Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.
For anyone who has followed Rosen’s career, The Correspondent is the logical next step in pursuing ideas that he’s been espousing for a quarter of a century. Rosen was among the first wave to embrace “public journalism” (also known as “civic journalism”), a 1990s-era movement that sought to involve the public in determining how a news organization covered the news.
Here’s how public journalism might work. A newspaper could engage in a conversation with the public through polling, focus groups, and open meetings to determine what issues they cared about in an upcoming election, and then build its reporting around those concerns rather than on the horse race. Or it might use some of those same techniques to identify which subjects it should concentrate on during the coming year.
For reasons that were never entirely clear to me, public journalism proved to be controversial, with a number of prominent journalists arguing that its practitioners were making news rather than simply reporting it — as if listening to the public were just another form of media bias.
In any event, public journalism faded away for a few years, only to be reborn as citizen journalism once the internet enabled ordinary people to become media-makers. Since then, Rosen has tried to harness digital technology in order to bring together professional and amateur journalists — as with Assignment Zero, a project he founded in 2007 to tap what we used to call the “wisdom of the crowd.” (Among those involved in Assignment Zero was my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe, who coined the term “crowdsourcing” and wrote a book by that name.)
Several years ago I interviewed Rosen for my 2013 book “The Wired City” about how journalists in the digital age can involve the public in their work. Looking back, his comments seem almost like a manifesto for what he hopes to accomplish with The Correspondent:
What we today call “engagement” was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then. It was a capital-intensive production process — difficult for users to climb into the position of being producers, huge transaction costs for involving readers (like organizing a meeting). It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.
There is a larger context to Rosen’s work, and that context is the debate that took place in the 1920s between two philosophers, Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Both were involved in The New Republic — Lippmann as a founder, Dewey as a contributor. Both had thought deeply about the role of the public in an increasingly complex society. But, as Rosen writes in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?,” they came to starkly different conclusions.
Lippmann, in his book “Public Opinion” (1922), wrote that the public’s job was to ratify decisions made by experts, and that elites should guide the public to the proper decision — a process he referred to as “the manufacture of consent.” Dewey responded in a book of his own titled “The Public and Its Problems” (1927) in which he expressed a more optimistic view. Rosen, a Dewey admirer, wrote: “Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.”
Lippmann turned out to be more immediately influential; among other things, he was a better writer, producing a popular syndicated newspaper column for many decades. But how best to involve the public in its own governance is a problem that hasn’t gone away. Indeed, I think a lot of us would argue that alienation from self-government was what led to the election of President Trump. Since the election, we’ve seen a number of ideas to encourage conversation and cooperation at the local level. “Democracy must begin at home,” Rosen quotes Dewey as writing, “and its home is the neighborly community.”
Will The Correspondent make a difference? The model is promising. Members will pay to visit the website, although social sharing is free. Reporters will define their own beats. The focus will be on the big picture rather than breaking news — “not the weather, but the climate,” as The Correspondent puts it. The project has been successful in the Netherlands, attracting 56,000 paid members who support a staff of 21 full-time journalists and 75 freelancers.
But the United States is not the Netherlands. In an accompanying Nieman article, the news-business analyst Ken Doctor wonders if The Correspondent might be “too small” and “too supplemental” at a moment when The New York Times and The Washington Post are engaged in a high-profile battle for paying subscribers. Still, experiments in bringing journalism and the public together are always worth pursuing and learning from.
The media landscape, needless to say, is littered with the corpses of promising ideas that didn’t quite pan out. Maybe The Correspondent will succeed. But even if it fails, we’ll learn something from it that could help other news organizations. Identifying those lessons is the main aspect of the project with which Rosen will be involved.
The Correspondent is worth keeping an eye on.