Core Competencies

Alex Jones on why we must maintain the "iron core of news"

Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy | By Alex S. Jones | Oxford University Press | 256 pages, $24.95

Having passed my fortieth year as a professional journalist, with an emphasis on investigative reporting, perhaps I am crotchety. Perhaps you should stop reading at the close of this paragraph. Or, alternately, perhaps I am justified in my irritation at the rivers of ink and pixels devoted during the past two years to the alleged demise of daily newspapers (not to mention broadcast television news, radio news, book publishing, and a sheaf of magazines). This demise, we are relentlessly informed, will erase the watchdog role of journalists, boosting the already impressive levels of inefficiency, greed and corruption in the United States.

Okay, I accept that some news organizations are cutting back their coverage of important individuals, institutions and issues. And like many of my peers, I mourn the heartless layoffs of talented journalists by owners—many of whom should be looking in the mirror when figuring out who to blame.

Meanwhile, the depressing reports keep coming, and most of those I read are wholly unoriginal. The majority of them lack any meaningful solution beyond a variation on a single theme: News organizations must figure out to how effectively monetize Web content. (When especially crotchety, I stop reading as soon as I see the word “monetize.”)

Yet I felt a glimmer of anticipation when Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy arrived. I respect the author, Alex S. Jones, as a former media reporter at the New York Times and a big-picture thinker who is currently director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Jones is also that rare journalist who comes from a newspaper-owning family (in Greeneville, Tenn.) and who has participated directly in that ownership.

Now that I have read and reread his book, am I any less crotchety? Yes, a bit. Despite the bewildering level of repetition—if I had edited Losing the News, I would have cut it by a third—Jones offers lots of wisdom about the past, present and future. Perhaps other readers will find nothing new about the fate of news in the American republic, but I did.

Most revelatory to me is the way Jones explains which part of the news is at stake. I have mostly been thinking (and worrying) about the diminishing role of investigative and other forms of in-depth reporting. Jones argues that this sort of thinking is too narrow. What we should be fretting about, he says, is the survival of what he calls the “iron core of news”:

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 is careful to distinguish this informational medicine ball from editorials, opinion writing, and the sort of on-the-fly analysis performed by many a political blogger. “These things are derived from the core,” he writes. “They are made possible because there is a core. Their point of departure is almost always gleaned from the reporting that gives the core its weight, and they serve to spread awareness of the information that is in the core, to analyze it and interpret it and challenge it.”

What goes into the iron core is, in Jones’s pleasing term, “accountability news, the news whose purpose is to hold government and those with power accountable.” He draws a bright line between the core’s “news of verification” and the “news of assertion” that swirls around it. He also makes the case that as talented professional reporters and editors are fired, laid off, or retire in disgust, the iron core will shrink dangerously—no surprise, since Jones estimates that 85 percent of this “accountability news” comes from daily papers.

Thanks to Jones, I understand what is at stake better than I used to. Yet I still find plenty of core news every day, perhaps because I read broadly and deeply. I subscribe to dozens of magazines and newspapers, and track about 200 publications on a regular basis. I read lots of books as well, some in my role as a critic (on the average I review one book every week), others in my role as a researcher of my own books and magazine features.

Of course, I understand that not everybody wants to consume quite that much of the printed word. (I can’t help stop myself, it’s an old habit.) In addition, I understand that most folks require more than the four hours of sleep per night I rely upon—and I resent needing to sleep for even four hours!

So I’m not as panicky about how and where to find high-quality, in-depth journalism as are most of the commentators I have been reading. That said, I realize a key question cannot be ignored forever. As Jones puts it, “saving the iron core of news depends on answering one daunting question: How do we pay for it?”

In the final chapter of the book, “Saving the News,” he ruminates on that very question. Does he come up answers I have never read before? No. Do I consider the chapter brilliant by any standard? No. But it is soberly reasoned, and intellectually challenging in the best sense of the term. It is the beginning, not the conclusion, of a conversation that is likely to go on for some time, even as the iron core resists being shrunk to the size of a pingpong ball.

Sure, I could summarize that twenty-three-page chapter for you. I prefer, however, that you read it yourself. Then you will be supporting my modest proposal for keeping the pitted and professional core of news intact: spending your dollars on worthy books.

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Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books. His most recent book, Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, has just been published in a paperback edition.