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Modern Day Muckrakers
The rise of the Independent Media Center movement

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 them.

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 Net -- with 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 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 press -- centers 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, sometimes streaming them over the Web. Some produce radio reports, while writers feed constant updates 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'. Not surprisingly, the entire network runs on free software.

Newswires and Press Passes

Back in Philadelphia, it's the American Correctional Association's (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 editors. The newswire meanwhile runs every story posted, 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 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 page off the main site, one of the queries is: '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 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 - 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 (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 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 and nonprofits, particularly those connected to media (such as Public Citizen, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and Adbusters). 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 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 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.

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.