Creating Technology for Social Change

Jay Rosen’s Three-Layer Journalism Cake


@jayrosen_nyu and @ethanz discussed the past, present, and future of journalism at this evening’s MIT Communications Forum. He actually used the word “tripartite,” but I thought cake would be better for SEO. This is as close to a faithful transcript as my fingers would allow.

Jay’s been writing, talking, and thinking about adapting journalism to the web for about 8 years, so he starts with a lesson in how to discover something new:

You can make new discoveries by taking two things that are very closely related to one another, so close that they are sometimes confused as one another, and pull them apart so there’s new space between them. You can take pairs of seemingly identical terms, like labor and work, and separate them and contrast them to think anew. For example, action and behavior are not the same thing: behavior is a routine, action is setting out on something new.

Jay Rosen

Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti shared under Creative Commons license.

Today, there are professionals, amateurs, and pro-amateurs all doing journalism. The practice of what they do is journalism. But that’s different from the underlying media system that the practice runs on. The media system is television, newspapers, and radio. But that can be separate from the actual practice of journalism.

The third thing we should pull apart is the institution of the press. The press as an institution is different from country to country, because it’s very much a product of the law. If you don’t have freedom of the press, you don’t have much of a press. In Holland, broadcasting and news were for a long time organized around the pillars of society: there was a Catholic channel, a Protestant channel, a Social Democrat channel, and so on. The entire system was organized like their society.

Professional journalism in the US has professional habits, codes, and (the title of Rosen’s blog), Press Think. British journalists don’t think it’s rude at all to interrupt someone who’s not answering a question, while Americans do.

The enormous changes that journalism has undergone since roughly 1995 have been driven by changes in the underlying media system. Change in the media system underlying journalism is disrupting the practice of journalism, as well as forcing the institution of the press to change.

Rosen studies journalism by starting with the people on the receiving end of journalism, the users. The people on the receiving end of the media system are the victims, nay, the audience, or, the People Formerly Known as the Audience. We can’t just call them the audience anymore, because they’re not just a passive audience any more. The people on the receiving end of the press are the public.

The changes are cascading through the entire system. In the movie Network, the anchorman loses his mind on air, but he’s getting ratings. One day he gets up and tells the viewing audience to get up from their couches and yell out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

This is one of Rosen’s favorite scenes, because the one thing you’ll never see on TV is someone telling you to stop watching TV. The normal state of the audience is in a private location, either with your newspaper at the breakfast table or in your car listening to NPR or in your living room watching TV, and you’re connected up the supply chain vertically, receiving images, information, and talk, and you’re unable to transmit, and you’re atomized, and disconnected from everyone else.

Try to actually visualize a million people in the audience in that condition. 

Matrix pods

That was Rosen’s childhood. It was the first 20 years of his life, including education. Studying media, for him, was an act of revenge.

If you can visualize media this way, you can see it for how strange it is, a strange interval of human history where people could be arranged this way, and then, once aggregated, their attention could be packaged and sold as a commodity.

Today, it’s just as easy to connect horizontally as it is to connect vertically to the stars and the leaders. It’s not that we don’t connect vertically anymore, but at the same time we’re talking horizontally to each other because the underlying media system allows it. It comes down to 3 words: audience atomization overcome.

Zuckerman: In breaking apart this profound shift that everyone’s been trying to deal with in the last ten years or so, you’ve given us a way to frame the conversation. There’s been at least some steps towards acceptance that there are amateurs creating Acts of Journalism. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they’re paid for it, and other times they’re just in the right place at the right time.

And there are several debates going on. The first is the financial argument. There’s another set of debates around the medium. When you have broadcast control, what you really have is the power of attention. If you own a newspaper, you know that at least some percent of literate adults in a given city will read those pieces of paper. And you can sell that attention. The department store really doesn’t care what’s happening in Somalia, but they do care that the reader is turning from page one to page two. Online advertising has caused that market to collapse in price.

There’s also the unbundling argument: We have disaggregated content. I used to pick up a newspaper for local news and stumble across that story about Somalia. Now I can just go to

Some of us now find ourselves in a media experience where any broadcast event is simultaneously a chance to communicate and connect on our own. The most recent case was the Mike Daisey retraction by This American Life, where everyone listening live that Friday evening found themselves tweeting to each other about it, which is a very different media experience.

There’s also a debate about the institution of the press. If the institution of the press is a collection of standards, practices, norms, institutions, and ways we think of doing our job, and something that comes into play because of the existence of a particular legal structure and practices that are in place, it’s a deeply unsettled space. A large number of the arguments still raging in this space revolve around, is there an idea of a press and a public, and does that make any sense anymore?

An institution like the press is something that happens particularly in a free society, but now we’re starting to see a radical shift in that environment. We see people attempting to influence the public whether or not they’re part of the press.

Mike Daisey is a theatrical reporter who sits at a table with a bottle of water and tells stories to much bigger audiences than we attract. He’s been telling a story that’s quite in depth and detailed about how Apple manufactures its products. The center of the story in many ways, is the story of his trips to Apple factories in China. He tells us of very specific interviews with 12 year olds, and then looks to us, the audience, and says, “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

Ira Glass invites Mike Daisey on the show and it’s one of the best-received episodes ever. It then gets fact-checked elsewhere, they talk to his translator, and they find out that no, these things didn’t happen.

Daisey is one of a set of people trying to influence the public through creating media, which we’re now capable of doing in any number of ways. Daisey’s apology was that this storytelling became journalism. We now have many, many actors who are trying to influence the public. Some are identifying as journalists, others as amateurs, and others as activists. But everyone is making some claim to attention, authority, and the power to influence behavior in one way or another. How do we, as the press, respond to these actors making very different claims than we’re able to check?

Rosen: Because the media system has changed, lots of people can give us information about the world, and they do, and it comes in many different forms. The origins of journalistic authority start with a particular kind of claim: I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it

If political journalism in the West has a birthday, it started when the first guy managed to get into Parliament and take down what was said there. It used to be illegal to report what was being said in debates there. Parliament was called “the people indoors.” They were called “the people” relative to the King. Then there were the people out-of-doors. That was everybody else. There was no freedom of speech or press for them, and it was a crime to tell people what went on in Parliament. After a long series of protests and heroic actions by people who were essentially that century’s bloggers, they secured the right to report on Parliament. That person was the first political journalist, and he could say, “I’m there, your’e not, but I’m going to tell you what was said!” Anyone who can make that kind of claim is engaged in the practice of journalism. That’s why we have accidental journalists. Sometimes people come across a plane that just landed in the Hudson outside their office window!

There are variations of this claim: I interviewed this person, you didn’t. I went down to the property records, you haven’t, I’ll tell you what I saw. Either they were there, or talked to someone, or did work you haven’t done. With Daisey, part of the problem was that Daisey was telling his audience, “I was there outside the factory. I saw 12 and 13-year olds going into work.” He tried to claim the authority journalists have, but he didn’t see what he said he saw.

It’s the art of verification. Journalism is primarily concerned with verifiable reports of what’s going on, and explanations which bring clarity to public audiences (rather than specialized audiences). This is a different activity than political persuasion, even though attempts at political persuasion can be very informative. It’s also a different activity from standup comedy, even if standup comedy can teach you a lot about the news. We need to make those distinctions if we’re serious about the practice of journalism.

Ethan: On Quora, the first thing people say in answering a question, is “Here’s why I’m credible on this topic.” In journalism you still have the authority derived from saying “I was there,” but you also have the audience saying “I’m an expert on this subject and here’s what’s going on.” I’m reluctant to call the first just journalism and the second just commentary. What’s the press now? Is it just the Association of Newspaper Editors? I would hope it’s not just the professional verifiers, but some larger group engaged in the journalistic act, which is more than just the verification, but also the contextualization and so on.

Rosen: Sources can go direct. The people who, in the past, had to speak through journalists in a constricted media system, and had to smuggle their knowledge into the public sphere by being interviewed, can now go direct. You now can contribute directly to public knowledge. What limits you is no longer the media system, but the fact that the more specialized your knowledge is, the more valuable it may be, the less likely it is that you operate in the vernacular. Your habitual language is less likely than ever to be the public language everyone else uses. I think of the press as constantly in motion, and hard to fix.

What’s great about the recent changes since 1995 is that they’ve brought the press, as an institution, much closer to the people. People now realize to a greater extent that they own the freedom of the press. When I started teaching journalism at NYU, it was routine for journalism deans to tell the incoming class, “Journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Constitution.” That’s strange, because first of all, it doesn’t say that, but also because it doesn’t belong to us. What a fantastic human delusion! These intelligent people see the First Amendment as their religion.

Freedom of the Press doesn’t mean “this group of people,” it’s a public right. The institution is a fluid, continuously changing thing. When judges say that bloggers can be protected under a shield law as journalists, it shows how fluid it is. When static things get disrupted, there are real opportunities to rethink things that were artificially frozen.

Ethan: You’re not wearing your pinkie ring, and I won’t make you show your tattoo, but the membership in the secret fraternity of the press has changed. How does this change the public? You put forward an argument about public journalism that the press shouldn’t just give the public the facts, but also enable them to participate. There’s now an ability to speak horizontally, and talk back, so how has journalism changed our ability to be civic actors?

Rosen: Over time, in the one-way broadcast media ecosystem that held for maybe a century or so, our image of the audience moved closer and closer to our mental image of the public. But now they’re gradually separating, and we understand “the public” in its original meaning. The public isn’t a bunch of people listening to the political class and its debates; it’s the people affected by it, whether or not they’re the audience. The public’s job is, once informed, is to argue about the news. Get outraged or active. For all the critique we make about slacktivism, just the simple fact that people now think they should not only know what’s going on, but also do something about it, is a huge development.

The public and the audience are separating, and a more active notion of the public is returning. The alternative to having a public is having a political class run everything, where the public sphere is people marveling at the majesty of the king as he floats by.

Ethan: Detaching the public from the audience helps us think about the shift from broadcast to participation. Folks like Henry Jenkins say, this is happening in culture, too, and in fiction. Some percentage of people are watching, another percentage is watching and getting informed, and then there are multiple pathways to engagement, one of which is arguing. Maybe the cesspool of the internet, comment sections, should be celebrated.

Another way people get engaged is by doing things. One of the biggest things people do is amplify, and this is one of the biggest changes. If I’m interested in a story, one of the simplest ways I can declare myself as more than a just an audience, but rather a public, is to pass it on and amplify a story.

What we haven’t been able to figure out is the supply of attention. Our media’s been fragmented and there are many people crafting claims to our attention. Activist groups like Kony 2012 can position their message as an alternative to the press, which is no longer trusted.

Rosen: Huge problem, one I’d take years with. Clay Shirky reminds us that for most of the media system, we’ve gone from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance. The tools are widespread and the costs of producing media have plunged. All these false economies are evaporating. The new scarcity is attention.

One of my heroes of media studies is Raymond Williams, a sociologist from the Cold War era in the UK. He argues that in talking about mass communication, there are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses. There’s no mass man and mass woman living in a house in Liverpool somewhere. What is real is the commercial formula and art of attention flow practiced by TV programmers who know how to keep you watching. Negative advertising that moves your emotions with no regard for the truth is real. The masses are a fiction, but ways of seeing people as masses are not. This is relevant here because even well-intentioned people may practice seeing people as masses. We’ve learned to do this, and move emotions we want moved, and get a response from our stimuli. People say, “We have to get the eyeballs!” That phrase is literally reducing human beings to their visual organs. The alternative to seeing people as masses is to see them as a public.

Zuckerman: I think you’ve coined the worst pickup line ever: I have the stimuli, do you have the response?


Q: What do you see as some of the new conventions of journalism that are not yet conventions?
Rosen: Before the Daisey episode, the most downloaded episode of This American Life was their one-hour explainer on the roots of the financial crisis. To me, it’s one of the most fantastic works of journalism, ever. What’s great about it is the way they put it together, and the nature of the rhetorical appeal that they made. They’re not saying, “We’re financial journalists and let us tell you what happened.” Or, “We went and got the best economists in the world to explain this!” They started with, “We don’t get this either. Our economy is falling apart because of bad mortgages? We’re going to go out there and find it out for ourselves, and ask smart people across the system to explain it, and you get to listen in.”

Ethan: It grounds the authority by being transparent and getting you closer to the actuality of what the person said. And the story gets us beyond the dysfunctional left-right lens of the world, where either the evil bankers or the evil homeowners ruined the economy, and instead takes us across the complex multi-layer situation that caused the economic collapse.

Q: I’m worried about the users. The New York Times used to make my basket for me and put all the news in it for me. Now I need to make my own basket. And everyone’s making their own. Are we all running off in different directions?
Rosen: This is the Echo Chamber problem. Sometimes I think that people who complain about the echo chamber just listen to each other. But that idealized common culture was a historical accident of a restricted media environment. People didn’t watch the same news because they were in love with the common culture, but because there were only three f’n channels! Something was probably lost when we moved to a world of hundreds of channels. We really have to look carefully at the people in these echo chambers, and look at their behavior to know if the echo chamber argument is true. Is it true that the denizens of the most right wing blogs don’t know anything about the denizens of the left wing blogs? I bet it’s not true, I bet they know the most about each other. Let’s find out if the people populating these so-called echo chambers know less or more about the other so-called echo chambers.

Zuckerman: I take echo chambers more seriously. Reducing it to left and right oversimplifies the problem. I’d frame it this way: In the broadcast era, our media was mostly controlled by a curator. There are lots of flaws with that model. But it is interesting that someone’s taking on the civic role of keeping us interested and exposing us to variety.

We then shift paradigms and end up searching for things we already like. The problem with this paradigm is that we no longer discover. And so we move to social networks, and you start seeing what I’m sharing. But then we only see what our other birds of a feather are sharing. So what I’m looking for is the next step, that allows us both, and takes seriously that I’m a public, and not an audience. I think we’re pretty far from having the serendipity engine that takes what’s good of the other 3 methods.

Rosen: So how do you see someone like Maria Popova (@brainpicker) in that model? She’s curating from across the web all kinds of things that I didn’t ask for, and she’s popular and building up a general audience.

Zuckerman: I think curators are starting to emerge who are really good at it, and introducing that serendipity.

Rosen: You want someone who’s attentive to data, aware of what people want, but also aware that serendipity is also something people want. It’s kind of a paradox: you ask people what they like, and they say, “Surprise me!” And then there’s also certain things that everybody has to know, and you ask your curators to make a certain judgement about that.

Q: As a consumer of news, I’m just tired of looking at everything on Facebook and retweets. When I stare at a wall of cereal at the grocery store, I can choose the brand that’s high fiber. I want all the nutritional label I can get about these sources.

Zuckerman: I’m working on it. This is a project we took on at the Center for Civic Media. Attention’s a scarce commodity, and maybe I want to make sure I’m getting a healthy mix of things, and not just left right, but topically, and so on.

You have to break apart what a nutritional label is. The first part is empirical: here’s what’s inside. The second thing a label says is, “Here’s how much of this you should eat.” I don’t want to do that, and I think it’s very important to split the descriptive and the normative. We probably shouldn’t have a warning when we’ve had too much New York Times. Over time, we want to get beyond label-reading, and into the Quantificued Self. Some number of people in this room are carrying little pedometers that give you a dashboard of certain aspects of your help. As we all become digital consumers, it seems reasonable that we be able to do this for what we’re putting into our heads, as well. It’s not hard to do this for the webpages we’ve read, but the much harder problem is being able to say, “Wow, you’ve spent 40% of your day reading about sumo wrestling. Maybe you should tone it down” (based on personal goals).

Rosen: I’d like to see a different approach, where I can sign up for the topics I want to be an informed person about, and measure how I’m doing through some sort of quiz, and adjust my media diet based on the competence I want to reach. Rather than just getting a diet of randomness, I can work towards something.

Q: Does our categorization of the masses stem from tribalism?
Rosen: The origins of modern journalism are very tied up with the origins of the nation state itself.

Q: Suppose Clay’s right, that the new scarcity is attention. How do the new curators understand and legitimize themselves?
Rosen: In a world where attention is the scarcity, what does a good curator do? What are the code of ethics? There are a few starting points. Respect people’s time. And help them save time. The simplest way to create value in journalism is to save the user time.

Good curators are good not because they’re the world’s greatest authority, but because they are themselves richly interactive with the people they’re curating for. Smart uses of data, without being enslaved by it, help us be better curators. The people who are really good at it have elements that have been present in journalism: they have strong curiosity, and just love to know weird stuff. They’re much more likely to ask a question about you than they are to tell you what they think, because they can sense an opportunity to satisfy their curiosity.

Zuckerman: When we talk about the profession of journalism, we tend to focus a great deal on the man or woman with a notepad at the event, and in many cases we should probably be thinking about the editorial curation as well. What gets cut, what gets prioritized, is also moving into pro-am and citizen models. It’s now possible as a normal person to commit an act of curation, as well.

Q: Questioning the assumption of the scarcity of attention: Is there competition between the millions of people working as a journalists, is that competition healthy, and if so, who wins?
Rosen: Yes, there’s competition. Do you start your day with a news site, or your favorite blogger, or by looking at your friends’ recommendations? That’s a competition. Who to listen to for post-debate analysis is a competition for your attention.

Zuckerman: The competition’s for attention, for all of us. It’s always been a symbiotic relationship between advertising, news media, and entertainment, and now it’s between everyone engaged in media production of some kind.

Q: A claim that’s been made historically is, “We’ll tell you what’s important.” Who takes over that role?
Rosen: It was hard to generate alternatives to the gatekeepers. Now it’s a different problem, of everyone trying to say they’ve got what’s important. What we really want is not someone who can say, “This is important.” What we want is someone who can say who we can trust and believe.

Q: I don’t care about journalists any more than I care about plumbers. They’re important obviously, but I care about source of good, civic information. Could the source of good information be a new kind of political party based on technology and governed through technology to efficiently deliver civic information?
Rosen: The government in the 20th century began to become a recorder and reporter of reality. All of the things making our news now, like labor statistics and economic output, were created by the federal government. It’s a huge producer of civic information that helps people understand what’s going on, and more and more of that data is being put online.

Zuckerman: I’d argue trust isn’t the main component. Some of these transparency efforts and journalism through aggregated data, like EveryBlock, by a brilliant technologist in Chicago, still require someone who’s able to pull stories out and tell them in a compelling way.

Q: Has journalism really been adapted to the web? It hasn’t happened on a number of levels. Take data journalism. Wikileaks worked with the traditional press to get their stories out. People read their Twitter feeds from bed, but most of those links go back to the original press.

Rosen: When the news organizations first created their sites in 1995-6, the first things they thought of doing were repurposing their existing content. It was obvious, because they already had their content in a digital form, so they basically dumped their print product online. When you start that way, you don’t get around to asking, “Wait a minute, what’s the web good at?” Because it’s actually a really flexible platform. I agree that we’re actually very poor in models and inspiration in adapting journalism to the web. Those who have made the most progress are the born-on-the-web organizations, which is why there’s such a split between the old and the new.

Zuckerman: Matt Stempeck has actually floated the idea of an international news game like RISK, except you can’t invade a country until you have sufficient knowledge of it.

Q: The tone of this discussion reduces professional journalists to irrelevance and doesn’t adequately respect the challenges the industry has faced.
Rosen: There’s a crisis of employment in professional journalism. We see it in the thinning of staff, the lost eyes on power in state capitols and city halls, the thinness of a product if you pick up a metropolitan newspaper. You’re talking about organizations capable of producing maybe 5-6 stories a day. It’s a huge loss in capacity in mainstream journalism. One of the reasons I didn’t talk about it that much is that the forces that are creating those losses are so global and undeniable that to solve that problem, you’d almost have to say something so sarcastic and even more annoying than I’ve been, like, “What are you going to do? Un-invent the Internet?”

Zuckerman: For ten years, Jay’s started conversations with The Crisis. But what you have here is someone who’s wise enough to engage with about how you make journalism a viable profession.

Rosen: Somewhere in journalism, the foundation was wrongly constructed, and it went on too long. The peak of trust in the news media was somewhere around 1976, and goes down from there. During that period, journalists were becoming more educated, more likely to go to journalism school, and the industry attracted more elites and developed rising standards and status. And at the same time, you have declining trust. I don’t know why. I call it The Trust Puzzler.

I believe in the profession of journalism. I want to improve it. You need people full-time monitoring power. Not because they’re the only ones doing it, but because they can do things the part-time people cannot. The financial industry is a complicated thing. We need those people, and we need to figure out how they can have sustainable careers. If my students don’t get jobs, I don’t have any students.