Grassroots Journalism: An Update

By Eesha Williams | July 2016

In December 2014, in Oakland, California, anti-prison activists held a rally outside a meeting of the county legislature. They were asking the Alameda county board of supervisors to invest $17 million a year in programs to keep people out of prison by creating jobs for people just getting out of prison. The board rejected the activists’ request. The activists kept returning to the board’s meetings and speaking out during the public comment period. But the board kept rejecting their request. On March 4, 2015, the activists returned to a county board meeting. This time they were ready to get arrested for non-violent civil disobedience. They interrupted the meeting by singing songs from the civil rights movement. The board quickly ended the meeting. Soon, the activists won. They got the $17 million.

There are two main newspapers in Oakland, the Oakland Tribune and the East Bay Express. The Tribune is owned by a corporation in Colorado that owns dozens of other newspapers around the nation. The East Bay Express is owned by a group of local people in Oakland.

There are several radio and TV stations that cover Oakland news. One of them is KPFA, a non-profit radio station whose board of directors is elected by anyone who donates $35 a year or volunteers four hours a year. KPFA rejects the corporate money that NPR stations rely on.

Darris Young was the main organizer of the protests at the Alameda county board of supervisors meeting. He was a prisoner in California in 2008. While he was in prison, he organized a strike by the prisoners. They refused to do their jobs until they got more recreation time. They won. Now he is out of prison. He works for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland as a community organizer. I spoke with him in September 2015.

Young told me the East Bay Express provided coverage that helped turn out people for the protest in March. He said the Tribune did not. KPFA has covered his group’s work better than the commercial radio and TV stations.

To understand how journalists can repeat this kind of success story, one must understand the history of journalism. One of the first famous American journalists was Thomas Paine. A working class immigrant from England to America, Paine wrote three of the bestselling books of the 1700s, including Common Sense. That book, published in January 1776, helped spark the American revolution. Paine also wrote for newspapers and magazines, including Pennsylvania Magazine. Another of his books, African Slavery in America, called for an end to slavery.

From about 1902 until about 1912, American newspapers, magazines, and book publishers prominently featured investigative journalism by writers who became known as muckrakers. These writers focused on subjects like unsafe food and child labor, and on the politicians, government bureaucrats, and corporations responsible for allowing these problems to continue. The muckrakers helped create some of the reforms of the so-called progressive era in the 1890s–1920s.

From 1953 until 1971, investigative journalist I.F. Stone published an influential alternative newspaper, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. He wrote about the problems with the mainstream media, called for world peace, and covered U.S. politics. In the late 1960s, a monthly magazine called Ramparts had a circulation of 250,000 and was an important part of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

The effort that powerful politicians devoted to harassing owners and staff of unfriendly newspapers highlights the power of the press. On the day Richard Nixon was elected president, the head of the FBI, Edgar Hoover, directed every FBI office to send him a report on the staff and advertisers of the alternative newspapers in their area. Hoover used “an alarming array of illegal activities” to shut down alternative newspapers (source: Voices of Revolution by Rodger Streitmatter). The editor of the Miami Daily Planet was arrested dozens of times for selling obscene material. Every time, he was found not guilty, but his legal costs reached almost $100,000. The FBI used this kind of harassment against alternative newspaper staffs around the nation. Newspapers in New Orleans and Los Angeles were shut down by their legal costs, even though their staff and owners were found not guilty. The editor of the Detroit Sun was sent to prison for ten years for possession of two marijuana cigarettes, based only on the testimony of two undercover agents who had gotten jobs at the newspaper. Police physically assaulted staff at the Philadelphia Free Press after the paper published unflattering articles about the police commissioner.

Streitmatter writes that the FBI was partly or entirely responsible for the 1960s and 1970s firebombing of alternative newspaper offices in Seattle, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles. The FBI forged letters signed “Disgusted Patron” and sent them to companies that advertised in alternative newspapers, complaining about the publications. As a result, the papers’ income plummeted and many went out of business.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Kudzu, an alternative newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi focused on fighting for justice for black people. It gave prominent attention to a unionization effort by African-American garbage collectors in Jackson and similar stories of resistance. In 1970, the FBI began conducting daily searches of the newspaper’s office. Federal agents held the newspaper’s staff at gunpoint and threatened to kill them. The Kudzu closed in 1972. Streitmatter says 500 “counterculture” newspapers were published in the U.S. in 1968. By 1978, there were only 40.

During the 1970s, women created approximately 230 feminist newspapers and magazines. Four of these were Rat in New York City, Ain’t I a Woman? in Iowa City, Iowa, It Ain’t Me Babe in Berkeley, California, and off our backs in Washington, DC. These four all chose not to have a single editor, unlike most newspapers and magazines. All four were volunteer-run. They focused on issues of special interest to women, including the fight for the right to safe and legal abortions.

The Black Panther newspaper, founded in 1967, focused on the gap between rich white Americans and impoverished black Americans, police brutality, reparations for slavery, and other matters. It was often the only newspaper that covered nationally important events. For example, the Panther alone reported that black high school students in North Carolina had been suspended for asking their local school board to add classes on black studies. The paper had a weekly circulation of 100,000. It rejected advertising and had no paid staff.

The Black Panther newspaper also published extensive coverage of the disease sickle cell anemia, 98 percent of whose victims were African American. The disease caused severe pain. Many people who had it died before they reached age 30. In 1970, there were 1,600 new cases of the disease. There was no cure for the hereditary disease, but low-cost testing would save many lives because couples who both tested positive could choose to not have children. The Panther showed that, in 1970, the government spent just $63 per person with sickle cell anemia, while it spent $6,583 per person who had cystic fibrosis, which affected mostly white people. Finally, after years of prodding by the Panther, Congress in 1972 dramatically increased funding to address the problem of sickle cell anemia.

The FBI persuaded the Panther’s newspaper distributor to triple the amount of money it charged the Panther, and the FBI planted paid informants on the newspaper’s staff to cause trouble. The FBI and Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton, one of the newspaper’s writers. The newspaper’s staff said the FBI was responsible for the deaths of two more Panther staff people who were murdered, and for a fire that destroyed the warehouse where the paper’s back issues were stored. The FBI arrested more than 700 members of the organization that published the newspaper.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were the founders of the Black Panther newspaper. Newton was arrested for murder in 1967. He was kept in prison until 1970 when he was found not guilty and released. In 1968, Oakland police shot and killed a Panther staff person. In 1969, Seale was arrested for murder and kept in prison for two years until a judge declared a mistrial and freed him. In 1980, the newspaper went out of business. Other liberation struggles produced other radical newspapers, such as Palante, published by the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican activists in the U.S. who fought for civil rights and the independence of Puerto Rico.

After a month-long strike in 2006, thousands of janitors in Houston, Texas, who had been earning poverty wages, doubled their incomes and won health insurance for the first time. Most of the workers were women who had immigrated from Mexico and Central America. By going on strike, many were risking deportation. During the strike, Rachel Clarke was a school teacher and volunteer reporter at Pacifica radio station KPFT in Houston. Fluent in English and Spanish, she produced most of the strike coverage that aired on KPFT News. “When the mainstream media cover strikes, they usually interview the union president or spokesperson and the company spokesperson—no workers,” Clarke told me. “I thought workers were the most important people to interview.”

“The (NY) Times has always focused on confrontation, bloodshed, arrests and mayhem in covering Occupy, while paying scant heed to civic substance or political significance,” said Rutgers politics professor Ben Barber. (“May Day Media Mayhem,” Huffington Post, 5/3/2012) Other corporate media followed the Times’ lead in coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Grassroots journalism in outlets like “Democracy Now!” and The Nation, by contrast, encouraged people to join the protests. Hundreds of people occupied New York City’s Zuccotti Park near Wall Street from September 17, 2011 until November 15, 2011. The action was called “Occupy Wall Street.” The activists chanted, “We are the 99 percent.” David Graeber is a professor at the London School of Economics. He was at Zuccotti park in the early days of the occupation. “If you look at who showed up, it was mostly young people, and most of them were people who had gone through the educational system, who were deeply in debt, and who found it completely impossible to get jobs,” Graeber told “Democracy Now!” According to, “Pressure from (the Occupy Wall Street) protesters forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reverse his opposition to a millionaire’s tax,” (Think Progress, After Six Months, a Look at what Occupy Wall Street Has Accomplished.)

Corporate media coverage of climate change rarely states the stark fact that the world’s leading scientists say global warming is a major threat to earth’s ability to support human life. Coverage of the issue by outlets like CNN suggests that any solution to climate change will come from the U.S. president and the leaders of China and other powerful nations—not from mass marches, rallies and non-violent civil disobedience to block construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, defend and expand family planning programs, and save forests and farmland from the pavers. Grassroots journalism takes the opposite approach, and highlights the fact that the people most likely to be killed by droughts and floods caused by climate change are the world’s poor. The rich and middle class will escape relatively unscathed, at least in the near term.

One of the key issues of the Black Lives Matter movement is mass incarceration. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado (and other states) will result in fewer people in prison. Legalization followed anti-legalization coverage by corporate media outlets and pro-legalization coverage of mass rallies at the statehouse in Denver by outlets like KGNU radio in Boulder, which airs Democracy Now! and has a strong local news department.

Since 1986, the New York City-based group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has been publishing examples of media bias and censorship. In November 2012, the group published an article by Peter Hart on its website examining coverage of an eight-day strike by more than 29,000 Chicago public school teachers that September. (“Not for Teacher” ABC News, Hart noted, focused its coverage on one possible solution to teacher strikes: get rid of teachers’ unions by opening so-called “charter schools.” USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the two biggest newspapers in Chicago all published unsigned editorials opposing the strike (unsigned editorials are ones that represent a newspaper’s official position).

Labor Notes is an ad-free national magazine that has been published since 1979 in Detroit. The magazine’s staff organizes a conference every other year that is attended by thousands of union members. Its website and print edition provided coverage of the strike that was far more helpful to the workers than the corporate media’s coverage. It started from the basic fact that inequality is one of the biggest problems facing the nation and that unions are the most effective way to reduce that inequality. Unions only go on strike when their members vote to do so.

“A constant chorus of horns blared in support as teachers and students alike joined a steadily growing picket line this morning at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, one of 675 lines across the city,” read an article published on the Labor Notes website on the first day of the strike. “Teenagers stood with their teachers and cheered, waving signs and wielding noisemakers.” (“Behind the Chicago Teachers Strike” Theresa Moran 9/10/2012) The article quoted teachers who were on the picket line, explaining why they were on strike. Corporate media coverage emphasized quotes from politicians and education “experts,” not the striking teachers. An article about the strike that was posted on CNN’s website quoted the Chicago mayor and a professor but not a single striking teacher. (“Wins, losses and draws in Chicago school strike,” Michael Pearson 9/19/2012)

Fifteen years ago, I wrote the first edition of Grassroots Journalism in response to the threat to democracy posed by a crisis in journalism: big corporations were buying up hundreds of locally-owned newspapers and radio and TV stations. The result was news coverage that too often prioritized corporate profits over public good.

The only available journalism textbooks taught readers how to interview the powerful—politicians, police chiefs, corporate executives, and their spokespeople—but not how to cover the kind of grassroots struggles that throughout history have been the only way ordinary people have been able to improve their lives and protect the natural environment.

People who graduated from college with a journalism degree in 2000 and who wanted to work as a grassroots journalist had to try to find a way to do journalism that challenged the status quo at news outlets usually owned by people who wanted to keep the political system the way it was. But at least those graduates had a decent chance of finding a job. In the past 15 years, the number of paid journalists in America has plummeted. In 2014, there were about 37,000 full-time, paid daily newspaper journalists in the U.S., down from about 56,000 in 2000.

The U.S. Department of Labor, in a report published in 2014, said there were 58,000 full-time, paid “reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts” in the U.S. in 2012. The report predicted that there would be 13 percent fewer of these workers by the year 2022. This is because of “declining advertising revenue in radio, newspapers, and television.”

The internet has created new ways for people to present their views and experiences. But outside of the mainstream media, internet news sources are usually underfunded. Volunteer journalists are doing important work, but the vast majority of them do journalism part-time. Full-time journalists are needed to provide in-depth investigative coverage of events on a local level.

Why be a journalist at this time in history? Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the United States Constitution. Journalists play a crucial role—perhaps the most crucial role—in any democracy.

Grassroots Journalism is about how to be a journalist and about why you should be a journalist. Grassroots journalism will play a key role in building the kind of mass movement needed to address global poverty, economic inequality in the United States, and climate change, which the world’s leading scientists say is a serious threat to earth’s ability to support human life.

Eileen Welsome was a reporter for Albuquerque Tribune newspaper in New Mexico when she won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. The Tribune closed in 2008 after 86 years in business. Welsome told me in 2015 that her husband was a news editor at the Rocky Mountain News, a daily newspaper in Colorado that closed in 2009, after continuous publication since 1859. Welsome’s income now comes from writing books; her husband is a purchasing clerk at a hospital in Denver.

“Maybe something will rise out of the ashes. But I don’t think it will ever be the same,” Eileen Welsome told me. “The national media still has investigative reporters who can spend months on a story. Small newspapers once had that. I would spend six months on a story. That’s gone. There are no journalists at some city council meetings now. In the old days, I would be at the court house and see someone in the hall who would give me a story. Now, reporters don’t get out of the office—they don’t have time because they’re expected to produce so much.”

Welsome said that many non-profit local news websites rely on one or two rich people for funding. “The journalists at those sites say they’re independent, but who knows? The leaders of those sites need to focus on fundraising, not journalism.”

She lives in Denver. “The Denver Post is a shadow of its former self, partly because it lost its only competitor, when the Rocky Mountain News closed, and partly because of the loss of advertising that has effected almost every newspaper. When the News closed, we lost journalists who had gotten us a less corrupt mayor, and got rid of a bad judge.”

Classified ads, once a major source of income, have largely shifted to Some of corporations’ ad budget goes to sites like Facebook and rather than newspapers or TV and radio stations that employ journalists. is a news and entertainment website with more than 500 employees as of 2015. All of BuzzFeed’s income comes from corporate advertisers. The site specializes in creating ads that its readers mistake for journalism. (Source: The New York Times, “50 Million New Reasons BuzzFeed Wants to Take Its Content Far Beyond Lists,” August 10, 2014) Links from social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are the source of about 75 percent of Buzzfeed’s visitors. Grassroots journalists should also use social media to promote their work. At, the company explains that its staff writers are expert at writing articles that promote corporate advertisers while appearing to be objective news.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. As of 2015, said, “Through original reporting, sharp analysis, and visual storytelling, CityLab informs and inspires the people who are creating the cities of the future—and those who want to live there.” City Lab is owned by the Atlantic Monthly magazine, whose biggest advertisers include Shell Oil, General Motors, Volkswagen, Geico Auto Insurance, and Mercedes Benz. Cities of the future should include fewer cars, trucks and SUVs than today’s cities. But will oil and auto companies support journalism that calls for their own demise? The site frequently covers public transit but it’s likely that if advertisers felt this coverage would hurt their profits, they would stop advertising.

Non-profit national and international news sites like and are mostly funded by liberal foundations. Pro Publica is also funded by corporate advertising. Non-profit local news sites like are funded by foundations like the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and local rich people. Foundations don’t have enough money to support local journalism in every town and city. In general, rich people are more likely to oppose raising taxes on themselves to help poor people and protect the natural environment. The main strength of these sites are that they employ journalists who can attend city council meetings and keep an eye out for corrupt politicians.

Websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been used by volunteer journalists to post and promote news articles and videos showing police racism and misconduct. These videos have led to rallies and marches that forced politicians to punish the police officers for their crimes. Examples of this include the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York; and, in 2015, the police killing in Baltimore, Maryland of Freddie Gray, a black man armed only with a knife.

Getting people to read start-up local news sites involves putting up fliers on bulletin boards and buying ads in local newspapers and on the kind of radio stations that air Democracy Now. Public events like fundraising concerts can get free media coverage. Bumper-stickers and t-shirts printed with the site’s web address help. The activists who journalists interview for local news websites often become readers and can help promote the sites.

In October 2015, ten people were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience protesting construction of a fracked gas pipeline near Boston. Fracked gas causes climate change, which the world’s leading scientists say is a major threat to earth’s ability to support human life. The Boston Globe did not cover the protest. Grassroots news outlets did.

In Europe, publicly owned news outlets like the BBC are funded at a per capita rate far higher than their equivalents in the USA. The U.S. government invests about $400 million a year in NPR, PBS, and smaller outlets. If the USA funded public media at the same per capita rate as Sweden and Norway, that number would be about $35 billion. NPR and PBS could afford to eliminate corporate underwriting and their stations could hire thousands more journalists to cover local news. Sweden and Norway are far more democratic than the USA, according to

Grassroots journalism was important to the success of the movement in South Africa that got Nelson Mandela out of prison, made him president, and overthrew one of history’s most brutal racist governments. “‘This is the African National Congress, the voice of freedom,’ said the broadcaster over the outlawed Radio Freedom in 1969. ‘This government of slavery, this government of oppression, this apartheid monster must be removed from power and crushed by the people,’ declared the host. ‘Never give up the freedom struggle.’ ... With 55 staffers in jail, the New Age (newspaper) featured photos of banned Mandela and Duma Nukwe with the headline, ’FREEDOM IS WITHIN OUR GRASP.’” (source: Kill the Messenger by Maria Armoudian, Prometheus Books, 2011)

Chris Cook, a former news editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian who now writes for the Los Angeles Times and other publications, told me in 2015, “People underestimate how serious the effects on democracy of the loss of journalists in the United States will be. People are very blithe: ‘Oh, we’ll just start blogs.’” But, he added, new models are needed. “A private company owning a newspaper and running corporate advertising is not independent.”

I have years of experience as a paid, full-time staff reporter at newspapers and public radio stations. My work for the Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer daily newspaper won the state’s top award for investigative journalism from the Vermont Press Association. Hundreds of my news reports aired on Northeast Public Radio, a group of NPR stations with about 400,000 listeners in New York, Massachusetts, and four other states. My freelance journalism has appeared in the Advocate and other national magazines. I still freelance, but now I do most of my journalism as a volunteer for the Valley Post, a local news website in Vermont. I make a living doing carpentry and helping on my wife’s vegetable farm. I prefer working outdoors and doing physical work to full-time journalism. Because of cutbacks in the news industry, reporters must produce more articles, meaning they usually work at their desk, rather than getting out to interview people in-person.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I would rather have a free press and no government, than a government and no free press.” People volunteer to be firefighters and ambulance workers in small towns around the USA. People volunteer in libraries, homeless shelters, and many other kinds of institutions. Why shouldn’t people be volunteer journalists?

In the early stages of the movement to replace the dying corporate media, a lot of journalism will need to be done by volunteer journalists. Before there can be more paid journalists, we need more volunteer journalists. This book can show you how to be a grassroots journalist. I hope it inspires you to write about the issues you care about in your community. Democracy, economic justice, and the livability of our planet depend on it.

is author of Grassroots Journalism: A Practical Manual and editor of the Valley Post, a local news website in Vermont.

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