A Weighty Subject

Alex Jones and the iron core of news

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sat down with CJR recently discuss the state of journalism before speaking to students and faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School about his new book, “Losing the News; The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy” (Read a full-length review here.)

Though the book is about the state of journalism, his main audience was not intended to be journalists, Jones said.

“It’s mainly written for people who are concerned about news but don’t understand journalism very well and don’t understand what has happened to journalism and don’t understand what’s important about what’s happening,” Jones said.

So Jones first had to find a concept to explain what he means by “the news.” This, outlined in the first chapter of his book, is what he came up with:

Imagine a sphere of pitted iron, grey and imperfect like a large cannonball. Think of this dense, heavy ball as the total mass of each day’s serious reported news, the iron core of information that is at the center of a functioning democracy. This iron core is big and unwieldy, reflecting each day’s combined output of all the professional journalism done by news organizations—newspapers, radio and television news, news services such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and a few magazines. Some of its contents is now created by new media, nonprofits and even, occasionally, the supermarket tabloids, but the overwhelming majority still comes from the traditional news media.

Jones distinguishes the iron core from the haze of editorial, opinion, and analysis by which it is surrounded.

“I was looking for a helpful visualization,” he said. “I was looking for an image that would be as imperfect as I know [the iron core] is, and as ugly, and as pitted—it’s like an old cannonball that you see on the lawn of somebody’s courthouse. It’s not a thing of beauty, but it’s got weight. The image I was trying to give was that it may not be beautiful and it’s certainly not perfect but its weight is important to recognize. And it’s eroding, and it’s getting lighter and it’s being sort of rusted out from within. I also like that idea because it gave that sense of a core, not just a cannonball but a core, that is surrounded by an atmosphere of conversation—which we need to have. But without that core, all you’ve got is hot air.”

As he asserted in a talk with media critic Clay Shirky at the Shorenstein Center last week, Jones believes that newspapers are worth fighting for (if they cannot adapt, Shirky says, let them die). Newspapers produce the bulk of that iron core of news, Jones said, and therefore, newspapers must survive.

Newspapers also carry an “institutional power” that start-ups do not, Jones argues. In an institutional power vacuum, Jones is skeptical that nonprofit journalism and small news start-ups will have the ballast to stand up to legal threats that newspapers do.

The Nieman Journalism Lab, another journalistic institution housed at Harvard University, recently conducted an informal poll of online news publications, including some non-profit startups, that showed that only three of thirteen had invested in the libel insurance that major metro newspapers and even individual bloggers use to protect themselves against lawsuits.

“I don’t think anybody has seen what a non-profit will do when somebody threatens them with a lawsuit,” Jones said. “Nobody has seen what happens when a powerful figure who is being pursued by a nonprofit journalistic institution decides to make it very expensive for the foundation to support it because they’re going to put them in court with lots of legal bills.”

Jones’s talk was a continuation of his argument for the importance of newspapers and for the iron core in all of its lumbering, plodding, imperfect glory, and he ended with practical advice for both newspapers and readers:

“If I were an editor right now, I would report the hell out of environmental news,” Jones said. “If you want to demonstrate to a community that you care about their welfare, report on air and water. Because people care about what affects them. The idea that they need a newspaper to tell them this is important for them to realize and important for newspapers to demonstrate.

And to readers concerned about preserving the future and quality of newspapers, Jones had a call to action:

“If you don’t pay for a subscription to a newspaper, your local newspaper, go out and pay for one. Buy a subscription to a newspaper. And then write a letter to the editor and say to the editor, ‘Look, I’m one of your customers. I’m willing to support you. I’m willing to giving you a shot at proving to me that it’s worth it to be your supporter and demonstrate that support by buying this subscription. But your part of this deal is you give me news. I. Want. News. I don’t want T-ball coverage, I want news. I don’t want Britney Spears, I want news. I don’t want just wire copy, I want news. I want you tell me what’s going on in my town, what’s really happening. That’s my deal with you. I’ll support you, that’s your part of the bargain.’”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.