Jay Rosen on Documentary Films: “There’s no percentage in it for me”

Over the course of our ongoing production for the feature-length documentary, “Fit to Print,” I have been amazed by the number – and the quality – of people who have stepped up to be interviewed for the project. These people include newspaper men and women, media experts, bloggers, web developers, and, yes, even a philosopher. 

The academics have stepped up tremendously.  Columbia University’s Andie Tucher, for instance, was more than welcoming during our interview.  She even served us snacks! Thank you! 

Each of the sit-down interviews we have conducted thus far have yielded serious, thought-provoking discussion regarding the state of not only the newspaper industry, but the film industry as well. After all, we’re making a feature-length documentary here. While it may be just as important for us to showcase good content as it is for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or a citizen journalist’s blog, movies are living, breathing beasts, which require superior skills in editing, music, cinematography, photography and, oh yeah, writing. 

More than this, it is our mission to shut up and SHOW you what is taking place. In the case of “Fit to Print,” we will show you what is going on out there in the journalism world by following three distinctly different, yet still the same, kinds of reporters as they go about their assignments as reporters in the field. It’s one thing to read about what is taking place, and another to actually see it first hand.

This is what “Fit to Print” has set out to accomplish. In fact, this is the meat and potatoes of our film. But, it’s always nice to have that gravy (in the form of talking heads interviews) on the side. 

So when my team and I reached out to “renowned” journalism professor and new media “expert” Jay Rosen of NYU, I was a little surprised by his return email. My buddy Bill Loerch sent Rosen an email asking if he would like to sit down for an interview with us. It read as follows: 

On Mon, Dec. 21, 2009 at 2:21 PM, <loerch562@aol.com> wrote: 

—–Original Message—–  

From: Jay Rosen <rosen.jay@gmail.com>

Date: December 22, 2009 10:40:30 PM EST

To: loerch562@aol.com

Subject: Re: Documentary Project 

I have to decline. I have been burned a lot by documentary makers; I give them my time and the film never appears or if does a 90 minute interview becomes one or two sentences, which the makers of the film explain to me is normal and fully within the rights.  Of course it it is within their rights; that’s the problem. This has happened not once or twice, but 10-11 times.  There’s no percentage in it for me, I’m afraid. Documentary makers want soundbites; I stopped doing that years ago.  The last people I said yes to said they would put the full interview on the web. That was six months ago and there’s no sign of it. I don’t think people who make documentaries have adjusted to the fact that sources have other options now. 


Wow…  let me fill you in ‘JR’ … if we were to do a 90-minute documentary called “Jay Rosen’s story,” it wouldn’t necessarily be about the newspaper industry would it? It would be about a guy who teaches journalism and seems to think he’s above talking to practicing journalists. 

You see, the tale we are going to tell is more than simply attending panel discussions, giving pep talks and attempting to turn NYU’s J-school into a  “portfolio model of journalism education” inspired by the structure and approach used at, quite literally, the Yale School of Drama. (If you haven’t read about Rosen’s vision and strategy for accomplishing this, it’s easy to find with a simple web search.) 

No, the story we are trying to tell captures the fate of an American institution, a U.S. industry in peril. An industry reshaping itself on the streets, classrooms, city halls, and police stations by those dedicated students, academics and experts who understand that the changing nature of journalism can also be examined in long-form documentaries. You say “documentary makers want soundbites.” I find this interesting, considering that when I YouTube your name, seven pages of TV, radio and webcast clips appear. It’s interesting that not one of these appears to be from one those documentary makers you speak of who have chopped up your footage. I also find it interesting that the majority of these clips are 1 minute or less in length. But, then, you had control of these clips, and that’s what counts, isn’t it? To you, I mean? 

And we documentarians just want the soundbite? 

You also mention, “There’s no percentage in it for me.” Try telling that to the 40,000-plus journalists who have lost their jobs recently.  

Filmmaking is a mind-numbing endeavor.  It takes dedication over long periods of time. Just as good journalists put in the time and work to be fair and accurate, my team and I are doing the same. We thought it would be fair and balanced to include your theories of how journalists should be trained these days, regardless of your critics. Filmmakers everywhere would cringe at your description of what we do. I know I have over the past several months since you sent this email back to us.  And though for the longest time I wanted to blow it off and forget about it, the more often I meet with people for the film, the more I hear people express their concerns over “experts” like you training a new generation of journalists – especially at such a critical juncture in the history of a protection that protects free speech, informs citizens and preserves our democracy. 

See you in the funny pages!


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