Losing The News, Part I

GUEST: Alex S. Jones
VTR: 05/21/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…and over the more than half century since I started to produce and host this weekly conversation, my guests have so often been journalists from every nook and cranny of news gathering and reporting in America, that some viewers have assumed I’ve taken on that honorable mantle myself. Well, I haven’t. I’m no journalist, no newsman.

Just a college teacher and erstwhile historian who knows full well how crucial the news is to our democracy, how enormous the implications of its well-or-ill-being are for us all – for government of, by and for a well-informed citizenry – for our national well-being, and for our survival as a free people.

Which is why losing the news would be such a fearsome thing…and why my guest today has written such an important and compelling book with just that title: “Losing The News”.

Alex Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at The New York Times…has written two magnificent studies of First Families of the American press: “The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty,” and “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times … and since 2000 has been director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In a way, of course, my guest’s new volume, Losing The News, is two books in one…each wonderfully insightful and compelling.

One has to do with dollars – as in the role they play in “losing the news” in hard times such as the press faces now.

The other has to do with sense -as in those sensibilities, traditions, values and judgment whose erosion in modern America has perhaps already “lost” or eroded what Alex Jones calls “The Iron Core” of news … without regard for high markets or low, for profits or loss.

We should discuss both books.

But first, let me ask my guest precisely what he means by this “iron core” of news…since he tells us right up front that it “does not include Paris Hilton’s latest escapade or an account of the Yankees game or the U.S. Open. It has no comics or crossword puzzle. No ads. It has no stories of puppies or weekend getaways or recipes for cooking great chili. Nor does it include advice on buying real estate, investing in an IRA, movie reviews, or diet advice…”

Also, he writes, “It has no editorials and does not include the opinions of columnists or op-ed writers or political bloggers”.

So, what, then, I would ask Alex Jones is “accountability news” … news that we dare not lose, but seems to be going now.

JONES: Richard, when I was thinking of this issue I somehow came to this image of this kind of rusted, pitted, ugly steel cannonball and I thought, “You know this is the essence of what I care about and what is really in jeopardy.”

This is the core … the “iron core” as I call it of reported news on politics, on policy, investigative reporting. The kind of reporting that tells you what’s happening with swine flu and what’s happening with global warming. And in the case of sports, occasionally what’s happening with steroid use.

But it is reported news. It is not opinion and it’s news on the things that make the American First Amendment important because it protects the kind of reporting I’m talking about as a mechanism for safeguarding democracy as you so eloquently said in your, in your introduction.

This kind of news, as we watched the, you know, first television, local television, national television and now newspapers come under increasing assault economically and in a kind of way psychically … it’s being eroded from within. This steel ball that is the thing that is at the core of this national conversation that we have about politics … is something that is becoming rusty … lighter.

HEFFNER: Well, some … somewhere in your book and I appreciated what you wrote and what you just said now, but somewhere in your book you say … the estimate, the best estimate is that about 15% of the newspaper today is that iron core.

JONES: About 15% … if you look at a newspaper from beginning to end and you look at all of the pages devoted to sports and everything else, and ads … and you take the kind of reporting I’m talking about and set it aside, it’s probably about 15% of the total space.

That said, I would estimate about 85% of the reporting of this kind that is done … in America … is done by newspapers.

I think that 15%, remember, has grown, because newspapers as a business and a successful one, have grown over, over time. So that 15% which is the … you know, the, the amount that, that the newspaper industry sort of allotted for this kind of news was nonetheless … that was the source of that kind of news for our nation.

Television maybe the place where people think they get their news. But television gets its news from the newspaper industry, or has historically.

And that is what’s in jeopardy now. Now my book is not about newspapers per se, but if you talk about “losing the news” you’re losing mostly the news that has been reported over the last century by the nation’s newspapers. That’s what’s in jeopardy now.

HEFFNER: Oh, hell’s bells, when I ask my students where they get their knowledge of the news of the world, they tell us, as polls have told us, they say, “Jon Stewart”.

JONES: Well, I think that Jon Stewart gets his news from the iron core. See the thing is … the iron core is that boring, dull, grey, factual reported news that is the source and the absolutely essential, solid core, for all of the comedians, for all of the blogosphere, for editorial writers, for, for op-ed writers … it is what we have our political conversation about.

But if we lose that essential core of factual reported news, which is what really is in jeopardy now, then Jon Stewart is the first person to say … I remember Jon Stewart was at Harvard a few years ago, and, you know, a lot of people say that he’s their prime source of news.

He was in the Kennedy School and he said, “I have heard that many of you think of me as your prime source of news. How many of you think of me as your number one source of news?” And, you know, hands went up like … you know, the whole place erupted that way.

And he took one look at them and shook his head and said, “That’s pathetic”.

Jon Stewart is a man who really does understand what’s going on and is very concerned about it. And has spoken about it. I think that he understands that not only is this kind of news in jeopardy, but a whole culture of journalism ethics, of a objective reporting, or a sort of discipline of verification is going away. Or at least is in jeopardy because of what’s happening to newspapers economically in the face of the digital onslaught.

Now the digital world is here and in many ways it’s a glorious thing. But it is important that as we move to a digital world, that we not lose the news because as a society we can’t afford to do that.

HEFFNER: You know, when I read your description of that iron core, I thought back to a program that I did and you’ll appreciate this … with Lester Markel … about a half century ago when Channel 13 began, when we put it on the air, at the very beginning of the sixties.

And he said something that was, in a sense, very different … he was concerned that the good grey lady was just presenting that hard, ugly, core and that what was needed was interpretation and commentary, so that people would understand, not just see the rusty ball there … but understand it. And you’re saying …

JONES: But, Lester … Lester Markel would have been the first person to say that you can’t have the analysis without …

HEFFNER: Without …

JONES: … the core.

HEFFNER: … okay.

JONES: I mean Lester Markel was a great New York Times man, and I think that what has happened over years, you know, as the newspaper business succeeded and as The New York Times succeeded is that the, this sort of devil’s bargain was made where newspapers were successful economic vehicles and they used part of that, that largess, that profit to do the public service of creating this kind of news.

This kind of news is not necessarily what people want to read. They’d rather read about, you know, Paris Hilton and the sports scores. But the point is they believe, as Americans, I think, in many … you know, I think most Americans would say that losing this kind of news would put us in great jeopardy because what we would be left with, and we increasingly are left with … is an awful lot of opinion, but not much solid, factual information to base it upon. That is the thing that I’m concerned about losing.

HEFFNER: Mr. Jones, why do you, why do you feel the need … and I gather you do, to say that most Americans would feel that way, the way you do, about the news? What gives you that insight? It runs very counter to what I learn.

JONES: I don’t think what I’m saying is that most Americans embrace the press, they think very skeptically about the press …

HEFFNER: No, I know. I know.

JONES: But I think that most Americans, no matter what they think about the press, do not believe that they want the press to go away, to stop doing its watchdog function, even though they may not like it when it’s their ox being gored by an investigative story.

I think they don’t want to live in an environment … a community where nobody is watching city hall and nobody is in the State House looking at what’s going on in the, in the, you know, the Governor’s office. I think they’ll …

HEFFNER: You don’t think that’s wishful thinking, do you?

JONES: I do not think that’s wishful thinking for anybody who’s a grown-up. Let me put it that way. And I don’t think it’s that way for many people … I don’t think that feeling that way means that people will take the time and trouble to inform themselves. But they want it to be there. It’s sort of, it’s sort of like believing that something is important, like public television … even though you may not spend an enormous amount of time watching it, you certainly understand that it’s very important that it exists.

I would say that this is in the category of people knowing that something needs to be there. Even though you may not want to read the article about what the City Council is doing, you certainly believe that it’s in your interests for somebody responsible to be watching what they’re doing and to have that information, you know, available.

That is something that I think most Americans, with reasonable common sense would agree upon.

HEFFNER: I think you’re letting us, too easily, much too easily, off the hook. Because it seems to me and I can’t argue this question with you … you’re a newsman, you come from a news family, you are part, still, of a news family.

Most Americans, I think, if there were much of a damn, the same damn that you’re talking about … that they gave; we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’re in now.

JONES: Well, I don’t know. I mean … I get … I mean there have been polls that ask people “Would you care if your local newspaper went out of business?” And a lot of people said, “No, I don’t care. I wouldn’t care a bit.”

Well, I live in Boston and recently The Boston Globe looked like it might actually go out of business and I think that it was very, very telling that the City of Boston, from the Mayor’s office right down to the level of the street … you know, people were very concerned about it. Was everyone? No.

I mean, of course, there are some people who don’t know the name of the Vice President of the United States. I’m not talking about them. But I think that for an awful lot of people, whether they are active readers of, of these kinds of news, they recognize the importance of it.

But, you know, look, even if there weren’t, even if it is something that only a minority of Americans care about, I believe it is too important to abandon. I think it is too important, no matter how popular it is, or how unpopular it is to allow something like this that is so critical to our, to our protection as a, as a democratic society. To allow that to go away, I think would be a tragedy.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that a good enough thing to say …

JONES: As far as I’m concerned.

HEFFNER: … a strong enough thing to say.

JONES: I mean … but I guess maybe I have more confidence in the, in the right thinking of people even if I don’t … I don’t expect people to do what they say or to follow what they think.

I don’t think that there are many people … I mean you can look at the polls of the, of the people who criticize the press strongly, but who nevertheless say they are glad that there is this watchdog function being performed. Even though they may not like their local newspaper, or they may not like the New York Times or whoever, they value the function.

And I think they recognize that it is very important in a nation like ours, where there are very powerful individuals and very powerful institutions that someone has to take the responsibility for holding those institutions accountable. The press is far from perfect, but it’s critical to that job.

HEFFNER: You say in your book … (cough) … excuse me … that certainly we’ll have the Washington Post and The New York Times with us …

JONES: We hope.

HEFFNER: … now you add “we hope”.

JONES: Well, I mean I, I think that it is … let me put it this way. I think that The New York Times and the Washington Post will be the last to go down. If those, if those two newspapers go down, then all the others have already gone down before them. In my opinion, that would be truly a, a national catastrophe.

HEFFNER: Okay, now, aside from what you or I want …

JONES: But I don’t think they are going to go down.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

JONES: No.

HEFFNER: What’s going to stop them?

JONES: They’re … first of all, I think that … let’s look at … because they’re two different news organizations and they have different economic situations and they’re approaching the future somewhat differently.

The New York Times, which is where I was, so I admit prejudice in that regard, is, I think, indispensable to this country, to the world. I think that the strategy, the economic strategy of The New York Times is to be preeminent. Which means that the New York Times has been very, very loathe to cut its reportorial muscle, to … even though it’s been going through terrible economic times … you have not been reading about sweeping layoffs at The New York Times. They’ve had some, but relative to many other news organizations, rather modest.

Their ambition and their belief in their future is that what they do is so important that a market will be found and that when the economy turns … which I think it will … of course it will, eventually, some of the advertising they have lost will come back and their, their market will be there.

Now, we have not solved … we, as a nation, nor as, as an industry, as far as newspapers are concerned … solved the sort of digital challenge, commercial digital challenge.

But I sincerely believe that institutions like The New York Times are so vital that they will not be allowed to fail; that they are … that they will find a way. And that they will find a way both as print products … which I think a lot of people have sort of given up on too quickly and digitally.

The New York Times has the largest audience for its website of any newspaper in the country. And I think that’s going to be something that, you know, in a couple of years, will stand them in good stead.

If you bought New York Times stock today, you might make a lot of money in a few years. Now, you know, I hope that’s true.

The Washington Post has taken a somewhat different tack. The New York Times is a national newspaper. The Washington Post is, essentially, a local newspaper … in Washington and they have become more of a local, sort of entity.

Both of them are betting heavily and, and have developed enormously sophisticated websites. But these websites are consistent with their journalistic mission as newspapers.

They’re not websites that have a sort of a web presence that is utterly unlike what their presence is as sober news organizations with standards, with accountability.

I think that those … that’s the right strategy in my opinion.

The wrong strategy for a newspaper, in my opinion, is to try to be all things to all people. And I think that newspapers that are trying to at the same time they’re delivering the kind of news that people have traditionally taken newspapers for … at the same time they’re doing that … to try to also appeal to a generation that really is not interested in newspapers, either on paper or online. I think that’s a mistake.

I think that we should find a way to get at those people in terms of news. But it’s going to have to be something that is consistent with the culture of the web. I think for a newspaper to try to be a, you know, a sort of a web presence with the web sensibility that is going to appeal to an 18 year old.

It’s going to be a bit like, you know, Frank Sinatra trying to sing an Elvis Presley song. I don’t think it works. It’s not authentic. I think newspapers have to be what they are. And I think that they will find their way. I hope they will, certainly.

But my book, obviously, is based on the, the reality … I consider myself to be a realist. I’m not assuming anything. I think there’s a real challenge here and a real crisis. But I think it’s something that Americans need to be mindful of and my hope is that this book is going to spur the kind of conversation like you and I are having.

HEFFNER: Yes, but then, think about the business of the years going by. Those web involved youngsters, those digitally involved youngsters are going to be the people you would say now would be appealed to by The New York Times and the Washington Post.

JONES: Well, I think that they will. I look at it this way. I listen to NPR. I watch television. I watch cable television and I watch broadcast television. I watch movies and sitcoms and I watch PBS. I watch, you know … I have an array of tastes and I think most people fit that camp. And I go to the media for different things and different media for different things. And I have a taste that appeals rather broadly.

I think that if we take the sort of … the idea that the globalization the web makes possible has changed us into entirely globalized creatures … it is incorrect.

I think we are global in that sense that there are no boundaries, but we are also living locally. All of us … after a certain period of, of transience as young people … when we settle down, when we become identified with a place, that’s when a newspaper … and I mean newspaper in print and online is something that becomes important to us. And I think that what’s going to happen in the future is that you will go to a sort of web version of something … you’ll go to Jon Stewart, you’ll go to some, you know, maybe to a web world of video games that have political … you know … political knowledge embedded in them.

But if you want to know about what’s happening at the city council or what’s happening in terms of the swine flu because you’re concerned about your children, you’re going to go to someplace where you think there is a, a culture of verification, a culture that holds, you know, facts to be important and something that you can, I would hope, trust.

HEFFNER: So how do you make this attitude correspond with the more negative one about that iron ball?

JONES: I think that the thing that is going to be there to appeal to that group of people is that iron ball … and if it is not …

HEFFNER: Really?

JONES: Well, I mean I’m, I’m hoping it is. That’s certainly something I don’t … I mean, I think … let me put it this way … if newspapers cease to have that function. If that iron core goes away and newspapers simply adapt to the future by creating an economic model that has no values, that is not focused on serious news at least in a significant way, then saving newspapers is immaterial because they will not be contributing the thing … the public service mission that they have contributed, you know, historically throughout the 20th century.

And I think that that really is in jeopardy because newspapers are now frantically trying to find ways to save themselves. And that public service mission is something that is got to be carefully nurtured and I think that people who love newspapers need to remind the people who run those newspapers that this is what makes newspapers worth saving. It’s not the, you know, the t-ball scores or Paris Hilton. It’s this kind of news that makes newspapers something to worry about and made me feel like I wanted to write a book about it.

HEFFNER: Just in terms of dollars and sense … not the sense we want to still talk about … but the pennies and the dollars. Can we come out of this spin that we’re in?

JONES: Well, you know, it’s interesting. The real challenge for the mainstream media and I’m talking mostly about newspapers here, is the digital future. Which is inevitable, which is wonderful and which has got so many delights and glories that it would be ridiculous not to embrace them wholeheartedly. Which I hope that newspapers will.

But that is a challenge the newspaper industry has been slow to, to understand and to adapt to. They’ve really not done very well with that. Oddly enough, this terrible economic downturn has put newspapers in such stressful situation economically, that they have been forced to basically re-construct themselves as industrial products pared down to something that is a lot more realistic.

Newspaper industry is never going to be what it was in the sort of the 1980’s when it was very, very profitable and everybody was fat, dumb and happy.

Those days are gone. I don’t think anybody is deluding themselves about that. But it’s still a good business, even in this economic climate most newspapers are making a profit. I think that the idea that newspapers are closing all over America … you know there have been newspapers that have closed, but they have been the second newspaper in the town.

In Seattle and other places, it’s been the second newspaper, the smaller newspaper, the weaker newspaper that has gone down. If we find newspapers that are, that are essentially the only newspaper in its town of any size going out of business … that will be a different situation.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think we will.

JONES: Well, I don’t know. I hope we won’t. But I think that that’s going to be … that was the wake-up call that came in Boston, that freaked Boston right out of its wig and awakened the, the power structure … because you know it’s not just a matter of the, of the news … although that’s of course, the, the, the center of it. It’s the institutional power that newspapers have in communities. I’m a newspaper guy, maybe I’m prejudiced in this regard, but it’s hard for me to believe that there are going to be institutions that will emerge from the web that are going to have that kind of power.

And I mean the power of having an economic base that will make it possible for the journalists at a newspaper to take on the establishment, to take, to fight, you know, for records that have been hidden behind closed doors, to deal with lawsuits … and also will have the muzzle velocity to make the power structure of a community pay attention.

I’ll give you an example. In Boston, one of great moments for the Boston Globe was its revelations about the Catholic Church abuse of kids.

Well, much of that information had already been published by the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newspaper. A good newspaper, but an alternative newspaper. And the Catholic Church blew if off.

When, when the Boston Globe came out, the Sunday … I remember it well … with the story banner on the front page … Catholic Church could no longer avert its eyes. It had to deal with this. That is the muzzle velocity of a newspaper and I think that is true in virtually every town, still today. That’s something that I think anybody who cares about a community will not want to see go away.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s the end of our program today. But you promised you’d sit there and we’ll do another program. I hope … we’re taping this at the end of May … I hope that what you say about the Boston Globe and the optimism that you express you’ll still express when this program is on the air.

JONES: Well, there’s such a thing as hope.

HEFFNER: Good. Thanks so much for joining me today, Alex Jones.

JONES: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at theopenmind.tv.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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