So Be the News Already!
A Review of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the people, for the people

  1. If the key to a healthy democracy is a powerful, ethically upright news media, what do you do when the decades-old machines of mass media become subject to the pressures of corporatization, hollowed out by profit-driven motives? This is the quandary Dan Gillmor presents to us in his highly influential screed, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His answer: roll your own news.
  2. Looking at a parade of contemporary technologies, as well as the cultures coalescing around them, Gillmor envisions a new age of journalism whence a new hero emerges: the citizen-journalist, a grassroots combination of former audience member and activist who actually talks back to the mass media and, in so doing, provides a much-needed damping mechanism for the previously unchecked influences of government and corporate interests. This book is a call to help that hero emerge from the noisy bazaar of bloggers and digital pamphleteers currently crowding the World Wide Web.
  3. We the Media tempers its otherwise revolutionary overtones with some historical contextualization, drawing a line that connects Thomas Paine, the Federalist Papers, and the advent of CNN in order to remind readers that American journalism has in many ways always dealt with the tension between traditional and emergent news media. Gilmor is also astute enough to observe that the newest incarnation of this phenomenon is not wholly wrapped up in the blog genre, noting that technologies such as wikis, RSS, peer-to-peer networks, mobile phone tools such as SMS text messaging and cameraphones, email listservs, and the like enable the quick and wide dissemination of bottom-up news and information. In other words, Gilmor's focus (and I agree strongly with him here) is not primarily on how the technical innovations cause this groundswell in activist journalism. Instead, the focus is placed upon the societal relationships that drive how those technologies are used.
  4. To maintain a manageable scope, Gillmor examines the phenomenon of grassroots journalism primarily as it exists in the United States . He foregrounds incidents such as Russ Kick's publishing of images of military coffins on his site Memory Hole, the leaking of the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs throughout the blogosphere, and the popular online groundswell of Howard Dean supporters (Deaniacs) to demonstrate the impact of small-scale reporting not only on the immediate readership, but also on the large-scale, legacy news media, who are often goaded into covering stories that initially surface outside of their bureaus and wire services. Gillmor also takes occasion to look beyond the boundaries of the United States , reminding us that the Web and its attendant technologies are not constrained by national boundaries. Ohmynews! (a South Korean online news site, credited in part for securing the election of Roh Moo Hyun) and (A popular Persian-language blogging service established in 2002 to encourage Iranians to set up accounts) are both striking examples of the power of these technologies to enable true participatory democratic discourse—set in locales where the stakes of blogging are much, much higher, and where repressive regimes seek not only to squelch the message, but also the messenger. Given Gillmor's ultimate persuasive agenda to convince readers that the citizen-journalist provides a necessary corrective to corporatized news media, I am puzzled that he did not choose to look more closely at these far more compelling instances of underground techno-journalism abroad - These examples do a better job of bolstering his case.
  5. The book's central premise should be approached with a degree of healthy skepticism. My concern is that we are seeing a repackaged version of the argument that accompanied the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s: namely, that it would be an immediately transformative presence in the march towards liberatory democracy for the underprivileged classes. That promise has yet to be fully realized, and here, too, we are already seeing evidence of the top-down backlash against the emergent blogosphere in the form of corporate-sanctioned blogs that mimic the look-and-feel of their grassroots counterparts. Gillmor is smart to address rather than dismiss criticisms of his position, despite the fact that he readily admits to proselytizing for this paradigm shift in the production and dissemination of news. Contrary opinions such as those by journalist Tom Stites, who argues that the blogosphere is too small and insular to foment true journalistic revolution, find their way onto Gillmor's pages without trivialization. Ultimately, however, we should remember that Gillmor's purpose is one of persuasion rather than critical analysis, and that he is optimistically and energetically stoking the fires of activism throughout - Lest readers acept his position without reflection and assume the journalistic refolution will be an easy one, it would likely serve them well to superimpose their own critical lenses onto the text.
  6. Gillmor's overall range is broad, reaching for breadth rather than depth, and at times I hoped that he would have delved more deeply in certain issues, such as the fight between the authoritative Chinese government and China 's free-speech advocacy netizens. Nonetheless, the book has already shown itself to be important—buzz surrounding the book is huge in the online community, and the argument for the value of truly participatory media is generally well received. But perhaps even more notable than the book's argument is how that argument took shape. Practicing what he preaches, Gillmor developed the book with the help of his wired compatriots, setting up a blog to elicit comments and criticisms that he fairly took into consideration as he wrote. The blog is still active, and people continue to engage in the conversation initiated by We The Media , discussing matters of ethics, corporatization, and copyright. In a savvy move to further spread the gospel, Gillmor also decided to release We the Media in digital form under a Creative Commons license, where readers can freely download the book as long as they agree not to sell it. [Note: More recently, Gillmor has left his longtime home at the San Jose Mercury News to start his own Bay-area grassroots journalism project, a Drupal-based, multi-authored site called Bayosphere.] Although at times casual and conversational, while at others vaguely prescriptive, We the Media is on balance a worthwhile chronicle of a pivotal moment in the history of the fourth estate, a history significantly inflected by technological change.

Related Links:

Dan Gillmor’s Blog:

The WTM Blog:

O’Reilly’s WTM Site: