New York Times reporter is a journalist, but so can be a high school student with a camera phone if he is at the right place at the right time. Such is the premise of newspaper columnist and blogger Dan Gillmor’s 2004 book We the Media.

I picked this selection for two reasons. As a non-journalist with a strong interest in writing and community engagement, citizen journalism (termed ‘grassroots journalism’ by Gillmor) has a particular draw for me. In addition to the DIY lure of the subject matter, the free PDF format also attracted me. This is not to say I’m too cheap to buy a book– I had already purchased The Victorian Internet— but I love being able to highlight and mark-up files in Adobe Acrobat. This was a crafty move on Gillmore’s end: it’s easy to cut and paste text, making sharing ideas (one of his primary arguments for new media) very easy.

Gillmor starts by challenging the perceptions that most people hold about traditional journalism. He notes that journalists have not always followed their current codes of ethics. Shoddy reporting was common in the 19th century as corrupt newspaper barons pushed their own agendas through their publications; journalism contributed little to society until muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell came on the scene. In our modern world, with disproportionate levels of violence on the evening news, bloggers’ genuine interest in the subjects the cover seem like a breath of fresh air; they are modern-day muckrakers.

Gillmor also dismisses the notion that the main principles of new media are new. He mentions that some of the most iconic footage of our time, like the Rodney King beatings or JFK’s assassination, were captured on film by amateurs. Between understanding the similarities between grassroots and traditional journalism, and the weak points of traditional journalism, the reader becomes less wary of new media communications tools– and perhaps less trusting of Big Media.

Despite the focus on journalism, the book is really a case for universal digital media literacy and net neutrality. Chapter 9 is devoted to the question of legitimacy: when it’s so easy to fake websites, blog posts, comments, and even photos and video, how do you know who to trust? Gillmor also makes a strong point against copyright laws, advocating that they restrict much of the internet’s iterative potential.

Gillmore deserves praise for putting many of his theories into action. He acknowledges the irony of a book about the web being written in the stagnant medium of print by referring readers to his website: “The tools of tomorrow’s participatory journalism are evolving quickly—so quickly that by the time this book is in print, new ones will have arrived. This book’s accompanying web site (http://wethemedia.oreilly.com) will catalogue new tools as they become available.” (25) He practices transparency on page 79 by disclosing his exact relationship with a subject, noting that the two men share the same publisher. Finally, just having the book available as a free PDF so that anyone can access the information is a monumental show of faith in the system. These small details give his arguments weight.

However, I disagree with some of Gillmor’s proposed grassroots methods of gathering news. For one, Gillmor mentions several instances of bloggers asking for money to cover certain topics. If they don’t raise the money, they don’t get the story. This form of democratic journalism ensures that people hear only the stories they want to hear, with the drawback being that popular opinion dictates what is newsworthy.  The result is that lesser, though equally important, stories may not be told, which almost seems to be a form of bias. This notion of, in Gillmor’s words, “ability to get the news you want” (164), concerns me. There can be a great difference between want and need. The news you want may not be the news you need, and vice versa.

In addition, some of the information seems outdated: who wants to hear about failed democratic candidate Howard Dean’s use of the internet in Chapter 5 when they already know (or think they know) how current president Obama used it with overwhelming success? Some of the sites Gillmor mentions as resources are no longer around, or better versions have popped up in their place. Gillmor also makes the claim that “The Web can’t compete today—and may not compete in our lifetimes—with live television for big-event coverage,” (162) a statement that seems shaky in 2010.

Still, Gillmor acknowledges how difficult it is to predict the future of digital media communication, so he doesn’t try; some of his comments are prefaced with “as of this writing” to cover any confusion that might occur in later readings. He does say “Only one thing is certain: we’ll all be astounded by what’s to come,” with Moore’s law and Metcalf’s law as proof of this.

Gillmor synthesizes the lofty ideas of thinkers like Benkler, Von Hippel, and Chris Anderson into a message that is practical and easy to understand.  He teaches with actual examples instead of weighty theories in honest, conversational prose and humor (such as his snip on page 176: “be careful of satire; some people are just too dense to get it”).

However, I’m already familiar with these authors. We the Media would hold much more value if I were reading it in my first quarter of the MCDM program, but as a student nearing the end of my studies (while working at a web-based start-up), I find many of its points redundant.  The Benkler, Zittrain, Lessig and Von Hippel mentions have overtones of our Social Production class, while US Digital Media Law covered just about everything in chapter 10. Gillmor doesn’t teach anything new or present material in a different light.

All in all though, Gillmor does an excellent job of explaining technological concepts in terms the average person can understand. If I were working at a journalistic publication and was looking to convince my old-guard boss to let me start a blog, I might give her this book to read.

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