Missing: Middle Ground?

As I search for profitable business models for new media, I recognize that most Web content, even for larger sites like the tech-centric Slashdot, is created by volunteers. Today I want to look at the Independent Media Center, or Indymedia, a loosely affiliated network of leftist and anti-global news sites with volunteer offices in more than 120 cities worldwide. Most of this posting is either condensed or directly quoted from a 2003 article in the Columbia Journalism Review by author Gal Beckerman, along with bits from an earlier piece in Salon. According to CJR, “Indymedia first went online amid the tear gas and tumult of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999.” Its founders included Seattle-area activist Sheri Herndon and technical guru Evan Henshaw-Plath, who also blogs and helps maintain a worldwide protest calendar. The impetus for the rise and proliferation of Indymedia was dissatisfaction with mainstream media coverage. “The sites all have a similar format and feature a newswire that employs a technology called open publishing,” Beckerman writes. “This allows a writer to post a story directly to the newswire.” Many Indymedia sites are multimedia, offering video and audio clips in addition to articles and photos. CJR chose one anecdote to exemplify the challenges of running a volunteer network on consensus. Beckerman reports that when global Indymedia got a $50,000 Ford Foundation grant in 2002, it touched off a debate over whether to accept the money, and led ultimately to the creation of a separate fund-raising arm, the Tactical Media Fund. Indymedia was in the news in late 2004 after police seized and then returned some disk drives “from the London offices of a San Antonio-based company called rackspace that hosts the Indymedia sites,” according to BBC online. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed legal protests in connection with the incident. It is not my purpose to comment on Indymedia’s mission or politics but rather to note its relevance to my goal of finding and sharing business models for people who want to make living through independent journalism or Web media. These Mini Media publishers, as I call them, are overshadowed by Mass Media. At the same time volunteers of all political stripes — like the libertarian-sounding Lexington League, a Web-based anti-government video outfit — will arise to deliver free, point-of-view content. If this observation is correct, then the media ecosystem may come to resemble a Redwood forest, with its tall and imposing canopy providing shade for some ferns and mosses below. And every spring the Trillium will briefly bloom. But there’s not much in the way of growth in between these two extremes, and therefore not much nourishment closer to ground level, unless, of course, you’re a bananna slug.

Tom Abate
“Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, You’re Mini Media.”