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‘Losing the News’ Examines Journalism’s Shifting Future

August 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Journalist and author Alex Jones speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the uncertain future of journalism, as well as his new book, "Losing the News."

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s no secret the news business is in great turmoil. Newspapers and television stations are suffering from the economic downturn as once plentiful advertising dries up, leading to layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, and an uncertain future.

A new book, “Losing the News,” addresses the questions of what’s being lost in this process and what might be done about it. Its author is Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who covered the press for the New York Times. He’s now director of Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and joins me now, and welcome.

ALEX JONES, journalist and author: Thank you. Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You begin the book with a personal story about an experience you had of getting the story.

ALEX JONES: I wanted to start the book by trying to help people understand what journalism feels like, people who are not journalists themselves. And I tell about the best moment that I had as a journalist, which was in Louisville, Kentucky, in a hotel room in the middle of the night, with cigarettes strewn and old watery iced tea glasses around.

I’d gone there for the New York Times to do a story on the Bingham family, a family that owned newspapers, a very famous newspaper, the Courier-Journal, and had basically fallen apart.

I’d gone there as the media reporter for the New York Times to tell this story, which was a business story in one sense, but in much more profound way, a very human story, a family story, a newspaper story.

And I got lucky, because I was able to interview members of the family, and I was able to get that gold of journalistic — you know, of reporting, which is to get people to tell you what you really believe is the truth about the way they feel about things.

JEFFREY BROWN: With lots of interviews, lots of time?

ALEX JONES: Lots of interviews, lots of checking, lots of hours put in, lots of rechecking, and lots of effort at writing it in a way that would be compelling and would be something that people who are New York Times readers would read and not only get the facts, but would get the emotional power, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so this becomes illustrative of what you think is being lost. You refer to it as the iron core of news. What’s being lost?

The eroding 'iron core' of news

ALEX JONES: The iron core is that core of professionally reported news that is at the heart of our national conversation that determines who we are as a society. I mean, we've got a gigantic ongoing conversation -- and have since the very beginning of this country -- you know, around water coolers, now online, on editorial pages, you know, at public meetings.

But the core that that conversation, the earth in which that conversation is like an atmosphere around, is a core of hard-reported serious news. That is now mostly -- I would say 85 percent of that has been done by newspapers. Even though people may think they get their news from television, that's a delivery system. The reporting, the journalism has been done for the most part by newspapers, not entirely, but mostly.

And what is happening is that, because of the digital revolution and now because of this economic crisis for newspapers and news organizations generally, that iron core is being eroded from within. We're losing high-quality reporters who have done great work but simply are no longer employed by the news organizations that had been employing them. And that is something our country can't stand, as far as I am concerned, because it's happening in a wholesale kind of way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have other people who look at the kinds of things you're talking about and say, "Well, where's this great journalism anyway?" Right? There are some people on one side who see bias in mainstream journalism. There's other people who look and see, oh, you know, a lack of digging and what -- pick your story, you know, the run-up to the Iraq war, whatever.

So you have some people saying, "There is a future out there, and it's online," and other people are saying, "What are we losing anyway?"

ALEX JONES: Well, I think that the idea that journalism is flawed is absolutely, of course, correct. I'm not here to defend journalism as perfect at all.

What I am here to say, though, is that the structure that we have had of professional journalism is something that has produced the most serious public education mechanism in this country. What we know about what our history is for the most part has come from news organizations.

That's something that -- you know, some of it may be online with the Web, and I think that that's, you know, a great thing. We're certainly living in a digital age. And my argument is not that we're not moving forward in a digital future that newspapers online need to be a part of.

My concern is that what's happening is that news is being transformed from that hard core to something much more like public relations and spin and advocacy and subjective news, because what we're losing along with the professional news and the professional journalism is the standard of objectivity in many cases.

It is the journalism ethical code that has informed the way journalism is done at its best and which has provided even in its breach a standard for which journalism can be judged. You can't really judge subjective news if it's subjective in the first place. It makes no pretense at being anything but.

Pin-pointing an economic model

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see an economic model for -- well, newspapers are your main focus here -- do you see an economic model going forward where they can survive and even thrive? As you said, it's the digital age, and many of the pressure are coming precisely because of that.

ALEX JONES: Well, you know, the book is called "Losing the News," but it's not lost. I am hopeful about this. And I think that some people disagree with me, of course, but I do see the possibility, the opportunity for newspapers and other mainstream news organizations to survive and even thrive in a digital age.

But they're going to be doing it in a way that is not the fat and happy world of the 1980s. They're going to be doing it with a reduced, you know, sort of set of expectations both for what they can do and for the profits that they're going to be able to glean.

Right now, there are a lot of newspapers that are in real trouble. But in an odd way, this economic downturn from advertising has forced the newspaper business to do what it needed to do, not because of what was happening in the digital world. It needed to retool, to be able to survive in a digital world.

And what that means is getting rid of the overhead that has been built up through the 1980s and '90s, when things were economically much happier. Now newspapers are lean. Most of them are now still able to make an operating profit.

And as the economy improves, I think they're going to at least have the chance to take the money that will come when some of that advertising they've lost comes back and invest it in high-quality news.

Now, if they don't do that, if they take the money and take it as profit, if they take the money and invest in things that do not support their public interest mission of providing this kind of news that has been their public interest mission from the beginning of the newspaper business, then I think that they will have lost in the long run.

JEFFREY BROWN: I note you called yourself not a pessimist, not an optimist, but a realist in this...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... but clearly a clarion call for something of value.

ALEX JONES: Well, I view this book as a battle cry. I mean, I don't view it as a eulogy. I view it as something to awaken the public to what is happening and why and awaken some of my colleagues in journalism to the point that what's going to make journalism survive is good journalism. That's the key.

If it doesn't continue to manufacture good journalisms, then it really won't matter whether newspapers survive or not. The purpose of newspapers from a societal perspective is that they have given us this body of serious news. And I think for people out there who are thinking about dropping their subscriptions, they ought to buy the subscription and then get in touch with the editor and say, "If you want to keep my business, keep reporting, and, you know, raise your game. I want more."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "Losing the News." Alex Jones, thanks so much.

ALEX JONES: My pleasure.