demonstration is going to be held, or the agenda of a 
weekend gathering to discuss social issues and alternative politics." IMC 
members videotape demonstrations and meetings 
http://www.indymedia.org/projects.php3, sometimes streaming them over the 
Web. Some produce radio reports http://www.radiovolta.org/, while writers 
feed constant updates http://www.indymedia.org/ to the Web and editors pull 
together print publications. On the Web anyone can get published, and 
comments on articles are eagerly solicited. Indymedia describes this system 
as "open publishing". 
http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/~matthewa/catk/openpub.html Not 
surprisingly, the entire network runs on free software.  

                    Newswires and Press Passes

Back in Philadelphia, it's the American Correctional Association's (ACA) 
http://www.corrections.com/aca/ annual meeting that has brought me to the 
IMC, which blossomed overnight in the rented church space. The ACA is 
holding their conference and trade show at the Pennsylvania Convention 
Center in Philadelphia, and members of the local IMC are attending to report 
on the "prison industry." Reporters can post their articles directly to the IMC's 
Web site. Well-written pieces get posted on the front page of the Web; the 
collective decides what goes where. Each IMC deals with this differently; 
some put the most accessed stories on top; some place stories chosen by 

The newswire meanwhile runs every story posted 
http://www.phillyimc.org/newswire_newswire_1.shtml, by date. One member 
described it this way: "Some IMCs have a policy of not removing anything, 
regardless of content. Some remove only commercial posts and posts that 
(have) technical problems ... Most sites have a statement whereby they 
remove racist, homophobic, and sexist posts." In order to get into the 
newsroom, where I have come to work as a volunteer editor, I first have to get 
issued an ID. Just like any newsroom, right? In this case, a young man 
perched at a small wooden desk at the top of the stairs works at a 
sophisticated laptop. He snaps my photo with an I-zone camera, types up my 
info, and in a few moment produces a laminated ID for me, complete with a 
cord for it to hang around my neck. The ID clearly identifies me as "PRESS." 
IMC reporters, however, have experienced different levels of difficulty getting 
officially credentialed. This varies depending on the city they are working in. 
The rise of the IMCs raises a lot of the same questions the Web has been 
raising for years now: Who gets to be a journalist? Many have compared 
http://www.media-alliance.org/mediafile/20-4/justice.html IMC members to 
early muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, but a better 
comparison might be found in Ida B. Wells. Born about five months before the 
Emancipation Proclamation, Wells became a highly respected journalist who 
spent years documenting and exposing lynchings. She was meticulous in her 
reporting, traveling to the scene of race riots and murders, and reporting her 
findings in black, and eventually in some white, newspapers.  But she was 
also an activist, sitting on the board of numerous organizations working to 
better the lives of blacks and women during Reconstruction. There was no 
confusion for Wells between the ideas of rallying behind her cause and 
reporting on it. Like Wells, the reporters connected to the IMCs don't have 
any interest in unbiased reporting. But many of their articles do contain, like 
her work, massive amounts of research, statistics and interviews. Media, they 
believe, should be accessible to everyone. Journalists can and should be 
agents for social change.  

The IMC movement attempts to deal with these issues upfront. On the 
Frequently Asked Questions http://process.indymedia.org/faq.php3 page off 
the main site, one of the queries is: 
http://process.indymedia.org/faq.php3#activist-journalist "Are you 'activists' or 
'journalists?'" The answer: "Some would say 'activists,' some would say 
'journalists,' some would say both. Each Indymedia reporter/organizer must 
make this distinction for him/herself. Having a point of view does not preclude 
Indymedia reporters from delivering truthful, accurate, honest news. Most, if 
not all, local IMCs, have explicit policies to strongly deter reporters from 
participating in direct actions while reporting for Indymedia." Individual IMCs 
reflect these issues in different ways. The tagline, for instance, on the Israeli 
IMC is "You Are Your Own Journalist." In Italy, where important work was 
done around the G8 summit and the subsequent raids 
http://madison.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=755 by Italian police who 
beat protestors, the tagline is: "Don't Hate the Media - Become the Media."  

                    Bridging the Gap

While the IMC movement has some things in common with such publications 
as say Mother Jones or The Progressive, members stress that they are also 
very different. "With Mother Jones, there's still a level of professionalism that 
they adhere to and they have resources at their disposal to strive for this," 
said Susan Phillips, who helped found the Philly IMC. These kinds of 
magazines, she said, are "fighting an uphill battle, that this perspective can 
be just as legitimate and look just as pretty (as the mainstream press). But 
the IMC is not trying to react to what the mainstream is saying. It's an 
attempt to be a whole other source, guided by its own vision." IMCs, she 
points out, are volunteer efforts. "The people have other lives- they consider 
this their activism. People are reporting on the movements they are active in." 
Another difference is that the IMCs are based on nonhierarchical structures, 
which means, for example, that when the press calls, there is no one 
appointed spokesperson. "The consensus model (is used) for decisions and 
priorities. It's not a typical newsroom structure ... it's a whole new kind of 
journalism because it is saying, 'Look, this is our story…and we can report it 
just as legitimately as some outsider can, and you can take from it what 
want.'" It is also a very young movement, said Phillips, who, at 34 is "one of 
the oldest people" in her local center. The reporters also have one other thing 
the old time muckrakers didn't have; the Net. "We have this medium out there 
where it can just go all over the world…instead of just trying to get one little 
thing in Mother Jones," said Phillips. "The self-publishing stuff is radical and it 
is totally dependent on the Web," added one activist, who gave his name as 
Velcrow Ripper, a documentary filmmaker who has been to four different IMCs 
and was recently at the one in New York helping cover anti-war protests. 
Some members get so caught up in the IMCs they end up intending to devote 
their lives to it. In September 2000, Evan Henshaw-Plath quit his corporate job 
and gave up his apartment in Boston so he could travel to IMCs around the 
world providing technical support. He's been on the road ever since. "I've been 
working with the global imc-tech collective which maintains most of the dozen 
servers, and traveling," Henshaw- Plath said in an e-mail interview from 
Germany. "I've worked with IMCs in Boston, Brazil, Argentina, Prague, San 
Fancisco, New York, The Netherlands, Vermont, DC and Philly." He 
describes Indymedia http://www.indymedia.org - the main IMC portal, as a 
network or networks of media activists. "There is no core or central 
organization." "To understand the role of Indymedia from a technical 
perspective as a Web site you need to know that we really just play one part 
in a whole wave of changes that have swept the way online news is 
constructed and presented. With Indymedia, we bridge the gap between 
online news, activism, real work media labs, and many non-cyber mediums." 
Covering War and Peace Sept. 11 has had varying effects on the IMCs. Jenny 
Arfman, a 27-year-old volunteer at the Seattle IMC who works full-time at a 
small software company, said she doesn't think Sept. 11 has changed things 
that much.  

"Our goals are still the same. If anything, it seems like Indymedia has 
become more popular and the newswire has been very active ... in a way, the 
war is connected to globalization. Yes, we're focused on Sept. 11, but the 
same people responsible for war are responsible for globalization and war 
profiteering." The IMC in New York http://nyc.Indymedia.org/ (where the Web 
site can also be read in Spanish) has been particularly busy. Members have 
reported on terrorism, on the lives of average New Yorkers in the aftermath of 
the attacks, on anthrax, and on anti-war demonstrations and teach-ins. 
Following Sept. 11, the New York IMC published several, 20-page 
newspapers (distributing about 20,000 copies each time), as well as a video. 
Others in Indymedia are trying to stay on top of what America's new patriotic 
climate, anti-terrorism legislation, and possible censorship could mean for the 
movement. "It puts us in a vulnerable place," said Sheri Herndon, one of the 
founders of the IMC movement in Seattle. "To continue to push the line of free 
speech…empowering people to make up their own minds is what Indymedia 
is about, and government doesn't want you to do that." Herndon recently met 
with members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation http://www.eff.org in San 
Francisco to discuss the situation. EFF is one of the groups that provides 
Indymedia with pro bono legal support. The word terrorism is being so broadly 
used these days, Herndon argues "it is being used to crack down on anyone 
working on social justice issues."  

                    Funding and the Future

Indymedia has always had strong links to progressive organizations 
http://www.indymedia.org/allies.php3 and nonprofits, particularly those 
connected to media (such as Public Citizen http://www.citizen.org/, Fairness 
and Accuracy in Reporting http://www.fair.org/, and Adbusters 
http://www.adbusters.org/). Those connections can come in handy when 
centers raise funds.  

The IMCs exist through volunteer labor. Computers and equipment flood into 
the newsrooms like the one in Philly when the call goes out. People lug their 
laptops and entire PCs in from home. They scrounge for old components and 
cobble them together. People donate and loan equipment. Some IMCs, such 
as the one in Seattle, solicit donations 
http://seattle.indymedia.org/donate.php3 on their sites. During the Republican 
National Convention-when the Philly IMC was first born-members drove to 
upstate New York just to pick up a G4 that was being loaned to them by the 
brother of someone who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The main FAQ 
page says, "Indymedia supports its entire technical structure on an incredibly 
minimal budget, only a couple thousand US dollars so far." In Sydney, for 
example, the IMC http://sydney.indymedia.org/ has grown through countless 
volunteer hours, occasional donations, and grants. Members have also 
brought in money by doing work for other nonprofits with similar goals, said 
volunteer Ben Praccus, who also works with a volunteer arts and media space 
called Octapod http://www.octapod.org.au/. Donations also come from 
individuals. Media analyst Ed Herman, who co-authored the book 
Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, gave money to the Philadelphia 
IMC when it was gearing up to cover the convention and said he plans to give 
more in the future.  

In an e-mail interview, Herman said he considers alternative media crucial for 
a democratic society. "I think the IMC movement has done very important 
work in counteracting the mainstream media's gross bias in dealing with 
events approved by the elite, like the political conventions and actions of the 
World Trade Organization and [International Monetary Fund] IMF," he wrote. 
"They have actually embarrassed the mainstream media. They have an 
important potential, and I must support them because they are part of the 
hope for a democratic future. If they and institutions like them don't succeed, 
this society is in deeper trouble than I like to think about."  


Editor's Note: As this story goes to press the author has notified us that the 
Philadelphia IMC has secured a building and will be moving to a new home.  


Theta Pavis is a freelance writer, radio producer and journalism teacher who 
lives in Philadelphia.  

hosted by Vancouver Community Network  http://www.vcn.bc.ca

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