"The public doesn't love us, we must believe in journalism!"

Tina Rosenberg (New York Times and Pulitzer) defends solutions journalism in the face of "the economic and existential crisis"

Tina Rosenberg is a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner. | Ship2B Foundation Tina Rosenberg is a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner. | Ship2B Foundation

Tina Rosenberg (New York, 1961) is a journalist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism. Her grandfather was also a journalist, she writes for The New York Times and you can find hundreds of her articles in The New Yorker, The Washington Post or Rolling Stone. Along with David Bornstein and Courtney E. Martin, she is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which works with the likes of the Gabo Foundation, Transitions Online and the University of Bournemouth. In Spain, however, the Solutions Journalism Network does not yet have any partners. After the S2B Impact Forum, Rosenberg spoke to VIA Empresa about the community, solutions journalism, Ryszard Kapuscinski's empathy, the fourth estate and the business model that goes beyond clickbait and political subsidies. "Journalism is experiencing an economic and existential crisis," she says, but has to stick to a formula: 2 + 2 = 4. Her latest book is called  Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. 

Why did you get into journalism?

My grandfather was a journalist and when I was younger it seemed to me the best job in the world because I could go wherever I wanted and ask anyone whatever I wanted. I couldn't imagine anything better. 

You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. 

The Pulitzer gave me credibility, the chance to write another book, and it also opened many doors for me. I had the freedom to start the projects that mattered most to me. 

From 20th century journalism to 21st century journalism.

The role of the journalist is changing a lot and journalism is going through an economic crisis with the death of advertising as a source of revenue. One fact: Google and Facebook have 80% of online advertising. This will not change, but the existential crisis of journalism is even stronger. We journalists know that the public doesn't like us, doesn't believe us and doesn't trust us. That's why we have to do our work in a different way.

"We journalists know that the public doesn't love us, doesn't believe us and doesn't trust us. We must work with, for and on communities"

How do we do that?

With solutions journalism we can do broader and more faithful coverage, not only showing the world's problems but also the solutions. If we only show the problems, then we're showing a distorted mirror. We must work with and for communities; it's not enough just to write stories and reports about them. 

What have we done wrong?

The crisis is somewhat due to politics. For example, the Democratic Party in the United States believes in mainstream journalism while the Republican Party believes in its own journalism like Fox News. I think that journalism doesn't present reality but its version of reality. You have to believe in journalism! In the New York Times we present reality and we also make mistakes, but we don't try to distort it and we deserve to be believed for what we do. 

You always have to believe in good journalism. 

Politics aside, people don't believe in journalism because we've used a way of defining what is news that's very wrong; it doesn't serve the public and it doesn't make us part of the community. We've lost the trust of the public. 

"With solutions journalism we can do broader and more faithful coverage, not only showing the world's problems but also the solutions"

Have we regained some trust with the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, many realised that they needed newspapers because they wanted to know all the important information about their city, where they could buy food or find any help that was useful. There was a reunion of journalism and the community, but now that the pandemic has become normalised, we've already begun to go back to the way we were.

"The relationship with human beings is the essential element of our work," wrote Ryszard Kapuściński.

I really like Kapuściński because he is a hero of international journalism. He's completely right! We have to have more empathy. Each community that feels marginalised also feels abused by the journalism that comes to their community and sees everything only from the point of view of the worst stereotype. 

An example.  

If you live in a community of colour on Chicago's South Side and a reporter knocks on your door, you know what they'll ask about: violence and guns. The reporter thinks it's the only thing that happens in the neighbourhood, but it's not. Life there doesn't revolve only around that problem, but it seems that the other issues do not interest journalists. Another example: if you live in Mississippi, a journalist will look for people with four teeth because that seems to fit the stereotype of an ignorant person. It's a mistake! The community doesn't want this. People don't believe journalists because we use too many stereotypes and this doesn't show empathy.

"A good journalist has to have empathy, the ability to decide what is important, value and delve into the truth or not get carried away by prejudices or stereotypes" 

"Through empathy, you can understand the interlocutor's own character and share in a natural and sincere way the fate and problems of others," added Kapuściński. 

We have to have empathy and look for the person behind the stereotype. It's a lesson we are still learning. 

What does a good journalist need?

Empathy, the ability to decide what is and what is not important, to value and delve into the truth, to see people in their entirety and not to be carried away by prejudices and stereotypes. You have to look at what you see, not what your mind believes before you even see it. 

Critical thinking is required?

Critical thinking is important and you have to know that there's not only negative news in the world. You have to have a critical eye, but not only looking for the problems but also for the solutions and the answers. 

"You have to know that in the world there's not only negative news or problems, you have to explain what your solutions are" 

What can solutions journalism contribute to society?

Solutions journalism starts from a base: deciding to tell only the bad news is to leave out half the story. You also have to look for what is working when it comes to solving problems and cover it rigorously and with a high standard of journalism. We can not only cover the problems.

Tina Rosenberg

Photo courtesy of the Ship2B Foundation

What is the best solution for journalism?

There is no perfect solution. A while ago we were working with a journalist from Cleveland who told us that he had a hard time finding a good story because there was no perfect project. I replied that it was not a question of finding a perfect project because that does not really exist. In fact, no one will believe you if you say it's perfect. It's fine to acknowledge within the article that a project is worthwhile, but obviously it has problems and you have to point those out too. It's necessary to cover the limitations of the solution so as to reach the standard of rigour. 

Does absolute truth exist or is it a game of perspectives?

Without going into philosophy, a person has the right to have an opinion but not the right to have their own facts. We have to agree on the facts. It's a mistaken belief to think that the vaccine is worse than the pandemic. This opinion has no right because it is not directly an opinion, but an erroneous perception of reality. Journalism has to be firm that 2+2=4. You always have to choose and ask yourself: What can I rely on to better serve my community? Journalists decide what is included or what is left out of a news story. 

"A person has the right to have an opinion but not the right to have their own facts"

Are we also talking about positive and constructive journalism?

Constructive yes, positive no. When people think of positive journalism, they think we're talking about a boy who opened a shop to sell soft drinks and help his cousin who has cancer. That's a positive story. However, how the city of Baltimore solved the child mortality problem is not a positive story because it speaks about the problem and also covers its limitations. 

Do journalism, politics and economics go hand in hand?

Many people associate journalism with people giving opinions, but that's not journalism. Journalism is much deeper and broader. Solutions journalism is not a tool to cover Donald Trump or the breaking news that happens every day. Solutions journalism is a tool used for health, education, the environment or justice. There are problems and many people trying to solve them. 

"Solutions journalism is a tool that is used for health, education, the environment or justice, but not for breaking news"

Do we have a business model problem within journalism?

Many people think that we get the news from Twitter or Facebook, but Twitter and Facebook do not write news and journalists should be paid well. The right business model is no easy matter, but newspapers that offer the public something that they can't read anywhere else will survive. You can't post clickbait with the same story as the rest and expect people to pay for it. They won't do it. You have to offer something different and with high added value. 

Totally agree. 

Newspapers in the United States that used to have dozens of people working for them now only have seven people; it doesn't make sense for them to publish five stories a day because no one's going to pay for it. If you use all seven journalists to do investigative and solutions journalism, then people will find something really worth buying. 

The current business model is that of a company paying a newspaper for a piece of its readers' attention. There's one good thing about the decline in advertising and that is that we're changing the current model to a model funded by readers, philanthropy, foundations, membership or subscriptions. Advertising as a business model rewards clickbait, but people are paying for good journalism. I insist that it's a much better model to reward good journalism than clickbait. 

"You can't publish clickbait with the same story as the rest and also expect people to pay for it. You have to offer something different and with high added value. Advertising as a business model rewards clickbait, but people are paying for good journalism"

What about public subsidies?

Political subsidies have always been an obstacle to doing free journalism and this hasn't changed. In fact, it's even worse than before. 

Is journalism the fourth power?

It was. Some 30 or 40 years ago there were three television news programmes in the United States and almost every family watched them. There were several national and local newspapers and what they said carried a lot of weight, but now the scene is fragmented and no one has as much influence as before. I'm not nostalgic for going back to a time when there was only the narrative made by the ruling class and marginalised people had no way of expressing themselves, but the fragmentation means that the power of journalism is no longer what it used to be. 

History written by the victors. 


Does the paper newspaper have an expiry date?

Written journalism will continue to exist even if it is only digital. It's not important for the printing press to also exist. 

"Political subsidies have always been an obstacle to doing free journalism and this hasn't changed. In fact, it's even worse than before"

What role did the media play in the end of the Trump era and the beginning of the Biden-Harris era?

The mainstream media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or NBC have inadvertently become the opposition to Trump. The mainstream media describes a reality that he does not accept and that he calls Fake News. It's not a comfortable role for the media because they should not have the same weight as a political party. Trump has politicised journalism and I don't think this is going to be fixed now with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The Republican Party is Trump's party. We thought we'd got rid of authoritarian governments when communism fell but they've come back with a bang in the Philippines, Brazil, the United States, and Eastern Europe. 

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