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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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November 25, 2003

A Public Editor for an Internet Public

For the majority of readers, the New York Times is now an online newspaper with a print edition. Suppose the new public editor began with that fact. Something surprising--even radical--could emerge. Of course it's all speculation...

There is a story in this sequence of events, which I am still figuring out.

July 30: Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, says he accepts the Siegal Report’s primary recommendations, including the ombudsman, about which the Report has friendly advice: junk that word, ombudsman. Go with public editor instead. Keller, who was thought to be skeptical about the position, buys in.

But only to an experiment: one year and we’ll evaluate it. (Later expanded to 18 months.) It’s big news for a time in press land: “Times Relents and Hires Ombudsman.” But a few details get lost. The Times does not have an ombudsman; it has a public editor. There’s different music in those words. Also, the Times has not officially created the position yet. It’s created an experiment to see if it works. An experiment can be many things, turn different ways.

August 28: Keller has an exchange with Geneva Overholser, (here and here) former ombudsman at the rival Washington Post, former Times woman herself, now a professor of journalism at Missouri, who has thought hard about the issue. Overholser applauds the Times for announcing the position, and criticizes the Times for not protecting it properly from internal pressures.

Meanwhile, Keller elaborates on his doubts. He specifically questions the Post’s model for an ombudsman. (I wrote of their exchange.) Rather than protect it from all internal politics at the Times, the thrust of the Post’s model, Keller sees the public editor as a kind of political position in itself. He claims the right to hire and fire, which means Keller could, in theory, kill the column critical of Keller and sack the one who wrote it. A Saturday Night Massacre. Outrageous? Not at all, he says.

If I pick someone good, I have to grant a wide berth. A pro is going to know that. If I fire someone good, I have an immediate crisis on my hands. The whole newsroom is going to know that. Want this to work? Let me have my person, not the publisher’s. If I put real support behind the public editor, it is that confidence—not a contractual device—that gives the holder of the job power and protection. Keller, it seems, does not want the Times to copy what’s in place elsewhere (especially at the Post!) He wants to figure out a different way to do it.

October 4: An apparently unrelated development. Len Apcar, Editor in Chief of the Times on the Web, speaks to a conference on weblogs at Harvard Law School (Dave Winer’s blogger.con.) He says he wants to start a new Times weblog, but is not sure what it should be. He came hoping to get some ideas. Apcar wants to begin with someone already licensed to have opinions, like a dance critic is. And the approach should be Times-like. He mentions campaign 2004 as an opportunity to experiment. (Here’s my report from the Apcar visit.)

Apcar drops into his presentation a fact that startled me. There are now more users of the Times online site than there are readers for the print edition— by a good margin. Think about it for a moment. Through all of Times history, the delivery platform has been the same. There have been advances, but not in the basic pattern of a mass-printed, mass-distributed daily broadsheet.

Now, without anyone taking much notice, new conditions—building since the day computers came to newsrooms in the 1970s—have swept over journalism at the Times. The historic passage has been made to a majority Net public. From at least one perspective, what academics call “reception,” (the people at home and what they do with the product) the flagship of the American fleet had morphed from a printed newspaper with an online edition, to an online newspaper that publishes on paper too. This is not necessarily the view the Times has of itself, however.

October 6. After the conference, weblog pioneer Dave Winer publishes an essay, “If the Gray Lady Could Blog,” explaining some of the key differences in how weblogs work, and recommending an approach: “I’d start a Times blog to cover the campaign weblogs.” (Read the rest here.)

October 16: An interview with the Times’s well-known technology reporter, John Markoff, is posted at Online Journalism Review. He is dubious about weblogs as the future of journalism, although we should “give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it.” It may prove no more consequential than CB radio, he says. “People will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time.”

When enthusiasts of the form ask if he’s going to start a weblog, he says: “Oh, I already have a blog, it’s, don’t you read it?’” A final curiosity in the interview is this description of a likely future for Markoff and colleagues: “I assume that there will still be a paper, that I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now, although that’s mostly on the basis of the failure of the first and second generation of electronic books.”

October 27: The big announcement comes. Keller picks his person, Daniel Okrent, who is not on the Times staff and never was. He’s a writer at Time magazine and a book author. Also created an award-winning magazine, New England Monthly. Keller tells the staff in an e-mail that the job required someone “smart, curious, rigorous, fair-minded and independent” with the “reporting skills to figure out how decisions get made at the paper, the judgment to reach conclusions about whether and where we go astray and the writing skills to explain all of this.” As Keller will later explain, he came to see the value of an outsider in the position.

“I can ask stupid questions,” Okrent tells Newsday. “Presumably, there’s no conventional wisdom that I automatically buy into because I have a history in the place.” Alex Jones, former Times reporter and author of a book on the Sulzbergers, describes another sense in which the job is political: “Whatever he says that is critical of the Times will be amplified tremendously by the enemies of the Times.” Popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, an evangelist for the form and also president of says: “Dan should make himself into the Times’ own blogger. I don’t mean he should start a blog. I mean he should take on blog attitude: skeptical, wry, pestering.”

October 31: Robert Kohn, author of a book advancing the liberal bias charge at the New York Times, (Journalistic Fraud, it is called) says in a letter to Romenesko that Okrent deserves a chance to show that he’s serious about rooting out the more outlandish cases. “From [his] credentials, it is far from clear whether Okrent would recognize clear examples of liberal bias, or even feel the responsibility to look for it in the Times. Yet, he may surprise us.”

November 11: Jeff Jarvis gets a note from Daniel Okrent saying he’s “counting… on the blogworld to keep me on my woulda/coulda/shoulda toes.” Turns out he’s reading Buzzmachine, the Jarvis weblog.

November 23. Keller says in an interview with Howard Kurtz that he too is reading weblogs, in part for what they say about the Times. Kurtz: “One striking thing about Keller’s style is that he doesn’t dismiss criticism of the paper out of hand. ‘I look at the blogs… Sometimes I read something on a blog that makes me feel we screwed up. A lot of times I read things that strike me as ill-tempered and ill-informed.’” That quote lands on the front page of Romenesko and at About the choice of Okrent, an outsider, Keller tells Kurtz: “Maybe we were a little too closed off to how the world sees us… The more I interviewed people, the more I realized it would be more interesting to listen to someone who hadn’t grown up in our culture.”

So here we are, November 25. Readers, I have presented you with a series of signs, an edited chronology of events and opinions. Each supports multiple interpretations. The inventors of Movable Type anticipated this. It’s called the comments section. Use it and tell me how you read the above.

Commentary and Analysis:

When I look back four months to the announcement of the public editor’s position, things are tending toward a logical conclusion— logical to me, that is. Okrent is the one Apcar was looking for to break ground and start a true Times weblog. The public editor’s position can be the first constructed around its weblog— and by making the weblog work, you build a new model for the position. This fits with Keller’s experimental attitude. It also plays to Okrent’s strengths as a writer because a good weblog is usually one person, talking to you.

Without question, Okrent should write the semi-regular column planned for The Paper, as Markoff and others call it. In fact, the weblog is ideal for testing and perfecting the arguments that will appear in those columns— his biggest platform. But he needs a platform of another kind, where the public can interact with its own editor at the Times. The weblog is a nifty machine for that. It also solves some of the political problems inherent in the position.

For example, here is author Bob Kohn’s extended column, attempting to put Okrent on notice about sniffing out liberal bias. Kohn serves as illustration for one group of Times critics, conservatives for whom the liberal bias of the New York Times is not only matter of record, but a matter of faith. Groups like this cannot be ignored and they cannot be obeyed. They should not be dismissed. Nor can they be seen as disinterested. They can make trouble. (See 10,000 cancellations at the Los Angeles Times.) They can make noise. And there are others like them at many points on the political dial. Handling your most indefatigable critics is part of the job. Excuse my lapse into hype, but the weblog is brilliantly designed for the problem at hand.

Okrent can point to a “we’re watching you” column like Kohn’s, and from there he has multiple options. He can simply point to the item. He can pair it with another link. He can link to it and respond— respond short, (a sentence or two) medium, or long. Here’s what they say, and what I think.

Simply by doing what ordinary webloggers do— find a link, write an entry, and click publish—Okrent can take public notice of criticism aimed at the Times. He can alert the readers of his weblog: here’s what our critics say. But taking notice of ideological critique is not the same thing as agreeing with it. Nor does it dismiss. Or ignore. A new range of flexible responses is created. By linking Keller is just saying: examine this, Times public. I did.

In the weblog way, the public editor is an elevator. He can elevate what critics—and articulate readers—are saying, but also what journalists at the Times say back. Some of the most faithful readers of the weblog will probably be the editorial staff of the New York Times. They too can write for it. It’s as easy as sending Okrent an email, (put this in your blog) or Okrent asking a Times journalist for one. “Tell us, culture editor, how do you decide what’s worth reviewing?”

The weblog becomes the place where voices from the reading public, and voices from the editorial staff, are placed artfully into conversation by the presiding voice of the editor. Because the medium is so flexible, the possibilities roll on. Suppose Keller is interviewed bi-weekly by Okrent. The archive of those interviews would help meet one of the Siegal Report’s key recommendations: more transparency for decision-making at the Times. (The Report is here.) “Maybe we were a little too closed off to how the world sees us,” said Keller. The beauty of a weblog for Okrent is that it opens out, into the world where the Times is seen by others.

Okrent is the kind of test case Len Apcar was seeking: a Times-person already licensed to give his views and draw conclusions. More than that, the public editor is the one position that has to be interactive with the public— that’s the whole point. An effective machine for that (better than newspaper columns, plus emails, calls and letters) is the modern weblog— built to be interactive with users and with other information on the Web. The opening is there for the Times to make the form even better.

Second, a weblog has a voice and multiple streams for that voice to enter. Okrent was hired to write in an original way about the most powerful newspaper in the most powerful country in the world, and he has special rights to find things out from the people who run it. That’s awfully good weblog material.

Third, the weblog is a compiler and saver of stuff that has potentially large archival value because it explains the Times to itself and to the public. And one definition of the public editor’s job is just that: to explain the public to journalists at the New York Times, and to explain the journalism of the New York Times to its public.

When Len Apcar told the Harvard conference that the reader base was now majority Net, he understood that this was a revolutionary thing, and also no big change at the Times. For both are true. From the user’s side, a radical shift has occurred. The Times on the Web joins in a far different information ecology online— still exploding with change and variety. (Consider how Times journalism is now available, up-to-date and for free, in every capital around the world, a huge boost for the paper’s influence and power internationally.) So using the Times is not the same, the user base is not the same, and the direction of change is toward multi-media and discontinuity with the printed page— although not completely so.

In the view of those Apcar was addressing—weblogging’s advance guard—the day had essentially passed for “audience” thinking. In the skull there was to be no more audience, and no spectator theory of knowledge (which could include The Reader, and all notions of service built up from there) describes well the world one is immersed in online. Dan Gillmor and I, talking about a book he is writing, discovered we had come up with similar-sounding terms to denote the ex-audience, transformed into information actors on the Web. He started calling them the Former Audience, just to have a name to write with. I was using the People Formerly Known as the Audience.

To Gillmor and me (and many others who think this way) “audience” does not account for what people are doing when they draw value from Web journalism. But we’re both immersed in it. We have weblogs. Times journalists are immersed in the writing and editing of The Paper, the famous print edition. That’s the mother ship; everything feeds off it. Of course, all involved know the paper’s online edition is popular, and getting bigger. No one doubts its importance. But the organization of work and content flow is still with The Paper. So too are psychology, mythology. Thus: no big change, really.

This is what Markoff meant in saying: “I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now.” It is a press-centric view, but there are good workplaces reasons for it. For the majority of the Times-reading public, however, Markoff isn’t “writing for the paper” now, in 2003, let alone ten years from now. Seems to me the public editor, Daniel Okrent, should meet that fact head on by getting online himself with a new kind of weblog. There he may discover the different user politics alive in the more participatory, active, and globallly connected public on the Web.

In a brief conversation at the blogger’s conference, Len Apcar said he agreed that the Times was very conservative about making changes to its journalism. “In a strange way that it makes it more radical,” he added. And therein lies the excitement of the experiment: a public editor for the Internet public of the mighty New York Times.

Some PressThink posts that bear on this post:
The Siegal Report, a Triumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times
Flagship Turns: A Public Editor for the Times of New York
Times Web Editor Goes to Harvard in Search of Something
When the Learned Rant at the Times

Weblogger Henry Copeland has the facts and figures about online readership surpassing circulation of the print edition in Sep. 2002.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 25, 2003 9:28 PM   Print


My first question about an "interactive" weblog at the Times would be how they would handle the insane amount of comments they would get.

A. Would the software be able to handle comments coming in from literally thousands of readers?

B. How would the public editor respond to all the comments? Or would he read them all?

As an example, the Dallas Morning News editorial blog, which runs on an older version of MT, doesn't use the comment function. Instead, the author of each post's e-mail address is attached. So readers e-mail the author of the post.

But that's far from transparent. When DMN edbloggers respond to a reader comment, we only see the edited version, what they want us to see. Are we to assume that the only people who e-mail the DMN edblog are the ones whose comments appear in the posts? Of course not. Then, are the comments which appear in excerpts by the writers the only ones that are coherent and well-reasoned? I doubt so.

I would applaud the Times public editor having a blog, and providing a comments section, but that sounds like too much transparency, too little control, too fast for the Old Gray Lady.

Posted by: bryan m. at November 26, 2003 12:11 AM | Permalink

Jay, At the ONA conf on Nov 15, Len Apcar and I had a conversation about blogging:

He said he'd shifted a bit since bloggercon, and was willing to consider them for NYT, but was thinking along the lines of a topic blog and gave the example of opera.

Also, during the last ONA Conference panel, Apcar challenged the audience to find the blog they already have going on their site. I haven't looked but I wonder if anyone else has found it.

Posted by: mary hodder at November 26, 2003 1:23 AM | Permalink

Jay, great idea.

Mary, I believe the "weblog" to which he referred was the Kristof stuff from Alaska:

which apparently now redirects behind the pay-per-view firewall.

He may also have meant the "Kristof responds" page:

Posted by: Dan Gillmor at November 26, 2003 1:48 AM | Permalink

It was definitely "Kristof Responds" that Len was referring to. And if you look at that -- it's actually a WebCrossing thread (WebCrossing is the conferencing software the Times adopted a long time ago -- same one we still use at Salon for Table Talk) -- it's certainly "blog-like", by the standards of the Times; it's responsive to the "audience" and informal. But it's not what most of us would think of as a *real* blog.

Your proposal makes a lot of sense, Jay, and would be a bold move for the Times. I'd bet real money they won't do it, though. The "public editor" post will be the single most politically and bureaucratically charged position in that newsroom; it's not where an institution like the Times will begin a cautious experiment with blogging. The critics will get them first -- that sounds more like it.

I'd love to read Frank Rich's blog!

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at November 26, 2003 2:02 AM | Permalink

Forgot to mention, I asked for Tom Friedman and Frank Rich, but he said no. Evidently, they said no. Bummer.

Posted by: mary hodder at November 26, 2003 2:43 AM | Permalink

I join in here.

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at November 26, 2003 9:13 AM | Permalink

Jay: Will Corbin created public response blog-before-its-time in the late 90s, when he was editor of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. People could call in questions or comments, and the newspaper published a selection of them the following day with Will's responses, which were usually informative, sometimes quite funny. It ran on A2 and became quite a popular feature. "Mostly, it has empowered readers in ways they never imagined before," Corbin said at the time.
As a former public editor (The Oregonian), I think your blog idea is terrific.
Best, Michele

Posted by: Michele McLellan at November 26, 2003 10:55 AM | Permalink

I'm skeptical too about how you blog to an implicit audience of over a million people. Wouldn't you get 10,000 comments a day, and if so, how can you be interactive? I'm not saying "don't do it because there'll be problems"; I'm saying, "don't do it w/out a plan to confront those problems."

Posted by: tom mangan at November 26, 2003 11:10 AM | Permalink

Jay, Excellent idea to have a public editor draw readers and journalists into engaging through a blog. In fact, it'd be great to see more interaction among many journalists and readers. As you point out, many readers are not disinterested, nor do they wish to be mere spectators. And many journalists are passionately committed and willing to explain their practices and behavior. As a one-time ombudsman who tried to act like a public editor, I believe such conversations are critical to both credibility and to acknowledge the growing number of People Formerly Known as The Audience.

Posted by: dennis foley at November 26, 2003 2:15 PM | Permalink

Tom: Many of the great blogs don't take comments. (The greater ones do, I'd say.) But you don't have to have comments to be interactive. Links are interactivity; links are a conversation. Dan blogs something; you link to it and say something; he responds on his blog; somebody else adds in. It's a conversation.
Yes, comments can become unwieldly (though they can also gather and focus power like a laser; the comments are the real power of the Dean blog). But they aren't absolutely necessary.

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at November 26, 2003 2:57 PM | Permalink

Thanks to everyone for your comments. Dennis Foley, former ombudsman and public editor of the Orange County Register, it is good to see you in this discussion, speaking from experience. The same goes for Michelle McLellan, former public editor of the Oregonian-- one of the first papers to use that title I believe. Okrent should definitely check in with those two.

So are comments as they stand in weblog evolution just ham-handed and impractical? And does this mean "interactivity" is going to be a bust for any Times weblog that is about news judgment at the New York Times? Excellent questions. I stayed away from raising such matters in my essay, but for a reason.

My general philosophy is pragmatism, as taught by John Dewey. It states that to learn new things you need good problems-- practical problems in pursuit of a desired end. How to make comments work is a good case in point. Tough problem, as several people here point out, but solving it would really advance things, right?

Dewey said knowledge progresses when people bring on really good problems for themselves, and apply to these "knowledge rich" problems any kind of intelligence that will help. Thus pragmatists are fans or tinkering, experiment, ad hoc adjustment, "we'll solve that later" reasoning, and non-dogmatic approaches of all kinds.

Thus the headache of making a comments section work, and yet needing it to work to be interactive as Times public editor... this is precisely a reason to do it! There is no question the bosses could put resources to it, and there are a lot of smart people in the Times organization. Plus, Okrent himself can tinker.

With zero software knowledge to apply (others can speak to that, I hope) I can think of several solutions to what seem like impossible barriers-- as in getting flooded with 1000's of comments in a single unwieldy thread. I don't say good solutions; they are crude, in the first guess category. Here is one:

Controlled Access Comments: People who work for Okrent are put in charge of enrolling a manageable number of people-- 200, 300, more?--with passwords that allow them into a special comments section, where they have a discussion. The assistants monitor and mine it. Participation in the rolling jury is invited, you apply, and have a ternm-- say six months. You volunteer to be part of a special feedback group with writing rights at Okrent's weblog.

The staff goes for an interesting cross section of the readership, a mix, but worries little about matching all the demographics. Over time you learn what kind of person you want, and you filter out the rest. It's a focus group with a twist...the readers & citizens focus on whatever they want to respond to in Okrent and company's weblog.

Crude? Yes. Also doable now with existing technology and the labor to administer. The eventual, worked-out answer to this puzzle would be way better than mine. But you only get there by starting out on a course, and crashing into good problems. The comments riddle is the main thing wrong with weblogs today, as a machine for interaction. That's one reason for the Times to take it on, in my peculiar way of seeing things.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 26, 2003 3:38 PM | Permalink

Jay: you may be overthinking the comments dilemma, and I might've been underthinking it. It might be as easy as linking to a BBS rather than an unthreaded comments list ... it's what ended up doing after the comments function got out of hand there.

Here's a thought along the lines of your suggestion: the Public Editor invites some of the more eloquent writers to be "guest blogger" for a day, an hour or something.

We're way ahead of ourselves, of course. But maybe we can put some ideas in people's heads.

Posted by: tom mangan at November 27, 2003 2:45 AM | Permalink

Jarvis is right. Comments are not required for interactivity. The blogosphere retains its strength and dynamism though its decentralized nature -- the individual blog is the core element, and all that really matters. Dialog can (and easily does) take place between blogs, and although there are exceptions (the Dean blog and Kottke's Matrix Reloaded post are two examples) there is not much good conversation happening in the comments section.* With meta-blog tools like Technorati, Blogosphere, Blogdex, etc we can even do a decent job of keeping track of this inter-blog dialog.

* Yes, savor the irony.

Posted by: jazer at November 27, 2003 11:35 PM | Permalink

I disagree, Jazer. There are places where comments sections take on a life of their own and provide far more interest than the posts that inspire them (I'm thinking specifically of Dean's World ( ) here, among others.

I think Mr. Rosen's "solution" is an interesting one. It would certainly be revolutionary by the standards of the Times, although not as revolutionary as having a true blog comments section. Having grown to appreciate the blog comment method, I can honestly say I dislike the BBS-style threaded comments.

Rosen's solution also reminds me of the way many talk radio folks get "regulars" who call in all the time and get more air time than average joe caller. They prove that they have reasonable things to say and can say so coherently in a short amount of time, and they get more time to do so.

Of course, before you can get to a comment section, you have to have a blog, and we are still waiting on that to happen. :-)

Posted by: bryan m. at November 28, 2003 8:30 PM | Permalink

Comments are no different from the forums I run on local news sites at We get up to 100 million page views a month just to forums; we get countless thousands of posts. That is tremendous content from the citizenry (nee audience). But it takes an investment. We have people who respond to alerts of bad posts seven days a week, most hours of the day. The community will police itself if you help them. Of course, the policing itself will be controversial but so be it. I would suggest, Jay, that if you're going to have interactivity you either have it or don't; there's no half-pregnant here. The last thing the Times needs is another elite -- an elite of the audience, those allowed to comment. So once the door opens, it should be opened to all but with policing of comments that are obscene, bigoted, libelous, or marked by personal attacks. That takes an investment. That deals with one problem -- the uncivilized citizens among us. As to the other problem -- scale -- threaded forums are better built for conversation than comments. This is an issue that the software makers are going to have to deal with; the Dean comments (and the LGF comments, too) are unwieldly because of their volume. They need to create a better way to deal with large community in terms of both policing and display. With interactivity attached to comments, the publisher -- the blogger -- is setting the agenda by creating the topics to which there is reponse. With forums, the people set the agenda by creating topics and threads -- but that has the problem of growing a separate life from the blog.
Sorry for the ramble. A topic for a separate discussion.....

Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at November 29, 2003 9:23 AM | Permalink

Bryan, I agree "there are places where comments sections take on a life of their own." But this is not the norm. You and I both pointed out examples of where this is the case, but generally you get much more thoughtful and thorough commentary when accompanied by a link on someone else's blog.

And you're right in saying we'd better work on getting a Times blog before we get all worked up about the comments.

Posted by: jazer at November 30, 2003 5:16 PM | Permalink

Advogato uses an intriguing approach to the issue of too much comment bandwidth: peer rating. If you have an account there, then your view of the "recentlog" is filtered by the ratings of your friends. Similarly, if you rank a particular poster, it will affect the rank that your friends see when they view the recentlog. Advogato's scale is much smaller than that of the New York Times, but perhaps the idea would still apply. One of the most intriguing aspects is that the rating system works so well with effectively zero centralized administrative control.

I think most blog readers know what makes a post reading and what doesn't. In fact, I would tend to trust the blogging community quite a bit more on this issue than I would some editor at the paper. The only trick is to put the power in their hands.

Posted by: Raph Levien at December 1, 2003 1:17 AM | Permalink

Raph....was that supposed to be: most blog readers know what makes a post *worth* reading?As you note, rating systems--like is known for--are another type of answer to the problem.

Jeff: I agree with you and jazer that comments are not the only form of interactivity weblogs demonstrate. Just being in conversation with other weblogs, and using a lot of links are forms of interactivity. And since the public editor's weblog would not retreat into the paid archives (as other Times content does), it would enhance interactivity that way.

On your "no half pregnant" comment. Suppose those allowed to comment were drawn by lot, or at random for a temporary period. Would a jury system, which is pretty much what my "solution" envisions, also be an elite? That would be quite a claim. Do you make it?

Tom: Overthinking--and getting ahead of ourselves, suggestion-wise--is a specialty here at PressThink. All the same, the guest blogger is another possible answer. Probably too radical, as Scott Rosenberg says, but the curious thing about the Times is that once it does something, it's no longer radical-- by definition!

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 1, 2003 8:33 AM | Permalink

All: Interesting stuff, every bit of it. But please give me a little time to figure things out; I haven't even found the bathroom yet.

Posted by: Dan Okrent at December 1, 2003 2:00 PM | Permalink

Thank you, Dan. Thanks for reading this. And we're just thinking aloud, knowing you have not really started yet. For my part, I mostly want your position--and thus you, as first public editor--to succeed, whether weblogs are a part of it or not. It seems important to journalism that this experiment prove worthwhile, and that it continue after 18 months. Cheers.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 1, 2003 6:31 PM | Permalink

Startled to read that NYT has more daily readers online than in print? You might be amused to learn that this was first reported (not repeated!) on a blog more than a year ago. ( )

Although other media repeated the news, the NYTimes still hasn't written about this milestone or highlighted it to investors.

Like you, NYT shareholders would be startled too, I think. And concerned. Concerned that reaches more people than the print journal, but, because of a vastly more competitive environment, achieves less than 3% of print's revenues.

Which brings up the key question NYT shareholders will ask if management ever admits that 1/4 of a NYT journalist's time is devoted to blogging. "Why the hell are we dumping resources into such a low-margin business? How are we going to compete with passionate zero-overhead bloggers empowered by the blogosphere, the biggest traffic spinner since the cloverleaf?"

Don't get me wrong. I'd love to see the NYTimes trying to sell blog impressions to advertisers. It will further legitimate blogs and reinforce the startling fact that blog advertising, unencumbered by publishing's traditional cost structure, is 95% cheaper. I just don't think NYT shareholders can stomach watching their company wade into a link-quagmire to battle 10,000 infopreneurs.

Posted by: henrycopeland at December 2, 2003 7:53 AM | Permalink

NYT Digital is growing both in viewers and in revenues, while print subs are static (okay, they grew a little this last quarter, but it's small compared to Digital growth). Digital is growing paid subs, news tracker, crosswords, archive sales, content deals around movies, wireless etc (around 20%), as well as free readers accessing ads (around 80%). Online media is the future of their business, whether it's straight print style content, synthesized print/photo/video made into multimedia, chunked content repurposed, long form stuff that might be the basis for many other short bits, or conversations with their readers in blogs with or without comments. But editorially directed single artifact news consumption on paper is going away (not completely; there will always be some readers of an the old medium, but a lot less than now) in favor of user directed online content consumption and eventually even some reporting direction. Content will be granularized, repurposed and difficult at first to attach to an advertising model, though I think it can be done. (My own rule is that anything made has to have at least three potential uses, or it's not a business unit worth owning.) Users will participate in shaping, making and directing news reporting, writing and interaction with other users.

Digital media, like a lot of technology, is only understandable if you do it. And if you want to maintain your high quality leadership position as a news outlet, you can participate, which means doing it, or the digital world and your users/conversants will go past you as they look for good information, opinion and honest, iterative, conversational assessments. With those elements, you can be the editorially directed news outlet, and the user directed news outlet, and a true conversant with your readers, all at once. But I think we, the users, want all three in our future.

As for the biz model, I think there is a real possibility that the 13m online readers will turn into far more than that, and the $92m/yr Digital makes now will emerge as the lion's share of the NYTco profits eventually ($3.1b now), as they figure out how to really make money online, while the print side (currently $1.5b) becomes a smaller part. Though it will take 15 times the current number of online readers and subs to make up the difference between the paper and the online revenue now, unless they figure out how to use things in multiple ways to maximum benefit, in which case it could be far fewer. But that is possible. It would be really interesting if they decided to just get it overwith and merge the two divisions. If conversation is what makes money, the shareholders will be thrilled.

Blogging is a tool that I think would help them understand how to get there in the online medium, and would keep their readers engaged in the conversation with them.

Posted by: mary hodder at December 3, 2003 3:17 AM | Permalink

From J.D. Lasica's New Media Musings: "Last Wednesday I sent an email off to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, asking whether any of the three dozen or so newspaper ombudsmen in the U.S. use weblogs to engage their readers in a two-way dialogue. Today I received a response: No. Not a one uses a blog."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 3, 2003 8:57 AM | Permalink

Mary suggests an interesting hypothetical. To recoup print revenues, needs to grow audience fifteen-fold. 15 X 13,000,000 = 195 million readers. That's a Microsoftian market share, unless NYT has secret plans publish in Chinese.

Posted by: henrycopeland at December 3, 2003 7:01 PM | Permalink

Well, the other suggestion was that with digital media, reuse becomes the way to maximize value, to make an online operation work. So one piece of content with the original profit of 20%, leads to repurposing across many areas, so that it might really be 220%. Then it's not so much 15 times the online readership of NYT Digital that gets them parity (extreme if you are just looking for US readership), but maybe 3 or 5 times the current readership develops over time, across the globe, mixed with content repurposing in other areas. It seems reasonable that together, these changes could lead to an online NYT that is as profitable as the current paper.

But coupled with those increases in viewers, you must involve your audience, they must become your conversants, or you won't get them there.

Posted by: mary hodder at December 3, 2003 8:46 PM | Permalink

From the Intro