Rosenstiel, A Journalism Optimist — But It May Be a Long Wait

Yesterday, after using the Baltimore media ecosystem as a case study, the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) issued a rather gloomy report on the state of local news. A few weeks ago, I asked Tom Rosenstiel, director of PEJ, if he was an optimist or pessimist about the state of the journalism. His answer:

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.

You can hear Rosenstiel talk about the unbundling of news and more in the video and transcript below, which are part of the series of the Future of Journalism interviews by Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. Also, don’t forget to subscribe for alerts as we post future interviews with Penelope Abernathy, Robert Picard, Jeff Jarvis and others. The subscription field is in the sidebar to the right.

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 Increasingly the idea that you have a gatekeeper institution that covers the waterfront,  that defines the community is obsolete.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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11 Responses to Rosenstiel, A Journalism Optimist — But It May Be a Long Wait
  1. cas127
    January 13, 2010 | 4:07 pm

    “news institution in town was bigger than any advertisers”

    Ah, yes, the lament of the lamed bully…

  2. [...]  I still think the jury is out.  I’m bullish about lean, mean online news organizations, even when others are not – but I still think print products are a part of it.  The SimsBlog has a great addition [...]

  3. Salvador Rodriguez
    January 19, 2010 | 4:25 pm

    I agree with Rosenstiel in that larger newspaper may be replaced by hyper-local news site that focus so intently and are so specialized that they can’t be replicated by bloggers and can continue to attract an vast audience and profitable advertising. However, I think some of the old-media will survive this journalism recreation. The bigger guys, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, have enough resources right now to figure out what they need to remain relevant in the future. Papers like the Arizona Republic, though, may not be able to dedicate as much of their time and money to figuring out ways to remain necessary and, more importantly, profitable in the future. As long as one or two powerful newspapers stick around, journalism should be safe from the harassment of larger companies, governments, etc. that want to bring it down.

  4. McKenzie Manning
    January 19, 2010 | 4:26 pm

    I agree almost entirely with Mr. Rosenstiel. The way that we know journalism is flying out the window. During the big media years, a reporter truly only had to report. He or she did not have to necessarily produce or direct their own packages. The very best of them did. But it was not a requirement. Now, to get into the field and be competitive, a journalist must have vast knowledge pertaining to shooting and editing video, producing a package, and understanding how to turn that tv news package into an online story for the news organization’s website. It is almost never ending. To be competitive, a journalist must understand almost every part of the business. The big media days are dwindling. More people watch local news then tune into the daily network newscasts. Many more have turned to channels that proclaim their views such as Fox or MSNBC or CNN. And with the new generation, more and more young adults are finding their news online.
    The business model of journalism is not the only part of it that is changing. How the audience consumes the news has been the biggest factor.
    I thought that Rosenstiel’s view on other nation’s news business models was very interesting. The journalism community recognizes that the model is changing. It is trying to keep up but relying heavily on advertising revenue is going to hit the media hard. I believe that the media is already starting to slowly rupture. And ultimately it will rebound. It will find the correct ground and soar once again. But, as Rosenstiel said, “ultimately can be a long time”.

  5. Dustin Volz
    January 19, 2010 | 4:28 pm

    Thanks for the insightful reflections on the state of the journalism industry. I especially enjoyed the comparisons Rosenstiel drew between the European model of newspapers and journalism and our model in the States. It’s interesting that the accessible, free journalism we value as a fundamental tenant of our democracy is the in large part responsible for the financial difficulties the industry is currently facing. For circulation to account for 70% of the revenue stream, U.S. publications would be forced to increase subscription prices dramatically — something readers are unlikely to tolerate (especially when news can be found online for free).

    I’d be interested to hear what Rosenstiel thinks about the possibility of American journalism becoming a nonprofit enterprise. I agree things will get worse before they get better, but what, exactly, is the solution? Considering the defunct business model and journalism’s history in America, a radical shift in business model thinking may be necessary.

  6. Saman Golestan
    January 19, 2010 | 4:29 pm

    A very interesting inside look at the future of journalism. The fact is the reason we are here is because print and broadcast journalists knew the internet was on its way, but they dismissed it as a fad or perhaps something that would never threaten them. How wrong they were. The internet, and now social media/communication took off and was wildly succesful. The media companies had to scramble to play catch up so most of them just threw up their articles on a rather ordinary looking site, free of charge.

    I’d have to agree with Mr Rosenthal, one thing is for certain, the age of big media is coming to an end, in ten or twenty years the media outlets in the US won’t look anything like they do today. Now is the time for creation, re-invention. It is imperative that these media companies figure out new strategies that are in accordance with where the market and the public are taking this new media movement, or they’ll be left behind known only in history books to our future generations.

    Now that the advertisers are going by the wayside (an adverse effect of our current recession) fewer people are watching and reading, which means fewer companies are advertising (since their ads won’t be seen by as many) and there you have a vicious cycle.

  7. Sebastien Bauge
    January 19, 2010 | 4:32 pm

    I am a journalism student. I hear someone lamenting almost daily about the changing market and how difficult the field is to get into. However, I think the most optimistic thing about the future of journalism is the younger generations about to enter the field.

    There is still passion to enter a troubled market. I am surrounded by driven, dedicated individuals who have grown up surrounded by technology. I feel that change isn’t that far away. Once this new, tech-literate generation enters the field, journalism will be both financially viable and sustainable.

  8. Stephanie Snyder
    January 19, 2010 | 4:41 pm

    Tom Rosenstiel’s opinion on the future of journalism being defined by niche news organizations is an interesting theory, however it is difficult to imagine all traditional news organizations becoming obsolete. Rosenstiel said that consumers will get more specialized news from smaller Web sites, but I don’t think it is believable to think that consumers will only want to search out news relating to a specific topic. It seems that people will still want to get the most newsworthy stories if they are interested in the news in general, and that would be much more difficult to achieve if the only options are smaller news sources that are specialized experts rather than major media outlets that supposedly cover everything that is thought to be relevant. Even though Rosenstiel seemed to develop this theory based on the current lack of advertising, I think consumers will always express an interest in national news and demand an outlet where it is available.

  9. Tom Miller
    January 19, 2010 | 7:34 pm

    I disagree that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I just think times are changing and that if news organizations can effectively change with them then there is nothing to worry about. It may mean that the old school reporter needs to go back to school and learn a few more skills, (namely online and social media) but that’s just the way it is. The number of viewers and money in advertising is constantly growing. It’s up to the industry to figure out how to recoup what it once had by reinventing itself.

  10. Desiree Salazar
    January 19, 2010 | 7:41 pm

    I am all for change.
    As a young aspiring journalist I can see where the “old news media will shrink and the small news media grow,” comes into play. I believe it has much to do with opinion. People want opinion. The media is trained to hide the bias side, yet much of the time people of interest thirst for it.
    Advertisements may be shrinking but this is only the excuse to begin making the news worth listening to. The public needs to know they need the news. It’s not about the money the media receives from the ads but about the encouragement to think towards the public.

  11. Leonard Witt
    February 4, 2010 | 9:52 am

    Hello Arizona State Students:

    I have read through your comments. Thanks for the interesting insights. Of course, it will be up to each of you to ensure we have high quality, ethically sound journalism in the future. Be sure to see the other Future of Journalism interviews I have done. They will give you a more complete picture of what some of the top thinkers in the journalism change arena are thinking. See: http://sustainablejournalism.org/weblog/post/category/future-of-journalism/interview/

    And we have more to post soon. Again thanks for the interest and your thoughts.

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