A Passion for News
Losing the News: The Uncertain Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex S. Jones
Oxford University Press
256 pages; $24.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
News is a precious commodity that has been produced, consumed, dissected and debated for centuries, yet for all that activity we find ourselves amazingly ignorant about one vital matter: its actual value in the marketplace.
That's because we have no history of charging people the full cost of news. For almost 200 years, news has come heavily subsidized by advertising and sold in packages dominated by entertainment. (Even newspapers, Alex Jones estimates in this book, contain barely 15 percent hard news.)
So we don't really know what the customers think they are paying for. Zoning board stories or Zippy the Pinhead? The six-part investigative series or the Sudoku?
We do know that the daily newspaper constitutes one of the all-time great bargains — a carefully assembled collection of relevant and reliable local, national and international news, features, analysis and advertising, offered every single day for less than the price of a cup of coffee. And hand-delivered to your doorstep!
Even now, it's astounding that anyone snubs this all-but-free bounty. But more and more people do, and that's where Alex Jones picks up the story.
In a style both compellingly personal and fully professional, Jones provides a concise social history of news, ethics and First Amendment issues. He then grapples with some fundamental questions. Is news, as presented by professional journalists, as essential to democracy as we tell ourselves? Can it survive on its own in a marketplace where the advertising subsidy is waning and the accompanying entertainment segments are being unbundled and peddled separately?
Jones won a reporting Pulitzer at the New York Times and directs Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, so he brings sterling credentials to his analysis.
He takes seriously the question of whether traditional journalism is essential, writing that "we owe it to journalistic skepticism." But not surprisingly, he concludes that what he calls "the iron core" of public service journalism "feeds our democracy and is vital to our character as a self-governing nation."
As to whether and how it can survive, Jones' conclusions seem no more original than anyone else's. He diagnoses the obvious competitive problems of the mainstream media, especially print, and describes a "genuine crisis..of diminishing quantity and quality, of morale and sense of mission, of values
But remedies are elusive. They require, as we know, "finding a commercial model that will sustain professional journalism focused on serious news, conducted with traditional values and standards for a broad audience." They must, he believes, be commercial, not dependent on government or nonprofit largesse.
The best course, he contends, is sustaining a news operation that is "strong, brave, and rich in quality and in personality..distinctive in its sense of place and character." If the press stays steadfast, "the revenue solution is one that will solve itself...with an improved economy and an array of schemes to enhance revenues online."
This is far more hopeful than helpful, but it comes with a level of passion and humanity that magnifies its effect. Setting aside his top-flight résumé, Jones is in many ways just a classic newsroom junkie, like so many of us in his cohort.
"I am in the fourth generation of a newspaper-owning family in Greeneville, Tenn.," he writes. "My family still owns and operates the Greeneville Sun... I am, at heart, a newspaperman, and undoubtedly come to the news crisis of today with the bias that comes from knowing the pungent smell of thick printers' ink and the frenzy of a newsroom at deadline."
Personal memories and reflections are sprinkled throughout his book, whose very first words recall "my best moment as a journalist." If such passion alone could save journalism, we would have nothing to worry about. But sentiment and nostalgia aren't sufficient.
Still, Jones' book does reinforce the power and resilience not just of the iron core of news but of the iron will of those who love it. In a tribute to his publisher-grandmother, Jones writes that "the Sun, for us, is like a living, breathing family member."
For many other producers and consumers, there is something richly alive and organic about the place of news in life and community. Can that force surmount hard-hearted fiduciary reality? I wouldn't underestimate it.
Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting, by John Maxwell Hamilton, LSU Press, 672 pages, $45: A rich, readable, invaluable guide to foreign correspondence and the intrepid tribe of adventurers and story-seekers who do it on our behalf.
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.