AFTER MONTHS OF rumored trouble, it's official: Seattle's Independent Media Center (IMC) is closing. The downtown alternative-media storefront, opened to organize independent coverage of 1999's anti-WTO demonstrations, spawned a network of Web sites and media collectives worldwide that today includes 123 locally managed IMCs in at least 45 countries. But it never quite made it here.
The idea of independent media producers pooling their content in one place while covering a major protest was not new, of course. There was the temporary media site established to report on protests at the Chicago Democratic Party convention in 1996. But Seattle's effort three years later was very much in the right place at the right time.
Beyond the enormity of the World Trade Organization protests, the Internet was just coming into its own as a tool to convey breaking news inexpensively. And there was a growing audience aware that network news coverage of such protests was likely to tell markedly different stories than protesters themselves would tell. Moreover, Seattle hadand still hasa remarkably diverse and talented pool of alternative print, radio, cable TV, and Web media outlets. Live Web accounts of the mayhem in Seattle's streets during WTO drew more than a million hits a day.
At subsequent "summit" demonstrations in North America and Europe, the indymedia.org movement found its first niche, providing real-time coverage of the demonstrations and encouraging the establishment of new IMCs wherever the protests occurredand in the hometowns of the protesters upon their return.
IN THE PAST two years, blogs came into their own, and post-9/11 American foreign policy raised interest in alternative sources for global news. Now, almost two-thirds of the IMCs, including some of the most active and well run, are outside the U.S. There's still plenty of protest politics, but, especially in Third World countries, local IMCs have become a way for media activists to spread to the rest of the world news from points of view not reflected in Associated Press and Reuters dispatches. In October, for example, www.bolivia.indymedia.org was an invaluable multilingual source of accounts of the movement that forced Bolivia's government into exile. Impoverished Bolivia has few Internet users; the audience was readers in other countries.
Meanwhile, back in Seattle, the original IMC was crashing and burning. The storefront on Third Avenue near Union Street was chosen because it would be in the heart of the WTO protest action, and it was. But the need to continually raise money for rent for the expensive location has been a drain for four years. This month, the IMC defaulted on its lease; it will close by the end of the year.
MONEY HASN'T BEEN the only problem. The post-WTO decision to keep the expensive storefront was based on a dream of the IMC becoming an activist community center of sorts, where groups could hold events, use computer and video equipment, and collaborate on media projects. It rarely happened. Many of the city's existing, left-leaning political media projectsnewspapers like the Washington Free Press, Real Change, and Eat the State!, radio and cable producers, and Web projectsworked with the IMC sparingly or not at all. Efforts by the IMC to launch its own print publication fizzled. A number of media activists complained that the core group running the IMC was cliquish and inaccessible; at one point, nonwhite media activists discussed starting their own competing local IMC. In the end, core members were clashing over personalities, vision, and what to do about the debt.
FOR SOME readers and would-be supporters, content has also been a problem. The Seattle IMC Web site aspired to be a credible local news source, but in practice it was open publishing, meaning that anyone could send in a story and it would run untouched. The policy was, in theory, the ultimate in media democracy. But it also left readers to sort out for themselves the solid, well-researched, well-presented stories from the jargon-laden, factually incorrect anarco-leftist rants. There were plenty of each. But as more and more people started their own blogs or Web sites, the site's local content deteriorated.
Maybe existing or new IMC activists will try to save seattle.indymedia.org. In any event, the impact of the project has been phenomenal. Locally, the IMC trained a new generation of media makers, and there are more good alternative media projects in town than ever. More important, as the technology of media has changed, the idea that spread from Seattle has evolved to inspire writers, producers, and artists on six continents.
Globally, as in the U.S., control of much of the world's major media is in a handful of conglomerates. The Internet has proven to be the most powerful medium we have for breaking that monopoly. So far, the world's biggest grassroots effort to that end began in downtown Seattle, next door to Bruno's Pizza. Long live Indymedia.