Breaking Through the Information Blockade: Participatory Journalism and Indymedia

In her book Alternative and Activist New Media (2011), Lievrouw discusses the rise of participatory journalism, which includes citizen, grassroots, or open-source journalism projects, independent news and opinion blogs, and activist Indymedia sites. These projects provide coverage of under-reported news stories, commentary, and alternative or oppositional information sources, while criticizing mainstream media and news coverage.

The aim is to create a diverse media space in which anyone may contribute reporting or opinion, without the restrictions of formal editorial gatekeeping. Connectivity, interactivity, and community constitute the core elements for the practice of journalism and the production of news, according to the philosophy of participatory journalism.

Participatory journalism is characterized by a growing involvement of amateurs in the production of news and commentary online. These self-made journalists write about their local communities, political, cultural or economic issues that are not reported by the mainstream media.

Lievrouw argues that we may in fact be witnessing a paradigm shift in journalism, away from “journalism-as-transmission-of-information” and toward “journalism-as-participation”. She believes that the crucial element of interaction in information has the potential to transform journalism as a practice and the press as an institution (Lievrouw 2011: 129).

However, critics of new forms of online journalism warn that the diminishing institutional power of traditional media will have far-reaching consequences for democracy itself. They still see the press as an indispensable gatekeeper, agenda-setter, and mediator between the people and their governments and other powerful institutions.

Lievrouw takes a closer look at Indymedia, the movement launched by media activists at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, with the aim of creating a “communications commons” (ibd.: 131). Following the motto of “Don’t hate the media – Be the media”, local media activists wanted to produce a news service that would provide a counterpoint to the mainstream coverage of most global summits. Today, there are about 175 Indymedia Centers (IMCs) worldwide. In practice, the majority of Indymedia contributions take a left-radical, anti-globalist, anti-capitalist political viewpoint.

Photo source:

Photo source:

The Indymedia movement has been celebrated as one of the true success stories of alternative and activist new media, with important implications for media activism, the understanding of grassroots-organizing, and journalistic practice. Some critics, however, think that it faces an uncertain future due to its persistent structural and philosophical contradictions which threaten its sustainability. Credibility, reliability and consistency of new journalism projects such as Indymedia have often been points of contention in the past.

Participatory journalism is revolutionary in that it is collaborative and provides a radically different view from mainstream news. However, there is an inherent contradiction in that it has adapted the practices and values of professional journalism online as a method of transforming the content and production of the news, while opposing the market-driven cynicism of the mainstream media. Participatory journalism takes itself seriously and therefore lacks the rhetorical devices of parody or humour that other alternative new media such as culture jamming employ to criticize society.

Conventional mainstream media, in particular print news, will have to innovate and adapt to new technologies in order to be competitive with online new media. Nonetheless, they provide a formal journalistic standard, which is a necessary counterbalance to new journalism projects as an exclusive source of information. Alternative new media act as a critical voice in news reporting and are important in holding governments and powerful institutions (including mainstream media) to account. They are therefore a critical driver towards social change. The paradox lies in their struggle to survive in a system which they oppose (protest is their very purpose), while at the same time being, at least in part, dependent on its methods and resources. More and more, blogs and social media seem to have taken over what the Indymedia movement inspired about a decade ago.

Lievrouw, Leah A. (2011), Alternative and Activist New Media, Digital Media and Society Series, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, chapter 5

Some examples of activist / alternative journalism:

Vice Media


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2 Responses to Breaking Through the Information Blockade: Participatory Journalism and Indymedia

  1. Mariona Sanz says:

    Thank you for this complete review of Lievrouw´s chapter on “participatory journalism”.
    In my view, the author´s reflection on this theme is, however, a bit outdated when she says that one of the characteristics of the genre is the “growing involvement of amateurs”. In my country, Spain, I would argue that journalists are increasingly promoting alternative media. On the contrary, citizen media like Indymedia are nowadays not widely used and read by activists or common citizens, who predominantly use blogs, facebook and twitter to inform on actions and try to mobilize people for their causes.
    In contrast, there is a very interesting phenomenon of journalists themselves (many of them having been fired from mainstream media or wanting to do other types of journalism) who use their ICT skills and the possibilities of the Internet and social media to create alternative journalistic projects with a commitment to progressive social change.,,,, or are examples of this new type of small-scale media funded through cooperatives, crowdfunding and their readers. While they allow citizens’ participation (in the form of commenting and sharing their content), the difference with citizen media is that the news items are written and edited by journalists. Thus, I would not argue, as some of the critics chosen by Liewrouv claim, that the decline of traditional mass media is having bad consequences for democracy. On the contrary, the plurality of the news agenda is much bigger with the blooming of these journalistic projects. Furthermore, as journalists are behind them, these new media cannot be criticized for not being credible, reliable and for not meeting journalistic quality standards.
    I also do not agree with Liewrouv when she says that the causes for the decline of traditional media are mainly the lack of ability to adapt to new technologies. In my view, the biggest problem, at least in Spain, has been the submission of big media to political and financial powers, which has resulted in the decline of their readership. Now, activists and social movements have in some journalists and new media professional allies to spread their views and actions, while society has gained in plurality and in new and credible journalistic perspectives.

  2. Abigail Leffler says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. The media landscape has changed indeed and we have moved away from a traditional unidirectional mass media model where the relationship was ‘between a few trained professional media producers and many untrained media consumers’ (Mandiberg: 2012, p. 1).

    This fragmentation and ‘deregulation’ of media production we see today brings along potential issues such as the free rein (so to speak) of biased, misinformed and inaccurate information supply. But, as Mariona says, participatory journalism also means that there are professionals among this model so we should not generalise.

    In a way, new media has forced the critical reader to question the source and, as you so well put it, consider the authority and stance of the information supplier.

    Regards from a fellow student from Group 6.
    Abigail Leffler

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