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Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

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

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

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

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

Read: Q & As

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

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

Audio: Have a Listen

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

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

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

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

Video: Have A Look

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

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

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

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

Recommended by PressThink:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Blogs

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

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

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

Digests & Round-ups:

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

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

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

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

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

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

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September 28, 2003

Unbuilding at Ground Zero and Rebuilding in Iraq

Americans are known by their distinctive method for tackling practical probems. The U.S. military is full of Americans. Is there a story there?

In a previous post, I said that “too negative” is not the right criticism to make of press coverage coming out of Iraq. Nor is “give us the good news” a wise demand. Here are my reasons. But for a critic, it’s not good enough to take a common complaint and knock it. One ought to suggest something better.

Among the outstanding works of journalism completed since September 11th is William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. It is unfortunate that a few disputed lines about firemen stealing jeans (the NYFD says it never happened) have overwhelmed other discussion of the book. Langewiesche, a writer for the Atlantic, gained access to Ground Zero from shortly after the attacks until the wreckage was cleared away. Every day he went to watch the World Trade Center get “unbuilt,” a staggering feat of engineering and skilled labor that took half the time expected to clear away 1.5 million tons of debris under the shadow of 3,000 deaths.

On the surface, American Ground is about “how they did it.” They are the construction workers, truck drivers, engineers, firemen and public officials who, “shaking off their disbelief,” began the unbuilding and carting away. “For thirty years the Trade Centers had stood above the streets as all tall buildings do, as a bomb of sorts, a repository for the prodigious energy originally required to raise so much weight so high,” Langewiesche writes. “Now, in a single morning, in twin ten-second pulses, the towers released that energy back into the city.”

The workers at ground zero felt a strange attraction to the site. Most could not stay away; they had a job to do. (Unlike the rest of us, whose job in the aftermath of the attacks was unclear, where it remains today despite the language of war.) Langewiesche tells you how they did it. But his big theme is how Americans do things when faced with a novel emergency. About the workers:

Their success is in the midst of chaos was an odd twist in the story of these monolithic buildings that… had stood so visibly for the totalitarian ideals of planning and control. But the buildings were not buildings anymore, and the place where they had fell had become a blank slate for the United States. Among the ruins now, an unscripted experiment in American life had gotten under way.

On a speaking trip to The Netherlands two years ago, I noticed that every time I used the word “experiment,” my Dutch hosts would give me a blank look or reach for their beer. So I finally asked some Amsterdam friends about it. The Dutch think that if you start an experiment it means you don’t know what you’re doing, one of them said. The most likely outcome is to make things worse. “Oh,” I replied, “well, Americans have a different attitude.” “We know,” said my hosts, in unison and now laughing. Here’s Langewiesche:

What does a chaos of 1.5 million tons really mean? What does it even look like? The scene up close was so large that no one really knew. In other countries clear answers would have been sought before action was taken. Learned committees would have been formed, and high authorities consulted. The ruins would have been pondered, and a tightly scripted response would have been imposed. Barring that, soldiers would have assumed control. But for whatever reasons, probably cultural, probably profound, little of the sort happened here, where the learned committees were excluded, and the soliders were relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and the civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown.

On bumper stickers, it’s LEAD, FOLLOW OR GET OUT OF THE WAY. In philosophy it’s called pragmatism. On the best seller lists it’s Let’s Roll. A cliched term for it is the “can do” attitude, or “Yankee ingenuity.” But it’s more than that; it’s democratic.

The “boss” at ground zero was an obscure city agency, the Department of Design and Construction— but not because any statute or tradition or hierachy or executive said so. DDC had the people who knew how to bring together all the trades and experts and laborers and machines that would be required, so everyone kind of agreed that those people should be in charge— but not because they had a plan and knew what to do. As Langewieshce noted, “no one really knew.”

Solutions would have to come from everywhere. Everyone would have to make decisions within his sphere of competence, rather than checking with the authorites, who were too few, too busy and probably unable to help. Enormous commitment was of course required, backbreaking work amid emotional horror. But we’ve heard about that. Langewiesche shows that enormous flexibility was also required, which is a kind of social intelligence. On a job so huge, it’s impossible to be flexible by yourself. The subtitle of American Ground could have been a book of practical virtues.

The citizens who labored at Ground Zero are not that different from the citizens serving in the military occupation of Iraq. There is a lot that joins the two sites: the complexity and scale of destruction, the absence of any script, the fact that no one knows how to do nation-building in the Middle East, the many situations where problems have to be solved on the spot and without clearence from above, the living atmosphere of death. And of course the war that began with the Towers’ destruction has somehow landed on Iraqi soil. The vision that motivates the troops is of the same ruins that were cleared away by the hard hats and engineers.

Journalists are suppposed to tell us what’s happening in places we are not. American journalists in Iraq, overseen by their editors back home, have every right to inform us about killings and setbacks and sabotage and how there’s not enough money or goodwill. But they might also investigate where, when, whether the virtues Langewiesche describes so well at Ground Zero are making a difference on the ground in Iraq. And if they aren’t, what’s happened to them?

That’s a story about the American way, but to find it you have to “see” this way as ours, as Langewiesche—a superb journalist with superior access—did. There’s no script for what’s happening in Iraq; there was none for Ground Zero. “Did Bush and Rumsfeld have an adequate plan?” is good for point-scoring; but it’s a naive expectation for action and upheaval on this scale. I expect Americans to be good at problem-solving when there is no plan, when the bosses don’t know what to do, or aren’t around, when only an unscripted experiment can work.

So one thing I want to know from the press is: how have these virtues figured in the struggle to rebuild Iraq? That isn’t a negative story or a positive story; it’s just an interesting one… and “probably profound.” It’s not that there haven’t been such reports; there have. (See this, for example.) But in the master narrative for post-war Iraq, problem-solving could have a larger place, which might address some of the concerns about “negative” news. Final thought is from Langewiesche, from his afterword to the paperback edition.

In American Ground the idea was to catch a glimpse of America itself, or a certain slice of it at a certain time—unruly, unscripted, and in action. In the mix lay the bad and the good, but the book turned out to hopeful—even celebratory—all the more so because it wasn’t trying to be.

See also in PressThink: Rapidly Improving Iraq vs. Overly Gloomy Press

Here is a column by John Leo of US News arguing that Internet discussion of press performance is forcing the issue into the national press. Leo sees weblogs as a corrective, allowing other sides of the story to come out.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 28, 2003 12:41 AM   Print


The construction workers and the soldiers have another thing in common.

Few modern reporters have ever done either job.
There is a class difference between those who work with their hands and too many who write with little practical experience in the "real" world.

Scientists are trained to discard theories when experiments don't fit the data. Doctors have to test their initial impressions and change treatment when things don't work. Engineers, construction workers and fork lift drivers all know that theory is nice, but you have to take reality into consideration if the job is to be done.

Perhaps that is why DOCTOR Bob Arnott is more honest in his reporting than the average reporter spouting the bad news because they find it easier than to dig for facts that might go against their preconceived notions.

Posted by: nancy reyes. at September 28, 2003 11:43 PM | Permalink

From the article:

On a speaking trip to The Netherlands two years ago, I noticed that every time I used the work “experiment,” my Dutch hosts would give me a blank look or reach for their beer. So I finally asked some Amsterdam friends about it. The Dutch think that if you start an experiment it means you don’t know what you’re doing, one of them said. The most likely outcome is to make things worse.

This could explain a lot about the state of Dutch science. If they don't even understand what an experiment is, how can they expect to do science? Perhaps they prefer to depend upon "revealed truth" (probably revealed by someone who actually does experiments).

Posted by: Larry J at September 29, 2003 9:47 AM | Permalink

With regard to the Northern European respect for trial and error, I spent two years in Germany, 85-86. I was quite interested in this phenomenon. A few examples: when a German's badge wouldn't work at the checkout gate, they would line up till it was fixed; an American would come along and try again; it would work and all would then leave. The same thing happened with the coke machines. The Germans would work months to prepare a company operating plan, and work the plan. The Americans would develop more of a scheme than a plan, recognizing that they would have to change during the operating period. The Germans were amazed at how the Americans could so easily jettison the plan for a new plan. There were negative examples as well on highway courtesy. I think the point made in the article probably is most significant to realizing they really may be more of a different culture than we think.

Posted by: Tom Apple at September 29, 2003 12:15 PM | Permalink

Nancy... do you think journalists operate from "theory?" (Interesting idea). If so, what theory is it?

Larry: The Dutch are not against experiment in the field of science. They are some of the world's great civil engineers, so they know trial and error. But they do not, my source was saying, like social experiments, and don't take that approach to most problems on the ground.

Tom: More of a scheme than a plan is a nice distinction.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 29, 2003 7:09 PM | Permalink

Interesting stuff, and interesting comment from Tom Apple about culture differences in business.

BUT, I'm concerned that as the role of higher education in our society continues to increase--and it has already become more of a magical fetish than anything rationally defendable--we will lose much of that spirit. There are lots of people in business now who are more concerned about applying what they learned in college than in understanding what's really happening on the ground. ("When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.") Usually, there are enough old-style pragmatists around to limit the damage, but not always.

Posted by: David Foster at October 4, 2003 12:58 PM | Permalink

From the Intro