Media

What's the Matter with Indymedia?

Conceived initially to allow everybody to 'be the media,' Indymedia is plagued by everything from fascist messages to paralyzing ideology to good old fashioned laziness.
In the last week of November 1999, a news website run entirely by volunteers was launched. "Don't hate the media; be the media" was the battle cry of hundreds of people who converged in Seattle to bring about the birth of the Independent Media Center (IMC, or Indymedia). The project promised the democratization of the media, and more: "Imperfect, insurgent, sleepless and beautiful, we directly experienced the success of the first IMC in Seattle and saw that the common dream of 'a world in which many worlds fit' is possible," wrote media activist and Seven Stories Press editor Greg Ruggiero. The idea was contagious. Almost 6 years on, there are 149 Indymedia websites in about 45 countries on 6 continents.

The newborn IMC provided the most in-depth and broad-spectrum coverage of the historic direct actions against the World Trade Organization that fall. Despite having no advertising budget, no brand recognition, no corporate sponsorship, and no celebrity reporters, it received 1.5 million hits in its first week--more than CNN got in the same time. Its innovative "open publishing" newswire meant that anyone with computer access could be a reporter. The user-friendly software allowed people to publish directly online, and since more than 450 people got IMC press passes (and scores more reported from their homes), they provided coverage of the historic protests from every block of downtown Seattle. Audio, video, photos, and articles were uploaded at a breathtaking pace. The site embraced the do-it-yourself ethic completely, meaning that there were no restrictive site managers, editors, or word-count limits. At the time, such restrictions seemed dictatorial, oppressive--counterrevolutionary, even. Now, I find them rather appealing.

The open publishing newswire, once filled with breaking stories and photographic evidence refuting government lies, now contains more spam than an old email account. On many sites, it's difficult to find original reporting among the right-wing diatribes and rants about chemtrails poisoning the atmosphere. Coverage of local protests often consists of little more than a few blurry photos of cops doing nothing in particular, without a single line of text explaining the context, the issues, or the goals of the protest. And forget about analysis or investigative reporting. They tend to be as rare on Indymedia as they are on Fox News.

This isn't to suggest that I've avoided Indymedia as a journalist, or that I disagree with its mission--neither are true. I've worked with various IMCs over the years during big protests, mostly as a reporter, and mostly secondarily to the various actions I was involved with. In 1999, I met early on with some of the founders of the first IMC, who wanted an outside perspective on what they were cooking up. In 2001, I covered the Zapatista caravan for the Chiapas, UK, and Seattle sites; later that year I worked in the IMC during the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa, taking phoned-in reports from the streets, confirming them, plotting movements on maps, and posting the news. In Cancún I did support work in the IMC during the 2003 WTO actions, as well as some reporting. In Miami, during the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests that same year, I reported for the short-lived paper and the website. And last summer in El Alto, Bolivia, I worked with locals on covering an important federal election.

On the anniversary of the Iraq invasion earlier this year, I was in Mexico, trying to get information about antiwar protests around the United States. I looked at IMC sites based in cities where I knew there were actions, and found nothing. Eventually, I found what I was looking for--on the BBC. The experience, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Each time I try and find news among the Indymedia drivel, I ask myself the same question: What happens when--in our attempts not to hate the media but to be it--we end up hating the media we've become?

I know I'm not alone in my frustration with IMCs. "I haven't looked at Indymedia in over a year," says the editor of a nationally distributed radical magazine. "Indymedia? It's completely irrelevant," a talented documentary filmmaker tells me. "I let the IMC use my photos but I don't ever read it," says a freelance photojournalist. More and more, independent media makers (even those who occasionally publish on or are affiliated with an IMC) don't even bother looking for news on Indymedia. And for good reason: Indymedia news "coverage" is often lifted from corporate media websites, with occasional editorial remarks added. Some IMC sites limit this type of reporting to a specific section, and there it can lead to informative discussion and criticism. But most seem to rely on it to fill column space in the newswire. This isn't making media, it's cutting and pasting--relying on so-called experts and professionals to do what you are, evidently, too lazy or busy to do yourself. The few original articles are frequently riddled with unsubstantiated claims, rumors, dubious anonymous sources, bad writing, and/or plagiarism. Rarely is anything edited--and I don't mean by the collective that runs the site. Users themselves aren't editing their own work, but instead are posting 18 blurry, almost identically bad photographs, or thesis-length uninformed opinion pieces that weren't even spell checked. Verified facts are an endangered species on Indymedia, and arguments in support of fact-checking are often met with cries of "Censorship!" To make matters worse, Indymedia articles are usually posted anonymously (and therefore unaccountably), with no way to offer feedback other than the flame-ridden fray of the comments section. If the goal of Indymedia is, as its mission statement says, "the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth," we are clearly falling short.

Perhaps it's useful to ask what constitutes effective communication. By any remotely sane definition, both telling and receiving are necessary. But the burden to communicate effectively belongs to the active party--the teller--not the audience. This is as true in one-on-one settings as it is in mass media. But the Indymedia mission doesn't mention audience. Instead it's all about the creation and the telling. Maybe this is, in part, where the problem lies. With the focus placed so strongly on the "tellings of the truth," the reader/watcher/listener is left to fend for herself. And if we have so little respect or concern for our audience, what on earth are we doing working in a medium based entirely in communication?

It's also a question of intent. I want my work to contribute to social change. And I sometimes end up a perfectionist, knowing that the better my work is, the greater an impact it will have. People don't read sloppy, unedited, or disorganized stories; they don't look at bad photographs or videos. And so the potential to have an impact is greatly diminished. This isn't a philosophical question about whether trees make sounds when falling in forests. Simply put, an unread article changes nothing.

And if we change nothing, not only have we failed in our responsibility to our audience, we have failed our subject as well. If I'm writing about a social movement, I am accountable to the people who trust me with their stories. I want my article to help them, not hurt them. When I'm writing about a particular issue, I want to inform and inspire others to get involved in learning more and maybe working on that issue also. Making media is a bit like scattering seeds, in that we never know where our work will end up--if it will germinate, take root, and spread; if it will survive fire or drought; if others will notice and propagate it. We should put out the hardiest and healthiest seeds that we can, so the information stored within will have a better chance at survival.

While all IMC collectives across the global network are individual and autonomous, there are certain commonalities that hold them together. The website layout and navigation tends to be quite similar, the process of uploading material tends to work the same way, and most use the same software. There are a few that stand out in various ways--some have more intensive editing, a few publish newspapers or have radio stations, and some are deeply linked to the communities they serve. Most people I've spoken with agree that the Portland, Oregon, site stands out a lot. Portland is known worldwide for getting technical resources and website security to other collectives in the network. In addition to their own site, they also generously host the US national site. And they have other policies that set them apart as well--but in quite different ways.

In many IMC collectives, the editing vs. free speech dichotomy is argued as hotly as abortion is debated by members of congregations and Congress. It's a debate that I imagine any group with open publishing would have to face. Many sites have explicit policies about what sorts of material will remain visible on their sites. Chicago has a policy of editing or hiding posts that are "racist, sexist, homophobic, or that clearly fly in the face of our mission to serve as a space for the exchange of news, dialogue and opinion that advances economic and social justice. Posts that serve as commercials for for-profit companies will be removed." They then go on to explain the reason for this: Right-wing and fascist organizations have a history of targeting Indymedia sites, despite having plenty of their own forums in which to post. Chicago's policy is clear, and they seem to stick to it. And they are not an exception--it's quite common across the network to hide such posts rapidly. (Hidden posts do not appear in the newswire but are available for the curious through a link.)

Portland has a similar policy in writing, but it sometimes seems more a formality than a reflection of practices. In the 1980s the city was a mecca for fascists and neonazis who beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death in 1988, and were subsequently driven out of town or underground. When I lived there in 2001, they briefly reemerged, and began using the Indymedia site to post recruitment messages for Volksfront--a white-supremacist, neonazi organization--as well as announcements of an upcoming meeting and concert featuring White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger. Several antifascist organizers contacted the editorial group in an effort to have the posts hidden. Our requests were denied; we were told that we were undermining free speech by requesting censorship, and were invited to post messages in response to the fascists' recruitment efforts. To us, this was inadequate. Let the ACLU protect neonazis' free speech rights--they were using a community resource to spread their hate-based propaganda, and we wanted it stopped immediately.

Though that level of fascist material has not been seen on the site recently, it is unclear if this is due to the nazis going back underground or due to a policy shift at Portland Indymedia. To my knowledge, there hasn't been anything like the Volksfront postings; however, in the last 13 months, the Portland IMC has hosted at least 7 articles by or in support of antisemitic cult leader Lyndon LaRouche, the most recent from April of this year. This, combined with the frequency of conspiracy theories about 9/11, mixed in with the occasional nostalgic ode to Kurt Cobain or oddball spoof on the fundamentalist-Rapturist Left Behind book series, seriously undermines the Portland site's usefulness.

Another Portland anomaly that detracts from its utility is the reorganization of links to other cities' Indymedia sites. Whereas most Indymedia sites list the links alphabetically by continent and country, Portland has come up with some geography- and logic-defying categories that make it absurdly difficult to find things. According to their creative cartography, St. Louis is in the "Mississippi Delta," despite the fact that the actual delta is confined to the southernmost tip of Louisiana, and the nearest Indymedia site is based over 80 miles away in New Orleans. The "Great North Woods" is not where my intuition tells me to look for New York City, and inexplicably, Tijuana is listed not with Mexico, but with the "South West" area of "Turtle Island"-- described by Portland Indymedia as an indigenous term for North America. San Francisco is also in the southwest. But not Arizona. If you click on "why this cities list," you'll find an explanation of the rationale behind the restructuring process (capitalization is in the original): "The cities list has been broken up heavily to make it easier to know where a particular imc is in the world.... The basic idea was to make the categories more defining of an area and ultimately align indymedias that would be working through similar regional issues, instead of continuing the socio-political lines that have always defined the cities list." Later on, the (anonymous) authors proudly state that they spent 15 hours working on the list. Fifteen hours, apparently without consulting a map.

There are certain etiquettes established by the very nature of Indymedia. Because so much of the work is online, collectives are able to network with other groups all across the planet, wherever there are internet connections and, when necessary, translators. While this is obviously a great strength, it can also be one of the most debilitating weaknesses, as people often act differently online than when they are face-to-face.

Ana Nogueira, who works with US Indymedia, grew weary of this dynamic. "After four years of working on this stuff I got really frustrated and burnt out by the lack of accountability. The spontaneity of the IMC could be held back by some stranger blocking a proposal from somewhere, anonymously. I originally proposed [the creation of] the US site [in order to allow the Global site to be more balanced, and less US-centric] two years ago, and it was blocked and blocked. You have to be really determined to see something through; you can't be too sensitive. People can be really curt and obnoxious on email, because they don't have to see you in person."

This may be a factor in some tensions in Mexico City between the IMC collective and other radical independent media groups. The Mexico City IMC has a policy of having meetings only online, never face-to-face. And they have acted in ways that seem territorial, even competitive, with another local media collective, Informative Action in Resistance (AIRE, in its Spanish acronym), that has worked closely with Indymedia centers in Monterrey, Cancún, and Guadalajara during actions. AIRE has received unsigned nasty emails from Indymedia Mexico City, in one case accusing AIRE of being "pseudo-activists playing with electronic toys."

"It's no good launching attacks on each other and using the tools of the right wing when we're trying to make a new form of communication," says María Martínez of AIRE. "There are so many independent radio projects and media projects in this huge city. We want to work with everybody, but not when they attack us like this." Earlier this year, AIRE sent some of its members to Brazil for the World Social Forum, where they met with some Brazil IMC folks. When word got back to Mexico City Indymedia, they were angry, apparently claiming that AIRE had no right to connect with the Indymedia network. This kind of territorial behavior can be more destructive than any of the outside forces and challenges we face. This is particularly true in the monstropolis of Mexico City, where radical organizations are already atomized due to geography and time constraints, and where sharing resources isn't only philosophically principled, but absolutely essential.

Another challenge inherent in the Indymedia form is that participation, as well as passive consumption, requires not only patience and a thick skin, but also internet access. Certain local groups have breached the digital divide, even if only for a brief spell. Seattle set a strong precedent during the week of the WTO protests by printing 2,000 copies of the daily paper The Blind Spot and distributing them on the streets during the actions. The paper was also available online, and was downloaded in Brussels, where 8,000 more copies were distributed. The Seattle IMC also streamed a radio broadcast that was picked up by Radio Havana and broadcast across Cuba. Additionally, they produced a nightly program that ran on public access television. Many other IMCs have followed suit during actions; what's more challenging is maintaining a presence when there isn't the momentum, surge of volunteers, and extra cash flow that an action can bring.

And cash flow is a huge issue. Many collectives, from London to Bolivia, have produced short-lived newspapers. But print is not cheap, and fundraising isn't one of the sexier parts of independent journalism. We're always short on money, and then when we do have any, it tends to come with controversy. "We have a larger budget than most," says John Tarleton of The Indypendent, the New York City IMC newspaper. "We've had a paid staff for the last few years, so it has been possible for us to do more. We weren't the first newspaper to take advertisements, but it was a really controversial decision. People often have a fear that money will corrupt everything, and that's certainly something to be mindful of, but having no money is also really debilitating."

Because Indymedia is such a broad and diffuse network, decision making across the planet can be tediously slow and sometimes results in painful and frustrating situations. A few years ago, the Ford Foundation awarded Indymedia a grant of $50,000 to fund a global Indymedia conference. But there were some in the network who didn't want to accept the corporate money, and ultimately the grant had to be declined.

There's also the very real factor of laziness. It's a lot easier to block decisions than to resolve a conflict, find a compromise, let go of our precious ideologies and opinions in favor of the group's effectiveness, and move the fuck forward. It's much easier to critique new ideas than to take on a task and complete it on a deadline. Anyone who's done radical organizing or independent media has almost certainly dealt with people who attach themselves to already existing projects or works in progress, contribute nothing themselves, and then exercise a veto over anything that comes up. If our goal is to make powerful, transformative, effective media, we have to learn to neutralize these problem people--even by voting them out of the collective, if necessary. Our effectiveness and sustainability depend on resolving such conflicts and forging ahead. As Luis Gómez of the Narco News website says, "A good journalist doesn't create problems, but rather, solves them." And sometimes Indymedia just seems to lack enough good journalists.

Perhaps this has something to do with the word journalist. After all, one of the points of Indymedia is to show that anyone can be a journalist, that anyone can tell a story, and that anyone can create media. But is that really true? Sure, digital video and still cameras get cheaper and easier to use all the time. And with the widespread availability of the internet, more Americans than ever are writing. But ease of use does not equal quality product. I don't mean that every comment on every article should be carefully crafted and edited (although I do believe that every computer does have, somewhere within its hard drive, some form of spellchecking software). And I don't mean that an article shouldn't be published if it doesn't have a gripping lead, an explicit nut graf, and a zinger of an ending, or if it doesn't conform to AP pyramid style. It isn't the lack of journalistic style or convention that irks me. It's the lack of journalistic principles, and the laziness. People seem to forget that writing and photography are skills that people develop over many years. They are not unattainable, they are not rocket science--but it's the worst sort of arrogance to think that your very first article, unedited, should make it to the front page. And it's laziness that keeps people perpetually posting without ever making an effort to develop their skills.

New York Indymedia is one collective that teaches people to become good journalists. "We've had lots of community reporting workshops," says Tarleton, "and people have come in off the street with little or no experience, but burning with a story they want to tell. Sometimes it takes them several months to write their first story, but they stick it out. We do a lot of skill sharing--people who want to communicate their ideas can get better at it. Anyone who sticks it out for six months or so can be writing regular news stories. The bottom line is that articles have to be well-written, accurate, fairly nonrhetorical, and convey radical ideas through quality writing and research. If half are good and half are shit, the crappy stories discredit everything else."

The Indypendent got a lot of criticism for its rigorous selection and editing process, with many people believing that the paper should publish any submission it receives. But as Tarleton says, "We're not doing the paper to boost the ego of our writers. It's for our readers-- to give them the best possible information within our limited ability and resources."

Some (often anonymous) folks tend to accuse independent journalists of having "sold out" if we publish in corporate outlets, make money as journalists, take ads in our publications, or demand high quality or even rewrites of submissions. But that means media in which talent and skill are punished, mediocrity rules, and we all hold hands and congratulate each other for "telling it like it is," even when few can understand the telling. Is that really the kind of media we want?

This sort of self-congratulatory, self-important attitude alienates almost everyone outside of the proverbial "activist ghetto," (and plenty of us inside it, too). It manifests itself not only in the style and phrasing of reporters' posts, but also in the very nature of what gets reported on IMCs. Direct actions make up an overwhelming amount of the content, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else. But if most of us think of Indymedia as being useful only for mass actions--or worse, our own private way of getting updates on what our friends are doing halfway around the planet--it may never grow to be much more than that.

Some Indymedia sites have proven to be valuable community resources way beyond the activist scene, simply by being in the right place at the right time. According to Joshua Breitbart of Global Indymedia, "What we saw in Argentina in 2002 and New York after September 11 was that people decided to make Indymedia a community possession. When these unplanned conflicts came to the community, the IMC was ready and able to contain a huge increase in activity in a way that most organizations can't. What do you do when 50 people show up at your office and want something to do? In New York we gave them newspapers to distribute. What do you do when your whole government melts and you have to find your own ways of making decisions about city services and having meetings? Well, an open publishing newswire like Argentina's IMC comes in pretty handy." In such instances, Indymedia became a community service almost as essential as trash collection, sewage treatment, and medical services. People depended on it during crises, and used it effectively as an organizing tool and information source. But we shouldn't have to wait for an act of terrorism or a government meltdown to spur us into action. We all, at least in the US, have access to that same resource--and yet we vastly under-utilize it.

The blame for this is diffuse--I am complicit by not volunteering with IMCs over longer periods of time, by getting frustrated and walking away from disagreements rather than sticking it out and working toward resolutions, and by not publishing my work on the websites all that often. The blame also lies on all of us who have gotten sick of Indymedia and just stopped using it rather than trying to change it, or, for those of us who are less patient, starting something new.

"Indymedia's biggest problem is that it is unique," says Breitbart. "People want it to solve every problem, to be all things to all people, and it just can't do everything. Some of the practices and tools that we've developed can be taken out and put into other struggles and communities where they can gain new relevance--be experimented on in new ways. We should be thinking about how to make it no longer unique, so it's not so valuable, because we have other independent media available."

I want to challenge independent media makers of all sorts, from the folks who volunteer most of their free time to keep the Indymedia sites and collectives up and running, to the people posting angry 3:00 am rants against union organizers and engaging in endless flame wars. I hope to provoke people to live up to another IMC slogan: "Make media, make trouble." I want to see our work become more accountable, better networked, more effective, and ultimately, more threatening. The best journalists are the ones who provoke, who pose a real threat to the status quo. But by tolerating low standards, forgetting our audience, and getting fetishistically bogged down in process and ideology, we succeed only in making trouble for ourselves.

Writer's note: My research was limited to IMC sites whose dominant languages are English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French. This included sites in Europe and the Americas as well as in Manila, India, Palestine, and South Africa.

*****

Exemplary IMCs, in no particular order, that make me proud to be an occasional Indymedia reporter:

Bolivia: Many collective members are involved in the day-to-day struggles of the region and have earned the trust of social movements. They broadcast a weekly radio news program in association with community-run Radio Wayna Tambo in El Alto, and provided all-day live coverage of last year's national referendum on natural gas, with around 15 reporters calling in with updates and interviews from 7 cities across the country. They also host video screenings. I went to one that was attended by about 80 people, 95 percent of whom were indigenous Aymara. Before the screening, the IMC organizers poured several pounds of coca leaf on a table--much appreciated by the audience. In addition, they are working to get donations of computers from the United States, not for their own use, but in a true act of solidarity, to give to an Aymara community on the Altiplano that requested them. //bolivia.indymedia.org

India: An interesting site, though not frequently updated, and with a fairly low level of participation. Certainly, internet access is a luxury on the subcontinent, and only 60 percent of the over-15 population is literate. Content is almost exclusively in English, also a luxury. So though I don't think that the site accurately represents what's happening in India and who is making it happen (a near-impossible feat for any one site to do), it still has good writing, generally constructive engagement in comments sections, and information I would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. //india.indymedia.org

Urbana-Champaign: After buying a downtown post office and transforming it into a community center, organizing successfully to prevent the local police from buying tasers, and playing an instrumental role in voting out a corrupt mayor, it's exciting to imagine what the folks at this IMC might do next. Well, actually, next up they are helping launch a community radio station that should be broadcasting in June. Their website covers local and global issues, and often features people signing what seem to be their real names to their work. Overall, they are truly embedded in their community, and provide valuable resources in terms of trainings, open debate, and lots of media. //www. ucimc.org

Global: An excellent overview of the world's Indymedia, this site is incredibly useful, perhaps in large part because there is no open publishing--all posts are selected by editors. The editorial collective is accessible and responsive to stories pitched to them, and they are in the process of refining this process to make it even easier. With both Spanish- and English-language features teams, and with the birth of US Indymedia siphoning off a lot of US-dominant traffic, this site has truly gone global. //www.indymedia.org

North Texas: With broad relevance to a diverse population, the site has everything a good community paper should have--news, book reviews, opinion pieces. The quality of writing is consistently high but not academic, using accessible language without lingo or mysterious acronyms. Coverage is primarily of local events, with a smattering of regional, national, and international items. It also serves as a message board, with announcements about such things as community garden plots available and biodiesel fuel for sale. //www.ntimc.org

San Francisco Bay Area: With a carefully edited website laden with news, Enemy Combatant Radio streaming, and the year-old monthly newspaper Fault Lines, the Indybay IMC is one of the best. The site is well organized, easy to navigate, and provides broad coverage of issues. Many collective members are involved in a slew of local struggles, and it shows. //www.indybay.org

NYC: Publishes The Indypendent, a biweekly newspaper with a circulation between 12,000 and 15,000. Its editors are highly skilled and work closely with writers. Their war coverage has been some of the best in the country, scooping several stories that even daily papers with high-salaried staffs missed. The website receives similarly attentive editing. //nyc.indymedia.org

Ecuador: Covers a broad range of local, national, and international news, with minimal reprinting of corporate articles and very little spam or diatribe. Frequently updated and carrying excellent coverage and discussion of major issues, such as the recent ousting of President Gutierrez and the rise of neighborhood assemblies. //ecuador.indymedia.org

Manila: Very well-written articles predominate on this site, and people actually sign their names to their work! Lots of radical analysis and less focus on protests is a welcome change. //manila.indymedia.org

UK: With a weekly radio program on a community arts station in London, an erratically published newspaper, the Offline, and frequent video screenings, the UK (that stands for United Kollektives, by the way) team is on the case. Web stories range from action coverage to analysis to announcements and updates, with thorough coverage of national issues, and a broad smattering of international news. This site often features the lovely convention of an independently written article followed by links to corporate media coverage of the same topic, for folks wanting contrast, more info, or confirmation of facts and data. I wish others would do this more. They also encourage people to correct mistakes in the comments section, and, if notified, the editors will post the correction in the original article when appropriate. The UK site has also been, since its inception, the place to go for resources on longer term organizing of mass actions, whether they be local May Day protests, international days of action in other countries, or the upcoming G8 summit in Scotland. The writing is excellent, even on the newswire. Though its vigorous hiding of articles not meeting their editorial guidelines has been controversial in some circles, could it be that having the newswire tightly edited may push people to do better work in order to get published? I find the UK IMC site to be consistently one of the best. Though I do wish it weren't pink. http ://www.indymedia.org.uk

Argentina: In Buenos Aires, Indymedia set up shop for a while in a squatted building-formerly a bank and now a community center opened by the Cid Campeador neighborhood assembly. The association with the political birth of the squat has meant that participation among the unemployed, as well as the neighborhood, is high, although the physical site has shut down. Since the financial collapse in late 2001, participation on the website has come from a broad sector of the population, who have used it in their efforts to govern their own communities. //argentina.indymedia.org

Brazil: One of the few Indymedias to do proactive investigative reporting, it's truly a political force in the country, to which municipal and state governments must occasionally respond. The center column is translated into three other languages (including, incredibly, Esperanto). They have a broad network of reporters, translators, techies, and radio stations spread across the enormous country. //brazil.indymedia.org
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