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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 8, 2003

PressThink Basics: The Master Narrative in Journalism

Borrowed from Lit Crit, the term "master narrative" has come into use in journalism here and there. What is it? The story that generates all the other stories. I'll explain.

Press think has terms of art, and one of them is “master narrative,” borrowed from literary critics. I use it to describe a part of the press that too easily eludes attention: the big story, sometimes the back story, often a fragment of a narrative, that generates all the other stories, which are smaller pieces.

Individual reports we can summarize, index, and criticize, especially today with the explosion of citizen critics on the Web. But there is no reliable index to replicating patterns in news coverage. Your local newscaster may tell you, “here’s a list of stories we’re working on for NewsFour at 11:00,” but there is nowhere listed the story forms from which this repetitive content flows. A given work of journalism will have an author’s byline, but in some measure the author is always “journalism” itself and its peculiar habits of mind. You can’t interview that guy.

In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear nonpartisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning— who’s going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on. Reporters call this the horse race, one of the rare occasions on which they have aptly named their own master narrative and recognized it as a story machine— almost an appliance for cooking news….

Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively non-partisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resembles myths as anthropologists understand them.

Were “winning” to somehow get removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?

To understand better the mind of the mainstream press, pay close attention to that phrase, “the story” when listening to journalists talk about their work. The story is not only what a daily reporter gets, it is journalism’s way of “getting” the world, of naming, packaging, and punctuating events. The Enron Story refers not to news accounts about the company Enron, but to an episode in corporate criminality that largely eluded the press when it happened but afterwards became big news.

“I don’t think the story is going anywhere,” which you might hear from any Friday-night panelist on PBS, suggests faltering locomotion, a train of events about to peter out. Of course it refers equally to editorial attention; the prediction is that the story will stop generating news. American journalists often say “the story” when what they mean is the event itself, and if you’re interested in the newsroom’s master narratives one place to look is in between those two.

Another is tribal rituals, and political journalism is rife with those. The press pack, such a visible feature of big time campaigning in America, would find it confusing to be without a figure known as the front-runner, key to the imaginary of a “race” to the finish. That the front-runner deserves privileged attention originates in the fat narrative of winning, which in addition to producing lots of stories keeps at bay other masters that might be served.

Realism tells us that elections are supposed to be contests among partisans struggling to beat the other guy and gain power. This is not what’s wrong with them; it’s essential and good. Elections are equally supposed to be forums in which competing ideas, priorities and visions for the nation come forward in the struggle to gain office. That’s essential too, and no less good. Elections are, in a third telling, entry points for our participation in politics. Hard to say that’s not essential. Hard to say it isn’t good.

Any of these suppositions could become the master narrative for campaign reporting in a given setting, (and there are many more possible, as many as there are settings) but the longer “winning the race” hangs around, the more natural the thing seems— not an editorial invention at all but more like reality itself. Want to find ideology in journalism? In America, you look at points like this.

Yet I repeat: to choose winning as master narrative is a defensible move, non sinister. Its logic has over time settled, the way sediments settle and become earth. Journalists walk that earth. But they are not the only ones— candidates, contributors, consultants, pollsters join them. That’s significant since these people tend to be regular sources for journalists— and one way you negotiate with sources is by agreeing on a common narrative, (W for Winning) the way musicians might settle on the key of F.

Master narrative may have started in academic dialect. But it has crept into the language of workaday journalists as they reflect on their way of doing things. This I take as sign of a useful idea.

Canadian journalist Robert Fulford (a columnist for the National Post) writes: “A master narrative that we find convincing and persuasive differs from other stories in an important way: it swallows us. It is not a play we can see performed, or a painting we can view, or a city we can visit. A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it.”

Because journalists do “live” within their narratives, they often don’t see them. William Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The master narrative is a reason why some stories that should get in, don’t get in.” This alone is reason to criticize the press under the title above. Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for the Washington Post who covered presidential campaigns, wrote this in 1992:

Political stories don’t just ‘happen’ the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct. They are components of a journalistic master narrative built around two principle story lines: the search for the candidates’ character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horserace, full of ploys and surprises, tenacity and treachery, rising action and falling action, winners and losers.

Taylor’s use of “construct” intrigues me for two reasons. Journalists, he’s saying, help create the universe from which they draw news, which is a truthful but disruptive observation. How to report the news—accurately, fairly, comprehensively—is something we know how to teach in journalism school. How to construct the public arena (accurately, fairly, comprehensively? do these terms even make sense?) is not. It’s pretty clear where the authority to report the news comes from; it’s not clear where the authority to construct the world lies, or could lie.

This ghostly matter—of a master narrative instructing the news machine—is not debated in newsrooms the way the day’s top stories are. It is not examined at conferences. The ombudsmen do not write columns about it. The pundits don’t kick it around. Officially, it is not in the job description of the American press, and no one gets hired for a bigger salary in Philadelphia by being a good constructor of the civic universe in Scranton.

Still the construction work goes on, and only a language of criticism can hold the laborers accountable. A second telling thing about Taylor’s active verb “construct” is that it’s borrowed (whether he knew it or not) from post-modernism. The term master narrative arrives via the same route. A key source for it is Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 work The Postmodern Condition, a classic among those who study that condition.

Now there are many literate people hostile to postmodernism and its vocabulary, but journalists are among the most vocal. The trendy postmodern academic is a much ridiculed figure in press commentary; terms like “deconstruction” are laugh triggers among the working press. Were someone to suggest for graduate students in journalism a crackling tour of postmodern thought, the reaction would likely be incredulity, panic or revolt.

Even so, the idea that news stories are “artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct,” these words of a reporter raised within the tribe, are a classic bit of postmodern thinking because they de-naturalize the news. In fact, journalists are among the most casual postmodernizers around, since they can always be counted on for observations like this, from Richard S. Dunham of Business Week: “Still, in politics, perception is reality, and the public remains convinced that Bush is rooted deeply in the political center.” Yes, that’s postmodern lite. Yes, it’s banal. This is my point about casual proponents in the press

Finally, what I like most about the notion of a master narrative is that in some circumstances it provides leverage against intellectual habit in the press. You can use it not only to recognize but to change things, as I tried to do in some of my own work on behalf of public journalism. One way to reform journalism is to find a group of people who do it and want a different master narrative generating the stuff they do.

At the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer, Editor Mike Burbach once undertook a “reorganization” by asking his staff: “What is the master narrative of Columbus?” This was addressed to the local imagination of journalists in his employ. “It’s a fascinating exercise,” Burbach later said. “Some people answer the question from 50,000 feet and some from 5,000 feet, but there are definitely common themes. It’s turned out to be a very useful question.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 8, 2003 2:43 PM   Print


"A master narrative that we find convincing and persuasive differs from other stories in an important way: it swallows us. It is not a play we can see performed, or a painting we can view, or a city we can visit. A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it."

The journalists enjoy living in the stands at the race, but increasing numbers of Americans are repulsed by politics. The narrative may work for journalists but it has failed, deeply repeatedly and tragically, to enage those who are in theory the masters of the competitive market for news -- the citizen customers. I remain involved despite the coverage provided by major outlets, not because of it.

The horse race metaphor assures that the candidate with the most corporate backing andm ost money will receive attention first and foremost. That this formulation fits so very well with those constructing the icentives for journalists (the content conglomerates) is no small matter and worth mentioning.

It serves the journalist, it serves his corporate masters, and it fails democratic civil society. It is unlikely to change.

Posted by: Jean Shaun at September 15, 2003 2:59 PM | Permalink

But it might be replaced.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 16, 2003 2:30 AM | Permalink

What might be replaced? Our way of life? Agreed. It is being replaced as we speak.

The fact that people are not interested in politics is a function of politics. This disinterest is manufactured for the good of the ideologes. Some political science research back about a decade ago discovered that negative ads convinced people not to vote. The Gingrich revolution was not the result of his "Contract with America," but rather an election with low-voter turnout, which granted the election to the ideologues. Ideologues are not going to learn the lesson of cynicism and always vote. But, be clear about the fact that it is a lesson, a curriculum.

Posted by: David Locke at September 18, 2003 10:17 PM | Permalink

I believe the word "Master" in "Master Narrative" is quite telling. It evokes images of colonialism and slavery. Whether one formulates a master narrative, critiques one or denies its existence; whether one applauds the virtues of existing in the postmodern condition, rails against it, or denounces it as a hoax seems to me irrelevant. So long as those in the educated middle class focus their lens on debate rather than direct action, or rather stop at the door of debate and refuse to pass through the unchartered passageway of political and social engagement, they are benefactors of this narrative, i.e., they are masters owing to the fact that they have chosen to spend their time deliberating such abstractions and not entering the trenches. Or as Woody Allen put it, "Those porno movies are really digusting, and they are so poorly lit."

Posted by: Alan Gerstle at October 18, 2003 8:10 PM | Permalink

Does the concept of a “Master Narrative” and the associated “tribal rituals” explain the phenomena in political journalism of unattributable sources on which “the story” seems to thrive but the possibly more significant bit of news on who and why information was leaked is never reported? Will we ever know the who, what, why and where of Novak’s “senior administration officials” or who was Deepthroat?

Why do leaks about leakers never occur?

Posted by: john hooper at October 23, 2003 9:30 AM | Permalink

Some journalists may laugh at postmodern ideas, but all too many don't have a clue as to what they're laughing at.

A group of cognitive linguists have amassed a convincing amount of evidence that we think in stories and metaphor. We have "literary minds." Stepping outside this "story thinking" to evaluate it with any objectivity is extremely difficult. It's like trying ot step outside your brain to watch it work.

Promoting awareness of these "master narrratives" may be one of the best things we can do to inspire fresh thinking in coverage of politics, crime, business and science, to name a few of the beats where master narratives tend to affect the shape of the story.

Posted by: Allan Maurer at October 28, 2003 1:34 PM | Permalink

And I should have previewed that post to take "A group of" out of that "Group of Cognitive linguists have" sentence...

Posted by: Allan Maurer at October 28, 2003 1:35 PM | Permalink

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