Journalism is experiencing a period of wrenching change by any conceivable definition.
Already in trouble before the recession hit, the industry has been hammered by the economic downturn.
A recent Knight Foundation report noted that 14,000 newspaper journalists will ultimately lose their jobs as publishers have responded to shrinking profits by slashing staff levels to the proverbial bone and beyond. Venerable and highly respected publications like the Rocky Mountain News or The Boston Globe have either gone out of business, gone on line only or teetered on the edge of extinction. New models of community-based journalism like Chi-Town Daily News have floundered, too.
And, while publications have figured out how to put high quality work on line, and while the blogosphere has expanded exponentially, a scant few publications have figured out how to make produce sufficient revenue necessary to produce excellent.
In Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, longtime New York Times staff and scion of Southern newspaper family Alex S. Jones wades into these muddy waters. The result is an engaging and useful book that is long on diagnosis and short on solution.
Jones uses the image of the “iron core” to describe the work that newspapers have done for at least a century in this country. The core is vital for people to have information by which to evaluate government conduct and make informed choices about our democracy.
Jones makes the important that nearly all bloggers at some point rely on the accurate, balanced and reliable information that news publications generate. And, unfortunately, due to the changes described above, the core, and by extension the democratic fabric of our society, is in danger.
Losing the News takes the reader through a tour of the history of the First Amendment and newspapers in American society, with lengthy stops at the Sullivan case and the Pentagon Papers (His experience with, and approval of, the Times’ tradition does appear to color his work.). Jones also provides examples of the press’ having contributed to positive social change with the modern civil rights movement and, to some degree, the gay rights movement. He also includes chapters on objectivity and ethics.
Much of what Jones has to say is a helpful summation of reminder of others’ work, if not a groundbreaking scholarly contribution.
At the same time, his discussion of new media and his final chapter, Saving the News, is less helpful. Jones seems unwilling to accept that the product of a daily print newspaper is simply not in synch with how a growing number of billions of people around the world gather their information, and, in fact, is often out of date by the time it arrives at customers’ doorsteps. While I hold great respect for the work Jones himself and his family have done, he and others like him have a vision that looks backward, rather than forward into the present and future.
There is some irony in the case of Jones’ book because he writes in the chapter about objectivity that that doctrine emerged out of an effort to sort through the morass of sensational information that was emanating from, that’s right, daily newspapers! In other words, newspapers and the role they have played in society are a specific form that has made a valuable contribution, but one that should be reified and sought desperately to retain.
In my opinion, it is this attitude and failure on the part of some journalists and newspapers to accept the global changes in information accessibility and dissemination through the Internet that has contributed in part to newspapers’ demise.
So, by all means, read Jones’ book for a heartfelt and informative look at what newspapers have provided, and, more broadly, about the importance of the press in a democracy. Just don’t expect a lot of guidance about how that threatened iron core will stay intact in the future.