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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 10, 2003

Flagship Turns : A Public Editor At the Times of New York

The ombudsman is here because the doctrine against it collapsed. But pride says the Times cannot copy the Post. What's Bill Keller to do?

The argument for why an ombudsman would never be needed at the New York Times went like this. Every editor should represent the interests of the reader. That’s what good editors do. No ombudsman.

Before you start poking at the logic, appreciate how long it stood and how well it served the authority of the Times. First ombudsman is 1967, Louisville Courier Journal. Thirty six years later, the New York Times agrees: maybe it’s a good idea. During those years, the paper prospered and its influence grew. Today it is the proud flagship of American journalism, and probably the strongest news franchise in the world. So they did alright editing the Times without an ombudsman.

It was the considered view of successive regimes that no one can represent the New York Times reader better than a New York Times editor. This includes the ombudsman who would waltz in and represent readers already well represented. But also: it is editors who should deal with serious complaints when their judgment goes awry, not some hired hand. No ombudsman.

This was elegant pressthink.

It also had a point to make about the key relationship in journalism: between editor and reporter. When that human transaction works, and the story gets sharper, it’s because the editor excelled at reading what the reporter wrote. (Reading with the Times Reader in mind.) In this sense, the editor is an ideal reader, representing the Times brand as it were, and by trying to please your editor you’re contributing to an ideal, what the Times would justifiably call its standards. Readers come to the Times for those standards. So this is not a trivial issue, who represents “the reader,” and when it gets done.

Yet the Times way of doing it solves some key problems in the simplest way possible: definition. By definition an ombudsman is the reader’s representative. By definition a good editor already does that. By definition the Times picks good editors. By definition no ombudsman needed. And by picking good editors, the editors reproduce themselves, so the argument was guaranteed into the future, as it were. (This can happen with problems solved by definition.) Only shocking evidence could have disturbed this system, enough to show that the editors’ oversight systematically failed— failed by definition, we might say.

Jason Blair provided only some of that. The Siegal committee confirmed it and elaborated, going well beyond Blair’s misdeeds to expose dubious practices that were allowed to become routine at the Times. This month, I wrote in CJR about the “toe touch,” leading to a phony out-of-town dateline. There were also deceptive bylines. Too many unnamed sources were allowed too much room, said the Siegal committee. These tricks may have “worked” for busy Times journalists, but it was impossible to say they served the interests of readers. More disturbing than Blair’s rogue behavior, which is hard to prevent, were small acts of deception that had become standard procedure.

Strangely, key editors were following different rules governing proper use of confidential sources. But no one could say where the rules came from. It turned out they didn’t exist. There was no codified Times policy, just the claim to be following one. It was the paper’s own standards maven, assistant managing editor Al Siegal, who presented these conclusions in his 58-page report. And that’s what toppled the edifice after 36 years. By the time the Siegal report was released everyone expected the paper to relent on the ombudsman. In July the official word came. The experimental position of “public editor” would be created by new boss Bill Keller, after Siegal and company recommended it.

Now the action (intellectually speaking) turns to how the position should operate. Geneva Overholser, former ombudsman at the Washington Post, former editor of the Des Moines Register, and a former Times-woman herself, argues for a Washington Post-style system, which has extra insulation. The ombudsman is an independent in-house critic, hired on a contract basis to eliminate salary negotiations. She does not report to the editor. She is given ready access to the publisher. She has a regular column in a visible place and she is guaranteed space when events warrant.

The Times has staked out a different position. The public editor will be hired for one year as an experiment, then evaluated. “A bad beginning,” Overholser says. There will be no regular column, but he can write for the Times whenever there’s a felt need. Overholser: “The ombudsman should write weekly (more if events call for it).” The public editor will report to Keller, who can hire and fire. Overholser disagrees: “A strong ombudsman (and they need all the strengthening they can get) is an independent contractor with no formal reporting relationship.” Critique of the press from inside is no picnic, she adds. “Journalists… don’t have thin skins, they have NO skins. If the Times wants its new ombudsmanship to amount to a hill of beans, it needs to amend the details before it begins.” Overholser’s experience makes this warning hard to discount.

Bill Keller, who will be hiring the first public editor, wrote her a revealing reply: “I don’t know that having a hard-writing ombudsman has significantly enhanced the Post’s credibility or accountability,” said Keller. “Maybe it has, but I’m hesitant to leap from my admiration for you and Michael Getler to the conclusion that the Post’s is the only right way to do this. Call it an occupational hazard, but I’m usually skeptical of assumptions that have so little reporting to back them up. I’d like to see for myself.” Thus, the one year trial period.

What really guarantees independence? Is it legal insulation from the politics of the newsroom, or does the politics itself offer protection? “I can render a tenured, ‘independent’ ombudsman’ ineffective simply by ignoring the advice, and who will really notice?” Keller wrote. “But if I fire my supposedly less independent ombudsman, I’m inviting a whale of a scandal.” Indeed. A contract grants independence; but the position also requires less tangible things like power, influence, gravitas. When the public editor has the clear support of the boss, (who could get rid of him but hasn’t) this “blessing carries some weight in a newsroom.” Keller’s theory: real power flows from moi, and who can say that he’s wrong? “Isn’t it possible that having a public editor who is appointed by me and has ready access to me may confer a greater ability to change our culture, to get us to live up to our own responsibilities to readers?” Yes, Bill Keller, possible. And I am glad you said change the culture. I wonder: will that change the news?

Three themes stand out for me:

1.) No one can understand this exchange without knowing that by definition, written in the minds of the people who run it, the New York Times does not sign on to innovations in journalism pioneered by others. Especially when they involve the Washington Post. So Keller says show me the evidence this thing even works. The Times pioneers when it is good and ready. (Like the op ed page introduced to journalism in 1970, according to local legend.) The rest of the press follows, if the rest of the press can. The Times does not do innovation under outside pressure. The likelihood of doing it the way the Post showed it should be done was, I think, zero at the start. The Times is hiring a “public editor,” not an ombudsman. The name change is a point of pride. Small maybe, but not necessarily a bad or petty thing. Rivalries at the high end are often good for journalism.

2.) But here we come upon an overlooked argument for why the Times should have made the decision long ago. By declining to develop an ombudsman, (the right way, the High Church’s more serious way, the we-have-the-smartest-people way) the editors deprived other journalists around America of their leading example. Now was this wise? Times-like? Understand the natural order of things in a New York Times universe. There’s the Sunday Book Review, the biggest and most influential, and then its thinner derivatives at the Post, and Los Angeles Times, down to the book page at the midwestern daily. That’s the flagship leading the fleet. From this angle, (institutional pride) it’s just unfortunate for the Times, for the public—and for journalism—that the newspaper didn’t claim a leadership position in testing and developing the public editor position from 1970 forward. We might be further along by now in press accountability if Times-pride—and all that talent—had gone into it. That course would have been equally Times-like. Alas, it contradicted pressthink within a particular priesthood. The original decision, Ombudsman Not Needed, was doctrinal, not empirical. Doctrine held for 36 years, then it blew up in 2003. Now it’s time for some hard evidence before we decide.

3.) The collegial argument between Post and Times suggests to me that the ghost of Watergate is in the house. More so at the Post, which makes sense. Back then, the natural order of things was reversed. The flagship of the press was parked in Washington and Ben Bradlee ran it for a while. The dramatic high point of the Nixon saga, as narrated by Big Jounalism, is the Saturday Night Massacre. The Attorney General, who has an ombudsman-like role in the government, is fired by Nixon in a classic abuse of political power. This is exactlly what the Post-style ombudsman is designed to prevent: a Saturday Night Massacre. The Post has been saying: learn the lesson of Elliot Richardson… fired. Keller of the Times is saying: look what happened to Nixon from that moment on… finished. These are two views of accountability, of newsroom politics, of Nixon, and of what happened on a dark Saturday night in the capital long ago.

If the New York Times says the public editor is only an experiment, that’s fine with me. I like experiments. And I hope Keller will report back to us in a year with his results. But it would have been an equally fine experiment in 1970.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 10, 2003 1:17 AM   Print

From the Intro