Episode 08 – Speaking the Hard Truth to Journalism
In this episode, doctoral student Florence Madenga interviews NYU professor and press critic Jay Rosen about the state of contemporary journalism and protecting the legitimacy of the American press. They also discuss Rosen’s collaboration with the Dutch news site “The Correspondent,” and the endeavor to establish The Correspondent as an English-language site aiming to optimize the news for trust.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In today’s episode, doctoral student Florence Madenga interviews Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at NYU and Director of the Studio 20 graduate program. Jay publishes frequently as a journalism critic, and is the founder of PressThink, a blog about the state of contemporary journalism. Hope you enjoy.
Florence Madenga: Hi, my name is Florence Madenga. I’m a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication. I’ll be speaking with Jay Rosen, who is a prolific media critic, scholar and journalism professor at New York University. Jay has been a thought leader in media and journalistic practice for a long time and has written on citizen and public journalism, democracy and political reportage. He runs the blog PressThink at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, sits on various prestigious advisory boards and his writing and media criticism has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Harper’s Magazine and many other publications. He’s an advocate for analyzing, rethinking, and reshaping press models in the United States and beyond and I’m very excited to pick his brain about the state of journalism today. Hi Jay, thank you for joining us today.
Jay Rosen: You’re welcome.
Florence Madenga: We appreciate it. I have a couple questions for you. One is more just about your role and sort of the state of journalism. You had a discussion with Ezra Klein a couple of days ago on Vox about the state of political journalism. He described your role as sort of someone who can see outside the system a little clearly, but you didn’t say exactly what your role was, so I was curious to hear how do you see yourself sort of in that system? What’s your role, and what’s sort of your responsibility to intervene or not?
Jay Rosen: No one’s ever asked me that. Well, I’m not a journalist. I don’t have long experience in newsrooms, and I’m not an academic in conversation with other academics. As much as I like to engage with journalists about their practices, so what is my role? Well, I’m a critic, sort of similar to the role that a theater critic has in the development of the American theater or a movie critic has for American film. But, I’m particularly in and concerned about the legitimacy of the institution of the American press. So as a critic, I’m starting with questions like why do we need the press? What is it supposed to be doing for us? What makes this institution important? What makes it different than just a business, and what are some of the organizing ideas of the American press, and how well is the current press living up to those ideas?
Florence Madenga: In the same interview, you critique pack journalism a lot, where if everyone’s doing the same thing, then nobody’s wrong and then it’s hard to hold people accountable. So, I was wondering, this pack journalism thing, and these dynamics have always been there, but there was sense that there’s something especially egregious about Twitter and what’s going on with those dynamics, so I was wondering if you could expand more on that?
Jay Rosen: Well, the phenomena of pack journalism and journalists as a group deciding what the story is goes back a long ways. The classic book “The Boys on the Bus,” which is not actually a journalism studies or a media studies book but was written by a journalist about peers is all about that. It’s all about how the “boys on the bus,” and they were almost all boys, not only worked together but they kind of settle on what the story is, and then they all report the story. And so, there’s nothing new about it. It’s been a dynamic in the American press for more than 50 years.
My concern is that professionalization itself, the long series of changes and transformations of journalism into something like a profession, which took place from roughly the turn of the 19th century then 20th century up to today, orients journalists towards one another rather than towards the users, the voters, the readers. And it does it for a lot of different reason, and so Twitter comes along and it’s just another tool for that, but the dynamic of journalists judging journalism based on what other journalists think is journalism, there’s nothing new about that. That is, for example, what the prize culture is all about. The most significant thing you can do as a journalist is not necessarily to inform people, it’s to win a prize, which is awarded by, guess what, other journalists.
Florence Madenga: Yeah.
Jay Rosen: It’s a peculiarity. It’s a feature of the culture of the press that doesn’t necessarily serve the ideas embedded in the institution of the press.
Florence Madenga: So on Twitter, you’re pretty critical about specific members of the press and specific publications.
Jay Rosen: Damn right.
Florence Madenga: And then you follow that up in PressThink as well, but one of the things you’re really critical about is how the New York Times has been balancing sort of who they are, and you say you come to this as sort of both a critic and a reader, a loyal reader, of the New York Times. When I read your post on PressThink, you had a lot of grievances, a lot of sort of things you’re upset about what the Times shouldn’t be doing.
Jay Rosen: Yeah.
Florence Madenga: But then I was waiting for things that they should be doing or how they remedy this.
Jay Rosen: One of the best definitions I ever heard of a good newspaper is that it’s similar to a candid friend. So a candid friend is somebody who knows you and appreciates you and understands you, but can also tell you the truth when you need to hear it, and I think there’s value in that for thinking about what the relationship between a newspaper, a newsroom and its public should be. And in order for that kind of relationship where I understand you and therefore I can also tell you truths that you may not want to hear.
In order for that to happen, journalists have to be in conversation with their readers. They have to know where they’re coming from. They have to respect their values. They have to understand who they are, and the core readers and supporters of the New York Times are liberal, cosmopolitan, coastal-educated people. Those are the people who believe in The New York Times, those are the people who support it, those are the people who read it, and it’s important for the journalists who work there to understand that. Now, that doesn’t mean they pander to them, it means that those are the people that have to be candid friends too, and in the minds of the people who work in that newsroom, I think that they believe something else. I think they believe that they are the newspaper for the entire country and that they address sort of everybody in America equally. They sort of have no particular constituency. Their constituency is everybody interested in news, and while that might be an attractive abstraction, it isn’t actually the case.
So, what I wrote about in my post was the anxiety that is created when the readers of The New York Times, and especially the core readers, obviously have more power. They have more power now, because the internet is two-way. The relationship is more two-way than it used to be, because they can talk back to the journalists, and they can criticize them, and nobody who is online can completely avoid that. So, I think that The Times has to come to grips with that, it has to figure out how to express that relationship and not be too tied down by it at the same time.
Florence Madenga: Do you think people at The Times, I guess reporters at The Times, have been relying on this … The Times has always been known as “the paper of record” kind of thing, where just legitimate because it’s The Times.
Jay Rosen: Yeah.
Florence Madenga: And they’ve never had to answer to anyone.
Jay Rosen: Right.
Florence Madenga: And that’s sort of the brand of The Times.
Jay Rosen: Right.
Florence Madenga: Do you think that they think that by making these changes or having to engage more that would change what The Times means?
Jay Rosen: Well, you’re right, there is especially at The New York Times, there’s this feeling almost of being a cathedral of news.
Newspaper of record, all the news that’s fit to print. Each one of these constructs says nothing about any particular priorities they may have, any view of the world they may have. It’s all truth, information, fairness, in a way has no content. In many ways The New York Times sees itself not as a practitioner of great journalism, but as the definition of journalism, which is quite different. That’s why I wrote about the difference between the marketing campaign of The Washington Post after the 2016 election, “Democracy dies in darkness.” That specifically puts the Washington Post in defense of democracy. The New York Times didn’t go there. Its marketing campaign was all about truth, “We are truth,” “We give you truth,” “Truth is hard, that’s why you need The New York Times, because it’s hard to know what the truth is, and we give you the truth.” That’s a very different kind of message.
Now, why is that a problem? It’s true that the press should not become the political opposition to Trump. I agree with that. That’s what Marty Baron of The Washington Post says, that’s what The New York Times believes as well, and I’m with them on that. However, I believe journalists have to find a way to oppose a political style that erodes democratic institutions, and when your focus is on truth, all the news, you’re not going to do that. And that’s where I think leadership has been missing. How can The New York Times come to a style of journalism in which it protects democratic institutions, of which the press is one, but it’s not the only one under assault. It’s not the only one being eroded so that to me is like a huge problem in journalism, but in current press think of The New York Times you can’t even talk about that. There’s no room to put that on the table. I’m very dissatisfied with that as a reader, as a critic, and as a loyalist.
Florence Madenga: On Twitter, you also named another publication that you weren’t that happy with, and that was USA Today, and that was their decision to publish that op-ed by Trump.
Jay Rosen: Yes.
Florence Madenga: A lot of people I guess were not happy with that.
Jay Rosen: The problem I had with that was not that they ran an op-ed by Donald Trump. That’s a totally valid thing to do. The President already has a big platform, so I don’t think it’s a particularly creative use of your platform to have the President of the United States write a piece for you, but if that’s what you want to do, it’s a totally valid thing to do. However, especially for the President of the United States, you can’t lower your standards for publication for him just because he’s a powerful guy. And when you run an op-ed that has a factual error or a plain, flat-out lie in every other sentence, what you’re saying is we’re abandoning our standards so that we can get this piece into our pages and there’s no justification for that. There’s no legitimacy to that.
So, that was why I criticized USA Today, and lots of other people did too. By no means was it like a lonely voice from NYU, it was the opposite. They basically convicted themselves, and they were embarrassed in front of their peers, which probably made a lot more difference to them than what I had to say about them. But to answer the deeper question here, I always go back when I talk or think about this problem of on the one hand, on the other hand and both sides journalism. It’s something that The Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor wrote in 1990 in his book, “See How They Run,” which was about election coverage. And there’s a very unusual passage in which he talks about this formula in news writing where you write your story from this mid-point between the best and the worst that could be said about a candidate. Or the best or the worst that could be said about a policy proposal, and he recognizes that this is what he as a professional journalist has learned to do. And he recognizes that yes, he’s trying to capture the truth, he says, but he’s also seeking refuge, this is the phrase he uses, that if you find that mid-point and you don’t endorse the best or the worst that could be said about somebody or a policy proposal, that you are protecting yourself against criticism.
You asked me what my role is, one of my roles is worrying about the legitimacy of the American press, is what I said. That principle, protecting yourself against criticism– that is not a legitimate principle. Your job is to tell us what the truth is as best you can find it, not the version of it that’s going to lead to the least criticism, and I felt that if we could corner the editors of USA Today and ask them, come on, why did you run this thing? It’s not like the President lacks voice.
It’s not like he said anything new, right, so what was it about this that really drove you to make this decision? I think the answer would be some version of showing how even handed we are, showing that we are both sides avoiding criticism, and I don’t think that is a legitimate pursuit, because trying to inform the public is going to open you to criticism. That’s part of public life.
Florence Madenga: Lately your projects have gone international in scope a little bit. I guess you said it was inspired by the grief you felt after the 2016 election. You felt like you needed to do something.
Jay Rosen: Grief is a good word, yeah.
Florence Madenga: Yeah. And so you’re looking at how we can learn from other press systems and models elsewhere, so you’re collaborating and working with the Dutch site, “The Correspondent,” and they’ve got a lot of ideas about what you call “how to optimize the news for trust.” And so you’re trying to see how well this model can work in the US, and of course, one of the first questions would be culturally, politically and all these ways–the Netherlands is very different.
Jay Rosen: True.
Florence Madenga: So the fact that they’re very successful in the Netherlands doesn’t necessarily project how well they’re going to do here. How confident are you that this model will work well here? It’s very, very experimental. Are there certain parts of that model you think are really going to catch on? And the others are not as useful?
Jay Rosen: Well, let’s go back to the day after the election, November 9, 2016. I was shocked by the results as so many other people were, and I was particularly upset because I was supposed to understand these things. I mean, I make my living with my ideas and my understanding of the world, and I realized that somewhere back in my thinking, I had made some kind of wrong turn somewhere, because my own models for politics and media would never have predicted that this could happen.
One of the reasons why I went to Germany this summer and studied the German press was I thought maybe by looking at another system, I could find that point where I took a wrong turn. Somehow get outside the familiar world of American journalism that I had tried to master, and American politics and the intersection of those two things. So, this Dutch site, “The Correspondent,” I’d been following them for a while, and I saw that they had this very successful crowd funding round when they started in 2013, 18,000 people signed up.
And all the savvy future of journalism people said, well, let’s see what they have after a year, because it’s easy to be enthusiastic about something, and it’s actually the renewal of those early members that tells you the story. So after a year, they had like 35,000, then they had 40,000, so then I started following them very closely, and the more I studied their model, the more I concluded that it was optimized not for clicks or prizes or scoops or profits, but for trust. And that, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, seemed crucial. So, that’s when I decided to work for them.
Now, the question you ask is a very good one. So it works in the Netherlands, who’s to say it’ll work in the US? We don’t know. Which element in their success is genuinely Dutch and absent in an American or English-speaking context? We don’t know. The only way to find out is to try it. Am I optimistic? Not really. I’m not optimistic about anything, and so it’s a gamble, but we’ve raised the money we need to start our membership campaign. We have made the best arguments we can for why people should become members of “The Correspondent US,” English-speaking Correspondent.
We’re going to have a very professional and I think attractive pitch, and we’ve done it the right way. We’ve been professional about it. We had the intelligence, the time, the money and the care necessary to do a good job. So, since I feel like we’re giving them our best shot, it’s not so much that I’m optimistic as I’m resolved that we’re giving this a good test, and we’ll see. And even if it fails, which it could easily fail, it’ll enter into a kind of history of experiments for how to support serious journalism and it could have lots of effects down the road, we don’t know.
Let me say one more thing on this. It’s really important to understand that all systems for supporting public service journalism are subsidized by something. There’s subsidy systems, and the subsidy changes over time. The advertising subsidy just happened to be one that worked for a long period of time, but it’s not working anymore. There’s the state subsidy, there’s the subsidy of rich patrons, right, billionaires, that’s a subsidy. There’s the tax payer subsidy. There’s the subsidy that events can provide to journalism. There’s many different forms, and it’s most likely that in the future we’re going to have to find a new combined subsidy system rather than rely on one as we did for so long in the US context with advertising-based media. This particular attempt to find a membership-based subsidy system may fail, but it could still by failing get us somewhere. That’s what I mean by resolved. It’s a good thing to try and we’ll learn a lot from it.
Florence Madenga: So, one interesting thing I found was journalism education. And of course I have to ask because you are a professor and you do run Studio 20. One of the things that students in journalism and journalists in general are worried about is having to adapt to this digital space, like the new norms for everything that’s going on and be innovative about their storytelling and be cognizant of all these issues we talked about, right. So, I wanted to know from all these things that you know now, how exactly you’re preparing students to do this? And what presumptions of journalistic norms, of practice do you think are not really useful anymore that you’re throwing out or if you’re not really for that?
And also, with the anxiety following your graduation and having to find jobs, and even journalists getting laid off all the time, I wanted to discuss as well the issue of revenue streams. How you teach, how newsrooms are funded, newsrooms having in-house agencies to supplement the revenue, and things like that, a lot of people are doing that, blockchain-based funding models, even personal brand journalism, things like that, how you’re approaching that?
Jay Rosen: Well, we don’t teach about those things directly.
Because none of them are “the model” or “the answer,” but we do dispense with certain conventions of journalism education that were common to almost all J-schools when I started. An example would be when I started in journalism school, it was very common for the dean of the school on the first day of class to say, “Welcome new students to University of Maryland,” or “University of Texas,” and “we’re so proud that you’ve chosen us to study journalism with, and journalism is the only profession mentioned in the First Amendment.” This used to be a common thing that was said, and I always thought it was so weird, because I’ve read the First Amendment. It doesn’t mention the profession of journalism, it says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press, freedom of the press belongs to everyone. So, we start in my classroom from the presumption that the press belongs to the public.
Journalism is something that a free people has to secure for itself in order to remain free, so that’s one thing that’s different. The second is I believe that the so-called church/state separation between the newsroom and the business side meant no seat at the table when the important decisions were made. It was infantilizing and I’m trying to educate people who can work at the intersection of business models, technology, and editorial work and serve to improve all of them so that we have a strong press. So my students are very interested in that. They don’t consider that external to journalism–that is basic to journalism. So, that’s the second thing.
A third thing is in my program, which is a small part of the journalism school at NYU, it’s like a corner. The only reason I can do this is because it’s so small. Nobody really knows what I’m doing. So we educate people for what are now called bridge roles in newsrooms. Bridge roles are people who can connect the programmers to the storytellers to the data scientists, and work in between departments so that better products can be made and so that companies can adjust to the market conditions, and so that journalism has a business model again. So, bridge roles is part of it.
A fourth thing is we do projects. So I call Studio 20, my graduate program, a consulting group that gets paid in problems. We take ownership of problems in digital adaptation that news companies are having, and we persuade them to give us those problems. And our students take them apart and work on them, and then we return to the company’s solutions and ideas, and we learn by working on 100% real problems. And they get something of value, because these are things they couldn’t devote enough time to, and then Studio 20 gets the reputation for innovation.
In that model, we’re not just learning how to tell stories, we’re helping the news industry solve problems, which arises from another belief of mine, which is the American journalism school as an institution arose shortly after the turn of the century, 1910, 1920, in that period. It’s sort of had one model from the beginning up until recently, a consensus emerged about what these schools were for. And the consensus was send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.
That’s what the American journalism school has always done. That’s what the industry wanted, it wanted people who could literally be plugged into the production routine tomorrow, and what I mean by tomorrow is the day after you’re hired, you learn where the bathrooms are, you sign your HR forms, you get a desk, and the next day, you are sent out on assignment and you return a story that can run in the paper or air on the broadcast. That was the model, and it was great, everyone loved it. Students loved it, because it was practical training, which is the one and only demand I’ve ever heard from a journalism student. The employers loved it because they off-loaded their training costs onto the university. Parents loved it because it was jobs, right.
And university presidents loved it because it gave a way to interact with a powerful force in the community, which is the local media. So everybody was happy, everyone loved it. Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow. The problem is universities are not only in the business of sending workers to industry. We’re supposed to be producing new knowledge, and that was left out of that.
So, when all of a sudden because of the disruption that internet and the digital world has brought to journalism, we needed a new production routine, a new business model. We needed to reinvent newsrooms. You couldn’t turn to the journalism school for that. They were never asked to do that. They had no facility to do that. They didn’t have the people, they didn’t have the orientation, they didn’t have the knowledge. They were useless, and that’s the way the industry wanted it. So, this is a long winded answer to your question.
Another thing I’m trying to do is push journalism school up the value chain so that we graduate people that the industry actually values, because they know how to reinvent journalism and make and adapt it and innovate within it. And I tell my students that even though content production is a great skill and we need great content producers. If you know how to adapt news production to a shifting digital world, that’s going to be seen as more valuable by the industry. So, I’m trying to graduate people who are more valuable to the industry.
Florence Madenga: Just to wrap this up, all these things you said sound like they address the problem, but we know that change, especially institutionally, it’s a very slow process.
How optimistic are you that this change will happen soon enough to actually change things politically? Or do you think it’s just going to take so long that by the time it finally happens, it’s too late, and then we’re going to have to figure something else out.
Jay Rosen: I’m not optimistic about the political press adapting to the crisis in democracy or the civic emergency that we’re living through.
It would have started to happen if it was going to happen. However, the failure of the conventional way of reporting on politics, which we are seeing and we’re going to continue to see, could inspire a whole wave of reforms and new generation of people. It’s almost like I’m sort of optimistic about the wreckage that might really end up changing something. I’m not sure, but it’s very hard to be optimistic about anything going on in the United States right now, and certainly in that intersection of media, politics, and platforms, which we have to deal with every day here. It just seems to be getting worse in a lot of ways. If I wasn’t working on these Dutch guys on something that excites me and that is at least somewhat hopeful, I might be measuring my years to retirement.
Aaron Shapiro: Thanks for listening. Today’s episode was produced by Florence Madenga and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro. Special thanks to Jay Rosen, Emily Plowman, and Waldo Aguirre. Barbie Zelizer is the director of the Center for Media at Risk. For more information about the center, upcoming events, and publications by affiliated faculty or students, check out www.ASCmediarisk.org.
“All the Right Things” by Son Lux (intro)
“Scientists” by Fourtet
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Fats Waller
“The News” by Mayer Hawthorne
“Changes” by Sandro Perri
“Friends & Lovers” by Shigeto
“Don’t be a Tool” by Zammuto
“IO” by The Books
“The Equator” by Tortoise
“Two Fish and an Elephant” by Khruangbin (outtro)
We’d love to hear from you, especially if you have stories about this podcast, our Center and anything in between. Feel free to write a note or record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org; you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.
Jay Rosen has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986. Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals, which he introduced in September 2003. His book, What Are Journalists For? (Yale University Press 1999), is about the rise of the civic journalism movement. Rosen is also an active press critic with a focus on problems in the coverage of politics. Find him on Twitter @jayrosen_nyu.