In his 1999 book, What Are Journalists For?, which told the story of the civic-journalism movement, Jay Rosen suggested that the question in the title is one our society must ask itself periodically, as times change and the demands on and of journalism change with them. Now is one of those moments. Everything about our profession is up for debate. Congress is arguing about the definition of “journalist”; startups are experimenting with new business models and ways to deliver news to a mobile audience; people all over the world who don’t call themselves journalists are using social media and smartphones to record, broadcast, and comment on “news.”
In this issue, CJR offers a range of perspectives on the question, What is journalism for?—from Rosen himself; from Ukrainian journalists who became activists in their fight against censorship; from the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who has stopped trying to determine who is a journalist and instead defends free speech for everyone; from a bunch of citizens who took over a weekly on an island in Lake Michigan and are trying to figure out what to do with it; and from many others.
The relationship between the press and the public has shifted in the new century. The one-way flow of information has become a free-for-all, and the professionals have lost some authority. Civic journalism was about making the public a partner with professional journalism in an effort to identify and address problems that affect us all. It was resisted by much of the journalistic establishment, who considered it an abdication of their duty to “tell the people what they need to know,” and it petered out soon after Rosen’s book appeared.
It’s too bad. Had journalism made common cause with the public back then, its position in 2013 might be somewhat less embattled.