When I attended journalism school at Rutgers, 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 themselves.”
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, of learning.
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 nuances.”
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.”
Lessons 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 follow suit.
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 deepen.
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.
Disclosure: J.D. has sat on several panels with Dan Gillmor and reviewed two chapters of his book in advance of publication.