What I Think I Know About Journalism

Next month I will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years, an occasion that has led me to reflect on what I have tried to profess in that time.

26 Apr 2011 1:42 am 71 Comments

Or, to put it another way, what I think I know about journalism.

It comes down to these four ideas.

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will become.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

Shall we take them in order?

The more people who participate in it the stronger the press will be.

The more people involved in flying the airplane, or moving the surgeon’s scalpel during a brain operation, the worse off we probably are. But this is not true in journalism. It benefits from participation, as with Investigate your MP’s expenses, also called crowd sourcing, or this invitation from the Los Angeles Times: share public documents. A far simpler example is sources. If sources won’t participate, there often is no story. Witnesses contribute when they pull out their cameras and record what is happening in front of them. The news system is stronger for it.

In 1999, I wrote a whole book on this idea: What Are Journalists For? It’s about what we now call engagement. But that was pre-Web. Today we can do a lot more. According to the internet’s one percent rule, a very small portion of the users will become serious contributors, which is still a lot of people. Let’s say you’re a beat reporter who has a niche blog on the local public schools (like this one) with a loyal user base of 10,000. If the one percent rule is accurate, 100 of those loyal users are likely to become heavy contributors if given the chance. They should be given that chance. It will strengthen the site.

That’s what I believe. But we still don’t know much about how to make these pro-am combinations work, because for a very long time the news system was optimized for low participation. Switching it over is extremely difficult. Even CNN’s i-Report, which claims 750,000 contributors worldwide, is poorly integrated into the main CNN newsroom. In what Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, calls the “mutualization” of journalism, most of the big discoveries lie ahead of us. So we ought to get cracking.

The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

It’s Bill Keller insisting that “torture” is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics. It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was “taking sides” when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies. But it’s also the reporter who has to master the routine of “laundering my own views [by] dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.” And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism. It’s the way CNN “leaves it there” when two guests give utterly conflicting accounts.

Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence— most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.

“Harsh interrogation” isn’t a more objective term than torture. Rather, it appears to offer more protection against charges of bias. But these stratagems haven’t worked. The View from Nowhere is increasingly mistrusted. Journalists have to go back and fix the wrong turn they took.

The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

In the 1970s and ’80s, a number of classics in press scholarship were written by social scientists (like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman) who went into newsrooms to study how decisions were made there. They all observed that routines drive what happens in journalism, and that these routines ultimately served the demands of a particular production cycle: the daily newspaper, the 6 p.m. broadcast, the monthly magazine. Ideas about what journalism is–and even what it can be–get frozen within these routines as they become second nature to the people who have mastered them.

Look at how J-schools organized the curriculum and you can see what I mean: there’s newspaper journalism, magazine journalism, broadcast journalism. Why do we teach it that way? Because the production routine is god. Master that and you’ve learned the business.

But that was during the era of heavy industry. The lighter, cheaper, and less restrictive publishing tools that we have today can free the news system from its production gods. The new gods are the users themselves, and what they find useful for staying informed and participating in public life— you know, getting things done. Which is why I’ve said that the simplest way to add value in journalism is to save the user time.

Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

There’s a reason why the word narrative has been on the rise in journalism, almost to the point of cliche. It’s become obvious to people that good information alone cannot inform us. News stories pushed at us can be defeated by narratives with greater pull. Under conditions of abundance, the arc of attention matters more than the availability of information.

To feel informed, we also need background knowledge, a framework into which the relevant facts can be put. Or, as I put it in 2008, “There are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop.”

In The Lost Art of Argument, Christopher Lasch said we should invert the usual order of information and debate. “We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually understood as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of information. Otherwise, we take in information passively– if we take it in at all.”

So that’s what I think I know about journalism, after 25 years of teaching it, studying it, and writing about it.

Of course, I’m still learning.


Jay – Great post – but the point that stuck out to me most was #3, about shifting the emphasis to create and develop journalism that is of “use” to citizens. This resonates with my experience, traveling around the country talking with communities about what they want/need from their local media, and strategizing about how to get it. Over and over again, I have heard that too much local news is not of use, because of the topics that are covered, or because of the way it is covered. People want information that empowers them, and connects them in active ways to their neighbors, government, and community.

I’d argue this goes beyond “what they find useful for staying informed,” to news organizations that actually help provide clarity around how to use that information to make change. I’m not suggesting newsrooms become the new civics classroom, so much as giving people an on-ramp from civic information to civic participation. I think California Watch, amongst others, has been doing this well. This idea ties together all your points, as it calls for great context, calls for deeper community engagement (before, during and after a story), and cannot really exist within the View From Nowhere frame.

On a related note: Have you seen Bill Mitchell’s paper on a “User First” approach for journalism? (http://hvrd.me/dWywNX PDF link)

Thanks, Josh. You’re right about the on-ramp (which was a major theme of my book, What Are Journalists For?) I added a few words to emphasize that.

“the lies of the Lybian government” or the Egyptian government? I think you misquote here.

You’re right. That was an error. It is now fixed.


All great points. I’m a particular fan of your rejection of the “View from Nowhere,” as you well know.

I’m frustrated, too, by the constant discussion of a business model of journalism as if all forms of journalism must be a business. Isn’t there any journalism, or journalists, left that provide a public service? Must it all, and we all, have a business model?

“Must it all, and we all, have a business model?”

Yes. A business model is just a sustainability model. That cannot be done without.

Keren Henderson says:


Regarding the issue of narrative: I wrote my master’s thesis about the dying art of storytelling in journalism. I showed that the NPPA video editing judges progressively struggle each year to award narrative prizes to young photojournalists. Simply put, the business does not allow for the art.

So many experienced and fledgling journalists pull out of the business now that their time is spent doing repetitive tasks for the company’s sake instead of doing journalism for society’s sake.

So far all I have concluded is that academics are blessed to have the time to read, research, explore, and conduct interviews in order to better-understand humanity. I hope that journalists will soon be granted the same privilege.

Re: the blessed part. Definitely. I am very fortunate in that respect. I can take my time about things. In this case, 25 years!

On the weakness of narrative, I should have made this clearer in the post, but when you are serving the gods of production you are not serving the demands of a great narrative. But the point is obscured by the strange (strange to me, natural to them) habit journalists have of referring to everything they do as a “story,” even things that are very weak as story: meaning they do not have a beginning, a middle and an end, characters we care about, conflict and resolution.

How many great story-tellers give you the most important information first? And yet that is a convention of newswriting. It’s not best for the narrative. But it is best for the production routine. I’m not saying there are no great story-tellers in journalism. There most definitely are. But by organizing the pro newsroom around the gods of production–for perfectly understandable reasons, I might add–journalism has slighted the need for narrative.

This is a really great point, Jay, and one of the more interesting comments on the relationship between narrative and routines I have read in a good while. Food for thought.

Josh, that’s a great point. I’ve also heard the same from many people and have even seen empirical data to back it up. Luckily, as I’m sure you know, there is lots of independent media springing up to meet these exact demands. California Watch is just one example. However, they are often poorly funded and, despite the best efforts of their founders, not well-run. Even if they do everything correctly, the amount of attention they capture might be limited.

This starts to get at a problem I’ve heard Jay talk about before: that the good work is being produced over HERE and most people’s attention is over THERE. Despite all the opportunities to gain an audience, mainstream media (which is in many cases less informative and relevant) dominates the audience’s attention. As a result, people are simply not aware of the many alternatives that might exist to their town’s newspaper or even the high-profile blog they might know about.

I’d love to know what can be done about this particular problem.

Jay, have any press critics or academics who study the press offered possible solutions?

Anna – I agree that there are a range of important independent outlets doing this well and appreciate your question about the work versus the focus, here vs there.

However, even that I think is changing (very slowly) as people become hunters and gatherers of news. We see places like the Christian Science Monitor and Mother Jones drawing more and more attention. My concern is that attention doesn’t always equal funding – or funding at the level that is needed for sustainability.

Great stuff, as usual, Jay. I would add the rise of celebrity journalism (beginning with Woodward and Bernstein) and what that’s done to the whole practice. Along with this is the protection of key sources to maintain status.

I love that you included Lasch. Argument, in his context, is vastly more about the presentation of critical thinking than boxing with an adversary, and that’s the one thing my students often miss in studying him.

I hope the next essay is “The Great Horizontal.” Looking forward to that.

I love your first point about participatory journalism. What are some ways you think it could be better integrated into the site experience? This is something I am really passionate about and interested in your take. The barrier of submission seems to be a problem, and so does the efficiency of curating the participation. There are many more problems of course, and so I agree that we need to get cracking 🙂

Hi Vadim: This deserves a whole post, but to summarize: Where we are now is that the well-meaning invitation to “write a post for us” (or an article, or a review, or “cover this meeting…”) is addressing about one percent of the potential contributors. The way to engage more people is by breaking down the journalistic assignment into more structured data. Then you ask people to contribute that data, reducing the barrier to entry about 75%.

So to simplify it even more: we need to move from “write us a post” to “fill out this form,” and to design it in such a way that… 1.) filling out the form is easy and maybe even fun; 2.) the connection between the (small) individual contribution and the (big) final product is clear and convincing to contributors; 3.) the costs for aggregating and editing the little contributions into a finished piece is proportionate to the editorial payoff; and 4.) the final product is high quality work, and something that could not have been gotten any other way.

I say that’s where we are, meaning: we don’t know how to do that yet. But I think we can locate the edge of innovation. There’s more about that in a post of mine that I linked to in this piece: What I learned from Assignment Zero:


But that was four years ago, if you get my drift. Thus: “We ought to get cracking.”

I believe Wikipedia has shown a very good example of what Jay is talking about. A very very small number of people will take the initiative to create a new entry from scratch. But a larger number of people will take a minute to slightly improve an existing article where they are able to. Clay Shirky has documented this somewhere, though I don’t have a link at hand.

Whatever form “news” takes online should be such that the entire process and product is open to slight contributions and refinement from the public — which will get a much better response than daring people to conceive and create a new report from scratch.

That’s an interesting example, though I think that it still has the problem of enlisting too few people, and a very specific set of people (check out Wikipedia’s demographics, for example). I agree that the barrier to entry is a big part, and not in the business sense, but having people participating in a way in which it isn’t tedious. This is why the News Feed on Facebook fascinates me (obviously w/ bias). People are essentially producing content without thinking about it. What if that content was able to be mapped around events/news in a smarter way, clusters that would make-up stories. A Newspaper of the People, in some ways. The easier we can make for the transmission of a message or information, the more participants we will have.

Dear Jay,

Vadim asked you for more on participatory journalism, and when I read your reply I realized that Andrew Haeg’s new Public Insight Network blog, Call & Response is attempting to aggregate participation along very similar lines to those you lay out. They have a large network of radio listeners who have volunteered to offer their knowledge to news stories. The blog is experimenting. Check it out: http://publicinsight.posterous.com/

PS – Here’s to 25 more…

Thanks, Evelyn. I’ve been following the Public Insight Network for a long time. The database of volunteers they have built is an amazing thing. The network was hampered for many years because the pro journalists at Minnesota Public Radio, where it was birthed, didn’t want the “mutualization of journalism” (as Rusbridger calls it) to come ’round on their watch. They did want good sources they could reach quickly, but beyond that they did not want to collaborate with the Public Insight Network. But now it’s much bigger and incorporates others newsrooms. The experiments have begun and this is a very good thing.

When I was in J School in the 1980s, a smart editor/professor from Newsday reminded us that the first job of the media was to make money. If it doesn’t make money — and giving editorial content away for free via the Internet is the problem, not the solution — we put ourselves out of business. All the high ideals about participation, etc., come later.

I’m sorry, Mark, but as straight forward and common sense as that seems, I cannot agree with it. Participation, as I am using the term, is not a “high minded,” nice-to-have, we’ll-get-to-that-after-we-take-care-of-business thing. That is exactly the wrong way to look at things. You need to rethink that.

When people participate, they need news. Active people are the most likely to demand good information that will help them act. And, since you are concerned about the business model, they are also the most likely to pay. If you follow what it happening on the business side of web journalism, you must be aware that engagement is what’s driving revenues now, not consumption or “traffic.” Participation is not a frill. It’s essential to finding a secure future for serious journalism.

As usual, Jay provides provocative points and interesting insights.

“Objective” has more than one meaning. I like to think of it the way Jigsaw John, the famous homicide detective, approached cases: “I don’t care who the killer is, I care that I get THE killer.”

That is, do not frame an innocent person or let the perpetrator get away.

In reporting that means checking it out and then cross-checking and paying the most attention to facts that you wish were not there until you can put all of the facts into a coherent narrative in which each party will recognize their own words or position as being faithfully depicted, even if you then tear them to shreds.

Thus, fidelity may be a better word for reporters to focus on. That and attribution.

And we need to label more clearly and take into account the shallow contextual understanding of journalism of many readers, listeners and viewers.

I have interviewed MBAs and other advanced degree holders who did not understand an op-ed from a report. Many of my readers seem to believe that I am supposed to be an “objective” reporter from nowhere in my column, failing to distinguish between reportage as in article and reportage from a point of view.

“Objective” has more than one meaning. I like to think of it the way Jigsaw John, the famous homicide detective, approached cases: “I don’t care who the killer is, I care that I get THE killer.”

Yes. This is one of the reasons I said, “The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain ‘objective’ but no one can be totally unbiased.” For more on how I think about that troublesome term see:




Hi Jay,
I spent 20 years in radio broadcasting, the last 12 of those years as an ABC News Radio Correspondent.
I use social media to present breaking news stories and to create dialogue about popular culture with my more than 1000 Facebook “friends.” I Tweet too.
In recent years, after a film intensive at NYU, I have become involved with film and video production.
Just re-tweeted your article. It’s right on!

All the best,
Lynda J. Moore
CEO Cinetaur Productions, LLC

As a student of journalism, I really appreciate your take on the changes to the profession over the years and how you, as the teacher, are still learning. I’ve had to evolve with journalism and the route communications are going in general since graduating in 2002. Back then, there was nary mention of the term “blog” let alone any form of social media at the time.

I’m an optimist by nature, so your first point resonnated with me the most. I like to believe in the best of people and if participatory journalism has shown us anything it’s that people will join in if given the means. Now, the quality of that participation is questionable at times, but the general sentiment that this will challenge journalists to pay attention is valid.

I would add two more items: media consolidation and the resulting for-profit news gathering, resulting in the dumbing down of all things relevant.

Dean Miller says:


First, congratulations on your durability. I never worked as hard in a newsroom as I do now that I’m teaching undergraduates. In 20 years I hope to be keeping pace with you.

I can’t help myself. I have to note that what you and David are talking about in the end of your first exchange is News Literacy, which is the idea that a Journalism School should devote equal attention to training news consumers (even MBAs).

I spoke to the NYC press club about it at NYU last fall. I left the business in 2009 and since then I have been teaching News Literacy at Stony Brook University: showing non-journalists how evaluate sources, weigh evidence, think clearly about bias/cognitive dissonance, etc.

Particularly in light of your life lessons, the ability to judge the reliability of information is a kind of moral imperative if you’re an information sharer, which we all are, primal and modern.

On another point, while you’re right about utility, the marquee newsrooms show no signs of comprehending it, which means the follower newsrooms rarely dare deviate.

(I say this as a longtime editor of an obscure daily who had to badger and prod for years to get local on A1.) If you’d like to get well and truly ignored by the Brahmin of the press, focus on reader utility.

Do you remember “Fix Local News or Die” (ASNE, circa 1994)?

How about “Impact?” In 1999, Northwestern University’s Readership Institute surveyed 37,000 readers and analyzed the content of 74,000 stories and found major gaps between the legendary “gut” of newspaper editors and the actual interests of readers. Oops. Ol’ white dude was kinda clueless.

And the data were shared and the changes wrought were…virtually nil.

I was lucky to work with a team of free-thinking editors who kicked out the jams and put readers first. We grew circulation while the industry slid. We held hands with the circulators and even delivered down routes when the press cratered. But that made us extremely weird among newsrooms.

A lot of the hand-wringing about consolidation is spectacularly wrong and suspiciously political, given the profusion of new information sources.

What drained newsrooms of reportorial talent was less greed than an industry-wide refusal to put readers’ needs first. Readers got the message that they weren’t as cool as journalists and wandered away from the big brands where “professionalism” too often papered over self-indulgence. Have you ever taken a look at how often the big league newsrooms reported on the changing of the headmaster at Exeter Academy? It’s comical.

There’s no less demand for journalism today, just a lot less tolerance (on the part of readers) for a daily force-feeding. Meet them halfway and they’ll read important news. Ignore their personal and civic interests (see “New Readers” circa 2004) and they don’t care how many awards you win.


I think inadvertant confusion arises when you conflate–or some conflate–an attack on ‘the view from nowhere” with an attack on “he said /she said”.

If you narrow, as I think you rightly do here, the definition of your attack on “the view from nowhere” to an attack on the assumption that no journalist is unbiased, and those biases should be disclosed, sure.

But that doesn’t mean journalism should only be about matters where the truth has been established for all time and there should be no “He said/she said” dissent or argument and disssent should not even be reported on if you (or someone–who?) rules that dissent out of bounds because the truth has been established. Does everyone agree on when and where disagreement should not be reported? Haven’t you come upon some issue where you can’t make up your mind, the truth has yet to be determined, andyet you want to write about question–you’re not biased, you disclose, you report on the conflict within you over one going on in the world. No, everybody isn’t entitled to his own facts but facts don’t always lead to the same conclusions in comlex issues. Isn’t reporting on complexity more impportant than simpifiication, pre-digestion done for the reader?

To universally condemn :”he said.she said” as some glibly do, is to implicitly argue tht there is, in all cases a universal determiner of truth. that all cases are settled, tht no debates are worth having, that the job of the journalist in other words, is to report received opinion, axiomatic only in science, and disputed even there. Again who will decide what if any dissents are valid and deserve reporting on and what are not? Will that non disclosure of dissent–and the reasons for it– be reported? If not why not? That two people could never look at the same set of facts and draw a different conclusion/narrative is something that has happened throughout history. Is your aim to end that diaglogue? Who calls time, game over/

I think this is where the “view from nowhere’ argument gets difficult, precisely where it gets interestiing: where the truth has yet to be determined and “he says” this is the argument,and I tend to agree with side A or I don’t know for sure. And “she says” this is the agument and I tend to agree with side B or I don’t know for sure.

Shouldn’t the job of a journalist be extended into the area in which conclusions are yet to be warranted and the arguments are what be reported?

Ron says he doesn’t think “journalism should only be about matters where the truth has been established for all time and there should be no ‘He said/she said’ dissent or argument and disssent should not even be reported on.”

I agree with this, Ron. Certainly we have to allow for situations where “these people say this, but other people say that” is the best we can do. I am not trying to argue this is always a dodge, that the truth of the situation is inevitably clear, that presenting battling interpretations is by definition invalid or wimpy. Conclusions like that would be gross, and frankly… dumb.

My critique of he said, she said is the way that formula is used to wash one’s hands of any responsibility for finding out who is right. Sometimes used, I should say. But there are whole territories of the news system–and CNN would be one–where that is the default setting.

@5:21 You say:

“My critique of he said, she said is the way that formula is used to wash one’s hands of any responsibility for finding out who is right.”

Certainly one has the responsibiity, if someone is “saying 2 plus two equals 5” , not to report “but others say it equals 4”.

But most interesting questions non-fiction writers face are more complex and one can seek and not find who is “right” to a non ideologicallly-based certainty.

And yet all too often those who think they are in possession of the truth use condemnation of “he said/she said” because they assume they know they are “right”. Who is it who determines when we are so certain one position is “right” (without any bias of course) and thus able to condemn any “he said/she said” (i.e. “debate”) on a question? All too many partisan hacks think they know what’s “right” and misinterpret your formula to deny acknowledging dissent they disagree with.

Which is why I think that shorthand version of your position has becoming so misleading–or “dumb” as you say–(and yet popular) that it should be abandoned. Because it can contradict your justified critique of unacknowledged bias.

Instead how about calling it “the illusion of evenhandednesss”? Or something else.

I don’t think anyone knows what to do about those of our fellow citizens who are completely convinced that they know the truth because their ideology is itself The Truth, and who read the news with a hyper-jaundiced eye, hunting for any deviation from what they know the world to be like, which deviation is then labeled “bias.”

I have an intimate familiarity with this creature, just as you do, Ron. My experience is that it’s like conversation with a stone wall. It’s the nullification of dialogue. It’s a kind of drilled-in despair over the possibility of communication itself, disguised as a “debate” about media performance. So, no, I don’t know what to do about people like that. Do you?

While some of us are news junkies (we read/watch lots news sites because we enjoy reading/watching news sites), most people aren’t interested in news per se. They are interested in what is useful to them and what will enhance their lives in some way. So packaging the news has been a problem for a long time. While there is value in exposing people to important events they may not have known were important, when asking them to pay for news, we usually need to demonstrate relevancy. Will it make them happier? Will it make them money or at least save them money? Will it make their lives easier?

If we want to deliver general interest news, then we may need to show how being well-informed makes the recipient feel knowledgeable, or how the latest news can be used to connect with and impress other people.

joel dyer says:

#1 Seems true for spot news, plane crashes, even Mideast revolutions, lots of phone cameras and eye witnesses. More good sources for deeper journalism is always a good thing. But it feels like we are being inundated with shallow news provided by millions of camera phone operators and it’s taking up the space and time for more substantive reporting. Most journos I know now are fully occupied sifting through the incoming flood of shallow info and trying to build online communities that will help generate more shallow info. I can’t honestly go through a normal day and say the news I am exposed to is better, more robust, and deeper than it used to be. I’m not old school. I’m a firm believer that we will be able to do better journalism in a digital world than ever before. I’m working on an Amazon single and I’m excited to write in such depth. But on a very real level I think that great journalism is more like flying the plane and using the scalpel than you are willing to admit these days. Good piece. Thanks for your years of thinking on the subject.

“But on a very real level I think that great journalism is more like flying the plane and using the scalpel than you are willing to admit these days.”

It’s possible.

I did say that I don’t think we know yet how to get the editorial payoff from more participation. We have some examples, but the state of our knowledge is poor.

Gawker says, “Verbose NYU journalism muller-over Jay Rosen mulls over what he’s learned in the past 25 years. Worth mulling over.”


Brain twizzler: If it’s worth mulling over can it also be verbose, or is that a Gawkradiction?

Bob Calo says:

Here’s another great quote from Lasch who has much to say that is valuable for us. From ‘Revolt of the Elites’

“In the “age of information,” the American people are notoriously ill informed. The explanation of this seeming paradox is obvious, though seldom offered: Having been effectively excluded from public debate on the grounds of their incompetence, most Americans no longer have any use for the information inflicted on them in such large amounts.”

Bob, that’s a very good Lasch passage to contribute to Jay’s 4th point. Lasch ejects a mechanical understanding of the social process of shared inquiry and even of alienation–they are not like putting a coin on the counter or dropping a paper on somebody’s doorstep. I tried to speculate further about what it means to make a public composed of citizens, rather than consumers, in a blog post about both Lasch quotations, yours and Jay’s. The link: http://wp.me/p9era-4h

Thanks for this Jay. You have condensed a range of issues into four solid points. Very useful for J ed!

Your focus on user/reader participation (the 1% rule), leaves a great deal of non-participatory people. Thinking back to some of the structuralist/functionalist accounts of the broadcast media, with as much of a focus on the routines (or, better, rituals) of consumption as you provide above on the routines of production, what are your views about the non-participatory user/reader in emergent configurations of power relations within the new media economy? In terms of scale, surely this is where the ‘market’ is?

Baudrillard raises the problem of ‘subjacent power relations’ in Forget Foucault and I am thinking there is a similar configurations within the US media ecology. What are your views on the media-eat-media world where partisan media subjects use other media subjects as a resource for mobilising affectively entrained user/reader/viewers (perhaps implicated by way of ritualistic consumption)? This would be a variation of the “he said, she said” but operating within a self-referential echo chamber, perhaps the least newsworthy form of ‘pseudo-event’ imaginable.

The ‘usefulness’ of news seems to condense a number of the more traditional values of newsworthiness. Is there a danger somewhere here in assuming ‘news’ is consumed for its informational content rather than existing as a portent of outrage, partisan mobilisation and so on that affectively implicates user/reader/viewers into particular circuits of consumption. In Australia this is the ‘current affairs’ magazine-style broadcast TV model fuelled by moral panics and the like, similar to Fox News.

Lastly, for those of us teaching on the production side of J ed, or working with new writers in ‘on the job’ training, a useful way to approach the question of production education is a kind of system building approach rather than system (routine) inheriting. Routine isn’t all bad, the rhythm of deadlines is useful as an enabling tool to structure (increasing) workloads. Instead of being based around filling a ‘news hole’ however, I’d suggest most online or hybrid (print-online or broadcast TV-online or some other combination) media producers schedule their content publishing around the rhythms of online consumption or produce new rhythms of participation (via in-broadcast hashtag discussions for example). For the new media producer (and maybe journalists) this means working to different deadlines depending on the character of production. For smaller publications, such as in niche enthusiast magazines, this can mean a daily website post alongside weekly stories. The new journalist and production editors need to be able to work together to create a tailored production schedule. Teaching students or new journalists how to create a (hybrid) production schedule based around the specific patterns of consumption required for a given publication (ie cross-platform media brand) is a very useful tool. The rhythm of deadlines ceases to simply be ‘the way things are’ and become something far more productive.

Production routines are not a “bad” thing. Not at all. Learning how to produce within the contraints you are handed, such as when people are online, is a very good thing. Deadlines make journalism “happen.” They are not the trouble, but the trigger.

The point I was trying to make in that section is that when you have a weak idea of what your journalism is supposed to accomplish, you can let the demands of the production beast substitute. Feed the beast becomes the default agenda. Or: win the prize.

In J-school curricula “newspaper journalism” was always a weak idea. This is why it was a popular idea. (Easy to form consensus around it.) The thinness of the educational concept corresponded to a narrow demand coming the industry: “Send us docile people we can plug into our production routine the day after we hire them.” The J-school was all too willing to do just that. Then the crisis hit, and suddenly “newspaper journalism” needed to (pardon the cliche, but it’s accurate…) reinvent itself. Could it look to the universities for help with that? Nope. They had been educating people who could be plugged into a production routine that was itself part of the problem of adaptation in newsrooms. Not good.

So summing up: production routines are not a bad thing. Allowing them to do your thinking for you, that’s dumb. And in the long run expensive.

This is a very good article. I particularly like the idea number three “The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.” The reason I like this argument more than the other three is because it directly relates to me.

I’m a junior journalism student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a minor/concentration in film studies. Since November 2010 I’ve been operating my own blog/Web site, http://germanautonews.com/.

Idea number three is very helpful to me because, unlike my internship at a regional daily newspaper in the summer of 2009, I don’t have to abide by strict deadlines or get information from a particular group of sources. I use a variety of Web sites, blogs, social media sites (Twitter, Facebook etc…) magazines and automotive forums to gather the information I need in order to write a story that is accurate and timely. Have access to all of these resources saves me time and effort.

Although the idea of a journalism school sticking to the three areas of journalism, broadcast, magazine and newspaper are still taught and explained in some respect, many of my teacher realize the importance of being able to do all three of these things well.

Last week I traveled to New York City to cover the 2011 New York International Auto Show. During the two press days I saw firsthand how journalists incorporate all three aspects into their reporting. Even I incorporated different aspects. I filmed various automobiles and interviewed various company employees on camera and took notes on paper too. I used Twitter to update my status and let my followers know what I was doing.

The most valuable thing my teachers at UMass Amherst have taught me is this; you can’t just be good at writing any more. You have to be able to multitask and being able to do a variety of things well in order to survive in today’s 24/7 news and media environment.

Thanks for this. I appreciated reading the views of someone who has obviously thought about this at length.

I’m increasingly annoyed at the trend that for every opinion, a counter opinion – no matter how ludicrous – must be presented. In science journalism, this has had immensely negative consequences, muddying issues such as vaccination & climate change, and doing nothing to clarify issues for the public, but rather giving airtime to quacks and special interest groups. What some lobby groups have discovered is that it’s not necessary to convince anyone of a viewpoint; it’s enough to raise doubt about these topics. Because the media portrays apparent controversy among ‘experts’, the befuddled public assumes there’s no broad consensus on the issues.

Further to this I’d add that good journalists have to work increasingly hard to investigate their sources (which foundation or organization is funding them & what their particular angle or motive might be) Sadly, I’m seeing less and less of this among mainstream media which is often relying on cut & paste of press releases for many stories. It’s the “more people participating” which you mention, that often find these missing links in the stories, which either discredit the ‘experts’ or at least throw a different light on their expressed viewpoints.

On a slightly more humorous note, I refer you to this wonderful article on science journalism.

Dennis Foley says:

Thanks, Jay.

If I might offer something related to the View From Nowhere, I was reading Kovach & Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism,” and in one place they discuss the origins of the concept of objectivity as related to the work of the press.

Here are two definitions I found in an online dictionary:

a.) Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic. See Synonyms at fair.
b. Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal

Kovach & Rosenstiel argue that the notion of journalist’s doing their work objectively arose from the popularity of using the scientific method.

They suggets that the public and the press have altered the intent of the how objectivity was to be applied.

It wasn’t the person (the journalist) who was to be objective (Definition a.) above), it was the method used by the person (journalist) that was to be objective(Definition b)above).

Made me think “what if?”, as your posts always do.


Excellent discussion, wherein I found myself nodding silently, whispering “yes, yes, exactly!”
The fact that one can comment here while not necessarily having bona fides or a background in journalism is a good illustration of point #1…

Regarding the 1% rule, I think this is related, but I don’t know how :
It is more complicated than creating a dichotomy by simply designating certain individuals as “contributors” and others as “users” (of which contributors can be a subset). There seems to be a sort of aggregating phenomenon whereby certain individuals, for whatever reason (often a good one), are able to gather more attention from the general public because the general public simply may not have the time to sift through all of the available information and therefore resorts to whatever habitual group of journalists/journals/blogs whose work they tend to trust, or whose writing tends to reinforce or corroborate their own opinions, or for other reasons entirely.
C. Shirky talks about it here too :

Regarding the distorted view of “objectivity” (in your example, “Harsh interrogation” isn’t a more objective term than torture), it seems that the word has become code for : “that which does not offend our sensibilities” more than anything else. The concept of objectivity has also morphed into a situation which is supposed to give equal time or importance to the differing points of view regardless of the accuracy of the actual views themselves, and therefore is on a different level than the actual information being communicated – in this sense, a more appropriate word would be “fairness” and not “objectivity”. A discussion allotting equal time to a member of the Flat Earth Society and a modern geologist or physicist (or anyone else, for that matter) would not be properly objective, as there is no evidence to support the views of the former, and the discussion is thus skewed, giving him more of a platform to make his ideas seem more legitimate than they actually are. In this sense, objectivity is actually destroyed to make place for subjectivity, as any individual’s view is portrayed as being legitimate and worthy of consideration. Such “objectivity” can be used to bolster propaganda, and in this sense the “view from nowhere” can definitely a view from “somewhere”.

Looking forward to going through the archives and your book.

As a journalism student at UMass, I enjoyed reading your reflections on the past 25 years of teaching, studying and writing in the industry. The first bit regarding participatory journalism has always been difficult for me to envision on a large scale, so it’s interesting to hear your response to Lavrusik’s comment about reducing the barriers to entry. I am wary of the “shallow” news because I often feel that it takes an increasing amount of time to sort through everything that’s out there these days. That being said, I can also understand the importance of gathering valid insight from readers who know more about the story and could therefore become key contributors.

I was going to ask what your approach would be for a movement towards citizen journalism, but Assignment Zero filled me in. My largest concern is the difficulty of dividing and managing labor in a way that also respects the boundaries of ‘limited involvement’. The key definitely seems to be motivation, which starts to merge into your vision of an improved news system that’s useful to the people. Overall, this was a thought-provoking piece. Thanks for your insight!

I don’t always know how my ideas fit together, even when I have the sense that they do, so…. thank you, Rachel.

I’m a new independent journalist who didn’t go to J-school, and I was thrilled to read your words on the View from Nowhere; the problem troubles me.

I was a grad student in Animals and Public Policy when the impossibility of human objectivity was carefully to me, along with the idea that disclosing my own biases (as a social scientist) was the only fair way to help my reader approach objectivity, by giving her a point of triangulation.

Though now, as I report on polarizing animal protection/use battles, I find that I balk at handing readers any reason to distrust me, after doing my utmost to choose sources fairly and strip my language of commentary.

It would feel most honest to include a detailed background of my thoughts and involvements, on my news blog. But I haven’t done this. (http://sentientcincinnati.com/about/)

Do you think there could be a future in journalists providing more disclosive autobiographies, alongside their work? I’d be interested to know your thoughts on explaining the use of this, to readers accustomed to trusting that older View.

Thank you for blogging!

Do you think there could be a future in journalists providing more disclosive autobiographies, alongside their work?

Yes. I have written about this many times. This is probably the most on point one:


Fabien, there are already news organizations doing this. For instance, the Patch.com sites disclose just about everything you might want to know about their respective editors. You will also find the same approach on many independent news sites such as the ones listed here: http://www.rjionline.org/news/micheles-list-promising-local-news-sites But the rate of adoption for this kind of thing DOES seem to be pretty low among most of the mainstream news outlets. I’ve never been able to understand it. As far as I’m concerned, every byline should be clickable and the result should be a comprehensive bio which addresses any potential conflicts of interest, personal background including political and religious affiliations, if any, and much, much more.

Jackie Chambers says:

As a current University of Massachusetts-Amherst journalism student, I find your key points to be very insightful and interesting. The curriculum for journalism students remains to be newspaper, magazine, and broadcast (all three are popular classes on our campus) but I am noticing more of my professors to teach us that to be a successful journalist in today’s society we have to be able to perform all three aspects of journalism and including video, audio, and photographs to the best of our capability. I feel that blogs are becoming the new “newspaper.” They are free and anyone can write in the certain niches that interest them.

I really enjoyed your topic about participatory journalism. It’s a new added difficulty to journalism but something that is fundamental at the same time. What I mean is we,journalists, have to stifle through the junk that users are sending us and find where the newsworthy story really is. Do you agree this is one of the biggest struggles?
As a future journalist I really enjoyed reading your insight about journalism in the last 25 years.

#3 says “the new gods are the users.” There is nothing new about it. The gods have always been the users.

–Dave Freedman (33 years in professional journalism)

Sure, everything was done in the name of the users, or “the public,” but compared to the production miracle, the peer culture and external rewards like prizes, the users were not at all the gods of the newsroom. I’m saying they should be now– and also that they have a lot more power, because they have more choice and effective ways to talk back. If you’re arguing that this wouldn’t be a shift but simply a continuation of what has always been, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree.

I think it is interesting that some J schools still organize their curriculum around print, broadcast and magazine journalism, although at some schools that is starting to change. Students need to understand there are not such clear paths when entering the field. You may end up working for a magazine or newspaper or broadcast organization but you need multimedia skills to truly survive in the future of journalism. The school I attend, University of Massachusetts Amherst, puts a strong emphasis on learning these multimedia skills.

The point about journalism needing to be useful to people may be the most important point for the financial survival of journalistic organizations. People must place value on the service that journalists are providing in order to be willing to pay for it. Our challenge is how to make this value-added journalism, and saving users time is certainly one way to do it.

The fictional editor of an underground magazine in Don DeLillo’s novel “Running Dog” gives the OK on a desperate and sleazy story with the justification of “I guess I miss conspiracy”. Point # 2 illustrates how professional journalism also misses conspiracy and is suffering from its fearful pursuit of “objectivism”. It appears, however, that where professional journalism went awry the once insistent “psycho-babble” of independent news writing via Internet and underground publication has become more legitimate. Blogs and twitters belonging to private citizens are essentially used as sources and have the potential to make waves and jumpstart mass mainstream reporting. The critical and financial success of independent documentary films also shows a great demand for subjective and unabashed journalism (if they can be considered journalism. I’m still grappling with that one. Any thoughts?). It shouldn’t be a disreputable thing to take a side, but present all other sides with honor. Oh, and I am indeed a journalism student at UMass.

Amen brother Rosen! We do not have ‘Journalist’ in America any longer. I’m curious though- how is it then you taught for the past 25 yrs and these ideas didn’t stick with your students? Not a very glowing critque of what you’ve taught. Are they [students] not the same journalist that have come from the teachings of NYU and the like?

Do most undergo a ‘datadump’ once they leave school and enter the world of a working journalist?
It is, sir, the very unraveling of our democratic fabric and we the public are paying severely. The dangerous game of ‘News’ vs ‘Views’ will reflect sadly in the very near future. American’s are not well informed, there is a big difference.

I thank you for your 25yrs to the teaching service. And sharing your knowledge with our youth. May you continue to do what you can for as long as you can.

Noelle Richard says:

I am a journalism student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. My main interest is broadcast journalism but I must admit, recently I have been exploring other options in the journalism world. I found you post to be most insightful. I was particularly interested in your comment on how many journalism programs only focus on three aspects of journalism: newspaper, magazine, and broadcast. Now thinking about it, I completely agree, but before reading your article, I would have thought there was more offered. Though these are the main outlets for journalism, it is important for people to understand that just because you write for a newspaper, does not mean that all you should focus on his writing. Now a day, people do their news reading on the web, and if you do not have images, audio, or video to tag along with your written piece, you should not have high hopes of your piece being well acknowledged. It is important to show the story in a variety of ways that can appeal to a wide range audience. So though newspaper, magazine, and broadcast are the three most talked about aspects of journalism, you need to have skills from each outlet in order to be a successful journalist.

Another point you touched up upon in your post that I found to be most interesting was the statement you made about how participation actually benefits journalism. This is something that I am starting to learn more about. For example, I keep a blog for my multimedia journalism class, but since the semester is coming to an end, I am learning that I do not want to stop blogging. I am trying to find a niche that I can create a blog about (which I am finding to be much more difficult that I planned). However, I have bounced around to a few different blog sites to see what interests me most and I am seeing that the comments that are made, have actually helped the blogger when it comes to making new posts. It is good to see how your words can be viewed by others, both in positive and negative lights. Participation really does help make journalism what it is.

Hello Jay,
After teaching journalism for 25 years I don’t doubt the fact that you would know quite a bit. Great article! I especially liked two points:

-The more people who participate in it the stronger the press will be. – I completely agree…there is always strength in numbers. Alone a voice may not be heard but, when joined by others it is much harder for their voices to be drowned out. We have seen many examples of this over the years.

– The lighter, cheaper, and less restrictive publishing tools that we have today can free the news system from its production gods. – Very true…with social media and other sites the power of the news has been taken from the “production gods” and placed in the hands of the everyday citizen. I feel this is much more beneficial because we are now able to get many viewpoints on issues…we have more to look to other than a biased opinion.

* Thanks for the lead on The View From Nowhere…I will be looking into that a bit more when I get some time…Take care *

Curtis Bloomfield says:

Hello Jay,

I am University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism major. After reading your post I have to say that I agree on your observations of the view from nowhere. I recently learned about this (view from nowhere) that we as journalist are supposed to have in order to follow the rules of journalism ethics. It made me think If I really could go about every situation I encounter as a journalist and not take sides or completely unbiased. I probably would not be able to but then I thought hey no one individual is perfect so there is not one who can have this so called view from nowhere. So should this still be a way to determine if a journalist follows the code of journalism ethics?

I confess an instinctive skepticism regarding pronouncements about our industry from people who teach journalism but have never worked as journalists. I’m relieved this apprehension cannot apply to Jay Rosen, whose NYU bio states clearly that he “had a very brief career in journalism” at the Buffalo Courier-Express before beginning his graduate study, receiving a Ph.D. in media studies in 1986 and joining the NYU faculty, where he still teaches.

Rosen is known for advocating ‘public journalism’ aka ‘citizen journalism’—the idea that unpaid, untrained and inexperienced members of the public can take on the functions of reporting, analyzing and disseminating news, roles formerly filled mainly by professional reporters and editors. In fact, the first thing Rosen says he has “tried to profess” (not learned!) in his 25 years teaching journalism at NYU is this: “The more people who participate in it[,] the stronger the press will be.”

Sadly, in my view, this may well be an idea whose time has come. Already an endangered species, professional journalists may soon be extinct. If we want to continue to reading the news, we may simply have to write it ourselves in our spare time as best we can. But I recoil from the suggestion that this an acceptable state of affairs, much less ideal. I would side with former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, the co-creator of “The Wire” and “Treme”, who said in his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet last May that:

“I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and corporations can be held accountable by amateurs working without compensation, training or sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.”

Beyond Rosen’s suggestion that journalists do not necessarily need to be paid——a view shared by a many publishers and owners of media conglomerates, by the way, including some of my former employers——much of what he says he has learned, or rather “professed” about journalism reduces to blindingly self-evident tautology.

Isn’t the statement “The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people” much like like saying “the health care system will improve when fewer sick people die or fail to recover”; or “the educational system will improve when more students get better educations (and fewer incompetent teachers are retained or granted tenure!).”

Any would-be journalist who requires a J-school course to understand that the information in a news story requires context, background and a narrative framework in order to be meaningful to the reader might want to consider other career opportunities. But then again, unless a substantial trust fund is in the offing, he/she would almost certainly be better off considering another career anyway.

Many of us presumably agree with Rosen’s criticism of the false pose of objectivity adopted by much of American media, including NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller’s groveling submission to the Bush administration over whether water-boarding constitutes torture, what Rosen terms “the View from Nowhere. But few will confuse this with original insight. As far as the waterboarding-torture story is concerned, for once we can fairly say “the press was all over it” —— or at least parts of the press anyway.

Far more dangerous in my view (while we’re beating up ib the NYT) was the Judith Miller’s biased reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (reporting which administration sources may have planted and certainly used to build support for the invasion of Iraq), inappropriate relationships with sources such as Ahmed Chalabi, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and other Administration figures, and her role in the Valerie Plame case.

Rosen doesn’t mention any of the ethical or professional difficulties of handling sources, assessing their truthfulness, avoiding being used by them, or the delicate issue of what to do if your negligent use of their information ends up sending them to jail.

Perhaps that is because in the new era of public journalism to come, nobody will have sources anyway. Instead, we will all be rewriting and reblogging information the one agency reporter who talked to someone (or skimmed a press release) and then tweeted what she was told onto the wires.

But I liked it that Rosen cited Christopher Lasch, one of the greatest and most insightful of American cultural and intellectual historians, sadly neglected these days.

Robert D.

The writer has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor for various magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong, China, Japan and the US. He did not attend J-school.

I’ve spent 25 years battling people like you, sir, so thanks for stopping by!

I need to correct two false things you wrote. First, that “public journalism” is the “idea that unpaid, untrained and inexperienced members of the public can take on the functions of reporting, analyzing and disseminating news, roles formerly filled mainly by professional reporters and editors.”

That is not what it is. You made that up. Read my book, What Are Journalists For? for what it is.

Second, I didn’t say professional journalists don’t need to be paid. I am in favor of professional journalists being paid. Finding a stronger foundation for the business of journalism so it can employ journalists is the number one unsolved problem in the field today. Which is why I am working as an adviser to two newspaper companies trying to make the transition to the digital world. So that journalists can continue to be paid. You can read about one of them here:


The suggestion that I don’t believe they should be paid is, again, something you made up.

The rest of your points–that what I wrote about in this post is either stupid or obvious–readers can make up their own minds about. Oh, and you might want to Google pressthink and “Judy Miller” too.

I agree with all four of your points, beautifully and crisply made. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are (more self-interestedly, for which apologies) essentially explanations for the success of The Economist, in America and around the world, which I had the honour to edit 1993-2006. No one, I hope, ever thinks The E is the View from Nowhere.


Bill Emmott

Thanks very much, Bill. Whenever I want to illustrate that the View from Nowhere is not necessary to journalistic excellence and the reproduction of trust, I point to… The Economist.

jurek martin says:

on the tricky question of whether journalists should be paid – and brought to your site by my old Tokyo cubicle mate Bill Emmott when I was with the FT (still am, come to that) – I was curious as to whether you have an opinion on the lawsuit brought against the HuffPost for exploitng bloggers by not paying them. If I get it right the HuffPost riposte is that blogging on its site amounts to otherwise unobtainable exposure for the blogger, from which untold benefits may, or may not, follow.

I used to subscribe to the Samuel Johnson aphorism that only a dunderhead would write for free, but I am beginning to think the old truths don’t apply

all best Jurek Martin

And I thought I was the senilsbe one. Thanks for setting me straight.

Alex Waldma says:

Jay, I am a journalism student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I must say this is a very intuitive post . It seems that in your 25 years of teaching, you have been able to learn important things along the way. One thing you could have addressed in bullet point one is how Twitter is now being used for crowd sourcing. Andy Carvin has done an amazing job at utilizing Twitter to stimulate participatory journalism. And although some of the information he gathers is not always verified, he covers his tracks by explaining this. He also challenges people involved in the thread to help verify claims if possible. This also deals with bullet point three, because now people can do reporting all on their own, quickly and efficiently. You can be a journalist today and never follow the same routine, which scares a lot of older journalists. Journalists are now their own cameramen, sound techs, and editors. The newsroom and its routines have changed dramatically, its now the journalists personal decision on what to include or leave out of a story. These are important things for new journalists to be aware of.

Amy Koehler says:

Curious to know why you feel CNN does not integrate ireports well & how you think that could be remedied.


CNN uses material from i-Report on its newscasts and online when it is relevant. That’s good. That’s smart. But what it has not done is gotten its correspondents and producers from the main CNN newsroom to collaborate with teams of i-Report correspondents and work out a more networked, actively pro-am approach to reporting.

Here, I’m speculating from the outside, but I would bet that the price of calming anxieties about all these amateurs “working for CNN” is to make it clear that there’s a big separation between i-Report and CNN’s professional staff. This is understandable. But it undervalues the asset.

By the way the same thing happened with Minnesota Public Radio when it gave birth to the Public Insight Network.

As someone who has not just endorsed your “View From Nowhere” critique but applied it to places you probably never intended (for instance: the world of “post-ideological,” pragmatic politics), I would nonetheless offer this complicator:

Yes, “the profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere,” but it also *improved* a great deal precisely in that moment.

William Randolph Hearst had a View From Somewhere, and it was pilloried in the post-war professionalization movement that emanated from the Hutchins commission, the consolidation of previously partisan newspapers into dominant mono-dailies, and in the overall Organization Man ethos of post-war life. While these people certainly went overboard in attacking all vestiges of Hearst & Co., they *did*, I think, up the game of American journalism. (Think of the mythology — not all unwarranted — of how Otis Chandler “saved” the L.A. Times from its hidebound Republican past.)

Put another way — Brits have had a View From Somewhere all along, and they (I think) have always been objectively *worse* at factual rigor than our View From Nowhere brethren.

This does nothing to detract from your overall point; rather, it’s a complexity that I have always thought worth mining.

Thanks, Matt. I don’t disagree at all with your observation.

Yet it’s precisely because the shift you mentioned was an improvement that we have to focus in on exactly what went awry, and how a concern with factuality, taken at some point down the wrong road, turns into its opposite. When Bill Keller is calling the word “torture” politically correct jargon and defending “harsh interrogation” as the more professional and trustworthy term, something has gone very wrong. But what? I don’t think pro journalists are as focused on that question as they should be.

In this video Q and A with Clay Shirky, I elaborate on the point you made, and pose a puzzle: why are journalists better educated, and more professional, yet less trusted?



This happened on your watch (last 25 years) as it did on mine, the slow drift from that which is news to that which is promotable. My world is television, but television influenced print as it continued to take their money during my 28 years in “the biz.” Here’s what I wrote in my 1998 essay, The Lizard on America’s Shoulder. I’m talking about the advent of cable.

As the advertising pie was sliced into smaller and smaller pieces by the ever-fragmenting market, stations turned their attention to their only local product — news.

Experiments with attention-getting concepts to maintain market share began, and thus was born the news consultant. What “worked” anywhere was winnowed from that which didn’t “work” and was spread from city to city. The exploitation of base human emotion, disguised by words like “compelling,” dramatic,” or “interesting” became the draw. When the Nielsen company created meters to put in viewers’ homes that directly measured viewing habits, these resourceful “experts” came upon a whole new way of doing things. Almost overnight, local television news was transformed into the business of managing audience flow, and along with it, I believe, came a sad disrespect of things once sacred.

Of paramount importance in this paradigm is the development of stories that attract, so that promotional announcements cleverly placed in, say, prime time would compel viewers to stay and watch. At the expense of that which was important, news managers suddenly found themselves devoting considerable time, effort and resources into finding and developing offbeat, titillating and sensational items for the promo boys to use. And now, only a mist separates all of television news from up-front exploiters like Jerry Springer.

So I don’t think you can talk about what’s happened with journalism without mentioning how marketing has changed things. Since I’ve worked with both television and newspapers, I can testify that a roomful of TV people has an entirely different dynamic than a roomful of newspaper people. TV is flush with marketing personalities, whereas newspaper people are fixed and flat with no sense of it at core.

Couldn’t we say that local television got out of the news business almost entirely and replaced it with the “low cost audience flow” business, in which the word “news” is still there, but what it really signifies is locally produced programming using the cheapest materials available, i.e. the house fires, car crashes, building collapses, ice storms and whatnot that make the genre go.

The essential value of these events is not that they tell us what’s going on; rather, it’s cheaper than paying script writers, hiring actors, designing sets and promoting your program. The grieving mother on camera after the school shooting doesn’t get paid, or have an agent. Therefore she is cheaper, but still delivers the numbers. Isn’t that what local news on commercial TV is really about (exceptions granted)?

In a certain sense, that’s true, Jay. I think, however, that more than “cheaper,” it’s easier. You can establish systems that make this SOP, while to do otherwise is complicated, yes, costly, and a serious challenge intelligence-wise. TV affords the appearance of seriousness, but it’s really just a series of production systems that can be duplicated daily. One of the great unspoken fears of TV news is that it isn’t rocket science, and the rise of The Great Horizontal is proving that.

I should add that a great many people in the industry are aware of this and want to do something differently. Everybody is waiting for somebody else to take the first step, however, because the problem isn’t ideas — it’s in creating in the systems that will allow for it to be easily replicated on a daily basis.

Production systems impact TV, I think, even more than newspapers.

hi Jay…

As an admirer from afar I have to say two things:

1- You’re absolutely correct in the disconnect between CNN’s iReport staffers and the “professionals.” Of all points made, I have to say that’s a brilliant insight.

2- I am excited to hear your thoughts on the recent controversial death of Osama Bin Laden. Hackneyed hash tags aside, how do we begin to talk, or rather, continue discussions as a population without becoming overused, worn out and dead within hours?

Twitter being one example, I am curious what your thoughts are concerning burn out. I have been an internet user and reader for 12 years or better, so I have seen several cycles of blogging, social media and so on.

How do we develop a keen sense of fine tuning and whittling down this influx of information without it becoming so stale that by lunch we’re out of steam?

In closing, I have to compliment you on your passion for this topic throughout 25 years. It’s an attest to the kind of man you are at your core. It’s pretty damn American, which is perhaps an unusual compliment considering your critique of American journalism.

I suppose we’re most critical of the things we love.