Off the Cuff with Tom Rosenstiel

Sitting in his Oberlin dorm room freshman year, Tom Rosenstiel stacked up the books for his English and Government classes and tried to decide on a major based on which books he had more of a desire to read. Four years later, in 1978, he graduated with a degree in English and has since gone on to work for the L.A. Times and Newsweek, and is now the director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that researches what “journalism” is. Days before he will serve as moderator for a panel discussion on journalism in the digital age, the Review spoke on the phone to Rosenstiel from his office in Washington, D.C.

Liv Combe, News Editor

How did you get into the field of journalism?

I knew from the time I was in high school that I was considering journalism as a career, and I was editor of the Review as a junior. About three months before graduating, I got a call from the Washington columnist Jack Anderson with whom I had interned between my junior and senior years. I was intending to take the summer after graduation off and maybe go to graduate school, but Jack woke me up one morning in April and offered me a job. [I headed straight to Washington] the day after graduation. I piled everything I had into an old, beat-up Toyota Corolla and made my way there. I worked for Jack Anderson for about a year and a half and then I went to graduate school at Columbia. After graduate school, I got a job on my [now defunct] hometown newspaper, the Peninsula Times Tribune, in Palo Alto. After about two and a half years, I started applying to papers all over the country and that’s when I was hired by the L.A. Times [in 1983].

When did you decide to start the Project for Excellence in Journalism?

It wasn’t my idea. I had left the L.A. Times in 1995 to go to Newsweek to cover the Republican takeover of the House and I found myself a fish out of water in a news weekly. I had grown up in newspapers — the style and approach and philosophy of newspapers is very different than news magazines. I had begun after a fairly short period of time to think about making another move, and about a year after I joined Newsweek I was approached by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which was becoming interested in journalism. They asked me if I was interested in starting an institute or some initiative to study the press. It was nothing that had occurred to me. [But] I’d been a press critic at the L.A. Times for ten years, so I had written extensively about the press.

Is the goal of the Project to help people understand the press and the field of journalism?

Journalism worldwide is going through this radical transformation. What journalism does is tell people about the world beyond their direct experience, things that they cannot see for themselves. From the Enlightenment on, we got news through newspapers and then in the 20th century we began to see a rapid succession from radio to television to cable. But what’s occurring now is a more radical shift. It’s changing who delivers the news, who’s a journalist, who’s not, and it’s changing very rapidly. So what we do at the Project is use social science methods to try to understand this revolution with a lot of facts. We’re not advocates for any outcome or any medium, we’re just trying to figure out what the heck is happening.

Is the Internet causing this “radical shift”?

Yes. It’s the switch to digital technology, which allows for easy distribution of media and easy discussion of media — anyone who wants to can offer their point of view, anyone can be a publisher, and it is radically changing the economics of news. The biggest source of revenue for newspapers 10 years ago was classified advertising. Three-quarters of the classified advertising that was in newspapers in the year 2000 has vanished because technology has allowed people to do that without the news. They can barter goods and services on Craigslist for free; is a way for people to get real estate listings that is not helping finance news; is a way for people to find jobs that is not financing news. The Internet has just radically gutted the financial foundation of newspapers. In television, it has averted their audience; you don’t have to wait until 11 o’clock to get the weather report.

What are the most relevant industry trends right now?

The migration to digital news consumption is accelerating. In 2010, we saw the Net pass newspapers as a destination for news. People get their news from the Web now on a regular basis. Only local TV news is more popular. The shift is accelerating. Another one is the advance of mobile. Half of Americans now get local news on some mobile device. And the iPad is one of the most rapidly growing technologies we’ve ever seen. It’s doubling every few months. It’s expensive, but people are still buying them.

You are a co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Do you think that journalism is a dying field?

No. Journalism is as popular as ever. In fact, the research shows that people spend more time getting news than they did a few years ago. What’s up in the air is how we’re going to finance that. But journalism — the need for journalism and the desire for journalism among consumers — is not in any way flagging. We just don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. There was a time 160 years ago when political parties funded newspapers, or a country’s government funded newspapers. It may be that the news becomes something that is funded by other institutions; people who are interested in the pharmaceutical industry would produce pharmaceutical news. We don’t know. It’s also true that for professional audiences, journalism is not in any danger — Bloomberg is growing, the Financial Times is doing very well, The Wall Street Journal just launched a new iPad publication. It is also possible that the companies who benefited most from the digital revolution — the aggregators, particularly Google and Facebook, a kind of consumer aggregation — may migrate into the news business. They’ve already become important recommenders, they’re aggregators of news, they’re just not in the production of news, but that may change. AOL is moving into news creation and not just news aggregation. We just don’t know who is going to finance this. But people make money on the Internet and people want to get news on the Internet. It’s very hard to know whether we’re seeing a collapse or a transformation. But my instinct — my intuition — is that it’s a transformation.