Last Word: Dan Rottenberg

A man with white hair and a light-beige colored shirt smiles. He is standing in front of a dark background.
Dan Rottenberg | Photo by Maura Egan

Journalism is not dead. But it is different.

“Most young people these days don’t want to go into journalism,” Dan Rottenberg said.

Rottenberg, 80, has spent nearly all of his life in the profession. He started when he was 8, working with a one-page newspaper in New York. Since then, he has had many jobs but always in journalism.

Throughout his career, Rottenberg has learned a lot about journalism and how the field changes with time and decided the best way to pass that knowledge to the next generation is through a book, “The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Front Lines of Free Speech.”

Rottenberg believes books have power. He still receives emails and letters of thanks for a book he wrote nearly 50 years ago.

In 1977, Rottenberg published “Finding Our Fathers” to share what he learned while tracing his ancestry. Now, there are many local organizations, research projects and DNA-based approaches to tracking down relatives and ancestors, but in the ’70s it wasn’t so.

“Jews have a lot of disadvantages in chasing their ancestry, but they have some advantages, [too],” Rottenberg said, “Everybody needs a sense of who they are and where they came from.”

Being Jewish and a journalist has changed since he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Rottenberg said.

“In 1964, it wasn’t easy for a Jew to get a job in management at a newspaper. [There were] plenty of Jewish reporters but not at the top ranks,” he said.

Things are different now, according to Rottenberg, a member of Society Hill Synagogue for more than 50 years.

Rottenberg returned to authorship to address another need in society, writing “The Education of a Journalist” to encourage students.

“There’s always going to be a place for journalism. People will always need information. They need to find out what’s going on,” he said.

Rottenberg wants to encourage the next generation of journalists the same way he was sparked. When he was in seventh grade, Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune spoke at a school assembly. She spoke passionately about the importance of finding the truth and putting it in print.

“This is your mission: You should find out what’s going on and share it with your audience,” Rottenberg said, recalling Crist’s speech.

Rottenberg’s career has included stints as a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, as a columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer and editing positions with Philadelphia Magazine, Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly) and Broad Street Review, among others.

Everywhere he went he was following his passion, he said, which was chasing the truth. Sometimes he chased truth into trouble: He was sued seven times during his career, winning all seven cases.

“I was a pioneer of the alternative journalism movement,” Rottenberg said.

He explained that the movement was about newspapers rebelling against the establishment, with alternative newspapers not being oriented toward money but instead trying to change things for the better. Rottenberg said the goal was to “cover the stories other papers weren’t covering. We used the power of embarrassment to improve things.”

Rottenberg said that much of the cultural revolution of the ’60s was missed because larger, established papers were missing Blacks, women and young people.

“If you don’t like your local newspaper, you can start your own. With the internet, anyone can be a journalist or pretend to be a journalist,” Rottenberg said, also emphasizing the importance of a journalistic education. “Today, there is a need for authoritative professional journalists.”

With newspapers moving their content online, many people find it difficult to know which sources are news, which are opinion and which are satire or misinformation.

Rottenberg covers the shift to the internet in the book’s last chapter, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

However, Rottenberg remains optimistic about the future of online journalism.

“We are not at the end of history. The internet is a (relatively) new phenomenon, and people are going to figure out how to know what is reliable and what isn’t,” he said.

Rottenberg has advice for discerning fact from rumor online: “It’s a matter of developing a sense of skepticism. Just because something is online doesn’t mean that it’s true. Treat the media the way you treat your friends — there’s some you trust more than others. You have to develop that sense of who is trustworthy and who isn’t.”

Rottenberg believes that people can, and will, adjust to the movement of news from print to online.

Rottenberg said his persistent optimism and success can be attributed to his longstanding marriage to his wife, Barbara.

“To have a spouse, a partner. When the whole world is telling me how terrible I am, it’s nice to come home, and there’s someone happy to see you,” Rottenberg said. JE

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