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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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November 11, 2003

We Just Don't Think About It: The Strange Press Mind of Leonard Downie

Columnist Matthew Miller tried to ask Len Downie about the latent politics of news judgment. But the editor of the Washington Post won't go there: "We are not allowing ourselves to think politically."

The current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review offers a treat for fans of the minimalist style in press thought. That great know-nothing Leonard Downie, Jr., editor of the Washington Post, is questioned on a subject he is proud and determined to know nothing at all about— the politics of news judgment. Or, as Matthew Miller puts it, “the press’s exercise of discretionary agenda-setting power via original reporting.”

What he means by this phrase is not hard to grasp. Indeed, for most of us it is rather like common sense. The press, Miller is saying, has a lot of discretion in what it chooses to highlight and report. The choices journalists make have consequences in the real world—including the world of politics—because what is prominent in the news naturally becomes material for public discussion. This in turn is likely to weigh on the minds of politicians and other influential people who pay especially close attention to the news. So there’s a kind of politics in news judgment, but anyone who knows journalism knows it is not as simple as consulting an ideological agenda.

Miller writes a syndicated column about pubic policy with a “raging moderate” outlook, hosts a radio show in Los Angeles, and used to work in the Clinton White House. He wanted to know what Leonard Downie thought about the latent politics inherent in daily journalism.

I believe that the stenographic norms of journalism mean that influential news outlets largely cede an agenda-setting role to public officials, a practice that leaves debate impoverished at times when neither political party finds it convenient to address major problems. Is there a way to change this dynamic? And can such efforts be squared with traditional values that govern the responsible exercise of the press’s power?

So here’s some of what happened:

  • Downie says: “But it is not our role to tell the politicians what it is they’re supposed to discuss during a campaign.” Miller asks him: why not? “Because it’s not our role.” (Clever, huh?) Journalists just provide information— a key word, in fact a holy word for Downie.
  • Miller: But how do you decide which issues get front page treatment? (Here he is politely saying to Downie that “we provide information” is a pathetic dodge because it says nothing about how decisions are made in the many situations where journalists have wide discretion.) Downie’s answer about how issues make it to the front page: “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”
  • Miller: “If reluctant or accidental agenda setters are destined to be agenda setters nonetheless, what is the framework through which you think about how to exercise that power responsibly. Is that a fair question?’” Here Miller had something subtle in mind. If an editor like Downie knows that what he treats in a sustained fashion is going to influence the public agenda, (even if that is not the intention) then a thoughtful and ethical person would at least think about the proper use of that power. But what framework might be right for this act of thinking? Amazingly, Downie agrees: it’s a fair question you ask, Matt. He then proceeds to dodge it. “What I don’t want to do is what Louis Seltzer at the Cleveland Press did,” Downie says. It seems that when he was growing up in Cleveland, Seltzer, the editor, decided that a man was guilty of killing his wife and used his newspaper to convince the entire community. Of course, the Cleveland Press example is advocacy pure and simple, crusading on the front page for a conviction. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand, and not even close to what Miller asked about. If a cabinet secretary gave that kind of answer at a press conference and the Post reporter didn’t challenge it, Downie might say: what is wrong with you?
  • “We should not be thinking in terms of setting a public-policy agenda, we should be thinking in terms of setting an informational agenda,” Downie says. He seems to believe that this term, “information agenda,” illuminates decision-making at the Post. But I think the reason it appeals to him is that it reveals nothing— zippo. Hey, editors, why is this information deemed important by your newspaper, when other information is left out? “We think it’s important informationally, that’s why.” Oh… Well, could I have a follow up, then?
  • Miller follows up: “”But the size of the box of things that are ‘informationally important’ is quite large… You—like anybody who has to budget resources and time and talent and energy and space—have to decide what subset of that box you’re going to pursue. How do you decide?” In reply to this—the fourth time the same question was asked—Downie actually denies that he sets any news agenda for the Post. “It’s an organic process of responding to the information we’re finding, and responding to events in society.”
  • Miller gives it one more try. “Should the news side of an organization like yours have a perspective on what are the most important challenges facing the country?” Downie says: no way. By now you know his reason: “We should have a perspective on what the important informational needs of the country are, and fill those needs.” But how is that any different? Miller asks. “It’s different because ‘challenges’ is subjective,” says Downie. (Whereas determining the most important informational needs of Americans is like consulting census data, or a chart showing the ocean tides. Right?)
  • There are roughly 44 million Americans without health insurance. Miller wanted to know if newspapers like the Post might contribute something to public understanding with a feature called, “Still True Today.” It would be a small front-page reminder of key facts that don’t necessarily make the news, even though they remain important. Doable, Len? Nope. That would be editorializing—choosing which facts to highlight—and, sorry, we just don’t do that.
  • Downie says that the Post has probably printed the 44 million figure fifty times in the last year. So Miller goes back and checks, giving Downie not twelve months but twenty. Turns out the 44 million appeared ten times in the Post during that period, and never on the front page. Meanwhile, “the Chandra Levy story was discussed in 199 pieces in the Post, including fourteen front-page pieces.” I guess Chandra’s fate was important— informationally speaking.

Downie is a well liked man, highly respected at the Washington Post. He believes fiercely in protecting serious journalism from assault, and wrote a pretty good book (with Robert Kaiser) about it. I don’t know if reporters and editors at the Post are embarrassed by his know-nothing, say-nothing, stonewalling intellectual style when discussing the nature of news judgment. But I do know that others have noticed it. Here’s Jack Shafer of Slate complaining about a question-and-answer session between Downie and Post readers:

If Leonard Downie Jr. loses his day job as executive editor of the Washington Post, he should send his résumé to the Pentagon and demand work as a press briefer. He’s better than top flack Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem at returning softball answers to hardball questions, if the 5,000-word online chat he conducted yesterday on is any indication. Downie… prefers to serve giant bowls of mush to the sharpest queries, killing questioners’ appetite to ask more. He politely deflects criticisms of the Post, gives boilerplate responses to complicated questions, or claims that the Post just happens to be doing a great job covering whatever the questioner complained about.

Back of all the Downie doubletalk about “information agendas” and “organic” news decisions is a matter more serious: Leonard Downie’s quest for absolute innocence when it comes to having a political thought or two about journalism. He achieves this innocence by receiving all questions about the inherently political nature of the press as crude demands to politicize the press. (For more on this distinction, click here.) When he does this, he treats his questioners as stupid, or unworthy of respect. But innocence at such an extreme is really a kind of power; and this, I think, is what Downie is saying to us with his bowls of mush: I have the power to say nothing of consequence about decisions of consequence. And the truth is… he does.

Matthew Miller’s book, The Two Percent Solution, is explained here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 11, 2003 12:58 AM   Print


Actually, Downie is right, Matthew Miller and you amazingly wrong.

And here's why: the hope that Downie, or Howell Raines, or Miller, or you, will manufacture an information product that will pass whatever "agenda-setting" muster you or I or anybody else has in mind for it--that will be necessary and sufficient unto the task of "setting the agenda"--is utopian, sophomoric, and self-absorbed. Because, of course, Downie and the Post already set the agenda they wish to set while denying doing so. As did Raines, as does Miller, as does every "news source" out there.

Is 40,000,000 uninsured something that ought to be on the front pages 50 times? Or 10 times? Is it even true? If it is, of the 40,000,000, how many suffer for it each year? Clearly, for Miller, it is not important because it is important; it is important because political behavior should change because there are 40,000,000 uninsured.

This is exactly the problem with the "news."
A thousand sophomoric, self-absorbed reporters and editors, like a thousand monkeys, will get enough information out to satisfy the needs of the public. Which is the point to blogs, etc.

Posted by: John Mendenhall at November 11, 2003 12:01 PM | Permalink

I thought the Downie/Kaiser book was terrible.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 11, 2003 1:08 PM | Permalink

I can't follow John Mendenhall's point. Here's what I think Jay Rosen and Matthew Miller are trying to say: the press, by its very nature, makes choices about what to report and how to report it. The circular answers that Len Downie gives are disingenuous and condescending as he tries (unsuccessfully) to claim that the Post doesn't make any choices about what to report. Any media organization does what Downie tries to claim the Post doesn't do, and it is fair and correct to call him on that.

Posted by: Matthew Morse at November 11, 2003 1:38 PM | Permalink

From a newbie-renegade-ex-daily-journlist:

Very valuable distinctions the author makes re news judgements, etc. Thirty-five years ago, I was taught that objectivity was the reporter's credo. Then, twenty years ago, I had a lame-brain supervisor who told me my job was to "set the agenda" for the Los Angeles community.

Then I quit daily journalism and got an honest job writing fiction.

But trying to get old-school guys like Downie to admit they are a part of the overall political process is not going to work. They can't do it. To do so would be to junk so many of their core values.

But niether can they admit they are mere tools of other political forces, even if they understand that they are tools of political forces every time they accept a leaked story from a source with an agenda.

The truth is that they respond to "information" in an instinctive, non-introspective way. They are, at their best and worst, hip-shooters who don't reflect much on why they react. Gem-stone prospectors know the glint of rough jewel material in the gravel, even if they aren't trained geologists or gemologists. That's how journalists like Downie operate. That's also why they can sometimes wrap themselves around left-wing ideas and at other times embrace "information" that supports mildly or radically right-wing ideology.

Post-modernism likes to pick ideas and positions apart. Nothing wrong with that. But post-modernists have to adapt to the truth, which is that most human beings are not post-modernist, any more than they were "modernists" fifty years ago.


Evan Maxwell
Sedona, AZ

Posted by: evan maxwell at November 11, 2003 2:43 PM | Permalink

I've always believed there is a "reporter's way" of looking at an issue that has nothing to do with one's ideology or personal biases. A liberal or a conservative reporter (a rare breed) would come to the same "news judgment" by looking at issues in a "reporter's way," almost as a separate person outside of themselves. Call me naive, but that's the way I always tried to do this job. But somewhere along the way, maybe about the time the above poster was told he should "set the agenda," that all changed. Once that idea was scrapped, with the overwhelming ideological homogeneity in newsrooms, it all turned soft and brown. That "reporter's way" of looking at things used to be called something else: professionalism. Too bad we don't have much of that anymore.

Posted by: rivlax at November 11, 2003 3:01 PM | Permalink

The famous sociologist Herbert J. Gans explored the topic of journalistic agenda-setting (though I don't believe he used that phrase) at considerable length in his book "Deciding What's News." I was under the impression that this book was well-known among journalists, although it seems to have escaped Downie's attention. The book is an attempt to understand the professional journalist's mindset, particularly how unconscious values and ideologies necessarily shape the decision-making process, with respect to the stories that are printed (or not). Written more than 20 years ago, it is somewhat dated but still worth reading.

Posted by: Jack McCain at November 11, 2003 3:50 PM | Permalink

The Gans book is a very apt reference, Jack. It is one of the key titles in a very strong literature on the sociology of newswork. (Gans is a sociologist.) This literature has been building since the 1970s and it is mostly an attempt to explain decision-making in newsrooms, without relying on either circular reasoning (we judge what is newsworthy by using our news judgment) or crude ideological schemes to account for newsroom behavior. Any journalist who wanted to consult what others know about his or her profession--from studying that profession!--could profit from this literature.

Two of its key insights are 1.) that production demands are responsible for many decisions that are explained in other ways by journalists, which is rather obvious, and 2.) that much of what journalists do--and say and think about their work--is a ritual to deflect anticipated criticism. Why? Because they are exposed so often to possisble attack by the very nature of producing a daily news report, gathered and written in a hurry.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 12, 2003 12:25 AM | Permalink

Jay's dead-on about what really causes journalism to go awry: it's 95 percent lack of time, space, money and talent to do a better job. I won't insult anybody's intelligence and say political bias isn't a factor in news coverage ... it's just not nearly as big a factor as the ideologues paint it to be.

A bit of context for the Downie debate: Washington is a company town, and for him to admit even the slightest instance of taking political sides could compromise the Post's access to Beltway insiders. What seems actively delusional to outsiders could be a just another survival skill to an insider.

The Post being an insider opens another can of worms, of course, if you think newspapers are in the public service business.

Posted by: tom mangan at November 12, 2003 1:35 AM | Permalink

Great "Portrait Of An Editor Hunkered In A Bunker"

It's regrettable he obviously feels he has to stonewall - it's reminiscent of the scenes in a criminal trial where the accused pleads the fifth amendment to every question :-(

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 12, 2003 1:41 AM | Permalink

Tom: I think you are right that the risks of appearing "political" at all are a factor in Downie's "nothing but information here" attitude. It makes sense for the Editor of the Post to be cautious in what he says, given the paper's position in the capital and how open it is to criticism.

I found something similar when I went to NPR in Washington to talk about public journalism, which is perceived by some to be more "political" in its aims. It was one of the roughest receptions I got anywhere in the press, with open jeering and snarling. Linda Werthheimer was particularly vocal, I recall. Part of the reason is that NPR (like PBS) is hyper-sensitive to any criticism of having an "agenda." As is the Post, of course.

But think: does that make these organizations more or less political? Does it make the job of Leonard Downie or Kevin Klose (NPR head) more or less of a "political" position? Viewing it that way, Downie's refusal to engage at all on decision-making, agenda-setting and priorities in journalism looks more... interesting. Might we want to say that there is risk in that refusal? Seems to me we might.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 12, 2003 5:50 PM | Permalink

It appears to me that, if you use some material and not other from a total that is too large to use all of, then one must either have a choice mechanism by which some is used and some is not, OR what is used is picked randomly. Which is it in the case of the Post, Mr. Downie? Or does the post have a choice mechanism but no one understands it and/or cannot articulate it? Actually, I rather like the idea the the Post is choosing it's stories randomly. It would explain a lot.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at November 12, 2003 11:44 PM | Permalink

Jorge: After years in Washington, he has the script down pat.

"Nobody here but us completely valueless totally nonjudgmental reporters without objective, who make sure to stay strictly in the middle between truth and lies"

(all puns intended)

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 12, 2003 11:57 PM | Permalink

Taking a mushy stance is still a decision.
Physics understood there was no independent observer (in a Platonian manner) years back, under the tutelage of Einstein. There isn't any independent observer in those newsrooms.
There seem to be a lot of fellow-travelers, though, all united in refusing to explain themselves to anybody.
That doesn't mean they lack a rigid viewpoint.
In a church, it'd be called a religion.
In a lab, it's called scientism, not science.
Editors letting their unconscious "shoot from the hip" just means that they don't notice when their subconscious has decided that the message of the day has changed a lot from last week. They don't notice how far the stance shifted in that time.
It's pretty noticeable out here in readerland.
In business, it's called allowing competitors to widen a toehold in your market, because you have no clue what that market expects of you.
Unexamined assumptions mean that you don't notice when you've drifted off your base so far you can't hold your original readership. Ture story: When our local newspaper ran so partisanly conservative it became surreal, it lost market share so badly that a little freebie college rag took many of its big advertisers. (No joke!) Not *all* of them--the rag had its own mushy editorial voice, backing down from certain challenges, and got caught when some of its stories wren't properly fact-checked, whoopsie.

This leaves me gritting my teeth at on-line sources. If we can't find real news in one place, we'll go elsewhere.
Iritating reminder, please--reader demographics: The baby boomers are only going to get more demanding about the news as they get older and retire, and become nosy woried grandparents, with plenty of time to get involved in news and politics.
What are we getting now?
Most tv cable news reek of beautifully telecast propaganda that was put together as stupidly as Soviet cold war broadcasts--just check the number of obvious hot-button and slant words.
I haven't missed the oatmeal political stance, either: anything in power = good boy, wag-wag.
There aren't very many newspapers offering anything but a quick statement of the large-business corporate view, as if it's simply my job to absorb the message and get with the program.
Nice of them to let us all know...
Silly me: as a writer, I hear uncredited quotes of government and corporate handouts (the style is always different from that of the local reporters), the embarrassing lack of fact-checking, the obvious ignorance that there might be any counter-sources--and most irritating of all, no argument with the statistics *shoehorned* (slant word) into the report.
Numbers don't soothe me at all. Whenever I see numbers, all my nonsense-alarm bells go off. Generally it's a simple check: the percentages don't add up.

Whatever the mushy collective reportorial unconscious wants, it isn't giving the reader anything that *I* want: plainly-stated viewpoints, attributed sources, clear statistical information, and if you're doing a *great* job, snappy quotes.
I hear great one-liners and snappy quotes every night from perfectly ordinary people who are tired out. I kind of expect more than that from bright folks in positions of responsibility.
Especially those folks who went into their line of work precisely because they wanted some sort of influence.

Posted by: Heather at November 13, 2003 12:37 AM | Permalink

Heather hit the nail on the head. :)

Posted by: Aine at November 13, 2003 4:21 PM | Permalink

re Jay and the argument that the WaPo needs to claim neutrality:
-doesn't explain his stonewalling, which must be from ignorance or unwillingness to think about the matter. Downie could have cited the usual non-political reasons, like: repetition factor, controversy, actor's importance, number of people involved, time to expire (goes both ways with a tipping point, considering the repetition factor), tie-in ( a variant of repetition) and so on.

Posted by: markus at November 16, 2003 9:36 PM | Permalink

From the Intro