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May 6, 2005

Each Nation its Own Press

Part of what I plan to say at the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in Melbourne next week. I'm on my way there today, and may report in next week. Expect guest blogger Len Witt. Big wave to Blognashville.

Today I am off to Australia to participate in the 2005 Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in Melbourne, where I will join Lance Knobel on the May 11th program, Reporting Change: the media and innovation. It’s a big honor to be part of this series, and to be visiting Australia for the first time. (I will be in Melbourne May 8-12th, Sidney May 13-15.) Larry Lessig and Joi Ito will be speaking in the same series, among many other accomplished people.

(In my place Leonard Witt of the Public Journalism Network will be guest blogging.)

You can read Lance’s lecture, Navigating Through the New Media Democracy, here. Below is part of my lecture— an excerpt from the more scholarly and prepared remarks. In Part Two I will be speaking more from notes, personal impressions and web pages.

Each Nation its Own Press

2005 Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures
Melbourne, Australia

by Jay Rosen, New York University & PressThink

In a state of nature there is no such thing as a free press. It has to be created— typically, we think, by law. Therefore we have not one press in the world, (which would be frightening) but one for each nation that has launched a free press, and kept the experiment going.

Laws making it legal to publish news tend to be the laws of one country. The publics gathered for news tend to be national publics, composed of many smaller, intricate and overlapping parts. It makes sense to speak of the Australian Press because it makes sense to speak of the Australian state, nation, people, political tradition, and public. There are institutions that correspond to these abstractions, and thousands of rituals bind them all together.

It dates from only 1976, but the Australian Press Council is of course one way we know the press is organized by category of nation. So is The Australian, the newspaper, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, to name the obvious examples. They reflect press identity as national identity. They also create it. (We have no press council in the United States, by the way. It was tried once and the New York Times, among others, killed it.)

The Canadian press is an empirically observable thing. The North American press? No. Nothing there, no rituals to observe. The English-speaking press is a valid abstraction, but that’s about all. There is no institution to correspond with that idea.

With English literature, however, we find a different story; an observable social history and family tree—a field—stretching across English-speaking countries. They study English literature in English Departments in the United States, but in Journalism Departments like mine at NYU, we take it as given that the American model is normal journalism. The British press might be a curiosity; but it is not a starting point for educating young journalists in the United States.

The American experiment with a free press begins in the eighteen century at a certain point in our political history, prior to the war of independence. When arguments for breaking away from England were sustained by writers and printers in America, the writers and printers became actors in those arguments, and by such means a national experiment with a free press was born in the United States.

A little while later, arguments for how to form a government, and what kind was best, were floated in newspapers and pamphlets. The mythology of the American press rightly begins with the famous patriot, writer and international trouble maker Tom Paine, who wrote Common Sense in January of 1776. Today, is a news and opinion website that I read, and occasionally write for. That’s what I meant by a social history. Then, as now, the press is a circulator of public argument, pushing ideas against events to create editorial traction and grab attention.

Many sharp people have noticed that we are living today in a great era of pamphleteering made possible by the Internet, along with one of its native forms and most powerful inventions— the modern weblog, which is only an aspect of an even more powerful invention: the interconnected sphere of weblogs.

I happen to have one, a blog called PressThink, and it exists within that sphere, so I can tell you a lot about blogs, blogging and the blogosphere later. My point at the moment: it is one press from Tom Paine’s Common Sense in 1776 to today, and to PressThink, and thousands of similar sites. The American press has a specific life “span” and of course the experiment is still going today.

Let’s dig a little deeper, then, into the start of the story in America. I won’t state them but I think you will find certain points of contact with the Australian puzzle.

Among the objections to the proposed Constitution was the “extent of territory” to be put under one federal government. All wisdom alive at the time said that a republic could survive only if it remained small and homogeneous. A huge territory like the United States could be governed from the center only as an empire, or monarchy. History gave no enduring examples of a republic so large. (A typical title for a pamphlet about this: “Extent of Territory Under Consolidated Government Too Large to Preserve Liberty or Protect Property.”)

One of the replies to this argument, put forward by supporters of the new scheme, involved the press, and communication channels generally, which at that time included transportation because messages moved at the speed that goods and people did. So in reply to fears about “extent of territory” it was said that while people could not easily circulate around such a large space, the newspapers would circulate instead, bringing news to people that those people might have once brought themselves to the local marketplace. A jump in scale was said to be possible because the circulation of news on that scale was thought possible.

With the press as part of the grand design, one could extend republican government—and political imagination, national symbols, patriotic feeling—over a larger territory than once thought, because with good roads, canals, mail service and newspapers the scattered parts can yet be in touch with the whole. What happens at the center can now reach the margin. Citizens can read about what they cannot hear about or experience directly. But that is enough, it was argued, to keep in touch with their representatives. While news flowed from the capital to the towns and farms, word also filtered back, through letters and the press, so that the margin could talk to the center, too.

And it was this rhythm—which was imagined, before it actually happened—that made political life in an extended republic seem almost practical. In fact it was a great gamble to set up the kind of government the founders of the United States wanted. A jump in scale requires imagery to jump into, and we had that. Some of it came from press.

And because arguments like this one, about scale and the circulation of newspapers, won the day, the press as a practical instrument—a connector, and circulation system—figures in the founding of the United States. The broad distribution of news was factored into the design as one solution to how a scattered population in a big and menacingly empty space might be expected to elect its governors, and recall them if needed.

This is one reason freedom of the press is spelled out in the Constitution of the United States, in the very First Amendment. The press helped make the American Republic imaginable when it was first drawn up, and argued into existence. That is a constitutional thing to do.

An organization called the Freedom House has published every year a report called Freedom in the World, a comparison of political rights and civil liberties in 192 countries and 14 other territories that are country-like. The current report lists 75 countries where there is a free press (39 percent of the total); 50 that are partly free, (26 percent) and 69 not free at all (35 percent.) The freest, and number 1 on the list is Finland. Australia is Number 30, just behind the United States at 29. North Korea, of course, is at the bottom of the list. New Zealand is number 10.

I should like to think that we have in our imaginations reserved a place for a free press in every place on earth where there could and should be one. China, for example, does not now have a free press, except in zones where something resembling it is allowed by the authorities to go on. But there is a place in the club waiting for China, if you will forgive the flip expression. When that place is taken up what an adventure in liberty it will be.

But not just liberty. The Indian economist Amartya Sen examined the record and concluded as follows:

One remarkable fact in the terrible history of famine is no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form government and a relatively free press. They have occurred in ancient kingdom and in contemporary authoritarian societies, in primitive tribal communities and in modern technocratic dictatorships, in colonial economies governed by imperialists and in newly independent countries run by despotic national leaders or by intolerant single parties. But famines have never afflicted any country that is independent, holds regular elections, has opposition parties and permits newspapers to question the wisdom of government policies.

And so there is something to the idea that the circulation of news will sustain liberty over the extended territory of the modern nation. It’s not just an abstraction. Sen says so. And that’s one reason why the figures shown in the Freedom House report matter.

If every free press we have around the globe—which is a finite though changing number—had to be created somehow, who is the creator? Well, it is not god, it is not nature, it is not publishers and editors and journalists (who are key to the story) it is not, typically, kings. I would say it is nations— civil societies when they become open societies. They have been the creators of the press, and of traditions in journalism. Within the national frame the practice of journalism becomes legal, the press becomes stable, local traditions can develop, and institutions with life spans emerge.

Each nation its own press has always been true. But it is a fact of special importance today because, due to changes in the world that an honest lecturer must call “historic,” (even though he is wary of a term of hype like that one) each nation will shortly have a chance to re-establish or overhaul its own press. Or to create one anew. And that is a moment for careful thought.

For as the great migration to a new platform, the Internet, is made, while the very media tools once commandeered by professionals fall into public hands; as the larger media universe is re-built around many-to-many rules, following 300 years or so of one-to-many improvements that created the Mass Media; as vertical communication (moving messages up and down the social hierarchy) adjusts to all the effective horizontal forms (including e-mail, instant messaging, weblogs and others) we now have; and as the makers of mass media discover that the old, atomized, passive and one-way audience is no more… there will be moments of slippage, when suddenly “the press” falls apart, and has to be put back together again, but with new parts.

Or something fails in the old way of defining and imagining the press, and a new image is urgently needed.

Or maybe people ask questions like, “wait a minute, who is a journalist?” or my favorite, “what are journalists for, anyway?” and the old answers just no longer work.

Or maybe after years of preaching detachment journalists suddenly have to decide what their a-ttachment to the republic and to people is.

They are here now and more are coming: These moments of rupture in the life and times of a free press, when the story leaves off, or gives out, and we have to begin it over again in order to keep it going.

It is at those moments, each one a little adventure in liberty, that we should be ready with our best ideas—about news, journalism, political communication, authorship, nation, patriotism, citizenship, and the purpose of having a free press—for these may be necessary. Watch out: They may also spring to life.

It goes without saying (well, maybe it doesn’t) that in the Australian public sphere it will have to be Australian ideas about the press and what journalists are truly for. It goes without saying (well, maybe it doesn’t) that there is a big opportunity for innovation there. No one knows what a many-to-many journalism looks like, after all.

If for me as an American, there is one story from the founding of a free press in the 1770s to the ruptures of the present, the natural question, from an international trouble maker’s point of view, is where to take that story today.

Are you with me?

The Internet presents us with the extension of “the press” to the people we have traditionally called the public. The experiment in press freedom has been given a new set of conditions, another start in a long series of fits and starts. It’s time to start talking about what in the world we want from the next press, since in this sphere we are free once again to invent.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links compiled by guest blogger Leonard Witt…

Hello, all, I’m Leonard Witt. I blog over at, which was set up as place to give public journalism a navigation tool into the 21st Century. One of the blogging spinoffs is that I get emails from people around the globe interested in public journalism. So I was struck by Jay’s comment that “each nation will shortly have a chance to re-establish its own press. Or to create one anew. And that is a moment for careful thought.”

I personally have been giving a lot of thought to just that topic in the last couple of weeks because I have been asked to give a weeklong – 20-hour workshop on public journalism for journalists in Quito, Ecuador.

Ecuador in Freedom in the World gets a “partly free” rating and ranks 92 worldwide.

Of course, I am looking for advice from others who have given journalism workshops internationally, especially around the topic of public journalism.

Cheryl Gibbs, a journalism professor at Miami University, Ohio, wrote in an email about her experience in Colombia: As I recall, I had the graduate students in my one-week class do brief “listening post/talk to citizens” exercises that were pretty revolutionary for them. They were so focused on covering the news from the perspective of those in power that they had never listened to regular folks to find story ideas or thought of positioning them in their thinking as experts based on their experiences as citizens.

She added: Citizens in Colombia were often very reluctant to be quoted, due to the potential dangers of going public with a point of view.

And the statement that impressed her the most was from a student in a Q&A session who stood up and said, “If you’re not willing to die for journalism, then you shouldn’t be a journalist.”

Sounds like he should be giving lectures here.

Jay, Grant Young, in Australia, asks this about the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures, “Is there a podcast in the works?”

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 6, 2005 1:32 PM