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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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November 22, 2003

Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press

It is not easy to explain why space is set aside for spinning the press, and the press walks right into the space. These notes on Spin Alley include recommendations. Close down. Blow up. Invent something better.

Wherever there is a big candidates’ debate there is Spin Alley. After the debate, journalists have to write stories, produce TV packages. For this they need quotes and authorized knowers who can talk on camera.

There to provide such are the spinners: hired guns, stand-ins, soulmates who agree to meet the press after the debate to explain why their candidate “won.” Of course this is a verdict known in advance; however that fact too is known in advance, so no one really minds. Spin Alley will live again in whatever large, air-conditioned room is next designated for the ritual. Unless it’s stopped.

Here is Tom Tomorrow writing about it in Salon back in 1996:

After the debate, I took the press shuttle back to the media center — and to the small section therein blatantly designated “Spin Alley,” ringed on three sides by bare-bones makeshift broadcast platforms and stuffed to capacity with reporters, camera crews and politicos. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life.

If you asked one of the reporters swarming the alley “why come to such a place in search of perspective on the news?” the possible answers are:

  • It’s convenient, given my deadline and the need for reactions and quotes.
  • My editor expects me to be here, with the rest of the press.
  • Look, everyone knows it’s propaganda; we’re not easily spun.
  • Frankly, I am not sure why, but this is the way everyone does it.

Then there’s Tom Tomorrow’s reading: “one of my own damn cartoons come to life.” For him, for me, for most anyone who steps back and reflects on Spin Alley, it is first of all remarkable (weird) that such a location exists at all as a taken-for-granted thing in national politics. Why should it? How could it? I know all the practical reasons participants have to mount the ritual of post-debate spin, and I could tick them off. But I won’t because it would just tick you off.

Here is one of the few coherent definitions of information ever offered (via Shannon & Weaver and Norbert Weiner for academics out there): “Information is a measure of uncertainty reduced.” Thus, for news to have information in it, there has to be uncertainty in the air (over something nontrivial.) Any report that reduces that uncertainty has information to offer. The greater the reduction, the more information. The greater the uncertainty, the more it can be reduced. Who’s going to win the Democratic nomination for 2004 is a genuine uncertainty. After the New Hamsphire primary we know a little more— who’s not going to win, maybe. That’s information: a measure of uncertainty reduced.

If we toss information theory into the Alley and let things unfold, we find an odd result. Spin Alley is journalists helping to stage an event defined beforehand by its absence of information. But journalists themselves are defined as people trained to look for information. So why are they looking here? By common agreement—hey, spin is spin—there is zero uncertainty in views the spinners will express after the debate. They are bound. It’s a “first the verdict, then the trial” situation.

This way of looking at information is helpful in thinking about the press because it shifts our view from the reporter’s actions in search of news to the situation from which news is to be drawn. There can be no information drawn from a situation devoid of uncertainty; therefore the quality of news the journalist can provide varies with the information situation the journalist is thrust into. In this sense too Spin Alley qualifies as strange. No one thrusts the reporter into the Alley; she elects to go there.

Ater they invented the Alley, our clever campaign pros went on to perfect some related rituals, each with a touch of the bizarre: the “pre-buttal” advisory, which is spin sent to the press before the debate begins, countering “what Bush will say.” That shows a sense of humor. Then they went further: live spin on the Internet during the unfolding of the debate. No waiting for the next sentence. (You think I am kidding?)

Guaranteed to lack information, the Alley draws information hounds in the press. From an insult to truthtelling, (spin) the truthtellers are supposed to make a truthful account. Low quality inputs are supposed to yield high quality outputs. The intensity of these contradictions is, I think, the reason why Spin Alley (a term popularized by journalists) is treated in a light-hearted, slightly disdainful, we-all-know-what-this-is style when reporters talk about it on the air. But joking does not really explain why you lend yourself to the joke. And no good can come from a situation defined by its intellectual dishonesty, which is what Tom Tomorrow meant: the site is “blatantly designated” as Spin Alley. Among the lessons and observations I draw are:

The Press Has Political Partners. Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention, Spin Alley, after every presidential debate. Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good. Why not abandon this perverse practice and think up better ways to generate quotable conversation after a debate? (We could probably come up with some at PressThink in a few days. Hit the comment button with your ideas.)

Who’s Winning? Can be a Loser. Spin Alley could not exist unless journalists were determined to keep asking the most base (I guess some would say basic) question there is about a debate: who won? Thud. Sigh. Grrr. Click. Zzzz. I doubt that reporters, pundits and achors feel very smart or very good about themselves when they reduce things this way…. okay, who won? But they keep doing it, for reasons no longer clear to themselves. It might have something to do with a master narrative for the election featuring the circular and contentless theme of winning the election. (See this about that.)

Avoiding the Political Has Costs. “Who’s winning,” though vapid, has a virtue: it appears to be neutral, a frame to put around politics that has no politics to it. This is an illusion, mostly. The partnership that created Spin Alley is a political one, responsible not only for rituals like the Alley but for the debates themselves, which are co-productions among questioners, candidates, and sponsoring agencies.

Just recall the circumstances of 2000 when, before the Boston debate, Ralph Nader (who actually met the master narrative’s test of threatening to affect the outcome of the horse race) was barred from the hall after being banned from the podium. Whether the decision was right or wrong, it shows that mounting debates is a political act. So is framing the discussion of them. The press wants to avoid being “political.” But it can’t. Yet by its own logic it must. So it says it does avoid it. Practically no one believes it.

Which turns things toward the absurd. And it turns journalists into surrealists who sometimes appear on C-Span doing things surreal. Picture a man trapped in the driver’s seat just after a car wreck. He is surrounded by twisted metal and rising smoke, but lucid. Turning to you, he says: “I want one thing understood. I am an observer here.” That’s what I mean by surreal. For there are times when the press is that man.

Strangest of all is that little of this strangeness is lost on journalists. Here’s USA Today’s Chuck Raasch during the 2000 campaign:

ST. LOUIS — The most absurd exercise in American politics always takes place in the hectic moments after a debate. It’s ”Spin Alley,” where talking heads dispense partisan patter in a roomful of hundreds of hectic, on-deadline journalists.

If you are a C-SPAN junkie, you have probably caught this surrealistic swirl. It is over-the-top, excessive, the theater of the absurd. If the Coen brothers - producers of such twisted cult flicks as ”Fargo” and ”Blood Simple” - were to make a movie about politics, they would call it ”Spin Alley.”

Little of it bears any resemblance to the truth. It would be more amusing were it not so symptomatic of a who’s-ahead-at-this-very-moment political culture that is about to let big questions go unanswered on Election Day 2000.

A sound critique. But by now critique has done its job. The absurdity is well known, admitted to by journalists. Spin Alley goes on. Yet it would be easy to abandon it by the time we gear up for the big debates in Fall 2004. A major candidate could say: no one from my campaign will show up. “The American people don’t need my people telling them who won.”

Unlikely? Then how about this. Journalists just don’t show up.

No? Here’s another idea. Pauline Kael wrote a review of The Warriors (directed by Walter Hill, 1979) in which she explained street gangs as “kids who think they own the streets because they keep other kids out of them.” I think this is one sense in which the campaign insiders—a gang with college degrees—“own” the process of electing a president, and of interpreting the election. Spin Alley does not admit just anyone. You have to be credentialed. The insiders think they own it because they keep outsiders out. (Witness Nader kept away by police.)

So to reform a space like Spin Alley—that is, to blow it up—you could credential a whole other crowd of talkers, people who have sworn no loyalty oath to a candidate even if they prefer one; who have never seen a list of talking points; who didn’t know what they were going to say about the debate until they had watched it and listened to it; who are capable of having their minds changed by action in the present, and of speaking to their disappointed hopes; who know that life is contingent, and does not stay on message; who are free to find humor everywhere and humanity in weird places, who can laugh at their own side, not just the other— free thinkers, speakers, citizens of these states, with different accents and political stripes.

Need quotes fast? Find 100 of these people (for they do exist, all over America) and credential them in a room. Make sure Dave Eggers is one. You don’t have to fire the professional spinners, by the way. Just don’t give them credentials. Raze spin alley. Open sensibility street. This would restore uncertainty, and once again information might flow.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATE… PressThink (Sep. 28, 2004): Nagourney’s Challenge: Quit Spin Alley. “Nagourney told a Miami Herald reporter that he wouldn’t be heading promptly into the Spin Room at the debate Thursday night in Miami. He won’t be there at all. He plans to watch on TV from Washington, and write a story about what the candidates said. Which defies the herd. In itself that is significant.”

UPDATE II… Here is the now famous exchange about spin alley between Jon Stewart and Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (Oct. 15, 2004):

STEWART: But let me ask you guys, again, a question, because we talked a little bit about, you’re actually doing honest debate and all that. But, after the debates, where do you guys head to right afterwards?

CARLSON: The men’s room.

STEWART: Right after that?


STEWART: Spin alley.


STEWART: No, spin alley.

BEGALA: What are you talking about? You mean at these debates?

STEWART: Yes. You go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don’t you think that, for people watching at home, that’s kind of a drag, that you’re literally walking to a place called deception lane?


STEWART: Like, it’s spin alley. It’s — don’t you see, that’s the issue I’m trying to talk to you guys…

BEGALA: No, I actually believe — I have a lot of friends who work for President Bush. I went to college with some of them.

CARLSON: Neither of us was ever in the spin room, actually.


BEGALA: No, I did — I went to do the Larry King show. They actually believe what they’re saying. They want to persuade you. That’s what they’re trying to do by spinning. But I don’t doubt for a minute these people who work for President Bush, who I disagree with on everything, they believe that stuff, Jon. This is not a lie or a deception at all. They believe in him, just like I believe in my guy.

New Media Hack takes up the challenge (and adds some kind words.) Read his explanation of grid blogging.

Jeff Jarvis also has ideas on a better way.

And Andrew Cline adds commentary here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 22, 2003 1:41 AM   Print


As I was reading your post, and saw that you were going to give a definition of "information," I naturally assumed you'd go with Postman. But I was pleasantly surprised by your choice and your subsequent comments about the 2004 nomination in light of the Mayer predictive model of primary campaigns (Re: Mayer, William G. "Forecasting Presidential Nominations or, My Model Worked Just Fine, Thank you." PS: Political Science & Politics. APSA. 36(2) 2003: 153-57.). The Mayer model demonstrates that there is no uncertainty to the nomination. Since 1980, the leader in the last national Gallup poll before Iowa won the nomination for both parties. The only anomaly was Hart in 1988 for obvious reasons.

Now that is great predictive track record. Mayer uses his data to make claims about the McGovern-Fraser reforms. I use his data to suggest that the press needs to take a harder look what's really going on.

In terms of information being a reduction of uncertainty: If the primary process is nearly 100 percent predictable before the voting begins, then that suggests that press coverage of it as an uncertain horse race constitutes subtracting information from the process by adding unnecessary complexity!

Posted by: acline at November 22, 2003 11:22 AM | Permalink

Very good essay, Jay. I suggest some more ways to unravel the spin here.

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at November 22, 2003 2:28 PM | Permalink

As usual, an excellent piece, Jay.

You've clearly established that Spin Alley stories do the public no good. I'd go even further and suggest that the stories are deleterious to the democratic process because they further reinforce the notion that issues are unimportant and the only thing worth "covering" is the horse race.

Posted by: Roger Karraker at November 22, 2003 2:50 PM | Permalink

Good piece, Jay. At Salon in our own little way we've tried to create just such an alternative "spin alley"; after the debates in 2000 we collected comments from a gallery of not-the-same-old-names -- including some of our columnists, some writers or cultural figures whose position on the political spectrum you might be able to predict, and others whose position you probably couldn't. We found it worked pretty well.

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at November 22, 2003 10:35 PM | Permalink

Scott: Your comment makes me realize what I should have put in the piece. Spin Alley's origins are practical. Reporters on deadline need reactions and quotes. They can't go chasing people around and expect to produce on time. Idea: put 'em all in one room and conduct group interviews. Explained that way, it makes sense. I have great sympathy for journalists on deadline trying to include other voices.

Except there is nothing in the reasoning that explains why "this* crowd is the crowd. The need for articulate, informed people who can offer quick reactions and add color, that's one thing. The decision to put flacks, hacks and surrogates in that role is a second thing. One does not require the other, as Salon's example from 2000 shows.

Andrew: thanks. Roger: yes, to the issues disrespected thing.

Jeff Jarvis: I wrote this one half hoping you would fill in at Buzzmachine the "let weblogs do it" part, which you know best. That's conversation, yes? (It's also division of labor.) Please advise.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 22, 2003 11:44 PM | Permalink

"flacks, hacks and surrogates" are predictable and safe. Sort of the fast-food of meaty coverage. It may be predigested pap, but it won't contain anything outright dangerous, and it's a reliable brand-name. Feeding the pack appetite is the priority, not quality.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 23, 2003 4:38 AM | Permalink

Maybe the bigger question is: why do we have debates? What purpose do they really serve? If the journalists were doing their job throughout the campaign, would a debate be "necessary"?

Posted by: Bill Seitz at November 23, 2003 10:33 PM | Permalink

Jay: You are my assignment desk....

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at November 24, 2003 10:59 AM | Permalink

It ain't just elective politics that's skewed by Spin Alley. The process extends to almost all but the most spontaneous of news events.

I think the day I began my process of disengagement from newshounding was the day that I stumbled across a great angle on an anti-war, anti-nukes demonstration being planned at the Seal Beach (CA) weapons depot. I discovered that the darn things were jointly scripted by local police and the demonstrators, down to agreements over how many and which demonstrators would be physically taken into custody before the rest would move.

My city editor at the Los Angeles Times rejected the story idea out of hand as being "not the news." She held hard to the idea that the clash between authority and morality was "the news," although she might just as well have been arguing that the news was the conflict between order and the unwashed rabble. The effect was the same. She endorsed public theater at the cost of understanding the ways in which she was being manipulated and the ways in which she manipulated her readers.

In retrospect, it's just as well I got out of the business when I did because the early 21st century media is even more caught up in public theater than was the late 20th century media. Information is less and less interesting; the manipulation of symbols that seem to be information is what makes the media wheel go around.

Evan Maxwell

Posted by: Evan Maxwell at November 24, 2003 12:43 PM | Permalink

Jay, I read this three days ago and I think it's my fav essay of yours -- I keep rereading. End of the year jamming prevents me from really responding, other than to say that the definition of information has me thinking. Have incorporated it into a system I'm messing around with, and forwarded it to SIMS at Berkeley. mary

Posted by: mary hodder at November 25, 2003 11:34 AM | Permalink

Here's an alternative that would be faster, more informative, more entertaining and, yes, more democratic. Take a page from high-tech Hollywood screenings:

1. Select an audience that is a statistically valid sample of the electorate.

2. Equip every seat with a knob or similar control calibrated from zero ("I hate what I'm hearing") to 10 ("I love what I'm hearing").

3. Monitor the average rating by the entire audience and display it in realtime on a screen behind the candidates, perhaps with a separate fever line for each candidate scrolling slowly across the screen, so that it's easy to track how well or badly each is doing.

4. At the end of the debate, calculate and post the average rating for each candidate, sampled once a second while the candidate was speaking.

So for example, if Kerry starts babbling about the need to involve France in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Audience-o-Meter will plummet from 7.5 to 2.0, and Kerry's handlers will start wagging frantic hand signals from offstage telling him to change the topic, quick.

Advantages of this approach:

-- The results are spin-free: Each candidate gets a numerical score.

-- It'll be fun to snicker when the audience rating plummets after a candidate says something dumb. (Not as much fun to see the rating go up when a candidate says something intelligent -- but that won't happen very often.)

-- It'll be even more fun to watch the candidates nervously sneaking peeks over their shoulder to see how they're doing. Better than biofeedback!

-- The press' job gets easier: "After leading the field by up to 2 points for the first half-hour, Kerry's rating took a nosedive when..."

-- Best of all, newspapers can fire their dreary political analysts and send sportswriters to cover debates. They're usually the best writers anyway...

Posted by: Mike at November 25, 2003 7:04 PM | Permalink

From the Intro