Future of Journalism: Tom Rosenstiel Interview

Leonard Witt: Hi I’m Len Witt and I’m asking people about what they see the future of journalism is. Maybe you can introduce yourself. Tell what organization you’re in and your title.

Tom Rosenstiel: I’m Tom Rosenstiel, and I run something called the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, which is part of the Pew Research Center.

Witt: So, what is the future of journalism from your point of view?

Rosenstiel: Well I think that what we think of as traditional news organizations and even the new news organizations that are being developed are probably going to be niche news organizations. Increasingly the idea that you have a gatekeeper institution that covers the waterfront, that defines the community is obsolete. That can’t be monetized. The news organizations that we have are going to be narrowly defined around subjects, around specialties. In time, it may be that someone comes along and creates a local aggregation website that in a sense rebuilds or re-aggregates these small niche sites into a kind of network. And that there’s some kind of monetization that goes on through ad selling or other networking, maybe bundling subscriptions or something. But for the foreseeable future you’re going to see old news media shrink and small new media grow, and we’re going to have to find what we need as consumers by navigating these smaller sites.

Witt: So question, like if some big corporation like Exxon Mobile or something pushes at the New York Times, they got the wherewithal, and the financial clout and the lawyers and all to push back; what’s going to happen to these small people when they do some investigative reporting and some big corporation starts harassing them?

Rosenstiel: Well that’s one of the great problems and one of the side benefits of big media – and there were many problems with it – was that it had the wherewithal to fight: to challenge lawsuits in court, to have libel insurance that would fend off chilling lawsuits, that had the resources to send people off for weeks or months, that had the money to spend a million dollars a month to cover the war in Iraq, or a million a year to cover the war in Iraq. Smaller news institutions don’t have that. It’s like the difference between a big army and a guerrilla unit.

Witt: Yea. You know that Clay Shirky and you probably know this too. 80% of the journalism before was paid for by advertisers and Shirky asked: why did we ever think that Wal-Mart should support a journalist in Iraq or in their City Hall?

Rosenstiel: Well, I mean we had partisan press. Before we had the industrial revolution, we had a press that wasn’t subsidized by advertising. In the 20th century advertising developed and one of the benefits of the advertising was the idea that you had so many advertisers that no one advertiser could push you around. And actually Wal-Mart never advertised in newspapers, so they really didn’t subsidize any news papers covering Iraq or anything else. Wal-Mart is a television advertiser almost entirely.

Witt: But somebody was, some advertiser was.

Rosenstiel: Yea, but the idea was that you had so many different advertisers that the news institution in town was bigger than any advertisers. And that’s really the way it worked and continues to work; except that advertising base is shrinking. It’s collapsing.

Witt: So a question that I ask: if what we do, we think has value, why don’t we just go to the public directly and say, ”Does it have value to you, and if it does – pay for it and if it doesn’t then guess what you’re not going to get it”. And I think, this is my own opinion, that it will wake people up a little bit, and I actually think a lot of people are there right now.

Rosenstiel: Well we have models in other countries that are different. In Europe circulation revenue pays for about 70%, depending on the country, of a newspaper’s or newsroom’s revenue. It’s really only in the United States that we have this free model. And that was designed as a democratic principal, that you could get a bigger audience and have a wider audience. We’re a very large country, most of our media is local. Which is also different than most other countries. European models are small countries, small populations, multiple national newspapers not much local media. So our model developed, and was frankly, journalistically, the envy of most of the world. We take our journalism more seriously, we have our first amendment, the sense of responsibility about our press; and this is a generalization; it’s generally higher. We don’t have the kind of tabloid press that exists in a lot of other countries, it’s more professionalized. It had higher aspirations and it probably failed to live up to those aspirations and that is part of the public disappointment.

Witt: So personally, you’re optimistic, pessimistic and why?

Rosenstiel: It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it is creative destruction. Ultimately, I’m optimistic, but ultimately can be long time.

Witt: Alright, thank you very much.

Rosenstiel: Thank you.


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