Alex Jones On 'Losing The News,' And Why It Matters Newspapers are in trouble, and many Web sites, blogs and cable news shows have opinionated hosts at the helm. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones talks about his book, Losing the News, and the crisis facing impartial reporting.
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Alex Jones On 'Losing The News,' And Why It Matters

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Alex Jones On 'Losing The News,' And Why It Matters

Alex Jones On 'Losing The News,' And Why It Matters

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After reporting for small newspapers, a big metro paper, radio, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet, Alex S. Jones fears that the kind of news he believes in is in trouble.

He thinks this is a problem that affects us all. He's worried that newspapers are struggling to survive, investigative journalism is becoming a casualty of budget cuts, and opinion journalism is becoming a dominant news source, overshadowing impartial journalism.

Jones writes about this in his new book, "Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy." Jones' family has owned the local paper in Greeneville, Tennessee for four generations. He covered the press for the New York Times from 1983 to '92, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Jones is the co-author of the book "The Trust," about the family that owns the Times. He's now the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Alex Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you grew up in a newspaper family. Your family has owned a newspaper since 1916?

Mr. ALEX JONES (Harvard Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy): 1916. I'm actually in the fourth generation of a newspaper family from a little town in Tennessee, but the thing that really makes my family history a little bit fascinating is that the first two generations were both women, which was very unusual in the newspaper business in that era.

I knew my great-grandmother and grandmother very well, both of them, and they were something. They're both in the Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame, as a matter of fact.

GROSS: Now, you said that you were brought up to believe in fairness, objectivity and accuracy. How do you see that approach to journalism changing as Web sites, blogs and cable news channels take on a bigger role, and opinion journalism becomes much more popular?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think that what's happening to the news is that the news of verification, as you might call it, is being supplanted by the news of assertion, in part because of the tastes of the audience, of Americans, and also in major part because of the economic conditions that have put newspapers, especially, in a position of frantically trying to find ways to survive, and part of the way they've done that is to cut their serious reporters, their experienced reporters, their investigative reporters, the people who do this iron core of serious news, to the bone. And I think that what's being replaced - what is being replaced - replacing that is something that is much cheaper because opinion costs very little.

You don't have to go out and report. All you have to do is give your opinion, and especially if you can make it an aggressive and edgy, an angry opinion and gets into a fight with somebody, that makes good television, that makes good commentary, and a lot of people seem to want that. I think that's where we're headed right now unless we do something about it.

GROSS: Now, you point out that investigative reporting is very expensive, not only because you're paying a reporter or a team of reporters a lot of money to take a long period of time to really dig into a story, but also, as you point out, you need a big legal staff. How important is a legal staff and libel insurance for any news organization that's doing investigative reporting?

Mr. JONES: I think this goes to a part of this whole difficult situation for newspapers and traditional news media that people don't understand, and that is the importance that they do have the economic strength to be able to withstand challenges from people who are against their finding out things that they need to find out.

I think virtually any investigative report is done in opposition to somebody, usually somebody or some institution very powerful. It can take a lot of legal expense and a lot of Freedom of Information Act inquiries, a lot of reaction in the form of boycotts, and this is not just at the New York Times level.

I tell the story in the book of the Idaho Falls, Idaho newspaper, which is a small newspaper in the heart of Mormon country, just north of Salt Lake City, in which they took on the Boy Scouts, which were essentially an arm of the Mormon Church, because the Boy Scouts were shielding some Scout leaders who had been guilty of abusing, sexually abusing some of their charges.

And the newspaper, you know, it suffered terribly: boycotts, denunciations and so forth. But they stuck to their guns, and they were able to do that in part because they were an institution that made money, and I think that people, you know, when - I'm all for nonprofit journalism, but I think that when you're talking about doing journalism in opposition, having the resources is vitally important and something that I think is not well understood.

GROSS: You fear that we're losing a lot of impartial reporting, and you fear too that news channels, cable news channels, have become opinion channels, as opposed to news channels. Give us an example of what you are concerned about with cable news.

Mr. JONES: We are really now going through a very serious national conversation about health care reform. I think when we look at the way cable news has set itself up to debate even important issues like health care, it is almost always with people who may or may not have the facts at hand or have facts to back up their positions arguing with each other. And so we tend to, I believe, embrace the view that we already have and are not able to be persuaded because we don't really have very much confidence in the other side, because it's not based on a belief that they are willing to tell both sides of the story. That's where the persuasive part comes in.

GROSS: The New York Times recently reported that the heads of GE, the parent company of NBC and MSNBC, and News Corp, which owns the Fox News Channel, came to an agreement that the feud between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann was damaging to both corporations and that it should stop, and it did; at least it did for a while.

And this agreement was after O'Reilly had attacked GE, and then a GE shareholders' meeting was overrun by critics of MSNBC. Do you see this as an example of corporate censorship, you know, the parent companies coming to some kind of decision about what the content should be?

Mr. JONES: Well, I guess you might think of it that way. I do think of it fairly cynically, frankly. I think, first of all, that O'Reilly and Olbermann are both in the business of attracting an audience, and they know that attacking each other is a very audience-pleasing, you know, thing for their particular audiences. And I think that the issue was not that something, you know, untoward or unethical or improper was going on but that it was hurting the two corporate brands. and so that's why they called a halt to it. But I never thought it was serious anyway.

I thought it was just shtick, and I think that that's the problem with these kinds of things. A lot of people confuse that with news. I think a lot of people watch Bill O'Reilly and watch Keith Olbermann and they look at them as journalists.

I don't think O'Reilly or Olbermann think of themselves really that way. They are showmen. They're like Rush Limbaugh. He describes himself as an entertainer. Well, that may be fine, but I think it's, you know, a bit phony because they also know that they are shaping opinion and that they are shaping opinion in many ways rather dishonestly, as far as I am concerned. But you know, I don't think that this is any more corporate, you know, censorship than it was a matter of a dollars-and-cents decision, and if their ratings go down, my guess is the decision will be rescinded.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about opinion journalism versus impartial reporting, and in opinion journalism I think there's at least two different categories. One is fact-based opinion journalism, opinions based on actual facts; and the other is kind of opinion journalism based on things that aren't true - for example, like the birther movement, the movement that really believes that Barack Obama is not an American citizen and therefore shouldn't be president of the United States, or the opinion journalism that's been talking about death panels, these nonexistent death panels in Barack Obama's health care policy. Do you make that distinction between the problems or - you know, of opinion journalism that's based on fact and opinion journalism that's based on rumor or just deceit?

Mr. JONES: I would make a different distinction. I would say that there is an advocacy and opinion journalism based on fact, but the things that you described I would call propaganda. I think they are calculated lies, and I think that's why, again, these kinds of things are so dangerous because people are inclined to want to believe them.

We are a species that sort of lends its belief system to something that reinforces what we already think, and that's why being responsible in journalism, and I think in terms of objective journalism - you know, objective journalism is at the core of fact-based opinion journalism.

At least fact-based opinion journalism is based on fact. I think that what we are really getting away from, though, is the iron core of really reported, professionally reported news that ought to be at the heart of this national conversation that we're having and is, in my opinion, the only real antidote -the facts, the truth, are the only antidote to propaganda.

GROSS: I wonder what you think the impartial reporter's job should be. Like what newspaper should be doing when things like the birther movement take shape or like the death-panel story.

I mean, for example, I think like the cable news channels have been spending a lot of time talking about that and doing, I think, some really good work in trying to, you know, disprove these rumors and point out who is behind them, what their motives are, but I'm wondering - for newspapers in the more mainstream media, sometimes the inclination is to ignore things that aren't true because they're not true, and other times, you know, you take them on because these are untruths that are spreading and are doing a lot of damage.

So what are your thoughts about how the mainstream media has been handling some of what you describe as propaganda?

Mr. JONES: Well, first of all, I would be willing to bet you that if you looked deep enough you'd find that what the cable news people are reporting was actually reported originally by some newspaper or some print organization, because cable news, they do some reporting, but they really are almost entirely derivative, in my experience - not entirely, but largely.

I think people confuse where they get their news from who got the news in the first place, and I think that unfortunately for newspapers, they do a terrible job of making the case that they are the originators of most of the news that appears on television.

I think that certainly goes for local news, and it goes in many cases for these national stories. I think that the power of fact is, as I say, is an enormous one, and it's a very fragile one in its own way because it requires resources and will and institutional power to have the, you know, the ability to get at those facts, and it takes time.

A lot of times the, you know, the big lie will be out there, and just by reporting that people are saying this, you are, in effect, reinforcing this. I noted that Mark McKinnon(ph), who's a very smart, you know, political operative and worked for George W. Bush, I heard him give a speech once about how they were doing television commercials that they never even aired.

They would do a television commercial that would assert things, then leak it to the cable news outlets, and the cable news outlets would do a story about the fact that they had published, you know, they created this ad. In effect, not even having to pay for the ad, they amplified the message all over.

That is, you know - the PR industry, the sort of opinion-molding industry, is a very big industry. They are doing well, and they are going to thrive in this environment because we are living in an environment that lends itself, because of the Web and because of the willingness of people, of - you know, institutions like CNN, to participate, it's lending itself to being, you know, the echo chamber for this kind of stuff, whether it's true or not.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Jones. He's the author of "Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Jones. He's the author of the new book "Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy," and he's also the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He reported on the media for several years for the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize while he was doing it.

As we mentioned before, you grew up with newspapers. Your family has owned a newspaper since 1916 in Greeneville, Tennessee. You're a part-owner of the paper. You reported on the media for the New York Times. Let's talk a little bit about the state of newspapers now.

So many family-run newspapers were sold to chains. Your family's newspaper is not one of them, but you know the pressures that were on family newspapers and the reasons why they sold to chains. Can you talk about some of those pressures on family-owned papers?

Mr. JONES: I think that when I was, you know, when I began to witness these - this wholesale disappearance of the world that I grew up in with family-owned newspapers - and there were many of them in those days, I mean the '50s in Tennessee - and I began to go to these newspaper conventions with my father and the corridors were haunted by people who were, you know, romancing widows and people who were considering selling their newspapers, and I think that they were doing it in large measure because they were afraid of what was going to be involved in the technology revolution of that time, which was changing from a hot-metal system to computers and having to invest in new presses and so forth.

I think that what has happened is that, you know, the world that I knew is gone. It is largely gone, at least, and I think that this, as you say, the world of newspapers is now a chain ownership world.

Nonetheless, those chain owners were, in most respects, willing to abide by the covenant that was really made back in the 19th century when newspapers became a real business, which was that newspapers would be successful economic enterprises and make profits, but they would in turn take on a public service role, which was mainly in the form of doing the kind of serious news that's expensive and that a lot of the people who bought the newspaper didn't even really care that much about. They bought it for the sports or for the crossword or for the comics, but they got the news nonetheless.

What's happening now is that a lot of newspapers were fat and happy in the 1980s and '90s. Those days are over for good. We live in a digital age. The good thing is, and my sort of - my most optimistic sort of vision of what I hope will happen - is that because of this serious economic downturn, the newspaper industry as an industry has had to really get down to the nitty-gritty of as lean an operation as it can.

Now, this has meant that a lot of very good journalists have lost their jobs, but also it has meant that a lot of the sort of baggage and superfluous fat that was there because of the fat-and-happy days, that's gone. That's gone as well.

GROSS: What's the fat that you're talking about? - because in your book you say there were excesses in the '80s and '90s in spending at newspapers.

Mr. JONES: I'll give you an example. I think a lot of people, a lot of your listeners, have probably been following the fate of the Boston Globe, where - which is my hometown paper. And the Boston Globe is owned by the New York Times and has gone through this series of very unhappy, you know, contract give-backs and so forth, but among the things that it's had on its books was a lifetime job guarantee for a whole cadre of advertising salespeople who did not have any advertising to sell.

I mean, they first of all were selling advertising in a very different world, and secondly, because of what's happened to the economy, they really didn't have anything to do, but they were contributing, you know, hugely to this colossal overhead.

Now, I don't begrudge anyone their job, but all I'm saying is in a digital world, as newspapers are trying to survive, you can't afford things like that. You've got to be lean and mean, and I think that what has happened is that the newspaper industry, over the last year, has gotten very lean and mean, and it's gotten too lean in the news category especially. but many newspapers in this country, probably most newspapers in this country, are making a modest profit now, a modest operating profit. The ones that are in bankruptcy, like the one in Philadelphia, is mostly because of the debt that they have.

If the economy improves, and if some resources come flowing back along with some advertising, they are going to be in a position to rebuild, rebuild both in terms of their journalistic muscle and in all their digital side, and I think that is going to be essential if they are going to survive.

GROSS: Well, a lot of local papers now are really relying on the AP and Reuters for international stories and for a lot of national stories as well. Does that break your heart when you see that - with no offense to AP and Reuters - but does it break your heart when you see so much syndicated, so many articles in newspapers, as opposed to journalists from those papers actually going out and doing the reporting?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. I mean there was a whole world of, you know, mid-level newspapers that did very serious reporting. One of the most celebrated examples was the Copley news service, which served mostly the San Diego newspaper that was their flagship.

In 2006, two reporters from the Washington bureau of the Copley news service did a terrific investigation of Randy Duke Cunningham, a Republican representing San Diego, very powerful member of the Appropriations Committee and a thorough crook, a guy who had taken millions of dollars in bribes, had forced the Pentagon to buy things it didn't need and didn't want, and was, you know, was a scoundrel, absolutely. They did this investigation. He is now in jail. They won a Pulitzer Prize.

In the years, three years, since that happened, that Copley news services has closed its Washington bureau. The San Diego paper, which was the flagship of this family-owned enterprise, has been sold. Those reporters who won the Pulitzer are gone, and I don't think anybody, in the same level certainly, is watching the delegation from that very important part of California in Washington, and I think that is exactly why you don't want to have to depend on these huge news services who can't be all things to all people.

GROSS: Alex S. Jones will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Losing the News." Jones is the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Alex S. Jones, author of the new book, "Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy." Jones is the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He covered the press for The New York Times from 1983 to '92 and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. His family has owned the local paper in Greeneville, Tennessee for four generations.

Ever since newspapers started to have presences on the Internet, the question has been, should they pay for access to their site or not? And this is a debate that's still going on. The Financial Times charges for the Web and they're considering adding micropayments, so if you don't want to subscribe you can just make small payments for individual articles. News Corp., which owns Fox News among other things, and the Wall Street Journal is going to start charging for news Web sites, though, I believe the Journal already charges, doesn't it, for at least some of its articles?

Mr. JONES: It does. But it's a kind of a - it's a leaky wall as they say.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: You can get part of it free but not all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So where do you see the direction heading now in terms of paying or not paying for access to newspapers' Web sites or charging those micropayments for individual articles?

Mr. JONES: I think that a lot of people believe that that's the way to go. But I think that, you know, the genie is out of the bottle on this. I think that the culture of the Web is to be free. And I think people, with so much information out there, are going to be very loath to pay for it if they don't have to. And I think that it'll be very interesting to see whether Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. start charging for, say, the New York Post. I know a lot of people in New York who would buy the New York Post every day just to read page six. But will they pay...

GROSS: That's the gossip page. Yeah.

Mr. JONES: That the gossip page. But will they pay to watch - to read that online? My guess is they won't because they've got so many other options.

GROSS: A lot of local papers have been emphasizing local news, thinking that, you know, The New York Times isn't going to cover that. If you subscribe to The Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post you're not going to get that local news. So the emphasis has been on hyperlocal, real attention to local news, local, high school sports teams, things like that. How is that experiment in emphasizing hyperlocal news going?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think it doesn't work very well in some respects. I mean I think that, you know, people, we all like to see ourselves in the newspaper and I think that if your child is, you know, playing T-Ball you like, you know, you love the idea that the newspaper is going to be covering that that way. But I think, you know, I don't buy it, frankly. I think that people want serious news. I think that they expect the newspaper, if they're going to subscribe to it, if they're going to be willing to be able to give it their time and attention, they're going to have to give them something really worthwhile, I believe. And I think that that is not necessarily, you know, just a matter of printing school, you know, lunch menus. That's valuable. I think they ought to offer those things.

On the other hand, I think it's very important that you cover local political news and the school boards and things like that. Those things are very, you know, time-consuming and important and that's not what hyperlocal coverage in many respects is being used for. It's being used for, as you say, sports and stuff like that that are entertaining, but the stuff that is the, you know, the element that feeds our democracy and participation in civic affairs, that's getting short shrift.

GROSS: You use a term in relation to newspapers that I haven't heard used in that context before, and the word is harvesting. What is harvesting?

Mr. JONES: Harvesting is the most cynical form of capitalizing on the decline of a business that is, you know, headed for the boneyard. The idea of harvesting newspapers is that there are still people out there who are loyal to it, who, as a matter of habit or loyalty or belief, continue to buy it and therefore advertisers continue to put ads in it. Harvesting means that you buy a newspaper and then you strip it absolutely of every expense. You make it something that is as cheaply produced as you possibly can, therefore, even on a lower revenue stream, becoming very profitable for a while until effectively it loses everybody and dies. And you have made a lot of money in a very short time, and the cadaver is all that's left.

GROSS: So as you point out in your book, some newspapers are trying to make money by offering products besides the newspaper. Your family newspaper is doing that as well. There's coupons that your family's paper is marketing now.

Mr. JONES: We are, along the interstate highways in the south.

GROSS: To do what?

Mr. JONES: Well, people are traveling. They're looking for discounted, you know, accommodations and we created a, you know, a book that is distributed free at, you know, at various places, like welcome sites, that people can use to get discounts from, you know, for their accommodations at motels and hotels. This is something that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with journalism but the money that we are making from it - and we're making a little, I'm glad to say - is turned back into supporting our overall enterprise, which is fundamentally a journalistic one.

GROSS: I'm trying to figure out whether this is a, you know, a sign of victory, you've figured out a way to add more income, or an acknowledgement of defeat, that there's no way your newspaper is going to make money and you have to sell another product in order to keep the paper afloat?

Mr. JONES: Well it's probably some of both, Terry. I think the thing is that we need money. There's no question about it and if it means selling an ad on the front page then as far as I'm concerned, you know, that's the lesser of evils.

I think that the danger, and I think it's a legitimate one that you've identified, is that if those things start to be the moneymakers, then are you going to be in the coupon business with newspaper coverage as a sort of an adjunct? I think the tail can start to wag the dog. But right now, you know, we are very grateful for the revenue that comes from that coupon book that we can use to keep people on payroll.

GROSS: As investigative journalists lose their jobs at newspapers, there are more independent investigative journalist groups growing up. I'm thinking of ProPublica or ProPublica.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm not sure which way they say it - the Center for Public Integrity, there's other examples of that, some of them are nonprofit, and they sometimes collaborate with reporters on newspapers or they sell their pieces to newspapers. But these are independent groups of investigative journalists, and I wonder what you think of that model.

Mr. JONES: I am grateful for it. And another one that's really good is GlobalPost, which is a for-profit online effort to do international reporting, which is also been one of the things that has been very badly hit. I'm all for these things and I think that they will augment, but I don't think they will supplant.

I think that oddly enough it's very important to things like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity and GlobalPost, that they have partners that are mainstream news organizations because that is one of the things that's really in play here. If we lose these institutions, we also lose the, you know, the power and velocity of the things that the journalists find out. I think that the Center for Public Integrity, for instance, makes its information available to all news organizations, but it's when those stories appear, based on what the Center for Public Integrity has unearthed, in The New York Times and the Washington Post and other places, that their work has its greatest power. The institutions need to survive for that power to continue, because just by publishing it on their Web site doesn't do the trick.

GROSS: So many family newspapers have sold to corporations. There aren't that many family newspapers left. Your family newspaper is one of them. It's a small paper in Greeneville, Tennessee. It's a daily or a weekly?

Mr. JONES: It's a daily.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. How come your family never sold? Did you get offers?

Mr. JONES: Oh it's a...

GROSS: Did you get really...

Mr. JONES: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We...

GROSS: ...really tempting offers?

Mr. JONES: We certainly did. In fact, there was a guy who was a notorious broker who, when I was working for The New York Times, I used to ask him how he was - I honestly, I couldn't understand. Why would you give up a way of life, which is the way I thought of it, a way of life that paid a, you know, decent living, and not rich. We were like everybody else in our town, I thought. And then - but why would you trade that for just money? I didn't understand it. And he told me. He tapped his forehead and said if I can get him on the yacht up here then the deal is done. Well, for reasons that I can't fully explain, we've never gotten on the yacht.

That guy actually sent a representative one time when my father was out of town to try to entice my brother into sort of a family revolt to sell, and my brother bodily threw him out of the building.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was he trying to do to create the family revolt?

Mr. JONES: Well, he was telling him how much money he could make. I mean those were the days when newspapers were thought to be worth a lot of money. But, you know...

GROSS: But so the idea was he would turn against you and try to convince you and...

Mr. JONES: Exactly, because...

GROSS: ...the other family members to sell. He'd be their advocate within the family.

Mr. JONES: Exactly. And that's one of the things that makes The New York Times so remarkable. My wife, Susan Tifft, and I wrote a book called "The Trust" about the Sulzberger family that's owned The New York Times since the - 1896. You know, The Times has been going through a terrible, terrible situation financially, and they've watched their stock plummet. But that family has stuck together. They have, there has not been a single, you know, at least public expression of a desire that the Times be sold to Rupert Murdoch or some other enterprise. I think that we're, oddly enough, a very peculiar breed, we - sort of family newspaper people that are the last dinosaurs in the swamp, we're pretty stubborn about it. And I hope that that's not going to happen on my watch.

GROSS: Well Alex Jones, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JONES: This has been my great pleasure. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Alex S. Jones is the author of "Losing the News" and is the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles Richard Thompson and plays some music from the new, four-CD Thompson retrospective.

This is FRESH AIR.

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