by J.D. Lasica
16 , 2004
| When I attended journalism school at Rutgers in the '70s
during those heady post-Watergate days, the underlying premise of
every class, every lesson, was that we were the expert professionals
whose job it is to gather and filter the news for readers.
It's time to toss those textbooks onto the bonfire of the vanities,
for little did we see the rise of citizens media, a grassroots-powered
phenomenon in which users are becoming both competitors and collaborators
with established news organizations. It is this media revolution-in-the-making
that Dan Gillmor skillfully chronicles in his new book, We
the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the
People (O'Reilly Media).
This is certainly the most important journalism book of this year,
for it aptly details a gathering storm that is about to sweep away
everything we thought we knew about the news.
Gillmor, a nationally syndicated business columnist for the San
Jose Mercury News who was the first big-time journalist with a weblog,
lays out his basic premise with his familiar mantra: My readers
know more than I do-and that's an opportunity.
It's a truth that journalism professionals are only just beginning
to grasp. Gillmor writes: "[R]eaders (or viewers or listeners) collectively
know more than media professionals do. This is true by definition:
they are many, and we are often just one. We need to recognize and,
in the best sense of the word, use their knowledge. If we don't,
our former audience will bolt when they realize they don't have
to settle for half-baked coverage; they can come into the kitchen
In a real sense, we're all journalists now. At the very least,
many of us practice journalism on occasion, chiefly through personal
weblogs or community sites such as Slashdot,
Metafilter and Kuro5hin.
While blogs play a central role in this new grassroots mediasphere,
SMS, wikis, camera phones and RSS also make cameo appearances. Wikipedia,
the democratic encyclopedia written by volunteers, is demystified
here, explained in the same spare, simple language Gillmor uses
throughout the book.
He passes along approvingly the citizens media credo of Oh Yeon
Ho, the reformist founder of South Korea's largest online paper,
OhmyNews: "Every citizen's a reporter. Journalists aren't some exotic
species, they're everyone who seeks to take new developments, put
them into writing, and share them with others."
Gillmor lays out the opportunities presented by this new turn of
affairs this way:
The rise of the citizen journalist will help us listen. The ability
of anyone to make the news will give new voice to people who've
felt voiceless-and whose words we need to hear. They are showing
all of us-citizen, journalist, newsmaker-new ways of talking,
In the end, they may help spark a renaissance of the notion,
now threatened, of a truly informed citizenry.
The author recounts the time a Slashdot reader uncovered the misrepresentation
in Microsoft's "Mac to PC" advertising campaign (the photo of the
supposed Mac user who switched over to Windows actually came from
a Getty Images archive). He capably relates a number of such episodes,
such as the scoop scored last spring by the operator of the Memory
Hole, who used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain
the military's photos of the flag-draped caskets of U.S. soldiers-something
no news organization thought to do.
As news organizations grapple with their place in an interactive
universe, pushback is inevitable. Big media are not eager to loosen
their monopoly on the news (even as the earth is shifting beneath
them), and the transition to a more enlightened media landscape
will not come easily, if it comes at all. Blogs have been slow to
take off in the mainstream media in part, Gillmor writes, because
of "mistrust among traditional editors of a genre that threatens
to undermine what they consider core values-namely editorial control"
and "objectivity and fairness."
Gillmor chides the journalism business for being one of the least
transparent industries around. "We have been a black box, and have
become only slightly more transparent in recent years."
Education will play a role in helping to get us to a new place
over the long term. He cites NYU's Jay Rosen and Medill's Rich Gordon
as members of a new breed of educators who practice forms of new
media that espouse true dialogue and break down the barriers between
news provider and audience.
But Gillmor also tempers his embrace of this new world by tamping
down any suggestion that blogs will put old media out of business
or editors out of a job. "Bloggers who disdain editors entirely,
or who say they're largely irrelevant to the process, are mistaken."
At the same time, "my readers make me a better journalist because
they find my mistakes, tell me what I'm missing, and help me understand
My favorite anecdote in the book comes when the author Howard Rheingold
was asked to assess the effect on speaker presentations that bloggers
might have when they offer instant feedback and commentary even
while the speaker was still on stage. Might the bloggers' actions
create a chilling effect on public discourse? On the contrary, Rheingold
said to laughter and applause, "I would think it would have a chilling
effect on bullshit."
for other fields
Corporate executives, politicians, public relations professionals
and others with access to the hallways of power can draw parallels
in We the Media to what's happening in their own fields as
the Internet disrupts business models and empowers users to bypass
traditional lines of authority. Gillmor shows newsmakers how to
deal with the new realities and shift from a control mindset to
one of conversation.
Even billionaires are getting into the act. In an email interview
with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Gillmor asks what prompted
him to launch a blog this past March. "I was tired of reading incomplete
information or misinformation about what I as doing in the sports
media," Cuban responded. "This was one way to get the facts out."
Look for countless other business executives and entrepreneurs to
Despite the news industry's slow plodding response to all this,
Gillmor has come to reform big media, not to bury it. He writes
with the passion of someone who desperately wants journalism to
find its way in the digital age-and laments what will happen if
it does not. "I'm absolutely certain that the journalism industry's
modern structure has fostered a dangerous conservatism-from a business
sense more than a political sense, though both are apparent-that
threatens our future."
The author traverses beyond journalism into related topics, addressing
issues of technology, politics and law. There is talk of spectrum
and the FCC's communications policies and the copyright cartel-the
name Gillmor uses for Hollywood's efforts to clamp down on how people
can use digital technologies. But Gillmor's text is most animated
when discussing citizen journalism. Which is, after all, the main
point of We the Media.
Someday, a person who is interested in news about the
local school system, which rarely rates more than a brief item in
the newspaper except to cover some extraordinary event, will be
able to get a far more detailed view of that vital public body.
Any topic you can name will be more easily tracked this way. Just
in the political sphere, the range will go beyond school governance
to city councils to state and federal government to international
affairs. Now multiply the potential throughout other fields of interest,
professional and otherwise. And when audio and video become an integral
part of these conversations-it's already starting to happen as developers
connect disparate media applications-the conversations will only
Gillmor saves his best admonition for last:
You can make your own news. We all can. Let's get started.
We the Media was released under a Creative
Commons license that allows users to download
the chapters for free and share them with others (as long as it's
not for commercial use and the author is credited). But save yourself
the inkjet paper and ink cartridges and buy the hardcover. This
one's a keeper.
Lasica is a veteran journalist, blogger, and consultant who
has just completed a book about the personal media revolution
("Darknet: Remixing the Future of Movies, Music & Television,"
Wiley & Sons, spring 2005).
J.D. has sat on several panels with Dan Gillmor and reviewed two
chapters of his book in advance of publication.