New Media Heroes

Alternet honors 10 activists and journalists working to make the Internet something more than a corporate tool

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AlterNet, a San Francisco–based news service that created the Media Heroes Awards to honor journalists and producers bringing progressive views to the public, decided this year to single out the contributions of people working in the New Media. The AlterNet staff nominated 24 people for its New Media Heroes, and visitors to its Web site (www.alternet.org) were invited to vote for the winners. The process, says AlterNet executive director Don Hazen, was “an opportunity to look around in this climate of dot-com failure and see what works online. These heroes reach more people with information that makes a difference in their lives faster than they ever could before the technology of the Internet.”

And the winners are, in order of vote totals:

Chip Giller, gristmagazine.com 

What's so funny about the environment? Not much, and for many would-be environmentalists, that's just the problem. “There are people out there who care deeply about the planet, but they're just so overwhelmed by all the problems we face that they shut down,” says Chip Giller, 30, founder and editor of the Seattle-based online environmental magazine Grist. “It's our job to get those people's attention again. We do that by making them laugh.”

For instance, Grist's feature about the world's disappearing croplands was titled “They Paved Plots of Rice and Put Up a Parking Lot.” For chuckle seekers, there's also a comic strip featuring an imaginary endangered species. “He's hoping he's not really the last of his kind,” Giller jokes. “He'd like a girlfriend.”

Giller promises to keep the laughs coming, but not at the expense of serious content. “Deep down, our intentions are serious,” he says, noting it's Grist's aim to showcase “some of the best environmental reporting out there.”

Leif Utne, utne.com 

Our very own New Media Hero, Leif Utne, is editor of the Utne Reader Web Watch, a sampling of the best of the Web. It's like a thrice-weekly e-mail edition of the magazine with summaries of and links to compelling stories on the best alternative Web sites. Utne, 29, (son of Utne Reader founder Eric Utne) also edits the online edition of the magazine and helps run Café Utne, an online community.

Josh Karliner, corpwatch.org 

A surfer in the literal sense of the word, Josh Karliner became interested in environmental issues during his youthful travels looking for great waves. After college at the University of California–Santa Cruz, Karliner, 38, founded the activist group EPOCA (Environmental Project on Central America) before signing on in the mid-'90s with the San Francisco–based Transnational Re-source and Action Center (TRAC), where he launched CorpWatch, an “online activism center” and e-zine for readers concerned about the effects of corporate gobalization.

“We saw that in the activist community there was an important need for an information clearinghouse, an action tool on issues of corporate accountability,” Karliner says. “We stepped in and filled that need. It's our hope that the world will never be the same again.”

John Moyers TomPaine.com 

Talk about big shoes to fill. The original Tom Paine jump-started the Revolutionary War with the publication of Common Sense, his outspoken essay calling for American independence from British rule. More than two centuries later, TomPaine.com is also about revolution, though one of ideas rather than muskets. The online magazine and advocacy organization takes up where the 18th-century Mr. Paine left off, exposing media hypocrisy, drawing attention to serious social ills, offering articles on current issues and gaining publicity for radical ideas (including a series of public service ads in The New York Times). It's the brainchild of John Moyers, 37, a former public affairs director for the Sierra Club and foundation administrator, who hopes to rekindle the American concept of civic responsibility.

“Tom Paine believed in the power of the pen to change people's minds,” says Moyers (son of journalist Bill Moyers). “And it did. He was writing in the common interest, warning people about unaccountable and distant rulers. Unfortunately, we have our share of distant and unaccountable rulers in America today. Once again, the people need to be informed. We are trying to provide a place where voices that have a public interest can be heard.”

Art McGee, blackradicalcongress.com 

For activist groups, the Internet may be the best invention to come along since the bumper sticker, says Art McGee, Los Angeles–based Internet coordinator for the Black Radical Congress. Founded in 1998 by activists and intellectuals, the congress promotes equal rights for African-Americans. “We use the Internet to communicate with our membership,” he says. “It's been a tool to link people around the world with incredible efficiency. And we've been able to orchestrate this communication at a low cost, which is important—since we're a volunteer organization.”

McGee, 33, created the organization's Web site and set up a number of public and private discussion groups and listservs, the most active being BRCNet, which posts articles, commentaries, and reports relating to black liberation that often lead to lively debates. “We're trying to get people talking about issues that really matter,” he explains. “If we don't do that, then what's the reason for being here?”

Josh Knauer, greenmarketplace.com 

Back in 1991, when Josh Knauer was a freshman at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he founded EnviroLink Network, an online community forum for environmental activists. The group fostered lively discussions in the green community, with topics as complex as strategy debates on how to save the rainforests and as personal as advice on navigating the grocery aisles.

“Right away, we noticed that a huge percentage of comments coming to Envirolink were people asking, ‘Where can I find this or that product? How do I know if it's really green?’ ” Knauer, 28, recalls. “We went looking for answers online and we couldn't find them, so we decided to create a shopping space for people who wanted to make green choices, who wanted to shop for products without guilt.”

What eventually developed was Greenmarketplace.com, an online store featuring a diverse array of products from tampons to dish soap, all certified “green” by Knauer and his staff of researchers.

Honorable Mention

AlterNet also singled out the accomplishments of other nominees who did not place among the top vote-getters. Among them are Farai Chideya, founder of PopandPolitics .com, an eclectic political and cultural Web site; Becky Bond, host of the Web radio program Fast Forward (beckybond.com) and the creative force behind Working Assets' new media ventures (workingforchange.com, radioforchange.com, actforchange.com); the lively activists who built the network of Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org) throughout the country; Don Rojas, CEO of The Black Word Today (tbwt.com), which has been delivering high-quality news to the African American community for years; and Sam Smith, editor of The Progressive Review (prorev.com), which gives readers a distinctly alternative take on politics.