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Denebola » Article » Alex S. Jones
Book Review

Alex S. Jones

By Adam Goldstein, Shayna Sage and Justin Quinn
Published: November 2009

Alex S. Jones is a journalist and and author. He covered the press for The New York Times, and is currently director of the Shorenstein Center at the JFK School, Harvard University. His latest book, Losing the News (2009) is reviewed in this Section.

Q: How did you come to run the Shorenstein Center?
The reason I came here, I was at the New York Times and I wrote these stories about the Bingham family [noted Louisville publishers who were selling their family newspaper], and I won a Pulitzer Prize.

And I was approached about doing a book on the Binghams. I went to my Editor at the Times, and I asked him what he thought, and he said, Why don’t you write a book with your wife? (She worked with Time magazine.) So that’s what we did, and the book was published. We were then persuaded to do a second book, on the Sulzberger family, which meant I had to leave the Times.

I knew about the Centre very well because it’s a singular place and a very important place as far as journalism is concerned. We do research, teaching and we engage the issues of the day. We are not just retrospective, backward, we try to engage what’s going on¦now.

Q: What is it like for you to run the Centre?

It’s fascinating, because the thing is that at Harvard, the Kennedy School is something like the nuclear core of public affairs. Just about anyone who is anyone in public policy or journalism makes it through here. This is where the students and faculty and the public’€most of these events are open to the public’€this is where they come.

Q: What did it mean to be around a newspaper as someone very young?

I’m in the 4th generation of a newspaper family, from East Tennessee. I grew up in a world of the small town in which my family owned the newspaper, and my father ran it, was the general manager, and my grandmother was the publisher.
By the way, the first two generations, if you count that way, were both women, which is very unusual; my grandmother and my great-grandmother. And they are both in the Tennessee newspaper Hall of Fame.

I’m from a little town, where Davy Crockett in fact was born. My grandmother got into the newspaper business because her husband, my grandfather, was a lawyer and an alcoholic, and he got drunk one night and signed a note for a tiny little newspaper, the smallest of three weeklies in this town, and my grandmother was adamantly against it.

But there was nothing she could do, and finally he was not able to take care of the family, and she had to go down and take it over. And she ended up owning both of the other newspapers.

She would tell me the story because the reason she was able to do what she did, own both of the other newspapers, was that they were drunk¦and she was sober. [Laughs.] Which is I think, pretty accurate.

We all ate together [in our family], and I can’t remember a night’€there were five of us’€when my father didn’t get a phone call, there was almost always someone complaining about something. Either complaining they didn’t get the paper, or, because of something in the paper.

And that’s just the way our life was. But it was a life in which we felt very deeply laced into the fabric of the community. In fact, my family still has that newspaper. We’re still operating this family newspaper in an environment where family newspapers have gone the way of the Dodo bird.

Q: Did you set type in the print shop?

I not only set type, I ran a Linotype machine, not only that I’ve got a mark here on my wrist from the hot lead. A squirt. They used molten lead to set the lines of copy, it was like a typewriter and steel letters would fall down a matrix, and molten lead would squirt up against them and be molded.

And if the little steel letters were not aligned exactly right lead would squirt through right on to you’€you remember that, vividly, believe me.

But the thing that really amazes me now is not that dramatic change in technology, and I was down there at the presses and typesetting machines every summer, down there in shorts and sandals, and my job was melting the lead from those used lines of type and then re-casting the lead into what we call ‘Ëœpigs,’ the bars of lead that were hung over the ‘Ëœpots’ where they melted, and made the lines of type.

In other words, I was twelve years old and basically wandering around operating a blast furnace. Now, you would probably get arrested nowadays if you tried or allowed a youngster to do something like that. But then, nobody thought anything about it.
My job was to go around and gather up the lead and put it in the furnace and melt it and then pour the liquid lead into the molds to create the pig. So I was working as a twelve year old with molten lead. That’s not a good idea! [Laughs.] Different times.
Q: What were the stories in your Greeneville newspaper?

It was a community newspaper, and it had all kinds of stories. The most popular feature in the newspaper was my grandmother’s Saturday column, which was called “Cheerful Chatter. And it was very much her’€she was a great writer; my grandmother ran the editorial page, and she was Hell on Wheels.
She was about five feet tall and this was the kind of woman she was’€She was in her eighties or nineties and she lived right next door to the newspaper. And there was a Sports editor, named Tiny Day. (His name was Claude but he was known as ‘ËœTiny’ because he weighed about 350 pounds and was absolutely immense.) My great-grandmother’€Tiny told me this story himself’€summoned him one day to her ‘ËœParlor’ in her house across the street.

And he was very frightened of her, she was a formidable character; she once said to me, I have always thought of myself as a tall woman.

And Tiny said he walked with great trepidation into her Parlor, and she sat there glowering at him, said, Sit down! And he sat down, and she picked up her cane and went Wham! And kept whacking him, and said, Stay off my damned flowers! [Laughs.] You see, he was parking his car where she had flowers. That’s the kind of person she was, she treated everyone that way.

Q: How would you compare your experience working on that paper, with working on the New York Times?

An interesting question. I worked on two newspapers, that one and one even smaller, and I feel like everything important that I learned about journalism I learned before I went to the Times. These were lessons I learned about reporting and fairness, ethics and facing people as a reporter who are powerful, confronting them with information that is going to make them mad’€things like that you can only learn the hard way.

I don’t mean I knew everything, I certainly didn’t know the way to do journalism the way The New York Times expected me to do it. But I knew everything that was really important, essential. It is comparable to being able to write to being able to twitter and operate the web, the newer technologies in an effective way.
Learning how to write is something you can apply to anything. Those other skills are much easier to learn, but if you know how to write grammatically and clearly, that’s going to be an enormous asset to you and not something you can learn easily.
I think it happens both by study and learning in school in a formal way and by reading, I believe by reading more than anything else. I have no idea how what I just said is going to play out in time to come but it is the thing I believe what I learned with those two smaller newspapers. I came with certain principles; I had a standard against which I could measure whatever was to follow. Measure, and then apply.

Q: So do you believe there has been a major shift in standards, in principles and practice, in journalism?

Of course many things have changed, and they’ve changed over time and, more recently, abruptly. Digital technology is the future, we know that.

My book is essentially not about what’s happening so much as journalism values I feel are important, and I hope can be retained in this new digital world. I believe the values are more important than the way they show themselves, whether digitally or on paper or whatever. The point is that these traditional values belong in a digital world. Exactly how they can be applied is the question.
Q: What was the business transition from those East Tennessee newspapers and The New York Times?

The business was the same business, but just a different scale. The “plan was selling advertising to support the operation and, also, to do a public service in the form of producing news that people needed, news that was important. That, plus the sports page, comics, and the crossword puzzle.

The model is broken for The New York Times and my family’s newspaper in the same way. It is a model that was based on there being a near-monopoly on things like classified advertising for cars and houses and things like that. Having the dominant advertising distribution vehicle in a community meant something financially.

You know for the last several decades in many communities there has only been one newspaper, and that newspaper has done very well, thank you.

Now, you have a situation in which the revenue stream which formerly supported this public service mission is greatly threatened by the fact that classified ads on Craig’s List is free. How do you compete with free?

The web does things better than any newspaper on print can. The idea of searching for a house or a car by looking over classified ads rather than going on line and searching digitally makes no sense. Some may do it but that’s certainly not the future.

And that shift has cost newspapers dearly because that was a huge source of revenue. That’s pretty much gone, they’re doing their own on-line search centers and are working to make some money from that. Many in really bad trouble however have big debts, largely because they have gone and bought other newspapers, at inflated prices, and they have these debts on the books.

They are in bankruptcy and how they will solve that is they are going to have to stiff the people who loaned them the money.

Q: Will these print newspapers need to change how they write so it is more like the web?

Well, my belief is there will be two different things. I think that newspapers like traditional ones offer something useful, and they would be wrong if they change. They are a place where people go to get news that they trust, and that is not calculated to appeal to young people’s tastes as calibrated by humor or style.

If you are going to try what’s really going on with health care reform’€and you care about it because it involves decisions about insurance and your children and spouse and parents’€you will go to a place where you feel the information is reliable, and gives you the nitty-gritty.

You may go to John Stewart for being John Stewart, a witty and imaginative and satirical “take on an issue or individual. His insights may help you better understand a topic or acquire a new perspective on an issue. But you’re not going to go to him to find out how to deal with health care reform, what it will mean for you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t go to John Stewart, if you see what I mean.

I believe there will be a form of news much more of the web culture as I’ve described. Think of it this way, when television went into the news business’€which was not as you may know immediately’€basically they started by having newspaper people read newspaper stories on television.

It was movement, it had to have pictures supporting voice, it was a style of writing that was much more concise and not in standard newspaper style. Much more condensed, stories were much shorter. But it was true to the medium, and people began over time to explore the medium’s potential.

TV? People sit back and watch, it’s entertaining but if it doesn’t move, if the screen doesn’t have something that speaks to you why, you flip the channel.

That is why policy is something television rarely touches, because policy rarely has engaging pictures, or if it does, it’s done in a way that is not very valuable’€often it’s something anecdotal, the story finds someone who exemplifies an issue and the television way is to do a dramatic rendering of that.

Q: What is it you are paying for with a newspaper?

Well, [the newspaper] is not assembled by magic, it’s the product of an enormous amount of work that is done to save you the trouble and time to do it yourselves. But a lot of people seem to spend a lot of time wandering and roaming around the web to find what you and I might locate in twenty pages of print.

Q: So you don’t believe in ten or twenty years there won’t be an overarching internet news source that has the same power as the Globe or Times?

There may be. But my guess is, it will be called, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, CNN, or something along those lines.

There may be some that come from a pure web place, and establish themselves. But having the web is not a news source in the same way; it’s an aggregator of blogs. That’s not what I am talking about.

It is not as though on line sources do not break news; they have a lot of people out there feeding them. But when, for example, The Huffington Post does something, the reason it has power is when these other news organizations pick it up, then its force is accelerated.

That process I believe will not change. These news making brands tend to be too valuable, they are the accumulation of past value. The trick is to adapt them, and keep the brand.

Q: Given those limitations, what would you judge the best news on television?

Right now I watch Katie Couric, I think they do more serious news than anyone else. They did a whole week recently on Afghanistan; their ratings plummeted of course. Some might say the interview with Sarah Palin was decisive, the ability and willingness to challenge is impressive.
But I think there will also be something on line, that reflects that culture, news as humor, as video games, blogging, something that will be irreverent. It won’t be accurate but that won’t matter, it will be fun and entertaining and that will be that.
What will be bad is that if only entertainment survives, and the other kind of news does not.
Why? Because I do not believe the former is enough, that will not get the job done because it is too easy to manipulate. It is too easy to be glib; to be opinionated without substance or substantiation, too easy to avoid reporting because reporting is expensive and talk is cheap.

That’s cable news in a nutshell. Cable news in prime time, especially FOX, is an entertainment channel so far as I am concerned. It is calculated to be entertaining with political combat as the entertainment; a kind of reality show. It has a narrative thread, a point of view, but these are entertainers.

If news were as entertaining and as crowd-pleasing as entertainment shows, we would have news shows in prime time. We’ve always had entertainment in prime time and that’s what the cable ones are doing where they are doing, whereas CNN, which is less entertaining is not doing so well in the ratings because it is competing with entertainment.

Q: How will this center influence our generation?

We are not geared to provide programs for teachers and students, as such. But we do recognize the world we are entering is a digital one. Our mission is to find ways to preserve the values of serious journalism in that digital world. To that extent, we are going to be reaching out to your digital generation, because that’s the world that is coming.

It also means we are going to try to preserve what the Shorenstein Center stands for, serious journalism on serious subjects; reported, not just talked about.

We are going to try to influence policy that supports that, find new economic models that will do that, best practices that will do it. We want to present to the public novel and engaging ways of presenting these principles and those individuals who are acting out those principles. We want those individuals sustained.
We don’t have the resources to reach directly to schools but what we can do, through media literacy efforts’€in every school’€is work to raise awareness, and you are always welcome to our events. They are, for the most part, open to the public, and we would love to have you here at them.

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