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Denebola » Article » Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy by Alex S. Jones
Book Review

Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy by Alex S. Jones

By George Abbott White
Published: November 2009

Goodbye newspapers? Or goodbye news? Or goodbye to both?

Two years ago I attended a journalism gala at The Michigan Daily in Ann Arbor. More than $11 million had been donated to completely refurbish the 1930s Student Publications Building.

This included stained glass windows and polished golden oak paneling. New scholarships for reporters, travel grants, high-end computers, and big TV screens were part of the package.
Over the weekend and alongside lively insiders’ gossip, disquieting squibs punctuated our exchanges.

The Washington Post had cut its web staff by two-thirds, and was still trying to figure out how to make money from that on-line operation. All was not right with the Times, and life at the Toronto Globe and Mail wasn’t that cheerful either.

Late summer I received an email from the Board in Control of Student Publications, a formal oversight/support group. It seemed The Daily was having ‘Ëœfinancial difficulties.’ They were being set right, we were assured.

Earlier this month, just as I was settling down to Alex S. Jones’ very thoughtful account, Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, another email arrived from the Board. “Over the summer, the Board and students worked diligently to transform its administrative team, it began. Hmm.

Then came the “bullets, the essence of which were about hiring’€a new General Manager; Director of Development; Media/Marketing Manager¦and re-designing the web site.
Big changes but for some reason, “content was missing from the list.

Now Jones’ book took on new, immediate and personal relevance. Jones acknowledges many elements make newspapers what they are, but content, serious content, is king.

I

It’s no secret newspapers have not been exactly a growth industry. No one expected the kind of financial nose-dives peppering virtually every edition of every major newspaper, accelerated by the Recession for sure but also, to anyone who cared to look closely, a train wreck long in the works.

There are many reasons, and a goodly portion of Jones’ argument for preserving one aspect of newspapers’€“hard core news’€is devoted to a useful chronicle and analysis of what’s gone wrong so we might have firm ground to set it right.

Between answering those questions and explaining why serious news is not just important but vital for our democracy is a third element, actually, a very personal account of Jones’ own life in journalism, chiefly his initiation through a small town, Greenesville’€East Tennessee’€family newspaper begun in 1916. His family.

The personal account is touching and for those of us who shared that experience, molten lead typesetting equipment and those clackety letterpress printing presses, satisfying in deep ways. But’€as will be seen shortly’€Jones isn’t walking his readers back Memory Lane, off on some windy Southern nostalgic tangent.

Jones argues throughout Losing the News that certain “traditional values in journalism, both ethical and methodological, must be kept in whatever forms the newer journalism adopts, as it adapts to the newer technologies. He learned those values, most of them, in that small shop, with his journalist grandmother and father, where he “set type and “poured pigs.

II

More than a few of newspapers’ ills are, sadly, entirely of their own making. Jones gives us a sharp account of half a dozen.

Reporters during the 1980s and 1990s, for example, got too close to their sources, showed unwarranted deference to the “mighty, neglected the risky role of telling “truth to power.
Newspapers either missed or “buried stories deep “inside the paper (like the leader of Afghanistan’s brother accused of major heroin trafficking). Classic risk aversion, they had the facts.

Loss of respect’€and thereby lack of financial support’€from readers came in other, more direct ways’€such as the Times’ notorious Jayson Blair, “woofing stories off-site from his New York apartment rather than a West Virginia farm, or virtually all of the major newspapers neglecting to “fact check the Iraq war justification’€“weapons of mass destruction.
Then there was the money, ironically too much it because honey attracts flies, and profit attracts Wall Street.

Despite readers’ concerns about newspaper bias or outright corruption, “from the 1980s until recently [newspapers] certainly made handsome profits, according to Jones. How so? Jones explains that newspapers’ “business model during this period was something like a license to print money.

Readers may believe it’s what they pay for a paper, either by subscription or papers off the newsstand, that pays the rent and keeps lights on. Not so. It’s advertising and because so many smaller cities and towns had only one paper and huge urban areas perhaps two, the only place for advertisers to go was¦to those papers.

Again, readers might believe “display or those large Macy’s ads pay the bills but Jones knows it’s the little “classified ads that were the cash cows’€

The reason classified advertising is so highly profitable is that, despite the relatively low cost of each ad, the cumulative [my emphasis] revenue from a page of classified advertising comes to more than the income from a full-page ad elsewhere in the paper.

So what went wrong? Too many things, too quickly.

Wall Street or investor interest changed the nature of newspaper ownership. CEO’s answering to corporate boards of corporate boards were running the show rather than the old “family publisher. Like medicine and insurance, Who pays the piper calls the tune. Decisions about content and style got made by uninformed and distant MBAs rather than on-site experienced journalists.

Soon, the unholy “bottom line called the tune rather the needs of the paper’s community or serious news / professional journalism standards.

And then came the Web.

Jones knows if you are selling a car or renting an apartment it’s Craigslist you use’€and the implications of that free transaction for newspapers was just (financially) devastating’€ “digital technology’€and especially the Internet’€is rapidly blowing that long-standing economic model to smithereens, writes Jones.

III

But in the days newspapers were profitable, the economic changes that were undercutting newspapers went mostly unnoticed.

Again, for decades many American newspapers were part of quality “chains, or, family operations. Not just small ones like Jones’ but middle and larger-sized ones, like The Boston Globe (Taylors), New York Times (Sulzbergers) and Los Angeles Times (Otis). It was a special American “contract, about loyality to citizens. For our newspapers have evolved, Jones notes, around a tension fundamental to the success of American democracy. Newspapers are a business but they also practiced a kind of democratic stewardship.

It was Jefferson who many times eloquently defended newspapers’ independence’€and with Madison’€their free speech, because he argued that for a democracy to function and for “the people to be truly sovereign, in a position to actually make decisions, citizens required information that was accurate, timely, unbiased and critical.

While newspapers obviously had to make a profit, many families took the stewardship role seriously enough to rest content with either smaller profits or just breaking even. (Like the Red Sox and Yawkey, they also suffered losses because they valued this public role.)

Yet as the financial wind went out of newspapers’ sails, newspaper management desperately tried to balance the budget by the “usual means’€ draconian cuts, usually but not always staff.

We learn a good friend of Jones’ at the peak of his career is let go from his high Texas post. One of the finest editors in America resigns from the Los Angeles Times rather than fire reporters.

Some of the most valuable non-staff items unwisely dumped included, close to home and our Boston Globe, expert foreign bureaus that, with contacts built over decades, generated not only interesting but invaluable information. The bureau costs could not be justified in the face of plummeting ad revenues, fierce shareholder expectations, new “business management demands, and, inevitable “duplication with the “parent company, i.e., New York Times.

IV

All terrible news, to be certain. But not quite the point, or Jones’ point.

Losing the News is less about newspapers’ Titanic financial situation, or even the immensely important issues around the First Amendment (an informative, eye-opening chapter) or the smaller and smaller percentage of young newspaper readers, than the increasingly rapid loss of a kind of news that newspapers, in the main, have published.

Jones calls it accountability news.

It’s the daily “core, the serious stuff that happens in our world, and it has power and impact because of the way it is sought, constructed and presented. Accountable, through a traditional, standards-based, ethically-conditioned process that locates important information, carefully sorts and selects, and then submits everything to fact-checking.
It’s “solid reporting, got it? Edits and opinion and features “pick and choose from this core, Jones says, talk shows and the web draw from it regularly. And all too often without acknowledgement of what the core costs to produce. Or, without acknowledgment of its importance. Jones says,

Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.

In each of the nine chapters Jones returns again and again to this “core. He chronicles in a concise and illuminating way not only the history of newspapers but also how kinds of news developed over time and the ways in which they were delivered to both smaller and larger publics as well as elites.

Jones’ point being the broadly-dispersed, balanced and objective reporting we expect today was certainly not the case in broadsheets tacked up in Elizabeth’s London or the advocacy pamphlets before and during the American Revolution in America. Until the last century the “press was generally a printer’s sideline (like Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac), for financial purposes or the arm of a political party or faction.

By the early 20th century, “sheltered by an economic model, this costly-to-produce accountability news took what Jones identifies as four forms: witness, follow-up, explanatory, and investigative. His elaboration is instructive.

First-hand accounts of the Iraq war, the Ft. Hood shooting, a school committee deliberation are where the journalist acts as the public’s witness, their “eyes and ears. When the journalist asks the “Why? question, it’s up to another level; they are pushing the story after the fact, contextualizing it with history and expertise to allow the public to gain a greater and broader depth of understanding.

Writing at length about global warming, or the case for and against mammograms, for example, is a third form, where the journalist labors to gather every relevant fact, “bores deeply into the subject, serves to explain significance of the event or subject to the public, as thoroughly as is possible at that point in time.

While many writers in history have been oppositional, outstanding reporters in the 20th century saw their highest role as challenging “official truth through painstaking and risky investigations. Those who went after abuses in My Lai or Watergate were “astonishingly persistent, says Jones. “This is the toughest kind of journalism¦done in the face of efforts to keep information silent.

While witness-bearing is the least expensive, supporting an investigative journalist can cost, according to Jones “a quarter million in salary and expenses.

And that is also Jones’ point. Real news costs, and few own up to the fact that an estimated 85 percent of web news comes from newspapers and no one on the web is paying the freight (unless Microsoft’s challenge to Google stands).

V

What will America and Americans do without this core news? Will or can the newer technologies evolve and produce equivalent activities and institutions?

It’s not as though the journalism of Civil Rights and the Pentagon Papers was ever normative.
Under the Bush administration, we had an “obedient rather than an “adversarial press. Should newspapers fail entirely, or only a few remain, will what passes for reporters be, in Anthony Lewis’ characterization, merely “local stenographers, rather than the “nation’s conscience?

Who on the web will consistently check assertions in a Defense secretary’s speech, investigate falling concrete panels in a heavily used tunnel, bring a irresponsible surgeon to justice?
Journalism will certainly exist for profit, for the tabloids and their accompanying web sites. And there will be print journalism and web journalism that will entertain as well as journalism that advocates for micro-communities and narrow points of view.

Quality information can always be sold. Talented and skillful researchers and writers will surely continue to serve the elites Walter Lippmann felt had to govern, for the uninformed public he believed too prone to passion, too easily manipulated.

If “good journalism is no longer there for the philosopher of democracy, John Dewey’s general public, there to drive out the “bad, to correct bias, balance political debate, correct dangerous inaccuracies, explode the easy sensationalism of the He said/She said discourse’€can our democracy trust in what some have trumpeted as the “democratic power of the web?
Like many on this question, whether of fountain pen or MacBook, Jones is skeptical.

We are in a transitional period, we just don’t know enough to make a judgment. It’s easy to note the obvious. Brevity, movement, variety and associational logic are web characteristics, all “attitude and edge and opinion, says Jones.

Newspapers, by contrast, have become “distilled products, highly mediated, whereas the web does poorly by verification and does not select or aggregate information in ways as useful as newspapers. Blogs generate ideas not facts, like the web they value speed over accuracy. Many issues of real moment cannot be “condensed into 50 words (or 150) on the Home Page.

VI

Whether the newer technologies are an extension of the old, as Marshall McLuhan once suggested, whether they are wholly different, with different properties, or an admixture, the questions Jones addresses’€and some of the answers he learned in that East Tennessee print shop’€are surely the right ones.

While the medium may well be the message, it is also only part of the message. The more significant and more useful part is likely that “core of fact, the delivery of which, whether web or print, or a collaboration of the two, remains to be determined.

The web is a medium in its infancy, Jones takes too seriously the distractions attending it; as though a child were given one of those Gutenberg Bibles he discusses, but no guidance how to “read it.

Jefferson’s public will learn to read the web just as the elite now read the Times or Wall Street Journal.

If Midwestern farmers are’€stats tell us’€some of the most loyal National Public Radio listeners, more and more Americans, even young ones, may, with guidance, become “accountability news readers/listeners.

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