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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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March 10, 2004

If the Press Digs Where it Thinks There's a Story, Then it Matters How The Press Thinks

We are coming to a point in the election story when a larger portion of the news is triggered by the decisions of journalists. There's a break in the action with the nominations set. What will the press do with this greater freedom to define and shape the campaign narrative?

A reporter I talk to often (he’s on the media beat) called me last week and asked what I thought the press would do with the upcoming “lull” in the presidential campaign: no big news anticipated, beyond Kerry’s choice of running mate and later the conventions. For much of 2003 and two months of 2004, it was clear what the press would be doing: covering the race. “So what are they going to do now?” the reporter asked. And together we speculated about it.

The reason the question arises is not a general lack of eventfulness in politics, as if reality had slowed once Kerry emerged as the winner. After the nominating season is over, and before the conventions begin, is a stretch of reporting time where lots is happening, but the triggers for news aren’t as automatic. Debates, primary elections, candidates entering and leaving, intra-party attacks— all generate news that must be covered. This differs from news that must be uncovered. That kind, sometimes called enterprise reporting, depends more on the initiative of the journalist.

Uncovering news is always an act of imagination, however. It is not just “digging,” although there is a lot to be said for just that. If the press digs into politics where it thinks there’s a story, then it matters what the press thinks. Imagination—how a journalist pictures things working—plays its part. This is especially so right about now, when a pause in the major narrative allows journalists to pick their spots, and develop more of their own ideas.

And what will the press choose to cover and uncover, or just bring more fully to life for us, during an interval in the cycle when it has maximum discretion over what is news? From my point of view, that is a political question, properly put to the makers of visibility, the amplifiers in the public square. But it is hard to get a political answer from the mainstream press, which wants to avoid taking sides in all disputes.

This stalemate is a source of tension in public culture, especially for the most politically active class as it talks back to elite journalism, which it both needs and attacks. (The bias wars reflect all this.) But until the job description changes, that tension will remain. Maybe some day journalists will be seen on all sides as players, who trigger things in the race and, yes, help shape it, but who do not cook the books for one side or another. We are not there yet.

One of my favorite acts of political reporting is a campaign book by the writer Jonathan Schell. Few people seem to know about it: History in Sherman Park (Knopf, 1987). Schell, on assignment from the New Yorker, spent the 1984 election in one home in a Milwaukee suburb, Sherman Park. “An American Family and the Reagan-Mondale Election,” is subtitle for his sojourn into the ordinary of politics.

He collected a lot of facts, conducted hundreds of interviews and went digging, as all enterprise reporters do. But the journalism part began with an image of politics that Schell had rotated in his mind. If campaigns had become targeted message delivery, why report on campaigns from the delivery side of the message? Would it not make sense—for politics, for journalism— to station a reporter on the receiving end, with the people who are the targets of all this? Schell:

In every election season, the candidates, the candidates’ supporters, the reporters, the commentators, and others in and around the campaigns pour forth their messages—speeches, political advertisements, press conferences, leaks, articles, editorials—hoping to cast light (or to obfuscate), to clarify (or to muddle), to inform, to argue, to persuade, to charm, to dazzle: to win.

I wanted to go to some particular place in America where this bombardment was arriving— where some individual voters were making up their minds whom to vote for as they went about the business of their lives. And, having put myself there, I wanted to look back at the campaigns and their interpreters— and to reflect on what was going on.

There’s the rotated image. In “our system it is the citizens who decide,” Schell writes.

So if in going to Sherman Park to talk to Gina and Bill Gapolinsky I was in one sense seeking out people at the bottom of the political hierarchy—people far from the centers of influence and power, on the receiving end of the government’s decisions—I was in another sense seeking out the people who, under our system, are at the very pinnacle of power.

In another sense is the part I especially like, because in that thought (“seeking out the people who…”) political philosophy and journalism are as close as the two disciplines get.

Sometimes when I bring up these examples, journalists and NYU students will say back to me: “Sure, it’s great that Jonathan Schell can get paid lots of money by the New Yorker, spend months on an assignment with a typical American family, and then do a book for Alfred A. Knopf; but this has nothing do with the daily political reporter who files from the campaign trail and has to cover the governor’s announcement because his boss said so and the competition will be there.” (Hmmmm.)

Which is true. Long form journalism is not a good set of instructions for daily reporting. For most journalists, the virtue of Schell’s example lies elsewhere. It’s always possible to rotate an image of politics in your mind, just to see what looks different.

For example, it would have been possible to report on the campaign stretch just completed, The Democrats Choose Their Guy, as a two-front war: here the war for the nomination, and right over there… the war between the Dean Forces (or forces unleashed by his strange candidacy) and the establishment normally in charge of the Democratic Party.

Without changing any of their rules of objectivity or newsworthiness, reporters could have filed daily from both fronts: Who’s ahead for the nomination, plus, “Who’s ahead, Dean’s Troops or the establishment forces, the strange or the normal pattern in presidential politics?” Both contests deserved plenty of news coverage. Sure, the story frames overlap, but life is like that. And we could have had two—maybe more—winners this way. (For background, this piece from the Washington Post on Dean vs. the party establishment, and my take on it.)

It’s impossible to prove the case, so I leave it as a question to readers. Suppose the image got rotated and the two-front model was put in charge of the narrative. Using it, would the campaign press have come closer, in its week by week accounts, to what actually transpired in politics on the Democratic side? Would it have done any worse with it? Which is the more accurate frame? And if you don’t mind one more puzzler… Which is the real story?

Hit the comment button if you like.

More from PressThink on the campaign press and its narratives:

Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press (March 9, Columbia Journalism Review).

Off The Grid Journalism. (Feb. 29)

What Time is it in Political Journalism? (Feb. 22)

Psst… The Press is a Player (Jan. 22, from

Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!
(Jan. 3, 2004)

Interesting Theory, But Journalists Don’t Do Theory, Do They? (Dec. 18, 2004)

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 10, 2004 4:40 PM   Print


Save for a holistic and objective frame, none can really be complete or even satisfactory. Of course, this is all but impossible given the needs of short form daily reporting. Hence the need for numerous media outlets. But even if a variety of campaign reporting were available, very few people would have time to read/view it all. This raises some important issues, given that most viewers get all their news from the same source. Either each media outlet could do their best to acknowledge multiple causality, or they could continue to let editors and reporters try to confirm their own beliefs through selectively reporting what they think we should think. Now, ignoring multiple causality will always lead to bias in reporting, but bias really is inevitable. Someone has to make the choice to cover any given event, and that selective act itself illustrates bias. If you accept that all news is necessarily biased (and it must be given the truly huge number of events which never receive coverage), then you need to ask yourself Does it even matter? There are two kinds of readers/viewers: those that already have opinions, and those that don't. The first group, a large majority, is likely to gravitate to coverage which reaffirms their beliefs. The second group, predominately passive recipients of mediated information, is pretty vulnerable to suggestion. Now here's the dilemma: to give the second groupers a chance to get the story and form their own opinions, we need a variety of coverage. However, given that these people are most always passive recipients, it's unlikely that they have enough exposure to the news at any one time to be able to take advantage of that variety. This ties back in to the classic utterance that "news is only news once." If big media would stick to a story for more than a week, maybe more people could have their paper and read it too.

Posted by: Jason at March 11, 2004 1:02 AM | Permalink

We actually saw some of that duality in the early stages of the campaigns, pre-primary, when the DLC types were attempting to preemptively nuke Dean. I recall several stories in the New York Times focusing upon the DLC convention (?) and reporting heavily the views of people such as Evan Bayh, Lieberman and various DLC functionaries, who at that time were arguing the folly of attacking Bush on taxes, national security and credibility, which of course have since emerged as the major themes of the Democratic campaign.

The press could easily have maintained that two-track coverage, and in a sense it did, but the subject was transmogrified into that of passion rather than strategy or issues. I think that explains in large part why the coverage devolved to the point that Dean's anguish in Iowa became the obsession it did; reporters in general are uncomfortable with passion and don't recognize it as a legitimate political expression that can coexist with policy preferences, and Dean for them became a means of discrediting it. In the process, the issues that begat the passion were relegated to obscurity.

At this point we're not hearing about that schism in the Democratic party because it essentially doesn't exist anymore: the DLC candidates got creamed despite the anti-passion bias among reporters, and the Dean message in its most basic form - attack Bush - triumphed.

For what it's worth, I had a brief correspondence with Daniel Okrent regarding Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren, who had the Dean beat, and her role in hyping Dean's Iowa moment. Okrent passed my criticism along to Wilgoren, and both she and he agreed that the context - the flap over the scream - justified the infinite feedack loop, and neither acknowledged that the press had essentially created the incident and then reported on their own reaction to the creation and eventually, in Wilgoren's case, reported on Diane Sawyer's interview of the Deans reacting to the collective sin of Onan committed by, among others, Wilgoren. Very postmodern.

All of which is to say that the two-track notion isn't particularly radical or alien, but the complexity of it and in this instance the heat of it seem to frighten or embarass, or both, the reporters responsible for shaping the coverage.

Posted by: weldon berger at March 11, 2004 5:47 AM | Permalink

I'm puzzled as to why just about any daily newspaper COULDN'T do more or less what Schell did: Not write a book, but hang out/stay in touch with a representative, or quasi-representative, readers for the entire campaign, gauging their reaction to, say, TV ads and speeches AND the larger campaign issues, both in the moment and, every so often, in analytical pieces.

Would this really be so hard? I'm just askin'.

Posted by: Lex at March 11, 2004 10:45 AM | Permalink

Jason -- You make two fundamental claims that I'd like to take on.

1. "Most viewers get all their news from the same source."
2. "There are two kinds of readers/viewers: those that already have opinions, and those that don't. The first group, a large majority, is likely to gravitate to coverage which reaffirms their beliefs. The second group, predominately passive recipients of mediated information, is pretty vulnerable to suggestion."

These are the assumptions I discern beneath these claims and some counter-assumptions.

* Assumption: News is a finished product, the embodiment of or at least a proxy for truth. People get it from one source, which is more or less effective at embodying or representing the truth about how the world is.

Counter-assumption: News is an input, an offering, which people take and mix in with their own direct experience of the world, especially their interactions and conversations with other people. So even if it is demonstrable that people get their news from one source, they add so much else to that input that it does not predetermine how they see the world or assess the truth. It may cramp their range of vision or imagination instead of broadening it, which is a shame, but it doesn't predetermine their understanding of the world.

* Assumption: Opinions are fixed. People without fixed opinions are passive (which may be code for lazy or vapid and, as you say expressly, suggestible).

Counter-assumption: Opinions are fluid, shaped by new information, the insights of others, learning from experience, etc. There may be some underlying ideology or pattern of information processing that is consistent, but it doesn't mean people don't change their mind as they engage news, conversation and life. People without opinions at any particular time may form them when they perceive a need for an opinion. More importantly, opinions may well yield over time to judgment as people work through competing claims and competing values.

Press Think as Jay describes it may get in the way of forming opinions or coming to public judgment (Daniel Yankelovich's insightful phrase) and therefore efforts to strengthen journalism are a good idea. But your picture of people as pig-headed or passive seems to offer the same argument for elite guardianship -- we know best for everyone -- that is embodied in the worst journalism.

Posted by: Cole Campbell at March 11, 2004 11:32 AM | Permalink

We have reached a point in journalism where rather than "digging" for a story, it would be nice to see reporters just blow the dust off the initial report.

The best example of this can be seen when the contribution list of the the 527 PAC Americans for Jobs and Healthcare was released. [This is the 527 that ran the anti-Dean, Osama connection adds in December '03] The first reporter who wrote the story immediately jumped on the Toricelli connection . And that was as far as it went.

Now a simple google search on the rest of the list provided enough in depth stories for at least a hundred journalists. No journalist even sought out the people on the list and asked them why they had contributed to this 527?

The path to good journalism in this case did not entail any act of imagination but rather just a commitment to the W basics. In this case Who, When and Why.

Model???? Surely you jest. Consider this, their was a very serious structural problem within the Dean campaign. No journalist either during and even after the Dean campaign had or has looked at the campaign by comparing and contrasting it's structure to a typical structure.

There is something very strange going on under the title of journalism. Whatever it is or whatever it's cause is story in its self. But one thing for sure this new journalism guarantees eight months of frivilious stories that will do little to assist the public in their quest to make a "rational" decision.

Posted by: paul m at March 11, 2004 7:30 PM | Permalink

You completely misread nearly everything I said. When you suggest that I advocate elite guardianship, you make it clear that you don't understand that I was speaking realistically, not as an idealist. Surely, in an ideal world we could all absorb and contemplate news from a variety of sources. We would have time to examine and evaluate the way our existing beliefs are changed on a daily basis. But most people will never have a chance to reflect on what they believe and why they believe it.
Culture, biography, and creativity make us who we are. And you'd be hardpressed to find a social/behavioral scientist who would disagree with my statement that opinion is relatively fixed. It's true that moral outrage can cause us to reevaluate our beliefs, but how often does that happen as a result of reading a newspaper or watching the news?

I never claimed to know what's best for everyone. But just for fun: popular journalism needs to be honest, thorough, and varied. Which would be great, if we had time to watch/read it all.

Posted by: Jason at March 11, 2004 9:23 PM | Permalink

"Which is true. Long form journalism is not a good set of instructions for daily reporting. For most journalists, the virtue of Schell's example lies elsewhere. It's always possible to rotate an image of politics in your mind, just to see what looks different."

Isn't this what Jimmy Breslin has done every day of his working life. It's not like this is a new or startling thought.

Posted by: E.R. Beardsley at March 12, 2004 4:05 AM | Permalink

Isn't the so-called "two-front" story is just a standard "Campaign Factions Battle For Control" story? That is, reporting on the various alliances and schisms within a party or a campaign is part of the typical coverage too, just secondary to the higher-level battles.

Of course framing the questions determines the coverage - isn't that just a restatement of the idea that news is what journalists says news is? (to put it harshly)

But why would you think a lazy journalist would do a better job with one question than another? Seems to me the answers would likely be superficial in any case.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 12, 2004 7:29 AM | Permalink

Here is my cranky response, E.R. and Seth: A while ago, I gave up counting the number of ways and different occasions people find for telling me that what I'm saying isn't "new." I try to avoid that claim (and you won't find "here is a new idea" in this piece, either) but I noticed how little that seems to matter to those bent on my reminding me: this isn't new, you know.

Anyway, you're right. It isn't.

On your other points, Seth: There is no idea good enough, no suggestion fertile enough, to prevent lazy reporters from doing lazy journalism.
The rest of your comments amount to the same comment you have offered many times, Seth, on a wide range of subjects: "fancy language, Rosen, but you aren't saying anything different or significant, and even if you were, nothing is likely to change." (Cranky response, I said.) But don't stop commenting, Seth.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 12, 2004 8:44 AM | Permalink

Does a campaign coverage style driven by short form daily reporting make sense when in all likelihood the vast majority of the public is tuning in to the campaign much less frequently than that (particularly during this pre-convention stretch -- see Moreover, most of the "enterprise" these days seems to be a takeoff on the raw material of short-form reporting, rather than reporters pursuing original ideas (like the Sherman Park project) even for just a week. For example, look how many stories have been spun off of whether or not John Kerry said foreign leaders want him to beat President Bush, and meanwhile the original reporter is now saying that he misheard Kerry's original quote.

Posted by: Patience at March 16, 2004 1:24 PM | Permalink

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