The tribe known as “the professional press”

Jay Rosen has penned an important piece that articulates the conundrum for the professional press in a way that should help a lot of people understand what’s really taking place. He uses the metaphor of a migrating tribe to illustrate the problem:

Migration, which is easily sentimentalized by Americans, is a community trauma. Pulling up stakes and leaving a familiar place is hard. Within the news tribe some people don’t want to go. These are the newsroom curmudgeons. Others are in denial still, or they are quietly drifting away from journalism, or they are being shed as the tribe contracts and its economy convulses.

And like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them, when to leave, where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life, and which parts were well adapted to the old world but may be unnecessary or a handicap in the new. They have to ask if what they know is portable. What life will be like across the digital sea is of course an unknown to the migrant. This creates an immediate crisis for the elders of the tribe, who have always known how to live.

When I think of the press in these kinds of terms, I’m reminded of a wonderful speech that C.S. Lewis delivered at the University of London in 1944 called “The Inner Ring.” Lewis felt that the internal drive to be within certain closed societies was one of the great evils of humankind, and it describes Rosen’s “tribe” of the press perfectly.

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain. And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

Jay Rosen thinks it’s time we expanded the press and our ideas about it. How about breaking the inner ring to not only let the press out but everybody else in?


  1. Breaking up a tribe is, unfortunately going to take a long, long time. Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and every where else that Nation States are falling apart. A quicker approach is to get the tribes to negotiate treaties. The funny thing is that alot of marketers understand that the “audience” is composed of many tribes. And tribes will buy stuff at good margins when the stuff is a token of their tribal identities. Think Apple. or Starbucks.

    I’ve been on a little soapbox for a while about the value of selling stuff instead of information. Since I’m a Print evangelist, it’s been hard to get more than few to notice. At any rate, if you’ll please excuse the shameless self promotion, you can take a look at the most recent bloviation. It’s called iPhones; Good news for newspapers + printers + designers and local economic development


  1. […] Lots of people have written about the changes that are taking place in the older types of media, but Terry Heaton links to a post by Jay Rosen that is significant.  We’re early in the rise of of semi-pro journalism but we’re well into the decline and of an old way of life within the tribe of professional journalists. I call them a tribe because they share a culture and a sense of destiny, and because they think they own the press– that is theirs somehow because they dominate the practice. […]

  2. […] The tribe known as “the professional press” The tribe should think about moving before the cold winter arrives. (tags: journalism journalist newmedia) […]

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