The News about the News: Jay Rosen

This seems to be the moment in which the death of the American newspaper can be foretold with some authority — by Eric Alterman in this week’s New Yorker; by the new local owners of the great old papers (“The news business is something worse than horrible,” says Sam Zell, in what sounds like buyer’s remorse over Chicago’s Tribune Company); by The New York Times itself in what has become a serial, almost daily obituary (here, for example) and by our guru and guide to the transformation of media, Jay Rosen of New York University.

Jay Rosen was the prophet of people-first “civic journalism” twenty years ago, before the Web gave citizen-bloggers the tools to be press lords, or at least publishers, on the cheap. In our first podcast nearly five years ago, Jay was among the first to see the breadth of the upheaval. “The terms of authority are changing,” he put it then. His website PressThink has become the real Press Club of thinking practitioners in this drawn-out existential crisis.

In James Der Derian’s Global Media class at Brown last week, Jay Rosen gave his account of the Web stars becoming institutions: Instapundit, the first distributed newsroom; DailyKos, “by far the most vibrant community I know”; The Huffington Post, rising on the power of aggregation; and “the first Web-born media company,” Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and its offspring. But Jay was at his most compelling on the bad news: what feels like the inexorable, personal, cosmic, professional, civic tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes at the New York Times:

JR: The Times is a unique property… an extremely valuable institution, and it would be a tragedy if it just fell apart, or became like everything else… They’ve gained huge numbers of readers online, but they’re caught in an economic squeeze: that the readers are moving online but advertising is not, or at a much slower rate. The reason for that is even more fundamental. The newspaper of old was a sort of compendium of unlike things that were blended together because it made economic sense: sports together with the classifieds, international news, the bridge column. And now if you’re interested in bridge, there are a zillion bridge sites that are better than the bridge column. And if you’re interested in a car, you go to Auto And if you want a roommate, you go to Craigslist. This is called un-bundling. It turns out that what the New York Times has that’s really important is not the presses; they’re not that valuable. It’s not the advertising; it’s not the classifieds, which are basically over now. It’s this reputation for trust and reliability. They’re caught in one more dilemma that fascinates me. They understand that they need to become more transparent online. By transparent I mean: telling people where you’re coming from, owning up to mistakes, explaining how you make decisions. These are the things that create trust online. However the New York Times as an institution has always operated the opposite way. It’s been a Cathedral of News: you don’t explain why you do stuff, you just put it on the front page. As [executive editor] Bill Keller says, “Watch the paper.” They’ve built up their authority by not explaining themselves, but they’re caught up in a publishing environment that values transparency. They don’t want to relinquish their authority either. They end up veering from one standard to the other. They can’t decide whether they want to be the priest of news, who had a certain mystique about him — or the most potent, most transparent institution on the Web. The only person who could resolve that strategic choice– Cathedral or Transparency? — is the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. And the tragic thing for the New York Times is that he’s just not up to it. He’s not smart enough, he doesn’t have enough depth or vision to make that choice.

CL: I want to gild that lily with one thought. It seems to me you could argue that the most important thing about the New York Times, it’s great value, is not even its reputation but its readership. Richard Rovere wrote a piece in the New Yorker in the Fifties, I think, that said basically: the American Establishment — what is it? It’s the people who read the New York Times. And vice versa. If you want to join the club, become a regular reader of the New York Times. I keep waiting for the New York Times to liberate its readers to report the news for them. Stop telling us what happened and ask us what happened. The Web is a perfect device to filter news and opinion. If they would only turn that telescope around, we could be approaching a new day.

JR: Dan Gillmor, who covered Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News, was the first newspaper reporter to get a blog, to know what blogging was. A few months in he realized — he could have known, but it took the blog to teach him — that “my readers know more than I do.” That was always true of any beat reporter: that readers in the aggregate knew more than he did. What is different today is that because of the Web, that knowledge that readers have more of can now flow back toward the journalist. So the number-one asset of the New York Times is — you’re right — is not just their trust and reputation. It’s actually the knowledge and sophistication of the people who read the New York Times. And if the newspaper could begin to reverse that flow, so that they’re taking in as well as broadcasting out, they would become, I believe, a news powerhouse. But they don’t want to do that. They hesitate. They fumble the ball. They hem and they haw… because it doesn’t fit with their notion of authority, to go back to the beginning. It undermines their ideas about the Cathedral of News. It undermines, in their view, their authority to start asking: “what do you know?” That’s not the business they want to be in, that they thought they were going to be in when they joined the New York Times. The glory of the New York Times is not: “hey, tell us what you know.” It’s: “we’re going to tell you what we know, and you’re going to listen to it.” And so it’s this nostalgia for the world of one-to-many communications. What fascinating to me as an observer is that they’re very intelligent people… They know what open-source journalism is… They even read my blog occasionally. They know what I stand for… But they can’t bite the bullet, primarily because it doesn’t fit with their self-image. Isn’t that funny?

Jay Rosen of New York University and PressThink, at Brown University, March 19, 2008

James Der Derian, esteemed head of the global security program at Brown’s Watson Institute and our host professor, closed as he is wont to do with a quote from the German culture theorist Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940). “When you live in times of terror, when everything is a conspiracy, then everyone must play the detective.” Thank you, Jay Rosen, for showing us how to do it.

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  • Good selection from the show. Glad the issue of the NYT was addressed directly and that Chris is thinking about what that publication represents in the grander scheme of things.

    Regardless of whether or not The Times may survive, the field is changing and any publication’s significance changes along with the times.

  • nother

    Thank you for a very enlightening conversation, and a nice marker as to where we currently stand in relation to media.

    I do differ with Jay’s explanations for the compliance by big media on the war front. I feel that Jay is far too lenient with his criticism. The issue often gets framed as big media not questioning, but it’s much worse than that, they were negligent.

    Jay’s rational for big media not questioning is to say that “The information is held by a small number of people.” He says the intelligence was very closely held (as opposed to the current mortgage crisis) and consequently it’s easy for the media to be manipulated.

    Well, I’m just an ordinary citizen and I had the information that weapons inspectors were not finding anything. I also watched Colin Powell’s speech at the UN and I was sure at the time that the information/evidence that he put forth would not win him a case in small claims court. I was watching CSPAN when General Kinseki said we needed at least a few hundred thousand troops. I could go on and on. This was not closely held information!

    The media cherry picked it’s stories just as the administration cherry picked the intelligence. Personally I watched in a state of fascinated horror as the media beat the drums of war and eventually I came to a simple conclusion, human nature trumps all. Jay’s explanation for the media’s actions paints them as an objective entity mistakenly succumbing to “authority,” but the truth is, the media is made up of individuals. Individuals who on a personal level felt violated by the terrorists on 911 (and were reactionary) and individuals who on a professional level would rather be reporting on a war than a rise in shark attacks on Florida beaches.

    Bush proudly declares himself a “war president.” Don’t you think these individuals in the media want to declare themselves “war reporters”? They are just as wrapped up in their legacy.

    Of course it’s also true that the ratings go up and more newspapers are sold during wartime, as opposed to shark time.

    I knew we were screwed as soon as the major news organization agreed to be embedded (or as I like to say, in bed with) the Army. Your gonna pay for that access, one way or another!

    Thanks again for letting us in our the class.

  • nother

    I meant to write above: paints them as a collective entity, not “objective entity.”

  • Potter

    I came here to say that I really appreciated Jay Rosen’s entertaining lecture and perspective on the news and the internet and how things have evolved. Sounds like for the better. In the last interviews ( Zuckerman/Larson) Chris,much more than a simple NYTimes reader-lover, was starting to wonder whether the NYT was relevant or needed anymore ( if I got that right) and both Z and L pushed back YES! and I agreed. I have been reading that paper in it’s ink and paper form for many many years and I still miss it when it does not appear in my mailbox. I go to it’s web version as well and though I am getting used to that- I prefer the paper- even stale. Brendan the blogmeister for ROS, asked us this, seemingly ages ago, when we discussed this first. Yet I would not give up the blogs and want to say how they have changed my life and my involvement. Rosen and the others note this general phenomenon which is all to the good. We have the ability now to become more active participants and this brings changes.

    Anyway I am glad that Chris asked those questions at the end about the NYTimes. I cannot say that I am uncritical or not disappointed, but I agree with Rosen that the NYTimes is unique and a treasure and now I worry that they will die for lack of air. Or maybe they will do “top down” (second choice for survival) better than anyone and surprise us. The “more air” (participation by readers) will change the NYTimes as we have known it much more than the latter. Anyway I am not letting go yet- and not out of stubbornness.

    Nother-So happens that I am cleaning out my garage and I (a hopeless saver) have a pile of yellowing New York Times from 9/11/01 and the days following plus from spring 2003 when we actually invaded Iraq. I can’t bring myself to throw them out before flipping through- at least to look at some of the awesome front page color photos. But without looking more deeply yet I do remember that even with Judith Miller reporting the editorials were dead set against the war and there were many op-ed contributers who also were against (but I think not Bill Keller). I will get back to you on that. It’s interesting how we remember and what we remember. I do remember that across the board there was pro and con discussion. And the fact is that many very bright people were taken for a ride by this president and believed that he needed backing and would never take us into a war precipitously. He was the one who betrayed us. But that is NOT to say that the media ( investigative reporting, not opinion) did not let us down. I don’t know if revenue and readership had anything to do with it but it is true that they are human and got swept up.

    I was troubled by Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN. Manymuch brighter and more knowledgeable also bought it. Though I was against going to war but it seemed to me at the time that he made a strong case against Saddam. As well, the administration, it seemed, held so much secret information close to itself that it was a matter of trust about what we did not or could not know. Still William Safire in his columns seemed like a fool to me until the day he left the NYT. Still is WAS the job of the press to question and it did not for the most part.

    Rosen suggests that with the blogs being so strong today- this would not happen.

    BTW- I really enjoyed Josh Marshall (Talking Points Memo) in his bathrobe days. Now I see he is a big operation by comparison and I have to look to find him. I am a big fan and happy to see his well deserved success but I loved the simple site in those bathrobe days.

  • nother

    Hey Potter,

    Thanks for the info about the NYT.

    Yet I’m troubled by this idea that it’s ok because the NYT was presenting a balanced view. Half the voices for the war and half against it. It’s like that argument with Global Warming.

    Rosen in this interview says that big media did not listen to enough of the “skeptical” voices. This feeds into what bothers me…the NYT should be the skeptical voice – not looking for it.

    Potter, i’ve heard you say before that you were for this war and now you know it was a mistake. But what I would like to know (from anyone that was not against this) is what soul searching have you done. It’s not enough to say that you thought they made a good case. That doesn’t cut it. We now know it was not only not a good case, it was one of the worst cases in history. What responsibility have you take on and what changes have you personally made in how you read the news.

    Here is his presentation:

    I would love to know what part of this presentation convinced you that we should invade a country.

    This is what it has cost us and you, just in treasure (think about the opportunity cost).

    Thanks again for reminding me about the op eds. Make sure you keep that original paper. I just looked at a Boston Globe displayed in the BPL about the 78 blizzard and it was riveting to see it in black and white.

  • Potter

    Nother- I challenge you ( with no animosity whatsoever!) to find where I ever said I was for this war. NEVER. All I said was what I am saying here- which is I could understand why some were fooled or got swept up or trusted. I did waver some with Colin Powells speech but came down firmly against prior to invasion as I was all along before. I thought it was insane. I went back into my emails of the day- which contained a heated discussion of with a right winger, a supporter of the war and loyal Lydonista, a lawyer in fact. I would be happy to send you that part of the exchange ( which I sent to Chris months ago) to prove this ( I have your email if it is the same as it was… let me know). But I admit that I have skated close by defending Kanan Makiya’s support (on ROS – you can check that thread) because I felt his case and circumstance was not in the same category as yours or mine.

    So I need no soul searching. Regarding the Colin Powell case- you had to take it on faith because there were photos shown and interpretations given and facts given that your average person had no way of knowing about. But even then I was not sold- just scratching my head.

  • Potter

    PS- I am aware of the costs. ( I feel like you are trying to lay guilt on me- not guilty!!)

  • nother

    No, my mistake. Sorry.

    I’m in the middle of watching the new Frontline on the Web, Bush’s War. Good stuff.

  • Potter

    I was flipping through those mildewy New York Times of the period right after 9/11 and then at the time of the invasion of Iraq. One of the reasons I saved them wasthat the headlines were spectacular HUGE BOLD. And the photos on the front page were amazing.

    I forgot how these events colored everything. Everything. It not only took our funds- it took our attention. It seemed as though every story in every category, business, style, food, art, local national foreign- was all 9/11 or all Iraq War all the time. If you were from outer space and came upon these papers you would have to wonder at this representation of life on the planet through this lens. Were we really so wrapped and so distorted? I think so. And it was not immediate either. It took a little while to sink in before it spread with the help of administration demagogues and the media. So maybe that is the answer as to why and how Bush got to stay 8 years. We have been gradually collectively waking up. But there were many who have been angry all along who still want heads to roll for this.

    I have my own list of names.

  • Potter

    If you are interested in the Obama bus tour in Pennsylvania try this for internet journalism:

    Mayhill Fowler: Pennsylvania Campaign Journal: Obama Hams It Up, Flirts, And Gets A Bit Cocky

  • Zeke

    Great show. Much to think about and it prompted me to check out Walter Benjamin. However, I am skeptical of the benefits from news organizations turning to their readers for their valuable expertise. For example, The Boston Globe already does this on an organized basis. Here is a representative sample of subjects they want to know about: Texting your teenager; Taking money from your 401-k; Retired but still working; Facebook friends with your boss; Ever been solicited by a prostitute.

  • Zeke

    This show continues to resonate. The recent flap over Obama’s remarks at a private SF fundraiser about the “bitterness” in small town America is a text book example. Unlike George Allen’s “Macacca moment,” in this case, one of his supporters outed him, and did so via the Huffington Post’s auxilliary website, Off the Bus founded, in part, by Jay Rosen.

  • Zeke

    Running under this introduction, here is Jay Rosen’s account of the rapid path the story took:

    “In between there is uncharted territory. Mayhill Fowler’s report quoting Barack Obama at a fundraiser (“It’s not surprising then they get bitter”) was posted at OffTheBus Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning Tim Russert had it top of show. How it happened. Why we did it. ”

  • rc21

    These days you have to be careful when expressing your true thoughts, even amongst friends and supporters.

    Outed by one of his own people.No one is safe.

  • Potter

    From Off The Bus to Meet the Press

    This is quite a long piece especially if one follows the links Zeke thanks. I get a sense of it though. Some things stand out for me: the competition or battle between citizen journalism( legitimacy) and the main stream media( turf), the pros and cons of each ( for those of us out here reading), the way they serve as checks or critics, on each other ( bloggers to MSM most usefully, MSM in turn conferring legitimacy on bloggers) and the way that news gets manufactured and/or distorted, what gets magnified for what rationales .

    Wasn’t the MSM is just looking to pick up something like the Obama “bitter” story to create a brushfire? ( Remember the Howard Dean “scream”?)

  • Potter

    Well I have been reading and it goes on and on ( from the above link) discussing this episode and I do not know where we end up except it seems to me that I may agree with RC21 ( for once) and that citizen journalism and mainstream media journalism can both be irresponsible and neither has enough of an understanding of the fires they can cause in this volatile political atmosphere (and so no sense of responsibility in terms of the good of the country). As well we cannot complain when candidates are scripted. Obama dares not to be so.

    Australia’s Blue Mountains are covered with bluish Eucalyptus trees ( thus the name) which during a certain season release volatile oils which set off brushfires. Our political season is like that- the air is just filled with volatile oils.

  • rc21

    I think this may be the 2nd time you have agreed with me.Then again I may have just been dreaming.

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