Jay Rosen was born in Buffalo, NY, in 1956. Both sides of his family were Jewish immigrants from Poland: one grandfather arrived in North America via New York, the other via Toronto. Rosen’s branch of the family subsequently settled in Buffalo, in order to “get away from” the Toronto grandfather.
As he grew up Rosen, in his turn, dreamed of getting away: away from the “comfortable deprivation” and “thinness” of the “white-bread post-war working-class suburb of a typical American city” that he felt Buffalo to be; away from the enforced passivity and loneliness of the suburban house with the always-on television—a world in which citizens were spectators, not participants, in the events of the nation.
By his own account Rosen’s education was “pretty incoherent.” After flunking out as an architecture major at Carnegie Mellon he changed subjects several times, before eventually graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In his final year of college, Rosen decided that he wanted to become a political reporter, probably in Washington; an ambition that crystallized during a successful internship at his local paper—the Buffalo Courier Express. The editor was sufficiently impressed that he promised Rosen a journalist’s position when he graduated.
On his return to college, however, Rosen began to fret that—for someone planning to escape the ‘burbs—he was not being very adventurous. So he decided to look for another job, and unwittingly applied for the position he had already been promised but which had been advertised to meet union requirements. When he turned up to claim the post, the furious editor had the security guards throw him out, outraged that Rosen had accepted a job with his paper, and then looked elsewhere.
Forced to start over, Rosen opted to change directions, and enrolled in a media studies PhD program at New York University (NYU). Casting around for a suitable topic to research, he stumbled across a famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey about “the public”—a debate sparked by the publication of Lippman’s book Public Opinion.
Fascinated by the discussion, Rosen decided to write his dissertation around the debate. Entitled The Impossible Press, Rosen’s thesis argued that while the press had an important democratic role to play in helping the public to form opinions, this was a difficult task, and journalists had to keep re-discovering how to accomplish it. He later concluded that they had entirely forgotten how to do so, and now only paid lip service to the role.
Becoming a member of the NYU faculty in 1986, Rosen went on to devote his professional career to exploring the delicate and complex relationship between the press and the public. Gaining a reputation for having an acute insight and understanding of the press’ role in a democracy, Rosen became a leading figure in the reform movement known as “public journalism”—which emerged in the US in the early 1990s in order to encourage journalists to repair their relationship with the public.
From 1993 to 1997 Rosen was the director of The Project on Public Life and the Press. Funded by the Knight Foundation, and housed at NYU, the project’s goal was to support the movement for public journalism by holding meetings for those interested in the topic, encouraging the press to undertake experiments and projects, and then studying the results. And in 1999 Rosen published a book on the topic called What Are Journalists For?
In retrospect, Rosen believes that the public journalism movement had little impact on the press, whose disconnect with the public today has reached the point where something is seriously wrong with the relationship.
More importantly, the development of the Web, and especially the blogosphere, has broken journalists’ monopoly on news reporting. Consequently, cautions Rosen, unless it adapts the press risks being sidelined, and becoming increasingly irrelevant.
This threat, he adds, is the same threat currently confronting many other professional information gatekeepers in the networked world. “All kinds of knowledge monopolies—and positions of authority based on them—are wearing away … [and] … the professionals who have gained control of institutions of various kinds—including politics—are not going to have that kind of control anymore.”
As such, says Rosen, the Web has shifted the debate away from the need for journalists to embrace public journalism, to a discussion about how the public is now able to do its own reporting, by means of citizen journalism and blogging.
The problem, says Rosen, is that while the Web may appear to empower the public to do its own reporting, the reality is that the world—particularly its social and political institutions—is just too dense and complicated for ordinary citizens to penetrate. However revolutionary and inherently democratic the Internet may be, therefore, we still need professional journalists to interpret the world, and explain things to us.
Rather than viewing the blogosphere as separate from the press, therefore, Rosen believes journalists now have to share journalism with bloggers, and develop a new collaborative relationship; a relationship in which members of the public and professional journalists cooperate to create a superior form of journalism.
After all, as journalists are increasingly discovering (to their chagrin), bloggers are extremely adept at locating and exposing errors in news reports, demonstrating the extent to which in an online world the “code” of news reporting has become more transparent and open.
Essentially, Rosen’s vision is a form of Open Source Journalism, which is how his publishers portray it in describing his new book By the People. “Ultimately,” the editorial review on Amazon reads, “Rosen argues that the press must become even more interactive, following the ‘open-source’ model of the software world, if it is to reinvigorate the public’s trust in the people who report the news.”
Indeed, the beauty of the open source model when applied to news reporting is not just that it leads to greater accuracy (as open source advocate Eric Raymond might have put it: “Given enough eyeballs, all [news] bugs are shallow.”), but it provides an ideal way to encourage the public to participate more fully in the affairs of their nation, rather than just sitting passively watching events unfold on their television sets—in the way Rosen did as a child.
Moreover, bloggers are proving that they can be as effective as the press when it comes to sourcing news stories too—as demonstrated in December 2003, when Minnesota-based Doug McGill broke the news to the world that a wave of genocidal killings was taking place in Ethiopia.
The problem is that cooperation does not come naturally to anyone accustomed to enjoying a monopoly. Additionally, journalists are facing this challenge to their authority at a time when their relationship with the public is at an all-time low, and the traditional newspaper business model has run out of steam.
Newspaper companies, says Rosen, find themselves standing over a kind of canyon today. “Right now they have got to the lip of this canyon, and they are all looking at it, and saying: ‘I can’t get across that. Can you get across that?’ But what are they going to do: go back?”
But if they don’t get across, he says, the capacity to effectively report the news every day could be “lost.”
This article was excerpted from Richard Poynder’s blog Open and Shut? Visit his blog to read the entire interview.