Tom Rosenstiel’s Seven/Eight/Nine functions of journalism

I rely a lot on the research coming out of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and I was thrilled this morning to get to hear Tom Rosenstiel himself speak to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies about the state of the media industry. It’s in New Orleans. At the Ritz. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

I was even more thrilled that his session was right before mine (which was about keeping the focus on the audience), because so much of the message I tried to get across was made more salient by the research he shared. In fact, I kept joking during my session that I was citing him too much! So Tom, thanks for the awesome intro you didn’t know you were giving!

Tom is one of the authors of “The Elements of Journalism,” a book that’s required for Mizzou journalism students. (I referenced it in a Nieman Reports piece this spring, adding my own obligation that I think journalists have to identify and attempt to connect with the audience.)

Tom shared some general observations about the changing culture of information consumption — nuggets of wisdom like:

— The power is shifting from journalists to their communities.

— Every media is an alternative media, competing against everyone else.

— Users don’t often have a primary media source but instead access at least five news platforms a day.

— People consume news at the story level, not the home page level. Your brand is in each story.

— The future of journalism (and specifically for the alternative press in this audience) lies in understanding the role you play in peoples’ lives, not in the practices and techniques that used to work for you.

— We don’t have “an audience.” We have multiple audiences. Online, we can create verticals that have different identities and serve different users.

— These days, we tend to have more journalists covering fewer things. Instead, think about what you do really well, and focus on that, even if it means abandoning things you used to cover.

And this gem:

— You’re not in the business of writing stories and selling ads. 

Instead, think of yourself as being in the business of creating knowledge that is otherwise missing in your community. Fill knowledge gaps, don’t just write stories.

Tom has a list of seven functions he thinks journalists play. As a constantly adapting speaker/journalist, he added two more to the list in the Q&A afterward.

So, here are Tom Rosenstiel’s Seven/Eight/Nine functions journalists play, delivered to an audience of alternative newsweeklies:

1. Witness bearer. Simply show up and observe the people in power. Be the one watching and paying attention.

2. Authenticator. What of what I’ve heard is actually true? n the old model, we didn’t talk about what wasn’t true. We ignored it. That no longer works. We’re not gatekeepers anymore — we don’t control what people are talking about. We need to instead contribute to the conversations happening around us — monitor what people know and chime in when they’re misinformed.

3. Sensemaker. Help readers put what they’ve heard into perspective. There’s so much information out there that it’s harder to create knowledge, yet even more important to do. The public conversation needs the depth and analysis we can offer.

4. Watchdog. As mainstream newsrooms shrink, the role here for the alternative press grows. Think broadly about funding for watchdog journalism, such as nonprofit sources.

5. Empower the audience. Give people ways to do something with the information. Tom said he has a list of 54 ways to tell stories online, many of which involve an active role on the part of the community, formerly known as the audience. (I’m going to ask him for a copy and will link to it here if I get it.)

6. Forum organizer. Facilitate conversation. Allow the audience to talk about what you’re doing. One reason people consume news is so they can talk about it — it’s a social activity. Enabling that gives the information a salience, and closes a loop.

7. Role model. As people create more and more of their own information, sometimes in a journalistic sence, they look to us to show them how it’s done. That’s true whether we want it to be or not.

These two came up in the Q&A and he said he wanted to add them to his list:

8. Smart aggregation. There’s an expectation that your site should not just be your stuff, but all the stuff you think is useful from elsewhere. (The report from the Engagement Metric workshop we held at RJI this spring includes outbound links as a key metric here. What if one measurement of success were the links we shared that took people away from our site?)

9. Community building. We’re in a position to foster and encourage communities, not just geographic communities but communities of interest.


8 thoughts on “Tom Rosenstiel’s Seven/Eight/Nine functions of journalism

  1. This is a succinct and thought-provoking assessment of the state of the news business at the start of the 21st century. I think about Tom Rosenstiel a lot at the Chicago Tribune, because he once led a seminar on bias here that called attention to how big news organizations bias toward established sources.

    He’s built on that with these points — and it dovetails nicely with the engagement efforts so many newsrooms around the country (A Reynolds Journalism Institute survey shows 55% of US newsrooms are trying some form of engagement effort) are finding valuable.

    — James Janega | Trib Nation Manager | Chicago Tribune

  2. I like the idea of #8’s “smart aggregation.” I think linking to other websites could be a tool to enhance our credibility if we link purposefully to authentic and informative websites. If we do this thoughtfully and consistently, I don’t think we’d sabotage ourselves or lose our readers because they would come to depend on us as a mothership or hub for news and supplemental information. Linking to other sites demonstrates that we’ve done enough research on a topic to be qualified enough to write about it.That’s my opinion.

    1. Small cifaiaicrtlon: the article I posted was written for but was almost completely written into an opinion piece for the published version.

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