AJR  Books
From AJR,   December/January 2005

When Everyone's a Journalist   

A seismic shift, thanks to the Internet

We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People
By Dan Gillmor
320 pages; $24.95

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Of all the Internet's revolutionary effects, the furthest reaching may involve the transfer not so much of information as of power. That's because new technology is redistributing power from news producers to consumers.

This seismic shift serves as the foundation for Dan Gillmor's book, an early look at what he calls "journalism's transformation from a 20th century mass-media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic."

"Technology has given us a communications toolkit," he writes, "that allows anyone to become a journalist at little cost... Nothing like this has ever been remotely possible before."

Until now, as Gillmor describes it, news has been a "lecture" in which big media companies "told you what the news was." From here on, he sees news as a "conversation" in which "lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we're only beginning to grasp."

Blogs, e-mail and chat groups represent just the first wave. Close behind come camera cell phones and other mobile video devices that can turn almost anyone into a potential on-scene reporter. Distribution tools include Internet postings, cell phone smart messaging and peer-to-peer file sharing. On the receiving end, consumers can skip traditional media almost entirely by using syndication programs to customize their news based on topics of interest.

In this new age, "the spreading of an item of news, or of something much larger, will occur..without any help from mass media as we know it."

Take the example of Tennessee businessman Rex Hammock, who was among a small group invited to discuss the economy with President Bush earlier this year. Though the meeting was closed to the press, Hammock chronicled it immediately on his personal blog, and soon Bush's views, and Hammock's take on them, were buzzing through cyberspace.

Or the case of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose inflammatory comments about Strom Thurmond's past were mostly ignored by big media but kept alive by a "swarm of Webloggers, e-mailers, and other online journalists." Eventually, Lott was forced to resign as Senate majority leader.

The 2004 presidential race saw an explosion of Web-related news activity, with blog coverage of the campaign and "truth-squad" sites aimed not just at candidates but at the work of mainstream reporters.

In describing these changes, "We the Media" avoids breathless blue-sky puffery. Gillmor, a newspaper columnist and blogger, offers a balanced, pragmatic perspective. Far from coming across as contemptuous of traditional media, he instead offers several suggestions for how they can thrive in the new era. Importantly, he also identifies vital challenges and limitations facing new-style journalism.

For traditional media, Gillmor writes, now is "the best opportunity in decades to do even better journalism" by aggressively embracing interactivity. Hosting Web chats, printing staff e-mail addresses and letting reporters publish blogs are only a start.

Gillmor foresees the day when consumers will be a major force in helping cover news. For example, "event blogs" will let readers contribute to coverage of special events or disasters such as hurricanes or snowstorms. Sites can be set up for ordinary people to submit online pictures and audio clips. Through "citizen-reporting," news organizations with limited staffs can expand coverage of events that otherwise would be ignored.

The result, according to Gillmor, will be news that is "bottom-up, interactive, and democratic."

At the same time, Gillmor recognizes large potential problems with democratizing the news. Topping the list are questions of accuracy and credibility. Who will police this vast two-way flow of information for fakery, hoaxes and errors? How will the media exercise the quality control so vital to trustworthiness?

So good editors will be needed more than ever. Beyond that, Gillmor believes credibility and accuracy can increase as more and more citizens participate in newsmaking; the more people who provide information and points of view, the more likely it is that mistakes and deceit will be weeded out.

Besides, he insists, there is no choice. Citizens inevitably will use their power to make and deliver their version of the news. The best strategy becomes to "help the new journalists understand and value ethics, the importance of serving the public trust, and professionalism. We can't, and shouldn't, keep them out."