Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Media

July 7, 2009

New Media's Grok Star

NYU professor, respected press blogger, and master-Twitterer Jay Rosen shares his thoughts on journalism's next steps.

Michael Gluckstadt

When Jay Rosen tweets, the world listens. Whether it's calling out questionable newspaper ethics, mocking Maureen Dowd, or exploring new news models, the NYU journalism professor's tweets—or as he calls them, "mindcasts"—get linked to and retweeted to every corner of the new media landscape.

Rosen, 53, is a fixture of that landscape (or is it a mindscape?), which he has been shaping and covering since he first commented on's Table Talk section in 1996. He's become a go-to source for subjects like hyperlocal news, blogging ethics, and of course, Twitter.

Jay Rosen. Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.
"Just a few years ago, newspapers editors were asking, 'When is online going to pay for my newsroom?' Now, no one asks that."

Jay Rosen. Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.

In the following interview, which was conducted via email and has been edited for clarity, Rosen tells Gelf about the need for professional-amateur collaborations in journalism, why he's been blogging less often, and what's behind his Twitter popularity.

Gelf Magazine: I've heard you described as a new-media expert. How does one go about acquiring that title?

Jay Rosen:I don't give myself such titles. Nor do I go out and try to acquire them. I am very happy with "a journalism professor at NYU and author of the blog PressThink." Things like "new media expert" come about because journalists need a quick way to explain why they are quoting you. And it is infinitely better than "guru," a term I actively detest. I'm certainly interested in what's called new media. I write about it. I try to create it. I participate in the new system, rather than standing outside it. And I try to describe what's different about the emergent. My Twitter profile says I "try to grok new media."

Gelf Magazine: Along similar lines, you helped popularize the term "citizen journalist." What does that mean? Are other journalists not citizens?

Jay Rosen: I've actually answered that question at my blog and in a short video. "When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that's citizen journalism." This is the most useful definition I can come up with. Everyone groans about the term citizen journalism. I think it's hilarious, all this bellyaching. Call it what you want. The reality is that my definition points to something that is happening in the world. You are entitled to give it any name that helps you get a handle on it, and if citizen journalism makes you want to puke, fine! Sometimes I think people react to the name because they don't want to deal with the thing, and that can certainly be the case with professional journalists and "citizen journalism."

Gelf Magazine: In your view, is the line between professional journalists and those who simply participate in journalism blurring out of focus, or is it disappearing entirely?

Jay Rosen: I think we still have a professional press, and it works in its own way, but the press sphere (as Jeff Jarvis called it) has been enlarged. It includes both pros and amateurs. Perhaps the one idea that has informed my career more than any other is that professional journalism is strengthened when it includes more of the people out there as participants. I am much more interested in how we can do that effectively, in various pro-am combinations and how they work, than I am in drawing lines. In fact, when someone in journalism starts a question with, "where do you draw the line between…" I pretty much know the ensuing discussion will bore me and go nowhere.

Gelf Magazine: Can you elaborate on what a successful pro-am journalism venture might look like? Is anyone doing it well right now?

Jay Rosen: I wouldn't say we know how to do it well yet. Certainly there is no template. Best practices are just beginning to emerge, along with loads of limitations and unsolved problems in putting the pro-am concept into practice. Progress comes slowly. A very simple example of how a system of pros working with amateurs might work is Nico Pitney's recent live-blogging about the Iranian election. He's a paid journalist for the Huffington Post and people from all over were sending him stuff, which he filtered, checked, and collated. Andrew Sullivan worked in a similar way, especially via Twitter. Pro blogger plus readers around the world plus internet is a potentially strong system.
I'm keeping a close eye on the Virtual Assignment Desk at The Local, the New York Times hyperlocal news blog in Brooklyn. It allows the editors to solicit people to cover meetings and other events they can't get to. It also allows people to suggest assignments to the editors. Success in this model is when you can cover things that you could not cover in any other way because you have more people helping you. In order to make it work, you need not only an open invitation like the Assignment Desk is, but also some workable (posted) guidelines so the ams know what's expected if they do decide to cover something for The Local. The invite is open; the guidelines constrain and set certain minimal standards. When we learn how to employ the two together, progress is being made.
Success is also an engaged and active user base. That's the thinking behind BusinessWeek's commitment to social media, which is being driven by John Byrne, their online editor. They have dozens of ways for the readers to literally become the writers, to suggest stories, and to aid in fact collection. BusinessWeek's commitment to pro-am is well past the "project" or beta stage, and it's starting to become their normal way of working.

Gelf Magazine: You mention the The Local. What do you think of the Times's and other news organizations' awkward first steps into the hyperlocal sphere?

Jay Rosen: Too soon to say whether they will be successful. For the big metropolitan news organizations, "local" has meant City Hall and the superintendent of schools. But to people in their circulation area, local really means "my neighborhood" and "my kids' school." The Times is trying to adjust for this difference in scale with The Local, and that is a good idea. But the most interesting thing about The Local is that it can only succeed with a pro-am approach, and the people who started it know that.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think it's more important for new journalism projects to start off with a sound business model, or should they let their ideas run free and figure out how to capitalize them later on?

Jay Rosen: We need different kinds of projects: some going directly at the business model puzzle, some simply trying to create editorial value in a new and better way, some trying to engage users, and some just trying different acts of journalism because the cost to try is lower. I also recommend starting with a community that urgently needs to be served by good journalism and building a useful news and information service for that group—with metrics, so you know if it's working. Clay Shirky has a good description of this period of groping near the end of his famous Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable post.

"Pro blogger plus readers around the world plus internet is a potentially strong system."
Gelf Magazine: How long have you been creating and covering new media?

Jay Rosen: My interest in new media goes back to 1996, when I became a very active participant in's Table Talk section, their readers forum, which at that time was a new thing. I started pushing the Salon editors in a pro-am direction because it seemed to me that the participants they were drawing were extremely knowledgeable people who, in combination with editors and reporters at Salon, might have a lot to contribute to the journalism they were doing.
I landed at a site Howard Rheingold had going at the time, called Electric Minds, which, in 1997, was my first real look at the online community. I joined in discussions and the crisis planning that unfolded online after the site ran out of money. Then, in 1999, I read a prophetic article in Salon called Open Source Journalism, and from that I learned about, which has certain collaborative filtering and pro-am features that intrigued me. I would have participated at Slashdot but I didn't really know enough about technology to be a part of that community. It was around then I read about the Halloween Memos, which were prepared by a Microsoft staffer who was tasked with understanding the threat that open-source software might pose to commercial firms like Microsoft. This completely fascinated me and I felt there were implications for journalism in it. But I didn't know how to pursue them.
Then in 2002 an undergraduate student at NYU told me about blogging, which I had somehow missed. As soon as he told me about it, I was pretty sure this was for me. Within an hour of looking at my first blogs, I knew I had to start my own, but I took a year to study blogging and plan my own approach before I introduced PressThink in the fall of 2003. I tried to locate it where three circles overlap: the crisis in traditional press, the rise of blogging and new media, and the scholarly study of journalism and its technology. Then in 2006 I started my research project, NewAssignment.Net, specifically to push forward with the idea of Open Source Journalism and the pro-am possibilities that first intrigued me in 1996.

Gelf Magazine: In what ways is the conversation about new media different now than in years past?

Jay Rosen: It's totally different because everyone who works in the news industry is now alert to the collapse of its economic model, and this event is itself very far advanced. Blogging and journalism are merging. A new generation of more entrepreneurial and independent-minded young people is on the rise. Twitter and social media are extending the news systems in ways anyone can recognize. The cost to try new ventures is extremely low. The old elite has lost maybe 70 percent of its confidence that it has the answers. Just a few years ago, newspapers editors were asking, "When is online going to pay for my newsroom?" Now, no one asks that. The newsroom curmudgeons are basically discredited or irrelevant. The migration to a new land of news has begun. The whole picture has changed.

Gelf Magazine: You're something of a Twitter celebrity. Do you think your followers are attracted to what your bio calls a preference for "mindcasting" over "lifecasting"?

Jay Rosen: It's probably the higher signal-to-noise ratio, and the tight focus on a few areas I know well: press criticism, new media, blogging and online journalism, open-source developments. I sometimes tweet about politics, and I can feel the annoyance of some who follow me when I do that.

Gelf Magazine: Twitter is still in its relative infancy. How do you see it evolving as a news platform?

Jay Rosen: What Twitter does is extend the news system to everyone who is on it. It also makes possible the quick mobilization of attention. I don't really have a sense of where it will go in the future. To me, it's hard to enough to describe what Twitter is now; knowing what it will be in a year or two is beyond my powers of observation.

Gelf Magazine: I found out about the WaPo Salon scandal from your Twitter. When newspapers are squeezed by financial pressure into compromising their journalistic values, which should be the first to go and the last to stay?

Jay Rosen: The thing is, compromising editorial integrity, as the Post almost did, is not going to pay off financially. It might in the short term, but the method is not sustainable. The very thing that makes it worth $250,000 for some health-care company to buy off-the-record access to Post journalists would, over time, evaporate if the Post kept selling it to the high rollers. Sounds paradoxical, but if they can be bought that way, they're not worth it.

Gelf Magazine: Though you tweet at a fierce clip, I've noticed you don't blog as often as you used to. Are you at all concerned that some of your more compelling ideas aren't getting as fleshed out as they deserve to be?

Jay Rosen: Well, I'm still figuring out how to combine Twitter and blogging. It's true that I haven't written as many long-form blog posts as I used to, and that's a concern. But it is also true that I have a bigger and more attentive constituency for my ideas, largely because of Twitter. I have always followed my intuition, which tells me that developing my own style on Twitter is more important right now. I'm also doing a weekly podcast called Rebooting the News with Dave Winer, the technologist and proto-blogger who is a co-founder of blogging software, podcasting, and RSS. That's bringing me within reach of a whole new constituency. I have a great deal of freedom to define my projects and interests and write my own job description. And I make ample use of that freedom.

Gelf Magazine: As amateur reporters are becoming more involved in producing the news, what should journalism schools be teaching their soon-to-be professional journalists?

Jay Rosen: How to work with networks of amateurs to improve their reporting. How to be less dismissive than the generation now in charge.

Gelf Magazine: If the students know more than the teachers about new technology and news platforms, is that a problem?

Jay Rosen: It's not a problem. But it is a revolution, educationally speaking.

Related in Gelf
An interview with hyperlocal proponent Andy Newman, the Brooklyn-based blogger for the New York Times's The Local.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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