Chapter Four: (Re)building the Cleveland IMC

4.0 Introduction         

            Moving from the global to the local, I shift to a study of the Independent Media Center in Cleveland, Ohio, which was launched in September 2000, only to fold the next year due to organizational problems.  In early 2002, a new group of activists, journalists, and independent media producers began the process of re-building the IMC, hoping to avoid the mistakes of the previous collective.  By December 2002, the new group was officially admitted to the network, though their journey through the new-IMC process was not without complications, some of which were still lingering at the time of this writing (April 2003).

            I began doing research on the Cleveland IMC in November, 2002—first by participating in discussions on the collective’s e-mail list and attending two of their regular meetings, then by conducting a series of e-mail interviews with volunteers.  Unless otherwise noted, all quotes attributed to IMC members are taken from these interviews and listserv discussions.  Finally, I read through the collective’s planning documents and surveyed content from both its Web site and its weekly radio show.  Having gone in and out of the network before being reconstituted nearly from scratch, the Cleveland IMC presented some unique research challenges and opportunities.  I had to examine its brief initial phase, about which there is little documentation.  Luckily, one member of the new collective had been involved with the original group and provided much needed insight on what led to its collapse.  Another new member was also familiar with the early history and shared his thoughts about what the new group needed to do (or not do) to avoid a similar fate.  Moving beyond this early period, I looked at the reorganizing effort, which lasted almost a year and saw numerous volunteers come and go.  This was much easier to study, though, as the new collective posts the minutes of all meetings on an auxiliary Web site alongside copies of its policy statements and some e-mail communication with global organizers (  Documentation from this period enabled me to trace, from the applicant’s perspective, the various steps through the new-IMC approval process.  By observing the communication flows and resource sharing between organizers at the local and global levels, as well as the communication processes within the local collective, I have also gained a better sense of the networking strengths and weaknesses of Indymedia, which will be further discussed in chapter 5.

            Before proceeding, I should note that the structure and processes of the Cleveland IMC are not necessarily representative of all local IMCs.  Indeed, given the network’s emphasis on decentralization and local autonomy, there are different organizational models within in it—variations on the same theme, if you will.  Each IMC responds to particular circumstances—local and national history, geography, and culture, for example—and draws upon the creativity and personal experiences of its individual members.  Social values, strategies, and resources may be shared openly across the network and many IMCs may struggle with similar dilemmas, but in the end, local collectives are responsible for developing specific policies which best enable them to serve their communities.  What follows, then, is an account of how one node in the IMC network came into existence and how it functions on a regular basis.  Though it obviously cannot stand as the definitive statement on local IMCs, or even the Cleveland IMC,27 I believe this case study can help illuminate certain qualities and experiences common to many IMCs.

            This chapter will be organized into three sections, the first of which is a chronology of the Cleveland IMC’s history up to its re-admission to the network. The second section will be a summary of events during the collective’s first two-and-a-half months as a fully operational IMC and a description of its decision-making processes, administrative structure, and membership. The final section will focus on the collective’s use of media technology and the content of its Web site and weekly radio show. 


4.1 History of Cleveland IMC

            During the late summer and early fall of 2000, activists in the global justice movement set their sights on several cities worldwide that would be hosting conferences dealing with biotechnology and global economic issues.  One of those cities was Cincinnati, Ohio, which was slated to host the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), a gathering of corporate leaders from the U.S. and Europe, that November.  As the Cincinnati demonstrations were being planned, independent journalists, media producers, and computer technicians contacted Indymedia organizers in hopes of establishing IMCs in the region.  This was during the first phase of the network’s growth when there were no Principles of Unity or much in the way of a formalized process for receiving, reviewing, and approving applications.  In quick succession, IMCs were set up wherever major movement events were planned.  With the TABD expected to draw large numbers of protesters from across Ohio, a local group of media activists and journalists from Northeast Ohio was given the go-ahead to officially launch the Cleveland Indymedia Web site on September 10, 2000.28

4.1.1 A Sudden Rise and Fall

            As with most other early IMCs, the Cleveland was set up to run Active software, which enabled visitors to post articles and comments directly to the Newswire.  Files were stored one of the network’s first servers, named Stallman in honor of free software pioneer Richard Stallman.  Open publishing was utilized by members of the collective and Web users to cover the TABD protests, which resulted in numerous arrests and several incidents were police used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on protesters.29

            After covering the TABD protests and a few other events in Northeast Ohio, the collective soon began to fall apart.  One member of the new collective, who was also a member of the original Cleveland IMC, recalls that the group met infrequently in person,30 failed to draw up an editorial policy, and allowed only one member to have access to computer codes and passwords needed to administer the Web site.  When that person moved on to other projects the collective was “left stranded.”  Another member of the new collective, who was involved in protests against the TABD and knew some of the original IMC volunteers, recalls that they did very little outreach work, had few resources other than their Web site, and seemed uninterested in, or unwilling to, cooperate with other organizations.  In addition, he suggests they suffered from an affliction that other groups involved in the global justice movement have suffered from—a narrow focus on a single issue or event.

The experience of the TABD demos also taught us a bit about organizing, too.... since they set-up the IMC to cover the events, we also set up a group called the “Coalition to Stop the TABD,” which of course, after the meetings ended, totally disintegrated. We named it the wrong thing, just as the IMC was formed for a reason without vision, too... there was no planning on what the do after the demos happened, and thus a lack of direction.


Long-time IMC organizers say this experience was not unusual for many early IMCs, and even some newer collectives.  Making the transition from an event-based news service to long-term community media resource is a difficult process that requires a great deal of strategic planning and organizing.  This, in part, led to the establishment of the new-IMC process.  But even with a more formal entry process in place, organizers, including some members of the new Cleveland collective, admit that it’s difficult to spend much time and energy focusing on vision and strategy when they face an immediate struggle to launch their IMC.

            For several months after the TABD protests the Cleveland Newswire continued to receive posts, but with no editorial collective in place to write new material or relocate relevant, timely Newswire posts to the Features column—and remove duplicate posts and spam—user participation dropped quickly.  Like other poorly organized online forums and billboards, the Cleveland IMC site became a dumping ground for rants and “flames” that often had little to do with issues in Northeast Ohio. Less than a year after being founded, the collective was inactive and Cleveland was removed from the list of cities in the IMC network, though the Web site was never actually taken down.

4.1.2 A New Collective Forms

            In late 2001 and 2002, a small group of college students, media activists, journalists, and independent media producers, most of whom had no experience with the original collective but were quite familiar with Indymedia, began discussing the possibility of reviving the Cleveland IMC.  Initial dialogue took place on the old e-mail list, which was still in existence.  By February 2002, the number of participants on the e-mail list had grown to more than a dozen and it was suggested that they meet face-to-face and take concrete steps toward re-connecting Cleveland to the Indymedia network.  They all agreed that Northeast Ohio badly needed an active IMC that could serve as a community media space for coverage of significant issues that were not, they believed, being fairly reported in the local mass media.  Meeting space was secured at a building owned by a community group that organizes against sexism and also produces its own cable access TV show,31 and February 17 was set as the date for the first meeting. Minutes indicate that 10 people attended, and that the meeting lasted for nearly two-and-a-half hours.  Among other issues, the group discussed the history of the original collective, the status of the Web site, and how to contact the global network.  The group agreed to hold regular meetings at the same location every two weeks.

               Over the next few months, attendance at meetings fluctuated from a high of about 20 to a low of four. During that time, members drafted a mission statement that defined the Cleveland IMC as a “not-for-profit, volunteer, and collectively-run organization working in solidarity with the international network of independent media centers to create a viable alternative to traditional media sources.”  It also stated that the collective would “seek to empower people of our diverse communities by providing an alternative source of information and a forum for active participation.”  Finally, the statement concluded, “We hope this resource will help people to make educated decisions that will affect their lives and communities in a positive way.”32  This statement and an application for admission were both sent to the global network in late March.  
               Several members also reviewed readings on the history and structure of Indymedia and an online instructional devoted to consensus decision-making.  The new-IMC process requires groups to have done a significant amount of organizing before being admitted.  They must also be familiar with the consensus process—or at least some variation of it—develop an editorial policy, and agree to support the network’s Principles of Unity.  The group in Cleveland was excited to be making so much progress in what appeared to be a very short time. 

4.1.3 New-IMC Process and the Waiting Game

The flurry of activity slowed, however, in late spring when members learned that the new-IMC process was moving slowly due to a backlog of applications from groups in several U.S. cities seeking admission to the network.  At the same time, the new-IMC working group was reviewing it’s application process in hopes of making it “clearer, easier, and more comprehensive,” according to an e-mail sent to the Cleveland group by a global organizer.  In addition, there was some confusion about the group’s status.  While a new collective had formed, the old Cleveland IMC had never been completely de-activated.  Its Web site was still functioning, though the old group did not use it, and new members only had access to the Newswire.  If members of the old group resurfaced and began organizing, they would, in a sense, be in competition with the new collective for control of the Cleveland IMC.  A member of the new group contacted one of the original organizers who did not express any interest in re-constituting the old collective.  Thus it appeared that the new group had no local rivals and they could proceed through the new-IMC process as soon as the global working group clarified its procedures.  Additionally, they would have to work with members of the Indymedia tech team to gain full access to the Web site.  Somewhat discouraged with news of the slow process, members continued to meet informally.33

            By summer, several members had moved on to other projects and stopped communicating with the group.  This is a rather common occurrence in loosely structured collectives, especially those made up of volunteers—people often drift in and out and the group develops in an organic fashion.  Some of those who left had either graduated from college, moved away from Cleveland, or were working summer jobs or internships.  Undaunted, the half-dozen or so remaining members kept meeting and communicating on a sporadic basis with the tech team and new-IMC working group.  Two members even attended the Underground Publishing Conference34 in Bowling Green, Ohio in June and were able to meet several organizers from newly forming IMCs in Pittsburgh, Michigan and other midwestern locations.  Buoyed by this experience, they returned to Cleveland with new ideas and, more importantly, good contacts with fellow IMC members in neighboring states.

Gradually, the group was able to get some control of the Web site, but they learned that the version of Active software they were running—the same version installed when the original IMC formed—was “so old it [had] some long-time Indymedia people wondering how it’s still around.” It would be difficult, then, to do much more than manage the Features column and edit the Newswire for duplicate posts and spam.  Important data on the front page, such as links to other IMCs and local contact information could not be changed—a rather significant problem for a small, newly formed group trying to attract new members!  Compounding this problem was the fact that the site was still hosted on the Stallman server, which by this time was hosting dozens of other IMC sites and was very nearly on its last legs.  In short, the Cleveland group had partial control of a sluggish site running old software that had none of the new features that other IMCs were using to publish and manage large amounts of multimedia content.  Through consultations with their liaison to the global tech collective, it was decided that the Cleveland site would be upgraded to a brand new version of Active, and the site would be moved to the server hosting the San Francisco IMC site.  However, this project, like many others, stalled.  As of this writing (April 2003) the new software had not yet been loaded, nor had the site been moved to a new server.  While this dilemma has certainly limited the ability the Cleveland IMC to manage their Web site, causing constant frustration, it does not appear to have significantly dampened their enthusiasm or their ability to improvise and make the most out of what they have to work with.  In a sense, this is one of the hallmarks of low-budget (or no-budget) community-based media and is a theme that will resurface at several points in this chapter.

            As the core group of about 6 members continued to plug away during the fall of 2002, they began to produce more original, first-hand accounts of local events35 and issues and continued efforts to communicate with other journalists, activists, and media producers in the area.  The blossoming peace movement in Northeast Ohio provided opportunities to hand out flyers announcing that the Cleveland IMC was in the process of re-forming and personally invite people to post their own stories to the Newswire and attend meetings.  Also significant is the fact that the core members were getting to know each other much better and were developing stronger personal relationships, enabling them to coordinate projects better.

            After much waiting, the collective heard from a member of the new-IMC working group in late September/early October, but the news wasn’t quite what they had hoped for.  Apparently, due to some confusion among the working group as to the status of the Cleveland IMC—a question local organizers thought they had addressed—the application had been set aside for further review.   It appears that global organizers were not sure how to proceed because they had never adopted a standard policy for re-establishing IMCs in cities where one had gone inactive.  The Cleveland group had also not been very explicit in spelling out an editorial policy on its application.  Thus they went back to the drawing board and hammered out a new policy that addressed content on both the Newswire and the Features column.  Essentially, they decided to leave the Newswire unedited except for duplicate posts and spam, which could be hidden much like offensive posts on other IMC sites.  In order for a story to become a Feature, it would have to be nominated by an active member based in Northeast Ohio and approved by two other active members, who must also be based in Northeast Ohio.  Nominations from people outside the area would require an additional supporting vote from a local member to gain approval.  Active members can also block a nominated story if they felt that it “directly violates the mission” of the IMC.  Blocking procedures would work just like approvals.  One member could propose a block, and if two others supported it, the story in question would not appear as a Feature.36

            After finalizing the editorial policy, the collective resubmitted its application to the network.  This time there were no major delays, other than typical communications slow downs that occur around the November and December holiday season.  Finally, after nearly a year of fits and starts, the Cleveland IMC was officially re-activated on December 26, 2002, and members held their first official meeting as an operational IMC on January 5, 2003.  Looking back, the process was long and often confusing, and it may have cost the collective some members who grew impatient or who had second thoughts about volunteering with the network.  But from another angle, the additional time spent organizing and working out policy issues may have enabled the core members to establish good working relationships that might serve them well in the future.


4.2 Social Organization and Administrative Processes

            In keeping with the spirit of the IMC Principles of Unity, the Cleveland collective takes a non-sectarian political stance.  While many of the members consider themselves to be politically left or progressive, the group is not attached to any political party or faction within a party.  Broadly speaking, the collective, like the global network itself, is organized around anarchist principles of free association, mutual aid, equality, and anti-authoritarianism.37  Several members have been both independent media producers and participants in various movements within the larger global justice movement.  They view their media making as an extension of their political activities and interests, and strongly believe that the stories they tell should inform and empower others, thereby expanding the reach and scope of participatory media and advancing the broader project of progressive social change.  This stands in stark contrast to their view of the local and national mass media, which many see as staunch defenders of political and economic elites who prefer a much more passive citizenry.  When asked specifically to give her assessment of the way mass media in Cleveland covered social issues, one volunteer replied, “Condescending, usually inaccurate with a closing reiteration and reassurance of the reigning paradigm.”

4.2.1 Membership

            As a community-based participatory project, membership in the Cleveland IMC is open to all who wish to engage in collective media making.  A member is consider to be “active,” and thus eligible to participate in editorial and administrative decisions, if he or she is involved in meetings, participates in e-mail discussions, or spends time reporting on events.  One must also support the mission of the local group and the Indymedia network.  There were about 50 people subscribing to the e-mail list by January 2003.  Of that number, I estimate that only about six were participating consistently on both additional levels (attending meetings and reporting) while about 10 to 20 were involved in at least two of the three areas.  While seemingly a very small number, it was not that unusual for an IMC collective in a city the size of Cleveland, especially one that had just been admitted to the network.38

In addition to this core group, there are countless others who have posted local stories to the Newswire.  Given the open publishing system and the ability to submit items anonymously or under a pseudonym, it is virtually impossible to count the number people posting content to the Newswire, however, it appears that the flow of content steadily increased from January to March, especially as the U.S. moved closer to launching its military invasion of Iraq.  Technically, all those posting news about local and statewide events, who also support Indymedia’s mission, could be considered members of the collective, though they may not have had any face-to-face contact with each other.  This sort of virtual participation has both advantages and disadvantages, according to the core members I interviewed.  I will examine those concerns in the following sections, after first providing a brief portrait of who the core members are, where they came from, and how they became involved in Indymedia.

4.2.2 Diversity and Outreach

            While most of the core members were drawn to the Indymedia project for similar reasons—i.e., frustration with the mass media and a desire to build participatory alternatives—their personal histories cover a rather broad terrain.  A member named Andy, for example, was a “Teen Age Republican” in the mid 1960s before becoming radicalized (towards the left) and joining Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  In addition to participating in the anti-Vietnam war movement, including the march at Kent State in 1970, he was also involved in the radical underground press, which in many ways functioned like Indymedia, albeit with much more primitive technology.39  In the 1970s and 80s, Andy became involved in Central American solidarity work and organized labor. He currently works an industrial job and serves as an officer in his union.  Andy “stumbled” upon Indymedia through a Web link and sees it as a “cross between an underground paper and samizdat. New technology filling a need and opportunity.”

            Along with Andy, there was at least one other member, Debra, over 40 years of age.  She has two children, a law degree, takes digital photos, and is currently working towards a teaching certificate in art education.  Debra also discovered Indymedia while surfing the Web and noticed an announcement in the Features column about an upcoming meeting.  Before attending, she had never posted anything to an IMC site, but within about a week of that first meeting, she was regularly posting photos and filing updates from anti-war marches and protests around Cleveland.  During one particularly busy four-day period (March 19-23), she posted 33 photos to the Newswire, many of which ended up in the Features column.  Debra feels that Indymedia sites can be an empowering media space that, in the words of the famous Quaker slogan, enables people to “speak truth to power,” or as she puts it, “tell the emperor he has no clothes.”

            Among the younger members of the core group are two men, Dana and Kris, who have been involved in an organization called Food Not Bombs,40 which also espouses anarchist values and uses consensus-decision making.  Both were acquainted with the struggles of the original collective and feel confident that the new group is much better prepared to make the Cleveland IMC a sustainable community resource.

Another young core member, Laura, was introduced to Indymedia by a family member involved in the San Francisco IMC.  She is quite familiar with Indymedia processes and the role the network plays in the broader global justice movement.  Like Debra, she specializes in photography, carrying a “digital camera, a simple first-aid kit, and mini cassette recorder” when covering events.  She says her goal is to “collect as much information and do what is necessary in the streets to report back to Indymedia.”  When asked via e-mail whether she thought participatory media networks could one day replace mass media, Laura answered with an emphatic “YES! This is the future.  We have the technology to communicate globally as individuals.  Like minded persons now have an opportunity to organize” that hasn’t previously existed.

            Two other members, Steven (Stav) and Patrick, have been very active in the collective since it began organizing in February 2002.  Stav is a computer programmer and serves as the group’s tech representative.  He discovered Indymedia while participating in protests at the 2002 World Economic Forum (WEF), a gathering of corporate leaders and economic ministers from around the world, held in New York City.  Unlike many of the other members, Stav considers himself new to political activism.  As he self-deprecatingly puts it, “I was pretty ignorant of the ways of the world before this year.”  Being involved in Indymedia, he adds, has been both challenging, especially with regards to the old software and server, and rewarding.  “Getting involved in projects at the ‘ground level’ is powerful,” he told me via e-mail.  Patrick’s media background is in graphic design and animation.  He also shoots digital video and has expressed interest in being more involved in global Indymedia projects, but with so many local issues to deal with, it’s been difficult.

            Despite their varied backgrounds, the collective reflects a certain homogeneity that is common to IMCs, and many segments of the global justice movement in the U.S., especially those that have participated in direct action and civil disobedience.41  Put simply, the majority of the core members are men, all of them are white, and most had access to higher education and have experience using computers and other digital media technology.  Lack of racial and gender diversity was a genuine concern for the collective, though they’ve been slow to begin a major outreach campaign.  This was partly due to the newness of the IMC, the size of the collective, and the fact that everyone is a volunteer.  But perhaps the greatest obstacle hindering outreach was the Web site itself, which the collective was struggling to upgrade during the entire time of my research.  Without the ability to add new features such as a contact page with meeting information, or an interactive community calendar, it was difficult to give Newswire users critical information about the collective.  At the same time, the sluggishness of the site often made it difficult to use the open publishing system in the first place.  Members worried that users would be turned-off by the slow, cumbersome site, making them less likely to publish their own stories or join the collective. Thus, major outreach efforts geared towards encouraging people to participate in Indymedia via the Web were put on hold pending the upgrade of the site.

As luck would have it though, the collective was able to gain access to a major communications resource that might prove to be their most promising information and outreach vehicle.  In February, the “Cleveland IMC Radio Hour,” produced by three members of the collective, began airing on WRUW-FM, a 1,000-watt radio station located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  This weekly program has enormous potential to reach diverse audiences in the metropolitan area and can serve as a vital link between the local IMC and those who do not have, or do not feel comfortable using, computers to communicate.  I will return to the radio show in a later section.

Before moving on, though, it is important to note that reaching and empowering people through media technology is only half the deal.  In order to become sustainable community resources, local IMCs must build a social infrastructure that complements, perhaps even surpasses, their communications infrastructure.  Face-to-face meetings and other social gatherings in which attendees have opportunities to speak as well as the responsibility to listen are vital.  “The most important thing,” said one Cleveland member, “is to make new people feel welcome and LISTEN. Listening is an art. That way when ‘diverse’ people show up, they stay.”

4.2.3 Decision-making Process

As mentioned above, IMCs must establish a decision-making process that is consistent with principles of consensus.  This process serves as the general framework within which collectives submit, discuss, and vote on policy proposals.  The Cleveland IMC uses a model called “Formal Consensus” (Butler and Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus) that was developed in part by a long-time activist with Food Not Bombs and was familiar to at least two members of the group.  This model consists of three levels of discussion: The first level is broad in scope, allowing for discussion by the whole group on the general merits or limitations of a proposal; level two limits discussion to specific concerns within the proposal; and at the third level, discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern and discussion continues until the concern is resolved or the proposal is withdrawn.42  In short, the process starts broadly by considering the whole and then gradually narrows to consider specific parts.  Formal Consensus was developed for large groups of about 100 or more and is highly structured thus it would not seem appropriate for a group as small as the Cleveland IMC.  However, its proponents suggest that it can be modified to fit much smaller, less structured groups.

At times the collective had difficulty with the consensus process, which is not unusual. Consensus, after all, runs counter to the hierarchical models of decision-making that dominate many contemporary social institutions, even many of those tagged with the label “alternative” or “radical.”  As the architects of Formal Consensus put it, “Almost all groups, no matter where they fall on the social, political, and economic spectrum of society, have a hierarchical structure, accept competition as ‘natural’, acceptable, and even desirable, and put a good deal of effort into maintaining control of their members” (Butler and Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus).  Given these structures, a person working eight hours a day with little or no opportunity to participate in decisions that affect her job might not easily adjust to a process in which power is shared and she is expected to fully participate.  Conversely, a person who has spent much of her working life supervising or teaching others may have difficulty sharing power.  Added to these concerns is the fact that consensus is built on trust, which takes time to develop.  Considering that most members of the IMC collective came to the project as strangers, it is understandable that there would be awkwardness adjusting to consensus early on.

               On another level, the consensus process, if poorly facilitated, can be abused by disruptive participants or small groups determined to block a proposal that has majority support.  Ideally, one should block a proposal only when it so contradicts the basic principles of group unity that he or she could not be part of a group that adopted it.  But problems and abuses can arise, and for that reason, many IMCs take a flexible approach to consensus, modifying it for certain types of decisions that may require technical expertise or, as in the case of some editorial matters, may need to be made quickly.   IMCs can also delegate authority to working groups within the collective.  The Cleveland IMC did this by empowering three members with editorial control over the radio show.  Though all members may recommend stories or interview guests, the producers have a larger measure of power because they spent time learning how to work the radio “board” and are responsible for being at the studio each week to put the show on the air.  The collective also allowed three members to have computer passwords, which enable them to maintain the Features column on the Web site.  This does not, however, give them more control over choosing what goes in the column.  The editorial policy still requires that stories be nominated and seconded before being approved as Features.  To avoid repeating mistakes of the original Cleveland collective, current members may want to consider a rotating system for handling computer passwords—as well as the possibility of changing passwords periodically for security reasons.  In addition to balancing power relations within the group, rotating tasks and responsibilities allows members to learn new skills.

I should also note that editorial decisions were made almost exclusively through the e-mail list.  In fact, the bulk of communication between members takes place online.  While this enables them to participate instantaneously from different locations, it also puts those without regular Internet access and computer skills at a significant disadvantage.  This is a factor that could inhibit participation.  Several members I interviewed recognized the limitations of virtual communication and stressed the importance addressing critical issues through personal communication.  One member in particular commented, “e-communications can be used for routine matters and trivial decisions, but it is completely ineffective for complex/important decisions beyond a simple idea-exchanging level.”  Despite this sentiment, opportunities for personal communication are still rare.  Regular face-to-face meetings, which had been held every two weeks initially, were switched to monthly events in late 2002.  Between November 2002 and March 2003, this seemed to be adequate as the collective was still quite small and geographically spread out across Northeast Ohio.  An expanding membership may compel members to consider having regular meetings more frequently, or perhaps to have working group meetings—even informal meetings and social functions—between the monthly meetings.

4.2.4 Financing

            Through its initial organizing phase and its first months as a fully operational IMC, the collective has not had to deal with any pressing financial problems.  The Web site is hosted for free and members typically use their own audio/visual gear when reporting on local events.  While the radio show requires a few hours of preparation each week, access to the station is free.  In fact, money is the issue members appeared to be least concerned about, though they expect that to change as the collective grows and takes on more projects.  If at some future point the collective tries to gain access to a permanent physical space, as many members would like, they will likely find themselves spending a large portion of their time and energy raising money and dealing with issues of location, equipment, staffing, and security.

While that time may be far ahead in the distance, some group members are considering ways to generate funds.  In particular, the idea of hosting a video screening was discussed while I was conducting interviews.  One member was in contact with a group of independent filmmakers who were planning a tour of the Midwest to finance a documentary about the recent economic crisis in Argentina and the importance of independent media as a communication tool for social movements.  In the spirit of Indymedia, the filmmakers offered to show several short videos—including previews of their work in progress—in exchange for donations, which they would share with local IMCs that provide space for a screening.  There was also talk among the members of putting together their own Cleveland video reel and showing it to local audiences for small donations.


4.3 Media and Messages

Returning to the concept of open journalism discussed in the last chapter, this section will examine the Cleveland IMCs use of media technology to report on their community.  I’ll start with a section on the use of the Web, which will be organized into two subsections: one focused on the Features column and the other on the Newswire.  I’ll also consider the mix of media formats (text, and digital imagery primarily) on the site.  Finally, I’ll discuss the collective’s use of radio to reach audiences not able or not likely to access Indymedia on the Web.  Special emphasis will be placed on the editorial process—how the collective solicits stories and publishes Features and how they select content for their radio show.  In discussing the open Newswire, I’ll examine the collective’s approach to the sensitive issue of hate speech.  There will also be an informal survey of Newswire content based on observations made the week of March 16-23, 2003.

One other note before proceeding: Organizers told me that the need for an Independent Media Center in Cleveland became more pressing in late 2002 with the closing of one of the city’s “alternative” weekly newspapers.   The Cleveland Free Times, was shut down in October 2002 as a part of a deal between Village Voice Media and New Times Media, two of the country’s largest publishers of weekly newspapers.  As the Associated Press reported, “the two companies swapped markets in an agreement…that had New Times Media closing The New Times Los Angeles, a weekly that competed with Village Voice Media's L.A. Weekly. In return, Village Voice Media promised to shut down its paper in Cleveland, the Cleveland Free Times,” which competed with New Times Media’s Cleveland Scene.  The Justice Department sued the two companies for violating anti-trust laws and in January 2003, they reached a settlement barring the companies from making similar deals in the future.43   IMC organizers said the Free Times, had been one of the only commercial news outlets in the area that consistently covered the progressive/activist community.  Losing the paper gave them even more incentive to join Indymedia and position their Web site as viable progressive news and information outlet.

4.3.1 Web Site

            The Cleveland IMC was plagued by technical problems during its re-organization and throughout its first three months as an active Indymedia affiliate.  The Web site was hosted on an old and overloaded server and was running old software.  To make matters worse, organizers only had access to the Features column; they did not have the ability to change the site’s layout, add design elements, or create special sections where stories could be organized by topic rather than in reverse chronological order.  In addition, users could not search the site for old Features, though old Newswire posts could be located.  It was hoped that by January or February 2003, new software would be installed and the site would be moved to a new server.  But by April 2003, this had not occurred.  Despite their frustration over these matters, members did their best to provide the community with a platform for open reporting and discussion.

4.3.1 (a) Features

            Through their contacts within the progressive community, the collective was able to publish some stories early on that no local mainstream outlets covered.  One contact, in fact, yielded a series of articles written by a local activist who, at the time, was serving a three-month stint as a street medic with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Israeli-occupied Palestine.44  His weekly dispatches, in the form of journal entries, were either posted directly to the Web site by friends in the U.S., or e-mailed to IMC volunteers who would post them.  This underscores the importance of having horizontal communication links to movements, activists, and other local media producers whether they be directly involved in Indymedia or not.  Ideally, this is how much of an IMC’s content would be generated; core members would serve primarily as facilitators, providing the media platforms as well as technical and social support for journalists, artists, and activists either covering or actively engaged in movements for social change.  The original Seattle IMC followed this model and the Cleveland volunteers hoped to replicate it locally as best they could.  As one member put in an e-mail interview, “People just think that we're going to do all the reporting and we're like ‘no, you do it, that's the point’.  I don't mind doing a lot of reporting, but I can't cover everything, and I don't even want my views to be the primary views writing this stuff. It’s not my soap box, so the idea is definitely empowerment.”  However, members often spent the early months doing much of the reporting.  This did begin to change by March as more people involved in the peace movement started posting their own news accounts and commentaries.

            Returning to the stories from the activist in Palestine, one could find elements of justice journalism in them—that is, if one finds the struggle of the Palestinians against occupation to be a just cause.  In one particular report, dated January 2, 2003, he described the scene as night fell in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, very close to where he and other activists had helped get medical supplies through an Israeli army checkpoint earlier in the day.

As I write this, we're staying in a quite dangerous house tonight.  The family has abandoned it, but we're staying in it to keep it up and to protect the next line of houses (and families) as well.  We've already heard several very close shots.  They may try to scare us away tonight, which won't make for a very comfortable sleep, but I sincerely doubt they'll try to demolish the place.  Even still, I'm sleeping in my clothes with my bag ready to go.45


According to his next report, the young activist and his co-workers were rudely awakened that night by gunfire and explosions.  The neighborhood was, indeed, being attacked by Israeli forces, and several homes were bulldozed the next day.  The house he was staying in was not damaged and his group was moved to another occupied town.46

            Putting accounts such as this on the front page of their Web site without editing the content reflects not only the social values of Indymedia organizers, but also their respect for the storyteller.  In this case, a passionate—rather than impassionate or neutral—observer describing in his own voice what he sees and hears.  This is in stark contrast with much of the bland, voiceless (third person) reporting in the mass media.

            Aside from this rare report from a local resident overseas, most other Features dealt with stories about the “war on terrorism” and the peace/anti-war movement.  These could be organized into three general categories: (1) accounts of local marches, rallies, and other movement events (including stories that announced upcoming events); (2) accounts of national and international anti-war events; and (3) articles about issues related to the war, such as treatment of Arab Americans and civil liberties.  Stories in the first category far outnumbered those in the other two, which reflects both the emphasis on local news and the tendency of Indymedia sites, especially new ones, to be event-oriented.  This is largely due to the direct links between IMC volunteers and groups that organize protests, teach-ins, and rallies.  As collectives diversify and volunteers become more experienced news gatherers and community media organizers, they tend to produce a greater variety of reporting.

            It should also be noted that there are essentially two ways a story could get to the Features column.  The first is through an internal method whereby a member of the collective sends a story he or she has written to the e-mail list and asks that it be nominated, approved, and posted.  If the story is approved and the member proposing it is in the editorial working group—with passwords to edit the center column—he or she can then publish it.  The second method involves Newswire posts that someone in the collective nominates to be a Feature.  If it is approved, one of the members of the editorial group will publish it.  Early on, the core volunteers were writing most of the Features.  By March, however, traffic on the Newswire had picked up considerably and members were able to serve more as an editorial board, nominating, approving, and then publishing stories by others.  Again, this is ideally how Indymedia sites would function.  By providing an accessible platform, the collective would empower people in the community to tell their own stories.

            Features not dealing with war-related issues were rare, but not absent.  Of those I encountered between January and March, two stand out because they help show how and why stories get approved.  The first, titled “Dennis Kucinich Considering Presidential Bid,” was a news report/commentary about the possibility that the Cleveland Congressman would run for President, which he later decided to do.  It was submitted to the e-mail list by someone unknown to the collective who had trouble posting it to the Newswire.  The writer opines, “As crazy as it sounds, the man who was once ‘Boy Mayor’ of Cleveland, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), quite possibly offers the best hope for the Democratic Party and the American left to dethrone King George.”47  Members approved it due to its local relevance, though they were careful to let the writer know that they didn’t endorse candidates or political parties, not so much for “objectivity” reasons, but because Indymedia purposely favors movements over institutions, especially mainstream ones such as political parties.

            The other story dealt with sexual violence against women.  It was a short article with an announcement about an upcoming conference.  The author, a man identified only by the letter “J,” wrote, “It’s time that we took a stand as men who want nothing to do with the oppression of women and everything to do with playing the role of comrade and brother in our human struggle for liberation.”48  This story was actually one of three reports dealing with the same conference addressing sexual violence.  The three items had been posted separately on the Newswire and it was proposed that they be bundled together as a single Feature.  Members quickly approved the proposal due to their support for the conference and their interest in attracting more stories about issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia.

4.3.1 (b) Newswire

Technical limitations also prevented the collective from organizing their Newswire in a more user-friendly fashion.  Most other IMCs use newer versions of Active or customized software developed by their own tech groups.  This gives them the ability to organize recent Newswire posts into categories such as “Local News,” “Global News,” and “Other Breaking News,” all of which are accessible from the front page.  A few even use an audience ratings system (Buzi, “The Indymedia Ratings…”) that places the highest rated new posts at the top of Newswire.  By contrast, all posts on the Cleveland IMC Newswire were displayed in reverse chronological order.  Unless the author specifically referred to a local event in the title, there was no way to know whether a post was locally, nationally, or internationally focused until one read it.  In addition, the front page only accommodated links to about 15 posts, again with only the most recent appearing.  During times of heavy activity, Newswires can become inundated with posts.  Often the top 15 items will have been posted in the last day or even the last few hours, causing other, less-recent posts to get pushed off the front page no matter how relevant or compelling they are.

As with the Features section, the Cleveland collective made the best of the situation. Members took great care to notify others of particularly relevant or interesting posts that they thought might be good candidates for the center column.  The editorial policy also allowed members of the editorial group to pull certain posts off the general Newswire and place them in a “hidden” file, which was still accessible to users, though they had to link to a page called “articles” and select the option “search all articles.”  Types of posts deemed eligible for hiding included: duplicate posts; spam; commercial solitications or advertisements; messages with technical errors making them unreadable; and messages deemed to be threatening to specific individuals.  Luckily, in the time I observed the e-mail list and the Newswire, no cases in the latter category came up.  There were, however, a few posts that could be considered as hate speech, consisting primarily of slurs against Jews or Muslims, and at least one other post that might be considered pornographic.  This caused some concern among members who decided to keep the site open with the exception of the categories just mentioned.  It’s impossible to say how they’ll react in the future if the problem becomes more common.  One point of reference might be the experience of the Vancouver IMC.  When faced with an onslaught of hate speech that threatened to drive many regular users away from the site, members there took the approach that the Newswire was to be treated as a public commons governable by the rules of the user community.  Specifically, they drew up a policy for the Newswire that permitted the hiding of posts that “use language, imagery, or other forms of communication which promote racism, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, ageism or any other form of discrimination” (Uzelman 59).

            The Newswire was similar to the Features section in topical areas. Most of the posts were related to the war and the peace movement, with a large number accompanied by photos.  I surveyed all the (non-hidden) Newswire posts for the week of March 16-23, 2003 and tallied them according to subject matter (see Table. 2).  This was not done as a part of quantitative content analysis using sophisticated coding techniques; rather I used the somewhat crude technique of sorting stories based on my interpretation of the content.  This was simply an attempt to get a rough snapshot of the Newswire during a period of heavy activity.  While war-related reports also dominated mainstream mass media outlets with Web sites in Cleveland the focus was on Bush’s ultimatum, the beginning of the war itself, and Ohioans called to duty.49  Very little news with anti-war voices was featured—the exception being a handful of stories on demonstrations and the arrests of protesters.  The general tone of coverage, as one might expect, was far different from that of Indymedia posts, which were overwhelmingly first-hand accounts of anti-war demonstrations and opinions strongly against the war.

Table 2. Cleveland IMC Newswire posts for the week of March 16-23, 2003

Subject              No. of posts*







Rachel Corrie#


Mainstream Media Criticism


Activism/Protest (general)


Politics (general)


State budget




Supreme Court Justice Scalia (Cleveland visit)





*There were actually more that 112 total posts, but the table only includes story categories in which there were two or more posts.


#American activist killed by Israeli bulldozer in Gaza Strip


If nothing else, the results reinforce the argument that Indymedia sites serve as “alternative public spheres” (Morris, “Globalization and Media Democracy…”) or “media commons” (Uzelman 57-60) where dissident or underrepresented groups are encouraged to present their views in their own voice using their own cultural symbols.  Somewhat surprisingly, few of these posts received comments from other users.  According to IMC volunteers, the comment feature in general had been used infrequently, which was discouraging to them.  Perhaps the lack of use was due to the newness of the collective and the relative uniformity of opinion about the war within the dissident/progressive community normally attracted to Indymedia sites.  Through personal contacts and by visiting IMC sites regularly, people within these social circles tend to know when an Indymedia collective becomes active in their area.  As Indymedia sites become more widely known outside their core community, they typically see an increase in content diversity, including posts from oppositional groups and movements.  At some future point, say six months to a year, it would be worth re-visiting the Cleveland site to conduct a thorough content analysis and study other aspects of its organization.

4.3.2 IMC Radio Hour

            Members of the Cleveland IMC were fortunate to have access to a local college radio station, which included a prime slot for their public affairs program.  In February 2003, the “Cleveland IMC Radio Hour” began airing on Tuesday nights from 6-7pm on WRUW-FM (91.1), a 1,000-watt station located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.  The station is on the air 24 hours a day and offers a wide range of public affairs and cultural programming.  It has consistently been a popular listener-supported station in the Cleveland area.

The three members of the editorial group, two of whom were official members of the station’s volunteer staff, took responsibility for producing the show.  Their basic format was to broadcast a half hour of local news culled mainly from their Web site, followed by a half hour of national/international news gathered from the global Indymedia site.  Producers also played taped interviews recorded by IMC volunteers at local events and conducted a few in-studio interviews with guests.  Audience participation was low, consisting of short call-in segments.  Given the newness of the show and the fact that it ran in a time slot formally devoted to a popular polka music show, it was not surprising that there were few phone calls.50  As producers continued to get more comfortable on the air, they made plans to promote the show more frequently on the Web site and solicit more live audience participation.  It could be argued, however, that even without live forums the show was participatory.  Of the local stories read on the show, many were drawn from the Indymedia Newswire thus incorporating the experiences and opinions of many people into the overall content.

There was one development involving the show that concerned the collective.  One member reported to the group that the station’s new public affairs director, a volunteer who hosted a “pro-militia” show that appeals to a right-wing audience, had been hostile in her attitude towards the IMC show.  In an effort to strengthen the show’s standing, this member appealed to friends in the activist community to make donations to the station—and mention their support for the show—during an upcoming pledge drive.

4.4 Conclusion

The Cleveland IMC represents a unique case in the network’s history.  Due to poor organization, the original collective disbanded, leaving a Web site that sat dormant for almost a year.  A new collective formed and began the task of reapplying to the network.  They endured a long complicated readmission process.  Ten months after first organizing, the new collective was officially admitted to the Indymedia network.

While this struggle stands as a testament to the patience and good humor of a core group of members who continued organizing even when their status was in doubt, it also highlights some of the weaknesses within the Indymedia network.  Communication between global organizers and the Cleveland collective was often poor, with long gaps between connections.  This was due in large part to the network’s lack of a coherent process for re-admitting cities, and the high number of applications for new IMCs flooding the network, which placed a heavy workload on the small group of volunteers in the new-IMC working group.  Though not exactly related to this dilemma, the Cleveland group also had problems getting new software from the global tech group.  Communication links with their tech liaison were strong initially, but there was a breakdown just after the collective was re-admitted.  New software that had been promised had not been installed, leaving members to struggle with a poorly functioning Web site.

Perhaps this too was a byproduct of the unusual status of the Cleveland IMC.  If so, then it may just be an aberration.  However, interviews with several global organizers, and a review of e-mail messages, suggest that communication breakdowns between local IMCs and global working groups occur frequently.  It appears as though this problem can be traced to several sources, most of which involve network structure and communication among global organizers.  I’ll pick up those matters in the next chapter.  For the rest of this section, I’ll concentrate on communication, structure, and content on the local level.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Indymedia is made up of volunteers.  All the members of the Cleveland collective spend a good deal of their free time doing Indymedia work.  They do it because they see a need for open media platforms in their community, and they enjoy being a part of a movement that experiments with radical new ways of making media and empowering people.  But with so much of their time spent dealing with local matters, there is little time or energy for establishing strong ties to various global working groups.  With time, and more members, this may become easier.

Volunteerism also affects opportunities for personal contact on the local level.  Working without an office and living in different neighborhoods, Cleveland IMC members depended primarily on e-mail communication to exchange information and make decisions.  Members said this was fine for approving stories and conducting routine business, but not for addressing administrative or structural issues, or building strong, trusting relationships.  Several volunteers wanted to find ways to create more opportunities for face-to-face contact, perhaps by holding meetings more frequently or organizing social gatherings or periodic retreats.  “Face to face gatherings are very important,” one member said, “because we are people, not disembodied intellects.”  Another commented on the advantages of personal contact when recruiting new volunteers.  “Anyone can post to the Cleveland IMC Web page,” he commented, “but to actually participate beyond that level.... most people like to know the faces behind the screen names and email addresses.”  Having a permanent office or workspace would help, but acquiring one in the short-term would be difficult due to the small size of the active membership and the costs involved.

            Regarding content issues, the primary concern appears to be the amount, diversity, and quality of local reports.  In an effort to generate more original local news, one member suggested at a monthly meeting that the group should have at least one volunteer in each city ward responsible for covering events and issues.  Another expressed interest in recruiting local activists, artists, and writers to produce regular features on the issues they organize around.  With proper outreach there’s no reason to think that it can’t be done.  The trick is in making those horizontal links to people in all corners of the city and creating a series of media skills workshops that introduce people to the concept of Indymedia and show them how to join the e-mail list and post articles.

            Despite numerous setbacks and technical constraints, members of the Cleveland IMC were optimistic about the future of their collective.  To begin with, they had fairly strong connections to many segments of the progressive community—labor, peace and justice groups, and small anarchist collectives. Through the anti-war movement, they were beginning to establish valuable contacts with other groups, opening the possibility of becoming more culturally diverse.  While much of their optimism may have come from the natural excitement people feel when starting a new project, I suspect that much of it had to do with the nature of the Indymedia experiment—the opportunity to participate in something vastly different from other forms of “work”, a project consistent with their social values.


27 While I have attempted to provide a thorough, honest and critical study, it can certainly be argued that those best qualified to tell this story are the organizers of the Cleveland IMC themselves. In the spirit Indymedia, I encourage them, and members of other local IMCs, to prepare their own individual and collective accounts of the journey.

28 An Ohio Valley IMC covering Cincinnati and Louisville was also established at about the same time. It provided extensive coverage of the TABD protests, but was eventually shut down in 2001. This was due in part to controversy over a post on its Newswire that authorities claimed was a direct threat on the life of a Cincinnati police officer who had been indicted on misdemeanor charges after shooting a young African-American man to death. Authorities issued a subpoena to appear before an Ohio grand jury, but IMC members refused to appear. Eventually the offending post was removed and the small collective abandoned its Web site, which was shut down.


29 See the November 22-29 issue of City Beat (Cincinnati, OH) online


30 A visit to the online archives of the Cleveland IMC e-mail list reveals that the collective rarely ever used this tool for communicating, even during November 2000 at the height of the TABD protests. The archive is available at

31 The building, called “The Men’s Action Center,” is operated by a group of men working to raise awareness about patriarchy and sexual violence. Their community access show is called “Liberation Brew.” They have allowed the IMC to use their building free of charge.


32 See Appendix II for the complete text of the Mission Statement.


33 Though meetings were held during May, no minutes are available. There are also no minutes available for meetings on April 28, June 9, July 21, and August 4—all in 2002.

34 This event, now called the Allied Media Conference, consists of panel discussions and workshops for small, alternative media outlets. It is sponsored by Clamor magazine, a bi-monthly journal that covers radical politics and culture.

35 These included a visit to Northeast Ohio by President Bush and a rally by the Promise Keepers organization. IMC members produced a video of these and a few other events, which was aired on local cable access TV.

36 The full text of the Cleveland IMC’s Editorial Policy appears in Appendix II.


37 This is not to say that all members consider themselves to be anarchists—most, in fact, do not—but rather to suggest that the structure of the local collective, like the larger network, embodies anarchist values.

38 A case study of the IMC in Vancouver, B.C. conducted by Uzelman (2002) indicates that the core membership was roughly the same size as Cleveland’s.

39 In an e-mail interview Andy asked me, in jest, if I was interested in obtaining “a couple of old mimeo machines and some Press-Type.” For an excellent history of the 1960s underground press, see Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.

40 Food Not Bombs’ (FNB) primary function is to recover food that would otherwise be thrown away and cook vegetarian meals, which are then served to hungry people in public parks and other locations free of charge. More information about the group can be found at, a Web site, which was created with a version of Active software used by many Indymedia sites.

41 For an excellent critique of the movement’s lack of diversity, see Martinez (2000).

42 Appendix II includes a decision-making flowchart developed for this model by Butler and Rothstein.

43 See “Alternative Papers Reach Settlement on Collusion Charges,” Associated Press News Industry Summary, week of Jan 20-27, 2003.

44 From the organization’s Web site, “The International Solidarity Movement is a Palestinian-led movement of Palestinian and International activists working to raise awareness of the struggle for Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli occupation. We utilize nonviolent, direct-action methods of resistance to confront and challenge illegal Israeli occupation forces and policies.”

45 “NE Ohio Activist in Palestine—Update #4,” Cleveland Indymedia, posted Jan. 5, 2003.       


46 This story checks out as far as I could tell. While I could not find any news reports in U.S., European, or Middle East media that specifically referred to gunfire or demolitions in Rafah on January 2, 2003, I did find a report from an organization called the Palestinian Center for Human Rights  (PCHR) indicating that 25 houses in Rafah were destroyed by Israeli forces on that date. Of the houses demolished, 14 were reported to be in “Block J” where the activist writing for Indymedia was staying. See the PCHR press release Furthermore, members of the Cleveland IMC, whom I have no reason to doubt, consider him to be very reliable. I add this note due mainly to the arguments many “counter-posters” have made on IMC sites claiming that stories about Israeli actions are false and suggesting that criticism of Israeli military policy is tantamount to anti-Semitism. Others have implied that Indymedia stories in general are unreliable because they are not vetted by “professional” news editors before publication.

47 Posted January 22, 2003, see

48 “Sexual violence affects us all,” posted January 26, 2003,

49 During the same week, I surveyed the Web site of one local TV station (the NBC affiliate WEWS, and the site of the major daily newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I typed “anti-war” and “antiwar” into the TV site’s search engine and found 3 stories of local/state interest. One was about plans by anti-war groups to demonstrate on the day the Iraq invasion started, one was about the AFL-CIO’s opposition to the war, and the other was a story about a protest in southern Ohio. The site also featured a front-page announcement urging visitors to send e-mail messages about “pro-war rallies” happening in their communities and a “War Room” page that encouraged visitors to share stories of “strength, fear and concern and love.” I repeated my search procedure on the Plain Dealer’s site,, and found 3 stories on the anti-war movement, including a long (800-word) report about protests that took place on March 20. The site also had a “support the troops” chat forum and a “war in Iraq” forum.

50 One night after attending an IMC meeting, I had dinner with some of the volunteers. The subject of the polka show came up, and members talked about the popularity of polka music in Northeast Ohio’s Polish, German, and Slavic communities, saying they clearly did not want to upset the audience from the show they had replaced. In fact, they wondered if there was a way to appeal to them and get them interested in Indymedia. It was even suggested that someone try to find a radical polka song—or actually write an original song about radical media or politics set to a polka beat—that could be played as an introduction to their show. I use this anecdote simply to illustrate the good humor, community spirit, and appreciation for diverse cultures that I encountered while interacting with IMC members.