A current list of my top problems in pressthink

Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

30 Sep 2018 4:30 pm 11 Comments

1. Across Europe and the United States there moves a right wing populist wave that includes in its political style the rejection of the mainstream press as corrupt, elitist and part of the system that is keeping the good people, the pure people — the Volk — down. Illiberal democracy is on the rise. It has no use for real journalism, except as hate object. (Link.)

2. For most news publishers the advertising model continues to decline. Google, Facebook and ad tech companies dominate the digital ad market. The VC route does not seem promising. (“Pivot to video” is a good title for that feeling.) The chances of generating more state support — on the public service media model of the BBC, CBC or ZDF — are zero within the current climate. That leaves subscription, crowd-funding and friendly billionaires. Each is shaky in a different way. The business model for serious journalism remains unclear and unstable. That’s a problem.

3. In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.

4. Marty Baron’s famous phrase, “We’re not at war, we’re at work” captures the consensus in American newsrooms about how to respond to Trump’s attacks. As I wrote here, “Our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet, they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story.” How to put that distinction into practice is not clear. That’s a problem. So is thinking you’re not at war, when in some ways you are.

5. Leading journalists in the US seem stuck on what they regard as a supremely telling fact: the same man who is leading the national hate movement against their profession cares desperately about his portrayal in the news media, consumes news with a vengeance, loves hanging out and sparring with reporters, and admits that he still holds tender feelings for the New York Times, which he nonetheless attacks as corrupt and failing. Struck uncommonly hard by this irony, they underrate the damage his campaign is doing. (Link.)

6. In local news the wreckage continues, with newspaper staffs reduced by 3X or 4X from their highs. TV newsrooms, public broadcasting and digital start-ups cannot make up the difference. The eye on power that local journalists once provided, fitfully and imperfectly, is today withering away, with no clear answer in sight. The slow motion collapse of the local newspaper is especially painful because that is where a relationship with trusted news providers typically begins.

7. The lack of diversity in American newsrooms and the loss of trust in the American news media are factors clearly related to one another, but there is no agreement on how to move forward, or even on which diverse perspectives are most needed. On top of that, most of the newsrooms from which genuine diversity is missing are officially governed by the View from Nowhere, an ideology that stands in subtle contradiction to the very premise that diverse perspectives are required to produce a fair and compelling portrait. No one wants to deal with that mess.

8. I refer now to a cultural condition and media climate involving bad actors and false claims that is so confusing and seemingly hopeless to most of us that terms like “death of truth” and “post-fact” are routinely used by educated people as they try to name and frame what stands out about this. Journalism’s response has been more fact-checking and the calling out of untruths, but it’s clear by now that fact-checking is not having the desired effect. So what lies beyond fact-checking? We do not know.

9. For 50 years or more, university-based journalism schools in the United States have connected with the news industry and the journalism profession using a simple formula that worked for everyone. “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.” This was the agreement these schools had with students and their future employers in American newsrooms. But it isn’t good enough anymore. For one thing, the production routine itself has to be re-engineered, and the J-schools of America aren’t set up for that. Finding a business model that can sustain a quality newsroom is the industry’s biggest problem, but J-schools aren’t designed for that, either. There’s plenty of change, energy and optimism in journalism education, but it’s not clear what replaces the prior consensus: “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.”


Provide accurate news to Trump followers in their familiar environments tabloid-style newspapers sold in supermarkets, auto-related storles in newspapers sold or given away at NASCAR, other sports-related papers, country-music newspapers, too – all with a sprinkling of hard news and links to home newspaper sites.

the audience (aka community) is the answer

Tom Slee says:

An interesting and challenging list: thank you. One criticism I would have is that your list wobbles a bit between American concerns and broader ones. I would prefer it if you decided which you are addressing.

I’m an American critic trying to be more international in outlook. For example, I spent the summer in Germany studying the German press. Here’s another example: I am working with a Dutch start-up.

Mark J. McPherson says:

“The chances of generating more state support — on the public service media model of the BBC, CBC or ZDF — are zero within the current climate.”

How long is “current” anyway? One way to look at all the “current” tumult which is based mostly on lies, misinformation, fear and bigotry, is that it is not substantive, lasting change but the precursor to substantive lasting change, that will be different from now and from what came before. The POTUS exploited this moment when some of our institutions had become exhausted and at the point of stagnation if not collapse. Change was coming, one way or another and change is coming. Given the TV ratings for coverage of the “current” dirty, deranged and debased horserace, that dreadful stuff will go on until it plays out and we begin to tune out.

But something new is coming as there’s a new desire for good and honest information peculiar to this most peculiar moment. I don’t think anyone today knows (more than a guess’s worth) who the next major political figure is. So we don’t know what the next significant coalition is or from which constiuencies it will come from or how it will coalesce. As strange as it may seem, I don’t think we should assume that there will be no support for a publicly funded component going forward.

Andre Aubin says:

Prof. Rosen, thank you for the rare blog post and chance to post a comment rather than a tweet. I check your twitter feed regularly via its link on pressthink but I consider it silly to even consider posting something there. The greatest problem with Twitter, social media, comment boards, etc is the unrealistic expectation that what most of us say is important, intelligent, unique or wise. Imagine being in a stadium of 60,000 people with each and every person demanding to make a point. I mentally reduce the number of people in the stadium and only when I get to a few dozen would it seem practical to have a discussion. I see only 5 other people have commented on this post so I’m below the critical threshold. This should give you a hint that I am what you accurately describe as a neither/nor. It’s not by choice. The reason I follow you is because I am desperately looking for an innovative and objective news source. I still listen to NPR, watch Frontline, etc. (I was a paid member of a Boston public radio station) But, public broadcasting has ceased being what it promised. It’s now no different than any other for profit media conglomerate. I have followed the progress leading to the start up of The Correspondent, lately reading through the posts on Medium describing what it is and what it hopes to be. Consider me a potential member. It occurred to me NPR audiences are a target for The Correspondent. But, with just a little digging, I see some things that give me pause. I don’t expect a response. It’s just what I am thinking, if you find it useful.

I’ve read all of Ernst’s posts and when I saw this headline I was disappointed.

“The Correspondent raises $1.8M in runway funding and teams up with Blue State Digital”

I’m not naive. I know building something important takes money, and expertise and marketing. Some kids handing out flyers in Times Square won’t do it. But, why choose an agency so closely tied to the mainstream liberal establishment? I am aware The Correspondent has proudly declared their views are not from nowhere. Still, I am getting a sinking feeling.

If I do join I have two questions: 1. Is The Correspondent destined to be a new media company hoping to mine discouraged news consumers for profit? 2. Is it simply an arm of mainstream progressive activists pretending to be news?

Be well.

1. Why choose an agency so closely tied to the mainstream liberal establishment? We definitely knew this would come up. We picked them because they are the best at what we want them to do— for their know how. The fact they had an association with Democratic Party politics was an issue, for sure, but ultimately we went with who could do the job best and understand our problems best. Here, we made the same decision Ford Motor Company and The United States Olympic Company did. Who can do the work?

2. Is The Correspondent destined to be a new media company hoping to mine discouraged news consumers for profit? No. It’s designed to be a low profit company that would have zero attraction to a purchaser trying to maximize returns. We will be publishing more on this question later this month.

3. Is it simply an arm of mainstream progressive activists pretending to be news? In no way is that a description of what The Correspondent is. Will it be said about The Correspondent? Of course. That is what the right says about all journalism it doesn’t like. (I wrote about that pattern here.)

Mark J. McPherson says:

At some point, I would be interested in seeing what you thought of The Intercept, First Look Media (funded by eBay billionaire Omidyar) and whether and how its ups and downs might instruct The Correapondent? With Gleen Greenwald intermittently active and the Intercept’s location in Brazil, you can’t accuse it of espousing “a view from nowhere”. But it’s hard to get a fix on it, other than their cranky contrarian spirit. And the Intercept certainly had some serious journalistic lapses. I had the sense that they were too self-absorbed in their anti-media-establishment branding to draw the proper inferences from their stumbles and how traditional journalistic principles (however uncool) might have prevented their errors.

One fundamental error of the press, the original sin of the epoch, was that they sold the obvious BS, like innocent little lambs, that the Moral Majority was a religious organization. Rather it was a fascist organization.

Fascism as we know it essentially sprang from the posts Reconstruction Era with the KKK and the race laws. Primarily alongside the Evangelical Christian churches. Germany with its Lutheran majority, and Lutherans with their strong Evangelical base, embraced fascism in large numbers and few of the rest did a thing against them. It rhymes.

Man of Americas elites and populists too were happily pro fascist in the 30’s and it was an accident of history that Hitler went too far and we ended up destroying established fascism which for some odd reason Liberal Americans took to mean America was antifascist. Tricks on them.

Once you understand that the Moral Majority in all its iterations and the Tea Party are fascist in nature then everything falls into place. I know, I know. Your looking for the fainting couch now. The chances of the press even thinking such a thing for .001 seconds is zero so don’t worry you won’t here such again.

Big money voted for the Enabling Act.

Richard Aubrey says:

Rapier. Do you want more Trump? Because that’s how you get more Trump.

Richard Aubrey says:

Prof. Rosen, I know this makes you crazy, but…Trump couldn’t sell his fake news schtick if there weren’t endless examples. Just stop that stuff and things will change. Really.