Look, you’re right, okay? But you’re also wrong.

Feb.
3
A post that arises from a certain image I have of disaffected newsroom “traditionalists,” who look upon changes in journalism since the rise of the web with fear and loathing. It is not addressed to particular people but to a climate of mind I’ve encountered a lot in blogging about all this since 2003.

Look, you’re right. About a lot of things.

Editing by click rate is stupid and unethical. Chasing traffic is an abyss. The hamsterization of journalism is degrading the work environment for news professionals. Expecting reporters to report, write, blog, tweet, shoot video, sift the web, raise their metabolism, and produce more without time and training is guaranteed to fail. Trading in print dollars for digital dimes has been an economic disaster for newsrooms that ran on those dollars. Online advertising will never replace what was lost. The editorial staff is the engine that makes the whole thing go. You cannot cut your way to the future. The term “content” is a barbarism that bit by bit devalues what journalists do. Pure aggregation is parasitic on original reporting. Untended, online comment sections have become sewers, protectorates for the deranged, depraved and deluded. That we have fewer eyes on power, fewer journalists at the capital or city hall watching what goes on, almost guarantees that there will be more corruption. Bloggers and citizen journalists cannot fill the gap. Experienced beat reporters are the community’s institutional memory. Everyone needs an editor. It’s absurd to claim that “anyone” can be a journalist if we mean by that someone who knows how to find the right sources and ask the right questions, dig for information, counter the spin, produce a fair, accurate and unflinching account without libeling anybody– and do it all on deadline.

But you’re wrong about a lot of things too.

Being ignorant and uninvolved in “the business side” has been a disaster for the newsroom. For all its strengths, separation of church and state also meant no seat at the table when the big decisions were made. Anyone who doesn’t want to know what the numbers say should not be trusted with editorial decisions. Listening to demand is smart journalism, so is giving people what they have no way to demand because they don’t know about it yet. If you are good at one, the other goes better. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” isn’t a slogan, it’s your only hope for comprehensive coverage. Figuring out how to make things happen at lower cost is intrinsic to quality journalism today. Pack journalism and duplicative coverage mock your claims of crisis. In the aggregate, the users know more than you do about most things. They are in many more places than you can be. They also help distribute your stuff. Therefore talking with them is basic to your job. Google isn’t the source of your troubles; it sends you traffic. Digitally, the original sin wasn’t failing to charge when the first news sites came online; it was re-purposing the old platform’s material. A journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class. The First Amendment doesn’t mention your occupation; it refers to everyone’s right to publish. “Who’s a journalist?” leads nowhere so drop it.

62 Comments

  1. Ken Smith says:

    More ideas for the two paragraphs:

    “You’re right”–that substantial, two-page spread on an issue of local significance is a thing of beauty in the Sunday paper.

    “You’re wrong”–if you don’t see ways that the same piece online could become the seed-coral for a growing reef of expert and citizen-aided content that would make the go-to site on that issue for the people of the region.

  2. […] Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, has been blogging for 10 years about the Internet’s impact on journalism. He’s distilled a decade’s worth of his observations in this short post, only two paragraphs long. Have a look and see if you agree with him. – Jill Elswick via http://pressthink.org/2013/02/look-youre-right-okay-but-youre-also-wrong/ […]

  3. Jay Rosen says:

    Ken: I addressed some of that in my 2008 post, National Explainer:

    http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/08/13/national_explain.html

  4. advertising in news journalism: so now there is no real news in main stream media. internet redesigned so that strangers may not easily talk to each other. robber barons rule. and reporting not the whole well rounded truth, such as with the economy: as you are supposed to know that a rich king can own mountains of gold, pay his bills, but pay poverty wage, will still have a poverty state. the New Deal era facts were lost by the journalists first, is this: why? when i have these facts, and had to recover them. journalists should have. …this journalist era is at an end. CBS and other such censor orgs will have to announce loud, that they do censor.

  5. Tim says:

    Excellent! The conciseness is admirable. Every sentence added to the point.

    This sentence may need some unpacking: “A journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class.”

    There are many cases (classes?) of informed citizens who are more or less active/interested in local, state, and federal activities – political as well as the many activities that are not political.

    There are many non-informed citizens on any specific topic and some on most topics.

    The role of journalists based on their relationship to the topic, their audience, and their audiences relationship to the topic creates more than “just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class.”

    Thanks again for the great post!

  6. Marc says:

    I tripped over this line:

    The editorial staff is the engine that makes the whole thing go.

    What is the “whole thing” in this context? The journalism ecosystem or the “news” publishing business? Because I seriously question the latter.

    I say that because I was deeply troubled to learn that at least at one point, the medium-size metro daily I recently left was selling an “ads only” package at numbers reaching 20% of its total circulation. (Even more troubling is I think it was actually counted as circulation meaning the percentage was higher).

    In short people were buying the paper “for the ads” but in this case exactly for the ads because that’s all they got. Worst still this thing wasn’t exactly being pushed and yet was still selling.

  7. H. Barca says:

    I appreciate your publishing the list and I would agree with most of both. But I have rarely seen a digital evangelical like yourself lay out the first list and that is refreshing. I don’t think your fellow Digital First advisory board members, Jeff Jarvis and Emily Bell, would have the guts to do it. I hope you will share the list with John Paton and Dean Singleton before the second bankruptcy destroys what is left of the news organizations they are unraveling.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I already shared it with John Paton and the advisory board. But they would have seen it anyway, eventually. Many of the points I make here were influenced by Jeff Jarvis and Emily Bell, so I have to disagree with you that they would never write such a thing. Cheers.

      • H. Barca says:

        I’ll try to find any articles where Jarvis or Bell question the no-paywall digital-first ideology. Seven years plus in, the digitals have their own crumudgeons who won’t consider opposing viewpoints, just as the “no change” print crumudgeons gummed things up a decade ago. This was a refreshing exercise. Thanks.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        There is no such thing as a “no paywall” Digital First ideology. You simply made that up. Digital First Media has experimented with paywalls and other ways of drawing revenues from users, as John Paton makes clear in this blog post:

        http://jxpaton.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/paywall2/

  8. Pelham says:

    Nobody else to my knowledge maintains this, but if someone did, he’d be right to say that:

    Look, the online world is entirely inappropriate for any kind of serious journalism. Research has repeatedly shown that the Internet fundamentally rewires the human brain to respond to fluff and quick-hit, titillating content while numbing it to substantive, in-depth fare. Best to leave the Internet to the kind of garbage that fits its nature — porn, pet videos and trolls.

    By the way, the First Amendment doesn’t mention doctors and lawyers, either, but there’s a damned high bar that aspirants in either field have to clear to practice their profession. So we aren’t necessarily wrong to ask who’s a journalist; even knuckle-draggers can be right from time to time.

    • Anonymous says:

      “The Internet” is a network for delivering data. Whether you find the cream or the crap on it is up to you. If you think it’s only good for “porn, pet videos and trolls,” that may reveal more about your own browsing habits than about the Internet itself.

    • Pelham – you’re entirely, utterly, completely wrong about the online world being inappropriate for serious journalism: that’s simply tripe. I’ve read masses more serious journalism on the web in the past four or five years than I have in print, and I’ve been directed to masses more serious journalism on the web in that time than I could have been directed to in print as well. There is just as much room for “long form” writing on the web – more so, in fact – than there is in print, and it’s vastly easier to reach a mass audience on the web than in print as well. It’s simply blind prejudice to say the web is fit only for fluff. Have you not noticed via which medium we’re having this conversation? Clue: it’s not print.

  9. Saul Hansell says:

    Jay-
    This post does what so much journalism should do but doesn’t: Concisely go over what we know to be true and what we know to be false.

    One area to add to your list of traditional newsroom attitudes that need to change is the alienation from technology. Traditionally newsroom “systems” are delivered by some scorned corporate department only to be groused about by the technologically illiterate editorial staff like the watery coffee in the cafeteria.

    Today, our software is just as central to what we make as our words, images, and insight. And it is just as important for us to think about how integrate reporting, writing, designing and coding as it is to figure out how to draw the best from full-time, part-time, amateur and electronic contributors.

    Saul Hansell,
    CEO Sii.TV

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Excellent point, Saul. If I had thought of that… I would have included it.

      • Barbara Phillips Long says:

        Good quality software would make such a difference. Have foundations focused on journalism considered working with a software company to produce a software product that actually does what journalists need it to do without a lot of technical knowledge? Having a good quality workable, off-the-shelf system would be a boon for small newspapers, local websites and serious bloggers in addition to larger newspapers.

        Would local journalism be helped by a site that provided domain names and hosting specifically for news and designed to be easy for those who are technologically challenged to use?

        • Saul Hansell says:

          Barbara- The issue isn’t software as such it is people who think they can be journalists in this age and simply be content to define themselves as technologically challenged. The craft is hard. Every day we are linguistically challenged, visually challenged, historically challenged, not to mention challenged by stone walling and downright dishonest officials.

          Our success comes when we-each of us–accepts and meets all of those challenges, including those posed by the enormous potential of today’s technology.

          old newsroom: Systems and software are done by others
          new newsroom: Our work is words, images and bits

          • Tim says:

            “Every day [journalists] are linguistically challenged, visually challenged, historically challenged, not to mention challenged by stone walling and downright dishonest officials.”

            One of the reasons I think journalism is so error prone is that the challenges are so numerous and journalists, like all of us, have many areas that they dislike, don’t understand, or don’t think fall in the job description.

            This is why journalistic humility is so important: “reduce the harm from each error and each slippage from the objective news ideal by reducing the majesty of your claim to know.”

          • Gabe says:

            Tim and Saul make an extremely important point. Too few editors are technologists. Too many newsrooms think about technology only when it fails rather than thinking about it as a part of the craft just like the reporter’s notebook and the inverted pyramid.

            What Tim wrote is especially interesting because there are many parallels between the challenges journalists face and the challenges software developers face. In both cases, there is lots of ambiguity, no right answer and guaranteed failure (software bugs) that must be approached in terms of minimization rather than outright prevention. This familiarity may be one explanation for the rise and relative success of embedded programmer-journalists.

            Extending the concept, I think we are not too far from the rise of the Editor-in-Chief/PM Director who integrates and manages editorial and tech with one vision. We see that departmentally in some newsrooms today, but they’re still the result of editors telling a few editors, programmers and designers to “go over there and conduct your little experiment.” What happens when you apply the integrated approach to an entire news organization?

          • Tim says:

            “many parallels between the challenges journalists face and the challenges software developers face”

            I may be biased by my own experience (software, not journalism), the fact checker and editors would have a test plan and quality assurance/configuration management process for the reporters’ products.

            Ideally, the tech used by reporters to build/submit their products would integrate or support testing and QA/CM (facts, plagiarism, anonymous sourcing, …). Maybe it could also support digital first/do what you do best and link to the rest reporting.

          • Barbara Phillips Long says:

            I agree that journalists face challenges and have to add technological skills. I think it is worth examining the contention that all journalists should have high levels of software skills.

            There have been many forums where people have dragged out the buggy whip analogy when they’re describing technologically challenged journalists as obsolete. Another analogy would be that journalists today must necessarily become more technologically skilled because the technology is still developing in unpredictable ways; an analogy would be to early drivers of automobiles, who needed to be able to crank the vehicle to start it, make minor repairs and patch tires to keep it going.

            When do journalists become the drivers of today, driving sophisticated equipment without having to understand how it works or how to program it? A further question is what will be the role of the journalist in a more distant future, when technology does most of the reporting; an analogy would be the role of the driver in a partially self-driving car.

            I think it’s unfortunate that journalism didn’t approach technology by teaming reporters with software specialists. It seems to me we’re requiring journalists to become generalists who are good with software and can write competently and shoot video competently and create statistical graphs competently without considering the value of subject specialization. By never using a job-sharing teamwork model, the newspaper business has discarded decades, if not centuries, worth of specialized topical experience to get reporters and editors with software skills.

            There are some journalists who are technologically challenged because they chose not to learn technology. There are some journalists who are technologically challenged because the way technology works seems illogical to them. There are other journalists who needed training and didn’t receive it. There are some journalists who pursued technology as a hobby and found it helped them in their jobs. There are journalists who pursued education in dual topics and learned to create software and report, check facts and history, design news presentations and more — but are they the rule, or the exceptions?

            I remain unconvinced that every journalist needs to understand everything that’s under the hood in order to drive a good story onto the Internet. I’d like to see software that allows more journalists to specialize, and a business model that provides enough funding for newsroom units that combine specialists in subject matter, technology and production to give us interesting and reliable insight into government actions and policy and the lives of people around us.

            I think there’s too much advice to journalists that’s predicated on getting rid of people dependent on buggy whips in order to produce people who can drive a Model T or an Edsel. Some work for journalism sites involves writing or other forms of storytelling, other work is data entry, and some work is coding. We may need journalists who can code to get us past the Edsel stage, but there should still be plenty for traditional journalists to contribute if they’re teamed up properly.

            What is the opportunity cost of having software specialists shoot video or having writers do data entry?

          • Tim says:

            Well said, Barbara.

            There is a difference between:

            – technology adoption for information gathering including shoe-leather, telephone, reading other papers, watching TV, email, IM/social media, etc.

            – technology adoption for production including pencil/paper, typewriter, tape recorder, word processor, video camera, CMS, computer/tablet/smartphone, apps, code, etc.

            – technology adoption for production teams that allows “more journalists to specialize, and a business model that provides enough funding for newsroom units that combine specialists in subject matter, technology and production to give us interesting and reliable insight into government actions and policy and the lives of people around us.”

      • Terry Heaton says:

        This is so true, Saul, and I’ll tell you why. What we see with our eyes online is an illusion created by technology. A newspaper website isn’t really a paper, even though it looks like it and is sold like it. The geeks who built everything know this, but journalists who only “use” it miss everything that’s real about it. It’s the back end handshake that matters, and news for the Web cannot be presented in the same way as news in the world of the senses. They’re simply different. I think the J-schools are looking to rectify this, but that doesn’t help the argument with the traditionalists in the trade.

        • Tim says:

          Terry,

          “news for the Web cannot be presented in the same way as news in the world of the senses. They’re simply different.”

          No they’re not. News for the web exists in the world of senses to be usable by humans. The “back end handshake” brings a more interactive multimedia capability for presenting news to the human world of senses (primarily sight and sound, but tactile is around the corner). It is not surprising the news orgs see the web as a newspaper and/or TV. What they don’t take advantage of enough is that it is both and so much more.

          • Terry Heaton says:

            I’m not sure why I’m responding here, Tim. Perhaps it’s because I feel you’ve completely missed the point. The two are indeed different, for even the addition of source links or linkable references separates the two. Moreover, the ability to store parts or pieces eliminates the need for whole summaries, which is another huge difference. RSS is a delivery option thanks to the handshake, but because people like you think there’s no difference, RSS is only used to tease people for clicks, again, totally defeating its intended purpose.

          • Tim says:

            Terry, I may be missing the point and appreciate the opportunity to grok it. I think what you are saying is news for a paper medium is different from news for a computer displaying content in a browser. Where citations or references could be used on paper, but are not expected in news stories on paper, hyperlinks are expected in a news story on the web. Where video makes no sense for paper, it is required for TV, and optional for the web.

            Where I think we differ is I don’t segregate the Internet with its myriad transport and presentation protocols from our “world of senses” that include the numerous other communication technologies we’ve accumulated since the 19th century that are also used to distribute the news.

            What I have used to understand their differences is visualizing the news process in layers and the infrastructural and structural biases of the presentation layer for human consumption. I agree with you that news for paper is *different* at the presentation layer than news for radio, television, email, SMS/IM, web, etc.

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  19. Jesse Emspak says:

    I think, Mr. Rosen, that there’s a bit of straw-manning going on here.

    A lot of reporters I know are or were “technologically challenged” but the real problem is the assumption that technology is the issue here. In one sense it isn’t. There’s a bigger issue of things like labor relations and control of the workplace.

    The hamsterization you bring up is a prime example. None of this stuff is magic; the technologies that we use are driven by decisions about the business. And making people write no less than five articles in a day (I had a job like this) and linking to other stuff is a sure way to just burn people out.

    And lots of reporters were and are interested in the “business side.” But you know what? The deliberate destruction of organized labor and the one representative that workers — the reporters and editors — had at the table had a wee bit to do with not getting a seat, dontcha think? Everyone at the NYT is a freaking employee. They don’t get a seat anyway, not without the union and in this country, the US, not even then.

    In other developed nations, and some developing ones, there’s still a vibrant journalistic culture that is centered on stuff you might deride as old-fashioned. Yet it works. Some of that is the way they structure labor relations.

    And the assumption that a reporter never talks to users is simply silly, at least if you have ever worked at a local paper. I mean, who the heck do you think reads your stuff in those places? Non-users? Good local reporters talk to their readers all the damned time. It’s where you get your stories!

    And looked at that way, even the people who cover Washington or an industry do it as a community, whether they realize it or not.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      The “bet” I made in this piece is that people who know newsrooms and the occupational culture of journalism would recognize many of the attitudes I write about here as broadly representative of a mindset that does exist, even if there are many exceptions and some over-generalizations.

      If it doesn’t work for you, and you don’t recognize the “climate of mind” I said I was writing about, then for you the piece fails.

      But I am sticking with my bet.

      • Generalizations or straw-manning aside, I think Jesse hits on an important point with the labor issue. Too often, “figuring out how to make things happen at a lower cost” in journalism just means exploiting the labor of the creative class. Is there a “you’re wrong” angle, or any kind of on-the-other-hand, to give us hope here?

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  23. Jason Lopez says:

    “In the aggregate, the users know more than you do about most things.”

    Serious question: has there been a single
    enterprise report, presented as a cohesive prepared work which one could take in no differently than consuming from The New York Times or National Public Radio, executed by a group of unorganized contributors.

    I’m talking about a piece finished in a timely fashion and presented in a compelling story format.

    As far as I can tell, the “wisdom of crowds” exerted on storytelling works about as well as producing films using focus groups — where the pieces appeal to many more people than the whole.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Unorganized contributors produce compelling and coherent enterprise journalism on a par with the New York Times?

      No, I don’t know of any such thing.

      And I don’t think it’s a serious question, either. Who said they had? Who said they could?

      You should have a go at The Wisdom of Crowds and actually read the book. It doesn’t say what you think it says.

  24. Luis Hernandez says:

    Well said, but I always want to take issue with the idea that not being involved in the business side was a disaster for the newsroom. It presupposes that things could have been different if journalists had gotten involved and I don’t think that’s true. Journalists, of which I am one, were left out because they were, and in some cases still are, the ones most resistant to changes in the business. The failures of the business side would not have been avoided by journalists sitting at the table. Too often people blame journalistic hubris for the failure of online news organizations, but that lays on the owners, not the journalists.

  25. John Wark says:

    Interesting and clever. But also precious and parochial. And backwards.

    Perhaps I think this because of the tricky business that arises from the perceived values of the advance of technology. We’re drawn in a rush to a new vantage point, a “future” from which we look back, and in which we erect new parameters for our thinking. That doesn’t make the view, thinking, parameters, or future “right.” Rather, our use does.

    Perhaps journalists don’t recognize the importance of this framework for discussing the future not because their luddites, but because it’s not journalism that’s being discussed here.

    “Journalist” is not a dismissive ad hominem to a true journalist, who by the way, also already knows he is included in the Bill of Rights, along with all other citizens. Also (sorry) a journalist, and those who appreciate journalism, will tend to ask “Who is a journalis?.” It’s the nature of the job to ask questions — and also to include in reporting on these issues the questions others raise, not only one’s own questions, giving particularly clear consideration to those question that self-interested parties insist not be asked.

    A journalist might also point out that the First Amendment is not quite worded the way you have it. You write to any journalists reading, “The First Amendment doesn’t mention your occupation; it refers to everyone’s right to publish.” I am not a First Amendment attorney but is it about “everyone’s right to publish?” Or does it actually guarantee we all collectively enjoy a right to “freedom…of the press?” Are they the same thing? Or is one the vehicle for the other? The press being the delivery system or organization through which we publish? (The press is like the delivery system used to put medicine in a body needing help. The new technology is the delivery system, an inchoate and fast-changing amorphous organization that wants to be the new press.

    The issue is what information is pumped through the delivery system. And this information is decidedly not all alike, not all equally reliable, or even true. But the public is not aware of this.

    What is omitted in arguments framed in the way this one is here on this website is … a lot. A least from the journalistic view.

    The core of the issue to a journalist is the critical role journalism plays in keeping Democracy healthy and functional, in providing useful and opinion-free information able to inform and educate the electorate, in advancing and protecting the rights of the economically powerless and society’s most vulnerable, in reporting on abuses of power, manipulation of the marketplace, or deceit designed to mask motives and confuse the public in order to create cover that allows vested interests to do harm and grow stronger, and so on.

    It is not a matter of new technology saying times have changed, there is that, now there is this.
    To a journalist the core mission is the same.

    What is omitted — though you teasingly suggest you have not omitted it — is an argument on the technology side that clearly expresses support for the goals of journalism, from the safeguarding of freedom and our right to privacy to ways that will improve and contribute to the role journalism plays in the checks and balance provided no place else.

    The lack of such a focus marks this piece about something other than journalism. Maybe its about, oh I don’t know, the disruptive spirit of Mac vox populi in contemporary Democratic systems?

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