An important anniversary passed fairly quietly this month: the birth of IndyMedia.org, and a sea-change in the way journalism is conducted. In Seattle, that anniversary was commemorated with a conference and other exhibits and events.
In 1999, the Internet was still in its youth as a source for news. Many newspapers were beginning online editions, but most were offering only online postings of articles from their print editions. Radio stations were just beginning to experiment with streaming, and the word “podcast” would not be invented for another half-decade.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, people were getting ready to host the first-ever World Trade Organization meeting on U.S. soil. The WTO was seen by many as a means by which richer, more developed nations would be able to exploit the resources of poorer countries with impunity. It was seen by many labor and environmental organizations as a way to legitimize the “race to the bottom” of wages and environmental protections. It was in this context that plans were made across the globe to confront the trade negotiators in Seattle.
People came to Seattle in November 1999 with many agendas but in agreement that the majority of the world’s people did not have a seat at the table. For many in the U.S., it was the first time they heard phrases like “globalization from below.” For many activists from the global south, it was the first time they became aware of allies among everyday working Americans. Alliances like the “Teamsters and Turtles” -- union members and young anti-globalization environmental activists -- would form the building blocks of nationwide opposition to the trade policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.
But another group also assembled in Seattle: independent media activists. Traveling to Seattle to cover this emerging anti-globalization movement was a core group of dedicated independent media activists. Some had been a part of the CounterMedia center at the 1996 Chicago Democratic National Convention; others came from various alternative media organizations like Free Speech TV, Community Radio, and the growing micro-broadcasting movement. All stood on the shoulders of a grand tradition of alternative press services like Liberation News Service during the Vietnam War and well before (Madison’s own Progressive Magazine recently celebrated its 100th anniversary).
A media revolution was created in Seattle using “open publishing” software developed in Australia, servers hosted locally, a space provided by local progressive business people, and dozens of computers, mini-disc recorders and small video cameras purchased with donated funds. Using the tools of corporate globalization (inexpensive recording equipment and high-speed Internet), with a few easy lessons in how to format and post audio, video and text, these “citizen journalists” were able to create a “globalization from below,” distributing news to a worldwide audience by and about the people being most affected.
On the first day of the WTO protests, Nov. 30, 1999 (now referred to as “N30”), the IndyMedia website (IndyMedia.org) claimed over 1 million hits -- more visitors than CNN. The reason was simple: CNN was still echoing the official press releases stating that rubber bullets were not being used against the demonstrators while IndyMedia journalists were grabbing up handfuls of rubber bullets, videotaping them, and putting the news out to the world across the Internet.
By the end of the week, over 42 police and security agencies had been involved in the street actions, reporters from commercial media outlets had been teargassed, and the meetings had been disrupted both outside and inside as delegates from the global south realized that they had allies and supporters in the streets of Seattle.
The face of media had been changed forever as well. Over the next several years, IndyMedia grew across the globe, peaking at over 200 local IndyMedia sites and centers (today there are about 175, with content in 20 languages). The model of IndyMedia is a basic one: citizen or activist journalists contributing audio, video and text to an open-publishing news wire. But each group formed independently and locally.
The IndyMedia Center in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., formed a nonprofit that was able to raise funds, provide server space, and gather equipment for other IndyMedia start-ups. In Madison, the IndyMedia Center is restructuring, but reached its heyday when an old grocery store downtown was converted to a buzzing media center during the National Conference of Mayors in June 2002.
Many of the things IndyMedia did in the first half of this decade are now considered mainstream. In 2002-2003, I ran a website built on the IndyMedia experience called “IraqJournal” with independent journalist Jeremy Scahill and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen reporting live from Baghdad before the U.S. invasion. At the time, someone asked us: “Oh, is that a blog?” We said, “No, this is a news site. What’s a blog?” Today with over 175,000 new blogs created annually, the blogosphere is a force in American politics, and it was the popularity of blogging that caused Time magazine to make “You” its Person of the Year in 2006.
In 2004, former MTV host Adam Curry began the first successful “Podcast Show.” Today all the major media outlets, and many smaller ones, offer podcasts of their audio and video content.
Videoblogging was popularized but Rocketboom’s Amanda Congdon, and today many newspapers are sending their reporters out with small video cameras to “vlog” their interviews. Sites like YouTube and Flickr are used by everyday people to tell their own stories and voice their opinions.
The instant updating of IndyMedia’s news wire during intense moments of news on the street remains a striking premonition of the Twitter feeds now produced by every major news outlet.
To paraphrase Voltaire: “If there had not been an IndyMedia Center, it would have been necessary to create one.”
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of IndyMedia in Seattle, all of contemporary journalism should look back at the road that led us to where we are today. The elements of participatory journalism -- people given voice to help shape how their stories are told -- this is truly what democracy looks like. Be the media!
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and operations coordinator for WORT/FM in Madison. He covered the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and was there for the anniversary events.