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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 3, 2003

The Terms of Authority Are Shifting

Readers and Viewers—Rich Now in Alternative Sources of News—Are More Assertive and Far Less in Awe of the Press, Which is Not a Bad Thing.

by Jay Rosen

Originally published at A shorter version appears in Columbia Journalism Review, Sep./Oct. 2003, pp. 35-37.

Several years ago, when the Internet was young, I saw a notice in the New York Times that reporter Matthew L. Wald would be online that day, answering questions from the public. The Times said you could email him in advance and it gave his address, a novelty then. So I bit. I asked Matthew Wald, whose beat was airline safety, whether he had any questions to ask the public. He sent me a polite reply, which I appreciated. It said he was happy to answer questions from readers, but didn’t plan on asking any.

Wald’s answer is the one most of his peers would give, and with good reason. The role of expert in a beat is a clean and professional way of handling curious readers who on the Internet have both monitors (for incoming) and keyboards (for sending out). Which, by the way, means that everyone habitually called reader and handled in those terms could also be called “writer.” Ask The Expert, (an especially comfortable practice when you’re the expert) pre-arranges what we might call the terms of authority for a professional journalist. Wald is working full time on the sprawling subject of air safety—you’re not. Send him your questions. [more]

In March of this year, former AP and New York Daily News reporter Chris Allbritton became what Wired called “the Web’s first independent war correspondent.” He did it by asking readers of his blog to send him to Iraq at their expense. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: that he send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking, and patriotic hype. Some of this money he used for technology, on which his claim of independence depended. He needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and joined the war), a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, and enough cash to move around, keep fed and buy his way out of trouble. While others were embedded with the American military, Allbritton sent himself on assignment, never even asking permission to be in the country.

The Internet did the rest. On March 27, his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site,, thus proving, not that anyone in the public can perhaps be a journalist, but that anyone who is a journalist can have a mini-public on the Net. A Business Week report even asked of Allbritton’s pay-to-read model, “Is this the future of journalism?” I doubt that, but it is an alternative path to finding the future. “The New York Times may have nothing to worry about,” wrote Spencer E. Ante, “but Albritton’s story hints at a new business model that could remake the lesser tiers of the media world.”

I don’t know what Ante means by lesser tiers. But I suppose he means tiers where they make less money. If there are levels of independence in journalism, then Allbritton’s organization—himself, plus readers and patrons—would be ranked on top. “New business model” does not begin to describe what he created. Here you have a journalist collecting his own mini-public, a few thousand people on the Web, who then send him to report on events of interest to the entire world, via a medium that reaches the entire world. This cuts out “the media” altogether, reaching back centuries to some of the first people to work as reporters abroad.

From private news to public service

Our idea of a correspondent gathering news for the public emerged from an earlier type, the correspondent gathering news for benefit of private or well placed persons. In sixteenth century Europe, it was common for wealthy merchants and bankers to have newsletters written for them by agents stationed abroad. Merchants had commercial interests in far away places, so they needed current news. There were small networks of proto-correspondents (“intelligencers”) who picked up scraps of information around town and pooled it in weekly letters sold to multiple clients— princes, state officials, businessmen and church authorities. “We are dealing here with a form of private news,” writes Mitchell Stephens in A History of News. By our definition this is an oxymoron, he adds. But it made perfect sense to the trader in Antwerp, willing and able to pay for intelligence others around him did not have. That business is alive today, in expensive newsletters for corporate clients that do not circulate outside the firm. What’s missing from the picture?

It’s the public of course. A private market for news, priced high and circulated among the few, came first. Information dealers later found there was more money in a public market for news, priced low and peddled to many. The newsletter became the newspaper, which begat the mass media and modern reportage. These market events had a political outcome: the birth of the news-reading public, whose opinions would later count as politics expanded to include them. From this develops “public opinion,” a force which came into politics in the mid-eighteen century. And eventually we get the public’s right to know, which in the twentieth century sets out the terms of authority for the mainstream press, providing a sketch of how things are supposed to work.

The journalist is supposed to represent somebody other than herself, her company, her political party, her clan, her class, her king. There is a public out there to serve, to whom you send back reports that are in the common interest. In the sixteenth century the terms were, “I’m in Venice, you’re not, I’ll send you my reports, you pay me something.” But this was a private transaction; the public hadn’t been “invented” yet. It was beyond the imagination of the day that average citizens were like merchants who had interests abroad and so needed news. Or that we all lived in a common sphere of events. It was not thought that all opinions counted when it came time to decide for the nation.

The public is an idea because it takes imagination to conceive of such a thing, the great mass of people spread out over the nation but in touch with the same events, leading private lives but paying public matters some attention. It becomes more than an idea when people act on it, as Jay Leno does in his nightly monologue on the day’s news: “You all saw this, right?…” In 2003, Chris Allbritton said, in effect, I can get to Iraq, you can’t, I’ll send back reports, post them on the Net, and some of you will pay me something. Trust me, it will work. This was a public transaction, and it did work. It had an idea built into it that journalists have been reworking since about 1760 or so.

“I was fully aware of why I was there, “ said Allberton in an interview. “Journalists are the agents of their readers, their proxies in environments the average Joe can’t or won’t go. As such I felt a great responsibility to them.” This included getting assignments (or at least suggested assignments) directly from the site’s users and sponsors. In a form letter sent out to anyone who gave him money, Allbritton wrote: “If you’d like me to check out a story and its physically possible, let me know and I’ll do what I can.” In a social contract like this, the idea of the public is being worked out again— online.

Readers are now “users”

First we had readers at the other end of the journalistic act. Then in the twentieth century came radio listeners, then TV viewers, and along the way we picked up news consumers. Now we have “users,” which has become a conventional term for the audience on the Internet. These are all ways of further describing the public, while inscribing an image of what a public does. Thus, we speak of the reading public, the listening public, the viewing public. But a computer and Internet-using public is not really in the same genealogical line as readers, listeners, viewers, consumers. They were all receivers of information. The Net user, it has been said many times, doesn’t fit that mold. It’s a much more active identity, requiring more active nouns and verbs, which is why it hardly makes sense at all to talk about an Internet “audience.”

The age of global interactivity that is now descending changes the terms of the transaction by upgrading what publics can do for themselves, but also by granting new powers of invention to journalists. In that long historical arc from the first correspondents writing letters to today’s pros uplinked by satellite, there have been several revolutions in journalistic authority. The last big one was in the mid-twentieth century, when journalism evolved from a low status trade to a higher status profession. By pledging themselves to fairness, accuracy, and disinterested truthtelling, American journalists improved their cultural authority, separating it from partisan politics and the struggle to shape opinion. They became, in a sense, experts in the public’s daily business. This worked well enough, and it still works.

The crowing achievement of that system is, of course, The New York Times, an institution with unique standing in American culture and the press tribe. But the terms of the Times authority never stay frozen in place. In the continuous and subtle transaction by which the newspaper’s influence prevails, there can be big changes. The onset of personal bylines was one: authority subdivided by writers, who then come to fore of the public transaction that maintains the Times reputation. The editors have always been fussy, often courtly about bylines for that reason. Incidents—disasters—like Jason Blair and to a lesser degree Rick Bragg’s overuse of stringers are vexing to conscience not because they involve such huge acts of misinformation, but because they strike at the basic tools of truthfulness.

The dateline is extremely basic to the commanding news voice of the Times, and if in three, five or thirty-five cases it was a lie, the problem is not the total amount of lying the paper did. It’s the exposed foundation, the apprehension of fragility in the system of trust that makes news reporting, let alone “credibility,” possible at all. These things shiver the system, raise anxiety levels, and then come outbursts of action. Poof, Howelll Raines is gone. A newspaper unique in its truthtelling authority cannot afford a temporary crisis in that department.

Sudden transparency

But underneath that something else is going on. The terms on which the Times can maintain its professional aura and define almost by fiat what is news have been changing, as this huge and conservative (about journalism) institution meets the next age in media and public conversation. Slowly, but very slowly, the Times is realizing that is has to become more interactive with its environment. This means more open to citizen scrutiny and peer group criticism, more likely to give reasons for its actions and discuss them publicly, less the citadel of news judgment and more conversant with the political culture— and with the public, which can reach the paper more easily than in eras past.

It’s not only the ease of sending an e-mail, but the vast data-sphere available to Net users with a few clicks of the mouse. Medical authority is simply not the same in a world where patients do their own research on alternative drugs and treatment regimes. It would be surprising if authority in elite journalism remained the same when the very readers the Times cultivates (educated, affluent, curious) are themselves rich in alternative sources of news. Do Net-surfing patients stop trusting their doctors? No, but they are less likely to be overawed. Something like this is happening in journalism, making users more assertive. Remember, it was a call from a reader than did in Rick Bragg.

Glasnost has come to West 43rd Street A stunning openness overcame the paper during the Jason Blair crisis, with emails flying to Romensko’s site and rebounding into the office. The Times became, during the height of the storm, an almost transparent institution, odd for those who routinely visit transparency on others. Raines himself became gradually more willing to speak with the press about questionable calls, and the new editor, Bill Keller, has announced that he will hire an ombudsman, or “public editor,” a symbol of openness and interaction. There will be other changes — some drawn from the 58-page “Siegal Report,” an internal investigation headed up by assistant managing editor Al Siegal and then made public July 30th.

This is a remarkably candid document. Among its major themes are the call for more accountability—internally and to outsiders—and more transparency in the way the newspaper of record makes decisions, and explains itself. The report urges senior executives “to bring order and transparency to the Times’s often makeshift and opaque actions.” Among the items that had become illegible were datelines and bylines, which were sometimes close to a lie. “Our use of bylines and datelines is inconsistent and occasionally dissembling,” the report states. Among the possible embarrassments was the “toe touch.” This is when a reporter who did the bulk of his research in New York about a story unfolding in Ohio, catches a flight to Cleveland, spending only a few hours there so that an out-of-town dateline can be “artificially justified.”

Interaction cannot be avoided

It’s not that no one at the Times knew about the toe touch. It’s that under the new conditions of increased scrutiny, no one knew how such a practice could be publicly explained, let alone justified. The newspaper’s stylebook says that “believable firsthand news gathering is the Times’s hallmark.” But the Siegal report found: “In the aftermath of the Blair scandal, as we tried to explain our standards to outsiders and our own staff, we concluded that much confusion had been sown by our internally-generated pressure on reporters to ‘get the dateline’ at any cost.”

A dateline showing a reporter on location appears to give the reporting more authority, suggesting firsthand observation at work. As long as it’s not a total lie (after all, the reporter was “there” for a few hours) the paper could be satisfied with the device. But this works only so long as the Times can avoid interacting with the public and explaining itself to outsiders. And that is what’s different today: the interaction cannot be avoided. Thus, the authority to decide that the toe touch is enough has vanished. “We must affirm the values of transparency, fairness and accountability throughout our newsroom,” says the report. It adds that reducing the opacity of editorial decisions and policies “will grow in importance as the newsroom continues to expand through ventures in television, the Internet, new sections and the International Herald Tribune.”

Has the New York Times lost authority? No, not in any ultimate sense; its influence only grows in a multi-media and wired world. But for the stewards of our greatest newspaper, it’s not going to be the same transaction as more and more action shifts online. Even high authority, the priesthood of journalism, stands to become more interactive and more accountable. (Ask Raines.) The big ethics task of getting the separations right — distinguishing press from state, newsroom from boardroom, journalist from publicist, editorial from advertising — is still there. Added to it, however, is an equally hard problem: getting the connections right to a public that is out there, paying attention, asking pointed questions, sometimes bringing its own expertise and curiosity to the party and, of course, willing to sustain serious journalism.

Matt Wald, following the standard Times model, interacted as an expert in air safety. Chris Allbritton believed the terms of his authority compelled him to ask a question of his miniature public, “I’m in country, you’re reading the other news sources, what should I investigate?” Readers became editors, Allbritton said, and even his copy editors:

Once, after getting into Iraq by crossing through the mountains on the Turkey-Iraq border, I said the trek was like the Bataan Death March. Boy. That got me a lot of heat from people who took great offense at what was called an overblown metaphor. They had a point, and I kept language like that down after that event. They were also assignment editors, which was an explicit part of the deal… I did an entire story on the role of the Turkomen in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kirkuk because of this. I never saw a single story about their role anywhere else. It was a minor story, but it might have been big, if the Turkomen had convinced Turkey to intervene on their behalf.

This is not only an alternative way of financing serious reporting, but of grounding its authority— interactively. The terms of the transaction imply a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they “use” it in active search for what’s going on, sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros. “Why did I listen to them?” Allbritton said of his site’s users. “Because they gave me money—directly—to find stuff out for them, so I feel there’s a moral responsibility there…We tend to trust people who listen and respond to us.” END

On the changing terms of authority in journalism, see also PressThink’s analysis of the New York Times self-study, the Siegal Report.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 3, 2003 2:20 PM   Print

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