Friday, October 9, 2009

The rusty iron core

Alex S. Jones, bless his heart, is a newspaperman through and through,* and it is from the perspective of a newspaperman that he views the recent disturbing developments in journalism and explores where it is headed in Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy (Oxford University Press, 234 pages, $24.95).

Mr. Jones offers seven chapters on how we got here, two on where we appear to be headed. If you are not familiar with the development of American journalism (and you would join some journalists in that unfamiliarity), the chapters on the development of First Amendment law and media ethics will be instructive.

But his main concern is the fate of what he calls (with mildly irritating repetition) the “iron core” of journalism: the information that is crucial in a democratic society if the citizenry is to make informed decisions. It is what he calls “accountability news,” because it holds “government and those with power” accountable for their actions. It is not opinion or advocacy, but factual, reported, verified information, journalism subject to “the discipline of verification.”

It is also objective journalism, in this sense: “a genuine effort to be an honest broker ... playing it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute.” It also means “not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear.”

This kind of ethical accountability journalism, which developed over the past century and a half, is, he sees, imperiled: “In the old model of near media monopolies, the American population was privy to what was essentially the same news. In the future, high-quality news will be mostly consumed by elites, with headlines and articles tailored to the short attention spans of people who get their news on the Web.” Or, again, “a well-informed class at the top and a broad populace awash in opinion, spin and propaganda.” (I told you he was an old-line newspaperman.)

(Actually, in a telling remark, he speculates that hard news, accountability news, serious journalism never attracted more than about fifteen percent of newspapers’ readership. Most people, it seems, have always been more interested in celebrities, comics, crosswords, and coupons.)

The past is gone and will not be recovered. Unfortunately, the future is blurry. Mr. Jones looks at some of the possibilities for the survival of serious, accountability journalism, and he finds it chancy.

Citizen journalism, he thinks, will be too scattered and spotty, without the resources to conduct sustained reporting and to resist pressure from the powerful through threats of withholding advertising or filing expensive lawsuits.

It is far from clear that local electronic news startups can make enough money from advertising to replace newspapers.

Ownership by a nonprofit (Hey, we’ve got the nonprofit thing down, one wag at Overheard in the Newsroom said) is similarly chancy: “Founders can change their minds, lose their money, get mad, get bored, or simply want to do something different.”

Breaking up corporate chains of journalism and restoring local ownership sounds attractive to him, but, as we saw from the Binghams and others, local ownership can be at the mercy of changing local personalities.

Mr. Jones’s “nightmare scenario”: “bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered an ineffective bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity, and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service for the rich and powerful.”

We are already more than halfway there.

*Mr. Jones got the inside story of the tensions and misunderstandings within the Bingham family that led to the sale of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times to Gannett in 1986. Writing with Susan E. Tifft, he produced a notable book on the subject, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty. The couple also wrote The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. Both books merit your attention.

An irrelevant personal note: In 1986, restless at the badly managed Cincinnati Enquirer, I was casting about for employment elsewhere. The Courier-Journal expressed interest, and I went down to Louisville for interviews and a tryout on the copy desk. It happened that the morning of that tryout was also the morning that Barry Bingham handed over the keys to Al Neuharth. On to Baltimore.


I received a review copy of Losing the News from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.