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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 22, 2003

Spokesman for Press Priesthood Laughs

Jack Shafer of Slate says public journalism bombed. Here's what I say back to him.

Jack Shafer, who writes the PressBox column for Slate, was for ten years the editor of Washington City Paper, the alternative weekly in DC. This is an extremely good vantage point on big time journalism, for Shafer had to succeed every week at being in some way “alternative” to the Washington Post and the rest of the national press corps gathered in the Capital.

One of the simplest ways of proving this is to report heavily on the goings on at the Post, especially in times of agony, strife or high gossip. A weekly in Washington that does real journalism in between the ads competes on some stories with the big guns in the daily press, and all the bureaus. It’s hard to imagine a better education—or acculturation—in press think at the top than Shafer’s ten years as editor of City Paper. They gave him intimate knowledge of how elite journalism works and they required him to think in alternatives.

But one alternative he cannot stand is the one I have actively stood for: public journalism, also known as civic journalism, also known as failed idea, well funded in Shafer’s corner of Slate. Just so you have it clear, Shafer didn’t like my book about the public journalism movement, Shafer didn’t care much for James Fallows writing favorably about it in the conclusion to Breaking the News, (a book that is very critical of elite journalism, from the Washington editor of the Atlantic) and Shafer wants to make sure that people know how insidious and stupid the whole thing is.

He is especially wary of public journalism’s central claim, which is to him preposterous and vain. Here is how I would put it:

People ought to participate more in American democracy, and if journalists wanted to help, they could probably find better ways to engage us as citizens with a stake in what happens. They might also realize their own contribution to public frustration, and change some of their more careless practices. This in turn might be good for us, good for them, good for things overall. After all, everyone knows that the press is not just a source of information but a force of its own in public life, a player in our democracy.

The public journalism movement was several thousand professionals who said “yeah” to that. No matter what anyone tells you—especially Jack Shafer—these four sentences are the heart of it. Lots of things bother him about the argument above, but a key to his frustration is that people bought into this nonsense. He has special scorn for the foundations and nonprofit institutes that sheltered and funded public journalism. This paragraph (posted Friday at Slate) gives summary to Shafer’s view, but more important is the tone:

The journalistic priesthood abhors advice, but it reserves special scorn for those who would counsel them to rejigger coverage in a way to “improve” society. This do-gooder school of journalism, which answered to the names of “public journalism” and “civic journalism” in the ’90s, received funding and promotion from the moneybags at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Poynter Institute, spawned laudatory books by James Fallows (Breaking the News) and Jay Rosen (What Are Journalists For?), and picked up a few adherents at the dailies in Wichita, Kan.; Charlotte, Va.; and Norfolk, Va.; before groaning to a halt under the weight of its own pretension.

Through the weekend and into Monday, Shafer had Charlotte’s state wrong. It’s in North Carolina; Charlottesville is the one in Virginia. This is a trivial error, (since corrected) except that Shafer’s point in naming towns is to show how provincial and third rate the journalism must be there. More telling is how it counts against public journalism that the do-gooding “moneybags” at Pew and Poynter supported some of the costs of the experiment. Now since Shafer’s salary is paid by Microsoft, world’s most powerful corporation, it would seem that supporters of public journalism might at least win a draw in the “who’s more polluted by funding” contest. His purpose in mentioning foundation support is to explain how the idea got as far as it did in the mainstream press: the do-gooders poured money into it. But since Pew is no longer funding its Center for Civic Journalism, why worry?

One reason might be James Fallows—alleged banner waver for the movement —who isn’t a provincial or a professor, isn’t funded by Pew, isn’t known for being especially soft headed and sentimental, and isn’t so easily dismissed. Fallows has a professional reputation that is at least equal to Jack Shafer’s, and he is a Slate author. I’m not surprised that Shafer doesn’t link to or mention Fallows amusing piece in Slate from December, 2001 in which he proposed nominating Howell Raines for a civic journalism award because so much of what the New York Times did in the aftermath of 09/11 tracked closely with the movement’s logic:

Last month I asked a Times-man about the reason for the tone of the portraits, and he said it was to “give solace to the families.” Conceivably that’s what the Times tells itself—although in itself that’s a departure from past policy on obituaries. But the real significance of this series is clearly to give solace to a community—not simply the community of New York or those who knew the victims personally but the entire national community for which the remembrances have become a powerful sacrament. Why should a newspaper bother to give solace to anyone? Because it has stopped kidding itself about its ability to remain detached from and objective about public life. It is trying to help its city and its nation, and it is succeeding. The Times of this era will always be known for this coverage, especially for the portraits. They will be the monuments to the greatest public journalist of them all, Howell Raines.

Many journalists have stopped kidding themselves about their ability to remain completely detached. But this thought is rarely developed because it might lead to asking: what kind of attachment to the republic—or local community—should journalists be developing today, given everything going on around them? Existing press think does not cover this ground, which is more important than ever. You can call the press a player, but what you cannot do is ask: what’s it playing for? Fallows tried to sketch a few ideas, and that is why he was attacked by Howell Raines in 1996 and ignored by Jack Shafer Friday.

Shafer’s immediate purpose in ridiculing the public journalism “crusade” is to associate it with another “horrible idea”—columnist Matt Miller’s “two-percent solution” for America’s domestic problems, which Miller has bravely put into a book of that title. Solutions journalism—what a joke! Shafer reminds us that journalists aren’t “catalysts of change, social engineers, or builders of political cadre.” He speaks up for readers who “tend to cringe if preached to from a pulpit, no matter how well-meaning the sermon might be.” Journalists hate it, readers hate it, PressBox hates it, and so public journalism “bombed,” he says. “But never underestimate the power of a bad idea.”

Where could this power possibly originate? Perhaps it has something to do with the insularity of a journalistic priesthood that hates getting advice, shows scorn for those who would try reform the church, and can’t remember what state the hicks in Charlotte are from.

See Art Cline’s carefully-written Rhetorica for more on Shafer’s column.

Correction Box: I had earlier written: “(Also, Shafer has his facts wrong about Poynter, which never funded or promoted public journalism.)” But this was incorrect. In 1994, there was an NPR project in which Pew and Poynter collaborated. What I should have said is that Poynter was not a major institutional supporter of public journalism. Thanks to Straci Kramer of OJR for correcting the record.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 22, 2003 10:02 AM   Print


I don't read Slate often and I've never read Jack Shafer, so I was glad to see your rebuttal here. Based on what you quoted from him, I'd say that Shafer completely misses his target. Public journalism, "Breaking the News" and "What are Journalists For?" are about an alternate way of viewing the purpose of journalism. In short, its an idea -- and ideas don't really die. Instead, they contribute to the debate.

I'm a former reporter and editor, longtime college journalism teacher and I'm here to testify, brothers and sisters, that public journalism's re-thinking is the most energizing idea in journalism in many a year. I can tell you that students who passionately love journalism are typically repulsed by the soul-deading reality of most corporate journalism.

When I expose those same students to Rosen's writings, well, there's a transformation. We can, in fact, see this transformation first-hand. It's called blogging, which is nothing less than public journalism on a vast, egalitarian scale: citizens trying to engage other citizens through unmediated writing.

Posted by: Roger Karraker at September 22, 2003 3:51 PM | Permalink

Damn -- I mistyped the URL for my new address and new blog in the above post. This one should read correctly (I hope). If not, my email is

and the blog is at

Posted by: Roger Karraker at September 22, 2003 3:55 PM | Permalink

Well unlike Roger Karraker I did read Shafer's piece and I feel Rosen in anger at someone having a different point of view has misinterpreted Shafer's piece. I didn't get the feeling he was "ridiculing hicks" in Charlotte for example... it just seemed to me to be a list of areas where public journalism had been tried. What are the words that ridicule those areas or characterise people there as hicks? Rosen doesn't quote them because they don't exist.

Actually while it's clear that Shafer isn't sympathetic to public journalism, I felt the piece was more about the problems of convincing journalists who are as he says more interested in being first and beating the competition. Shafer doesn't praise this as a motive either... he's just stating what seems to me to be true. I suspect Rosen might even agree.

And let's just remember that most journalism is deeply attached to a community. Perhaps Rosen should go and stay in a place like Charlotte for a while and see what the local paper and local TV channel and radio station cover... might it just be stories about the local community? Especially for papers, news is becoming more and more local...

You can be attached to a community and reflect that community without preaching or pretending you have all the answers...

And finally on Karraker's praise of blogs... how informed can his blog be if he is prepared to sound off on Shafer without even reading him? My impression of blogs is that most are written for the satisafction of the author alone, rather than to "engage other citizens".

Posted by: Dean Bedford at September 22, 2003 5:43 PM | Permalink

>>(Also, Shafer has his facts wrong about Poynter, which never funded or promoted public journalism.)

Jay --

Poynter teamed up with NPR, which was funded in large part by The Pew Charitable Trusts, for the 1994 election project. I wrote about their cross-media efforts "to bring citizens back into the political process" in Civic Journalism: Six Case Studies. [ ] The joint report by The Pew Center for Civic Journalism and The Poynter Institute for Media Studies was funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and Poynter. It had two editors -- Jan Schaffer from Pew and Edward Miller from Poynter -- and one reporter intrigued by the chance to get beyond the hyperbole from proponents and opponents of public/civic journalism.

Staci D. Kramer
senior editor, OJR

Posted by: Staci D. Kramer at September 22, 2003 6:40 PM | Permalink

Hello Dean Bedford: thanks for your comments. I agree completely--and so do public journalists I know--that "you can be attached to a community and reflect that community without preaching or pretending you have all the answers." Shafer sums up public journalism as "preaching" because he hates what it preaches to journalists. Who wouldn't hate journalists who pretend to have all the answers? The question is: where are those journalists to be found? If I'm a political editor at the Daily Post and I ask you, Dan Bedford, as citizen in a free country, what you want your local elected officials to be discussing in the next election, and I take your answers seriously, using them to guide the nwes coverage and commentary I offer you and your fellow citizens (not the *only* guide, but a vital one)... would that be "preaching" or listening to the public? This simple idea--wow: a citizen's agenda--was the beginning of the public journalism movement, and it does a pretty good job of summing it up still. Does it have any resemblance to what Jack Shafter described?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 22, 2003 7:09 PM | Permalink

Stacy: You're right. I had forgotten about that 1994 project. I will write something for the front correcting that. Thanks.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 22, 2003 7:18 PM | Permalink

It seems that the premise behind "public journalism" is that journalists are better informed about factual and normative social and political issues than others. It is from this vantage point of superior information that journalists guide citizens toward the "good society".

Leaving aside the obvious point that facts are underdetermined by values, the assumption is false: journalists are no better judges of large social or political issues than anyone else. Frequently, in fact, they are poor judges (Cf. Durante and starvation in the USSR). The failure of reporting in Iraq has made this painfully clear. Bias and naked dishonesty caused journalists to slant or falsify stories in hopes of turning citizens towards a desired belief set (usually anti-war). Purposive misquoting, false reporting, poorly concealed editorializing were frequently employed in this project.

The result was journalistic corruption, laziness and incompetence, as noted by John Burns. Instead of informing the public about the atrocities of the Iraqi regime under Saddam - information crucial to public debate about the war - journalists bought access from Saddam; they exchanged their journalistic integrity and further Iraqi slavery for ratings and a politically desirable anti-war message.

Incredibly, journalists assume that citizens are too foolish to notice these ploys. We're not; and new media (particularly, blogs) is allowing us to create a discourse free of, or at least less susceptible to, these deceptions.

If, as a result of this shameful conduct, old media journalists come to be reviled and ignored by the public, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Toronto, Ontario

Posted by: Mark at September 23, 2003 12:25 PM | Permalink

In my view, the debate about whether public/civic journalism is good or evil is SO OVER. The good work done by people in that movement has forever changed the way journalists do their work — for the better — whether or not a given journalist publicly chooses to encumber him/herself with title of "public" or "civic" journalist.

As a result, it amazes me that people continue to dig up that dead horse so they can beat it (like Allan Wolper did a laughably misinformed piece in Editor & Publisher). But Shafer goes Wolper one better: First he beats the horse, then he drags it over and hitches it to Matt Miller's cart of prescriptions for solving society's ills, apparently because Miller had a misguided, impractical suggestion for newspapers. Then he beats the horse again.

I don't know Matt Miller. I don't know if he considers himself to be among the public/civic journalism faithful (I am). And I don't know if he's spent much time in newsrooms. But he asserts that news organizations give insufficient coverage to ongoing social problems and suggests that newspapers start running a strip across the bottom of the front page called "Still True," with statistics about such things as how many people lack health insurance or live in poverty.

The assertion is not the problem. News organizations DON'T cover social problems adequately in the crush of daily production demands that are much easier to satisfy with titillating stories about the latest bout between Arianna and Aw-nold.

The problem lies with the naivete behind Miller's suggestion as to how that problem should be addressed. Shafer says Miller's proposal to run statistics about those ongoing problems in bottom-of-the-page info strips is too preachy, and I would agree. But in addition, it is impractical. It would require lots of research and design time, and it would be difficult to sustain without dissecting social ills into a succession of increasingly atomized statistics that mean nothing without context. I also smiled, affectionately, when I read Miller's comment: "The art department could make sure this recurring feature was fun and lively." Whew! Fun and lively poverty statistics! Imagine that!

To me, Miller's "Still True" proposal is like many naive ideas proposed by well-meaning people who have little or no experience in newspapers. (If you talk to citizens about journalism, you hear ideas like that all the time.)

But even Shafer might consider it bad form to get on his high horse about a non-journalist offering journalists a misguided, impractical suggestion, with all good intentions. So he found a horse of another kind and I say ... go to town! Have at it!

At the risk of testing some people's patience with the analogy, the debate about public/civic journalism is a horse that served journalism well and honorably, taking us into important new intellectual territory. But I know how hard it is for some people to accept that a good ride is over. And the bottom line is that, when Shafer and Wolper and all the other anti-public-journalism faithful finally wear themselves out, that horse will still be dead.

Posted by: Cheryl Gibbs at October 1, 2003 7:56 AM | Permalink

From the Intro