PressThinking with Jay Rosen: The Times of Our Times, and Other Media Preoccupations

The Fishbowl Final: FishbowlNY Editor Rachel Sklar interviews PressThink author and media pundit Jay Rosen

This is the third interview in our impromptu “Fishbowl Final” series.

Jay Rosen 4.jpgJay Rosen writes blog posts that are often thousands of words long, and if it’s a busy week, sometimes he’ll write four. He has no graphics, no gossip, and a URL that no one could ever describe as “catchy.” Yet for people in the media — and people who care about the media — his blog, PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, is an absolute must-read. He was the go-to guy on the Judith Miller scandal in the fall (the go-to guy that all the other go-to guys read) and his voice is so necessary that even when he tried to disengage for a quickie book leave the rest of us pulled him back in (he didn’t put up much of a fight). Not only that, he’s ridiculously photogenic. Who knew? In between blogging, teaching, fielding phone calls from news shows and documentarians (some guy called him three times yesterday during our little photo shoot), and general all-around punditry, Rosen took the time to answer some of our questions for the Fishbowl Final. Typically, it’s the longest one yet. Also typically, it’s awesome. Without further ado, Jay Rosen.

You have criticized the New York Times for its lack of transparency in the domestic spying case, abysmal handling of l’affaire Judy Miller, and have also gone on record as being no fan of TimesSelect. All of this has contributed to your assertion that the New York Times is no longer the number one paper in the country (we’ll get to WaPo in a sec). Where do you think the Times is going, and why?

The Times is a great newspaper, but also a great institution. That’s important because the day is coming when the newspaper form no longer defines the New York Times. What I mean by a great institution is not that its performance in covering the Bush years or the life and times of New York City has always been “great,” but that the Times has great reach, great talent, a great history, a great budget for news coverage, and lots of great journalists who are committed to getting it right. In the American press the Times is completely iconic, and this is not so of the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau, no matter how good those guys are, and they are very good.

But great institutions can fall behind. They may fail to adapt. Their greatness doesn’t auto-refresh. It can even be a drag, which is what we mean by “the legacy media.” I don’t have a clear sense of where the Times is going, do you? That people are worried about the company’s direction is well known. When Arthur Suzlberger, Jr., on whose moxie all depends, looks right at Charlie Rose and says: “morale is great” shortly after Judy Miller left, I didn’t know where he was going. (His statement wasn’t true.) When the Times says: here’s an handy e-mail form for contacting our columnists, which we urge you to do if you’re a TimesSelecter, but if you’re not, well, forget it… I don’t know where they’re going.

What I said at my blog is that my internal rankings had switched; I put the Washington Post ahead for now. Online, they have been bolder, looser, more open, more nimble, more creative. Confronted with Patrick Fitzgerald, their executives, editors and lawyers made smarter choices. So I said they were the flagship of the fleet now, with the Times right behind. I also said: that’s just one man’s opinion.

It’s true, the Times has screwed up massively in recent months. Of course, no paper is scrutinized like the Times. Why do we care so much?

We may scoff, but I think we’re attracted to the idea of an official narrator who decides what shall be considered a fit part of “the” story here in literate, cosmopolitan New York. This you see in its most frenzied form around the wedding pages. There’s a social fiction there that’s alive, so alive it becomes fact. The fiction is also in the phrase “newspaper of record.” That the public record really exists somewhere, and includes all deeds great or infamous enough to warrant inclusion, is part of the ancient mystique of the Times for secular and educated people.

If the “we” you mean is Media Bistro and FishBowl readers, a narrow slice of humanity for sure, people care about what gets validated by the New York Times because it’s the closest there is to an official narrator, to whom other people–strangers, but we see them on line at the movies–will refer. It’s on this “opinion,” our flickering image of other people reading the Times, that the entire regime is founded. When that flickers out it’s game over for the paper’s influence. Which hasn’t happened yet, and may never happen. So as you say: we care. You blogged Sulzberger saying it to Jon Friedman the other day: “People care desperately about the New York Times…”

All the focus of late on the NYT evokes the title of the book “The Trust” (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read. I did read “Hard News,” though I did cheat by skipping to the end). Based on your answer to #2, and the various missteps cited in #1, do you consider the (privately held) NYT to be a public trust and an institution to be safeguarded? How do you think Arthur Sulzberger and Bill Keller are doing on that front?

Jay Rosen 2.jpgAbsolutely, it’s a public trust despite being privately held. The Times is an institution that ought to be continually strengthened, so that it survives into the next era, and from time to time vindicates the idea of a free press. It happened with the wiretapping story, which had been a struggle within the government but hidden from view. That story (that the government is doing this spying) hasn’t been challenged, not only because it’s true–true stories can be beaten down–but the likelihood of the public trusting the Times account was high. This public trust business sounds like an abstraction. It really isn’t.

I describe myself as a disappointed Times loyalist who thinks Sulzberger bet the First Amendment house on Judy Miller, but failed to grasp the situation properly. He got Keller too involved, making it hard for the Times to cover its own story, which breaks its pact with readers. Bad for the public trust. His Washington bureau wasn’t being listened to. Bad for balance, bad for accuracy. When I watched him on Charlie Rose, he didn’t seem to be aware of how discouraging–and doubt-inducing–the whole Miller episode was for Times people, Times readers, Times watchers, other journalists. He was shockingly out-of-touch that night.

I don’t blame Keller; he was not free to treat the situation with Times journalism. He could have done a far better job of talking to readers about it. But that’s not something he has made a priority. He’s a “watch our pages” man. The stoic approach makes it hard for readers to have the same confidence in him that the Times staff obviously feels. They are of the opinion that he was left with a mess from the Raines era. Keller’s most significant move of late was to exert dominion over the online edition, and prevent a “second” newsroom from arising, with its own prince, as it were.

Barney Calame’s column this week was on the allocation of space within the paper. Not exactly controversial (though of interest to those who always wanted to know how many columns were in the Escapes section). Do you think Calame is doing an effective job as the Public Editor?

Well, Calame stood up to the publisher and the editor of the New York Times and told them they were wrong to stonewall him and the readers. That is wholly admirable, and will have consequences beyond the immediate dispute, which involved transparency and the wiretapping story. Calame proved he can be an independent force. He will put a different stamp on the public editor’s job than Daniel Okrent because Okrent thought of himself as a writer, and Calame thinks like an editor who writes. They have different ways of putting themselves into the readers shoes. A lot of what these guys do–ombudsmen and women–goes on behind-the-scenes where they are trying to get questions answered. CBS with Public Eye has the right idea: put that part (getting answers for people) into a blog.

Okay, WaPo (to which you have contributed on occasion): Your declaration that WaPo had eclipsed the NYT as the nation’s top paper came before the recent kerfuffle regarding the removal of the comments section on the blog following ombud Deborah Howell’s commentary about to whom, exactly, Jack Abramoff had directed funds. You recently participated in the “Ethics & Interactivity” roundtable, for which exec ed Jim Brady was criticized for his lack of – yep – transparency). Does WaPo’s recent retreat from online transparency change your evaluation of its star power/staying power at the top?

Jay Rosen 9.jpgNope. Problems teach you what you can and cannot have. What you know and don’t know. Based on what I know of Brady’s regime, he is going to keep moving forward. He’s pissed that the filters he thought could handle this situation, didn’t. When he has confidence in his system, I think he’ll turn some switches back on and see what happens. But I can see why people are angry about lost comments and shut downs over “bad” words. Deborah Howell herself said she wouldn’t have asked for that.

I think of Brady’s job as political in the sense that he needs the cooperation of another unit in the company, the Post’s talented and driven newsroom, but he also has powers himself: the home page, and the entire way the site channels attention. (A lot of people at the Post think Brady’s domain is about leverage against the union at the newsroom in DC.) He works for Washington Post Newsweek-Interactive, a separate company. The balance of powers is such that Brady can drive change, sometimes, even though Len Downie, who is a more conservative thinker, steers the newspaper as a whole. This combination is working in the sense that the Post keeps doing new things– creating more blogs for more writers, adding more interaction points for readers, pointing out to the blogosphere, keeping the site free and the archives open for 60 days. They add up, and this will continue despite the recent blow up.

Let’s talk about Elite Newspaper Divergence (END), a term you coined recently that I’d like to see be picked up in the blogosphere (like, say, “blog synchronicity“). Is that how the clash of NYT v. WaPo will play out?

Divergence simply means these two great newspapers seem to taking different paths, with the Post betting on the free web, the Open web; meanwhile, the Times is building gated sections, selling “interaction” with its top writers as a restricted good, and ignoring its own people when they urge more transparency. The Post doesn’t seem to have the same boundary issues that the Times does. And this is helping it cope.

When you left PressThink in the fall for book leave, did you intend to absent yourself fully from the cycle of Judy/NYT/PlameGate commentary or did you know you’d be blogging at HuffPo? (it took you 8 days) If the former, did it drive you a little crazy to not be blogging? Are you a little addicted? At any point have you developed exhaustion/ennui?

What I intended to absent myself from was my weird, personal way of blogging at PressThink, where I write the post over three days, publish it, then spend three days adding to the “After” part of it, while monitoring comments, and gathering stuff for the next post. With the events of September and October, and the crash of Judith Miller, traffic to PressThink soared, my e-mail became way moreJay Rosen 10.jpg interesting, more journalists were following the blog, plus lots of other new readers, too, and I didn’t want to do anything else for a while. But this surge happened for a reason. The Times virtually stopped speaking during the period when the Church’s teachings on Judy Miller had to be scrapped and replaced by a different story. It wasn’t telling its own story. So people turned to the blogs, and the Observer and a few other places.

The Judy Miller case, and beyond it the Fitzgerald investigation, and beyond that the Bush team’s use, or misuse of the press are stories with a common vortex, and I got pulled into it for a while. At a certain point I had to stop. Ennui? No way. It was just too absorbing, and there was too much to blog about. October of ’05 was by far the biggest traffic month for PressThink since I started. But it was not sustainable. I stopped blogging in that intensive way to work on a book that I had been writing by blogging it in pieces. No PressThink posts for seven weeks. I wrote some op-eds for Huffington, which is not the same kind of task, and guest writers carried the ball.

What are your I-only-have-five-minutes-what’s-happening-in-the-world sites/blogs? (Fishbowl! Pick Fishbowl!)

Romenesko, Buzzmachine, Memeorandum, Atrios, Instapundit, Hugh Hewitt, Fishbowl DC and NY, the home pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Salon (which has AP headlines). If I have ten minutes, Talking Points Memo and Firedoglake.

What are your ‘guilty pleasure’ blogs/sites?

Guilty pleasures blog? I don’t believe I have any. How embarrassing. I read Gawker but I don’t feel “guilty” because I’m supposed to keep up with these things– it’s my job, you know? I suppose Smoking Gun would be the closest.

Jay Rosen 1.jpgIt’s easy for the rest of us to forget that your day job is as “Professor Rosen,” imparting your years of amassed wisdom to and encouraging pressthinkery by the next generation of great journalists. What’s the greatest thing about being a professor? What have you learned from your students? What worries you most about the profession/tradition/trust they’ll be inheriting? What, on the other hand, do you find comforting?

The greatest thing about being a professor is that you’re supposed to study the world and reflect on it, and you can pick which part. That we’re actually given the time to do that — and an office, with chairs, a desk, carpets even — is kind of amazing.

One day early in my career some students said to me, “Professor Rosen, we want to work in the media. You keep telling us how bad, and hopelessly commercial it is.” When I realized that I didn’t have a very good reply to them, I changed my approach. I started out as a TV and media critic who took all of popular culture as the assig nment. Because of what these students said, I switched to trying to understand “the press” first and last, including the problems it has, why it isn’t better, what it’s actually made of, where it’s going. Ultimately this was a far better choice. It led to PressThink.

For young people, right now is without question the most exciting and open moment in journalism since I started paying close attention to the craft. I have way more confidence in this next generation than I do in the newsroom curmudgeons who aren’t sure this Web thing is really going to take off.

Related: How often do you bust them for IMing in class when they claim to be “taking notes?” (Fishbowl remembers being a student.)

I had been on leave for a while, and before that I taught seminars that were low tech. This year is the first time I have ever taught in a networked classroom, because it’s a blogging 101 class for undergraduates. I’m sure the unauthorized use of the back channel will come up. Because of blogging, I’m one of the J-faculty most involved with technology now. I have to be because I follow the press where it goes.

So far I’ve interviewed Frank Rich on showtunes, Bonnie Fuller on Canadians, and David Zinczenko on abs. How important are abs, showtunes, and Canadians in your daily media diet? What is your daily ab regimen?

Jay Rosen 5.jpgYou should have asked Rich about his favorite I-closed-the-show tunes, which he would recall from his days as Times theatre critic. There’s nothing funny about being Canadian; being Canadian is serious business. Now that Michael Ignatieff is Canadian again, he will be finding that out. I like to kick my feet up on my desk when there are no visitors around. When I need to type something at the keyboard, the feet go down. Up, down. Up, down. Blogger’s ab regimen.


Here are a few recommendations from Rosen’s “Blogging 101” syllabus:
PressThink (natch); Wikipedia on blogs (“You will learn the wisdom of starting with Wikipedia”); “You’ve Got Blog” by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker; “Weblogs: A History and Perspective” by (other) Rebecca Blood; “Blogs Will Change Your Business” from Business Week; “Blogging 101: Ten Tips To Set You Ahead of the Pack“; and FishbowlNY. Okay, we may have added that last one.