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PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
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Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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September 1, 2003

PressThink: An Introduction

Today we say media instead of "the press." But it's a mistake. The press has become the ghost of democracy in the media machine, and we need to keep it alive.

In 1996, when Disney bought ABC, it came into possession of a few daily newspapers, which were owned by Capital Cities, which owned ABC. One of them was the Kansas City Star. Someone prevailed on Disney boss Michael Eisner, and in March of that year he went to Kansas City to speak to the Star staff. They were nervous. Disney on the city desk?

According to the account that ran in the Star, it went okay: “First question: Will Disney sell the Star? No; Disney likes acquiring properties, not selling them, Eisner said. While nothing is guaranteed forever, he made it clear he’d rather buy than sell. Someone asked what he liked and didn’t like about the paper. He deferred, saying he’s not an expert on newspapers.”

Eisner had a very advanced grasp of the media industry, but not of newspapers and the good they could do. Despite what he said about acquiring properties, it was not obvious to him why Disney should want an editorial vehicle like the Star. Newspapers were about the prosaic, the real and the local. Disney was about the fantastic, the imaginary, the global. It wasn’t a hard decision. A year later, Dinsey sold the Star, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and two smaller newspapers. (They became part of Knight Ridder, Inc.) Having ingested a little of the press as a consequence of his Big Media buy, Eisner quickly spat out the pieces. “What do I want with them?” At the time, the Kansas City and Fort Worth properties were earning profits of about 25 percent a year. I wonder if he knew that Walt Disney himself once delivered papers for the Kanas City Star, rising at 3:30 am to work with father and brother in the family livelihood. Probably he did know. But would he want that ghost around?

I am a press critic, an observer of journalism’s habits, and also a writer trying to make sense of the world. I am interested in the ideas about journalism that journalists work within, and those they feel they can work without. I try to discover the consequences in the world that result from having the kind of press we do.

I call this blog PressThink because that’s the kind of work I do. The title points to forms of thought that identify “journalism” to itself— but also to the habit of not thinking about certain things. The subatomic force that holds the pack of reporters together as they swarm around a story, there’s an example of pressthink. Without it there could be no pack; the pieces would come flying apart. There is a strange energy there, holding smart people to dumb practices.

The mind of the press is under strain these days. Part of it comes from citizen critics who are gaining some of the tools to do what professional journalists have always done. Often, they don’t think the way the pros do, which is fortunate… more or less. Another strain involves turnover in the technology platform on which mainstream journalism has rested for so long. The supremacy of the “one to many” media system has ended, and vastly different patterns are emerging.

Another source of strain, of course, is the gradual state of tending toward Absolute Commercialization, (AC) which is present in almost all media environments. AC is a dark force in journalism, a hollower out. It chills and empties. And a fourth strain on press thinking is there because the professional culture of the press is not as open (about journalism) as it might be, even though individual journalists are quite aware of what’s happening and bear a sophisticated sense of their profession’s role in it.

So “pressthink” exists. At least I say it does. The burden on PressThink is to illustrate this claim and be entertaining about it. Ideas saying what a press is for created the one we have today. Ideas about what journlism essentially is keep it the way it is. Press thinking is under pressure today and more in motion. No one knows where the next wave is supposed to come from. Key symbols are up for grabs. And “who is a journalist?” is asked with a vengeance— especially online.

Which gets to why I call this blog PressThink, and not mediathink. Today we say media instead of “the press.” But I don’t recommend it. I think it was a mistake when we began to do that— call the people who were the press something else, more modern, abstract, inclusive, elastic, and of course more commercial, The Media. This is a habit we imported into our national language, but nations can get that kind of thing wrong.

We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of what technology they use. The people who will invent the next press in America—and who are doing it now online—continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached. Among many sites I admire, I admire on this particular point. It leaves the arrow pointing backward to Paine the troublemaking democrat and political journalist, reviving his name for symbolic purpose in the present.

By such means the press goes on.

The institution dates from the age when printing was all there was of the “mass” media. Press comprehended all of media then, but that of course was centuries ago. Today, it echoes with “freedom of the press,” which is connected to free speech, which is basic to free citizens. The modern press is a carrier for public service ideals and it has an inherently political identity, even though it’s always been a business too. Working for the media but within the imaginary of the press has become normal practice for tens of thousands of American journalists.

So the press is a backward glancing term. To me that’s what’s great about it. It points back to the history of struggle for press liberty, to the long rise of public opinion, and of course to the Constitution, a source from which The Media try to draw legitimacy. But the First Amendment actually speaks of the press. It doesn’t mention media. Anyone could, but then almost no one does, uphold “freedom of the media” as a great right— worth defending and even dying for.

Ghost of democracy in the media machine. That’s the press today. My sense is that Michael Eisner knew that. What’s yours?

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 1, 2003 4:03 PM   Print


A splendid manifesto, and an ambitious agenda. How do we explode pressthink and send the pieces flying apart in more interesting directions? Or is the fact that so many journalist already realize that they work by way of or alongside pressthink suggest that the energy to change things can't come from within the media--excuse me, the press? Dumping the term "media" alone is a great first move.

Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at September 11, 2003 11:38 AM | Permalink

Ghost of democracy in the media machine.
Is that to suggest that the democracy left in the media machine is but a ghost of what it was? If we define democracy as, "rule of the majority", certainly media has never in our human past, been this way. One could almost argue that w/ phones taking pictures, email, websites, blogs like this one, chat, IM, etc. that media is more democratic now than it has ever been.

Then again, if we want to define democracy in the more ideal terms of freedom of expression and EQUAL representation of opposing views, etc. then one only has to take a look at who owns the media mcahine to conclude that most certainly there is only a ghost of democracy left in it.

It's true that a paradigm shift is coming. With a climate such as ours, where the president is not elected by the majority of people, the mask of the drug war's been lifted, and the RIAA is suing its customers, people see that freedom's being taken from them.
and they don't like it.

Posted by: chimchim at September 15, 2003 4:50 PM | Permalink

I agree that the supremacy of the one-to-many, or "broacast" model, of media is over.

But it hasn't gone away.

The internet and its many-to-many paradigm will change the function of broadcast media, just as television changed the function of radio.

There will be displacement, but the "old media" will be with us for some time yet.


Posted by: Michael Heraghty at October 17, 2003 8:54 AM | Permalink

The word "Press" calls to my mind the Gutenburg printing press, and the way that newspaper is still basically being produced nowadays. However, that is changing so quickly. Will news'paper' continue to be produced that way and for how long? Maybe it takes the recent complete blackout of the west coast to jolt us a bit as to how underneath the press is electricity. And that electricity constantly tranforms the press. I think the word journalism is maybe more a more flexible description of what journalists do.

I was attracted to this post because of the words "subatomic force that holds the pack of reporters together as they swarm around a story... Without it there could be no pack; the pieces would come flying apart. There is a strange energy there, holding smart people to dumb practices". I think you've captured the essence of journalism and its problems pretty well with these words, or maybe I find in them an echo of something I recently discovered in reading McLuhan and commented on here (I'm La NuiT).

Posted by: Nui T. at October 27, 2003 11:29 AM | Permalink

"...nations can get that kind of thing wrong."

That is an important statement. It presupposes a right and a wrong and an ability to see the difference. It also tells us that we're all in this together, and that how we think and talk about things matters.

It may be unpopular to notice that you can make damaging mistakes, but we need to accept that burden to increase our strength.

Posted by: Britt Blaser at November 5, 2003 7:33 PM | Permalink

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