Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy

September 16, 2009

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome you all to our first program of this season.

To launch this program year, we are delighted to be hosting Alex Jones. Mr. Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is now the director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He also is the Laurence M. Lombard Lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government.

In his book, Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, Mr. Jones addresses how the changing dynamics in technology, especially the internet, are affecting print journalism, news gathering, and influencing news coverage in general. As a member of a very distinguished newspaper-owning family in Tennessee, our speaker deftly displays his insight and talent for asking the right questions for an industry in peril.

Obituaries for the news business are being written in newsrooms around the world. As advertising revenues that long subsidized the cost of news gathering shrink, newspapers are shutting staff and cutting back on reporting, while web-based news operations that can operate at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, such as The Huffington Post or The Daily Beast, are developing at breakneck speed.

Mr. Jones is concerned for the future of the printed word. Accordingly, he calls for a serious examination of what a nation loses when its newspapers are diminished and eventually fold.

Although Professor Jones acknowledges that the world of the future will be one of digital technology centered on the web, he also believes that saving the news as he has known it, with its high ethical standards of fact-based reporting, is still crucial, as it provides citizens with what they need to make informed decisions.

Using instructive vignettes, he explains how newspapers have served as watchdogs over government and have held the powerful accountable. He bemoans the loss of what he calls "core" or "accountability" news to coverage that is geared more towards instant commentary, advocacy, public relations spin, and subjective news. He believes this turn of events hurts everyone in our democratic society.

In the end, Mr. Jones challenges each of us to assess the importance of the news, its purpose, content, and value, as well as its delivery and business mechanisms. If we do so, he believes that, as consumers of media information, we may just realize the importance of our responsibility as citizens and ensure that the printed word survives.

At this time I ask that you join me in welcoming a very wise and insightful guide who I believe will aptly explain the notion that how we communicate alters what we communicate, and in the end why newspapers matter, our guest today, Alex Jones.

Remarks

ALEX JONES: Thank you, Joanne.

It's a great pleasure to be here with you today. It is my special pleasure because the audience is studded with dear friends and cherished colleagues and people who have come to support the flag, as it were. I appreciate your being here.

As Joanne said, I'm from a newspaper family. I'm from a newspaper family in Tennessee, in the fourth generation. It was actually my grandmother that brought our family into the newspaper business in 1916. She had been a schoolteacher, and in those days you could be a schoolteacher until you got married in a little town like we lived in in Tennessee, but once you got married you had to stop even doing that because you might get pregnant and that would be something that could not be explained to your students.

So she had two children and she was married to my grandfather, a lawyer. But my grandfather had a weakness for alcohol and became an alcoholic and unable to take care of his family. One night, so my grandmother told me, in his cups he signed a note to take ownership, at considerable debt, of the smallest of three weekly newspapers that were in the town at that time. To give you an idea of what the prospects of this newspaper were, this was a heavily Republican area and the newspaper was The Greenville Democrat.

She was beside herself. But she really had no choice but to go down and, as she told me, one day in October of 1916, she said, "I put on my hat and went down and took over The Greenville Democrat."

Now, the largest newspaper in the town at that time was run by a man who was a genuinely deep-seated misogynist. The idea of women in newspapers, in those days especially, was something that was very, very suspect certainly.

But my grandmother, 50 years later, could quote an item that appeared in that man's newspaper the week that she took over, The Greenville Sun. It said: "A woman has become proprietor of The Greenville Democrat"—this was in October—"This newspaper will not be alive when the roses bloom."

My grandmother would then say, "Four years later I owned both the other newspapers." [Laughter] But that really wasn't the point she was trying to get at, although she was very proud of that.

But then she would fix me with this look that she had and say, "And do you know why I owned both the other newspapers?" I'd heard the story, of course, many, many times in my childhood, but it was always my part to say, "No, why?" And she would say, "Because they were drunk and I was sober."

She combined the three into a daily. She made her mother, my great-grandmother, the editor. They went to work. It has been in my family ever since and is today, I'm glad to say. My father, who is 94 years old, is the publisher. I have two brothers and a brother-in-law who work at the newspaper. It's a small-town daily in Greenville, Tennessee, circulation about 15,000. We're having very much the same hard time that newspapers all over the country have.

I came to work at The New York Times in 1983. I came to find out that in many respects a newspaper like the one I had known and the great New York Times, a newspaper that I had quite adored, have an awful lot in common, as do newspapers everywhere.

I think what is happening to newspapers is not terribly mysterious to you. But I think that it's important this morning to see if I could help you think about it in maybe a slightly different way, to understand what is most important about what is happening.

I remember when I was at The New York Times I was the press reporter for a number of years. I used to go to newspaper conventions. The newspaper business was flying high in those days, but it was always rocked with anxieties and worries about direct mail or competition from cable.

At this particular convention, the obsession was USA Today, which had just come out and was featuring an idea that you would have short stories that ended on the front page without jumps, because it was thought that people would be much happier if they could only just not have to go inside the paper to pursue a story.

So there we were in this ballroom with a sea of faces, most of them looking now like I do today, middle-aged-plus, white-haired. That was the newspaper business certainly in those days.

The person they had invited to tell them what to do was the person who at that moment was the hottest ticket around in terms of the idea of marketing news—and still is—Tina Brown. Tina had just taken over Vanity Fair not that long ago. She was a real hot commodity. She came to this newspaper convention.

I'll never forget it. She said to the sea of older men: "You know, it's not a matter of short stories or long stories or anything like that. It's a matter of having good stories and the right mix. But the main thing is that you need to edit your newspapers for women."

And of course, they went, "Oh, God." You could see this audible groan throughout the room.

She said: "No, you don't understand. Men want to know what happened. Women want to know what really happened."

I submit to you today that what we are facing in this genuine crisis, I believe, is that we're losing the ability to find out what really happened, because the structure of the news, the structure of the news business, is that 85 percent by my estimation of the serious reported accountability news, what I call in my book "the iron core of news," has been done by newspapers.

Despite the increased amount of genuine reporting, very valuable reporting, by nonprofits and others, this has been historically—and I believe continues to be in a relative sense—the purview and the job mostly of newspapers. That's why what's happening to newspapers matters to this kind of news so much.

What do I mean by "the iron core"? Well, imagine if you will a rusty, mottled cannonball, which is imperfect and flawed but is the aggregate of all of the reported serious, factual news—what we call verificationist, rather than assertion. That is, the aggregate of all of that in any given day.

Now this is the news, of course, of City Hall. But it's also the news of Iraq, it's the news of the State House as well as the White House. It's news about labor, it's news about politics, it's news about policy. It is serious news, but it is news on serious subjects as well as serious news.

What we have in that iron aggregate is something that I call "the iron core," which is the center around which we have a national conversation—a national conversation that takes place on editorial pages, on cable television, around water coolers, and over dinner tables.

But what we have had is this aggregate of an iron core of reported news. That is now eroding, and it's eroding quickly. It already has, as I think you all know all too well. Newspapers all around the United States have been in a great state of distress.

But what I want to say to you today is that what is happening matters to our country because that kind of news, that accountability news, that news that holds a power accountable, is the thing that is the bulwark and bedrock of the journalistic contribution to our country. When journalists say that they feel that they serve a public good, that newspaper publishers claim to have acted in the public service, that's what they're talking about.

In the late 19th century, when newspapers became a business—it had really not been a business up until then; it was too expensive and difficult to manufacture newspapers. There was really no news the way we think of it now until the telegraph was invented, which was the mechanism for collapsing distance and time barriers. With the telegraph, then quickly came things like steam presses, and then rotary presses, which were very fast and could manufacture newspapers quickly, and newsprint that was not made out of cotton but made out of wood pulp, which made it cheap, and linotype machines, which made the composition of newspapers much, much easier and faster.

What happened in the latter part of the 19th century was that people began to discover that newspapers could genuinely be a business. And they struck, as our American model would have it, an economic capitalistic model, which said: We will make money, we will make this a profit-oriented business, and in exchange for that we are going to claim to serve the public.

The way we're going to serve the public is by spending a disproportionate amount of the money that we get from the advertising that we get from selling our products or selling products to people who may buy the newspaper for the comics or the crossword puzzles or the sports or any number of other reasons, who may not really be buying it for the news—we are going to take a disproportionate amount of that money and we're going to spend it on the thing that does cost a lot of money, which is this iron-core reporting.

There are four fundamental kinds of iron-core reporting:

  • The first one, and the cheapest one, and very much a vital one, but the least glamorous one, is simply bearing witness. It means going to the press conference, going to the Mayor's press conference and hearing what he has to say, showing up for the President's press conferences, covering the news in a bearing-witness fashion. That's very important. But that's just the start.
  • The second, which takes more skill, more time, more reporter energy, and more commitment from owners, is following up, which means that you basically don't just take what the Mayor said or his press release, but you go find out what really happened. You spend the energy and time and money and talent and skill and experience on people who have the capability of following up.
  • And then, if you move up that hierarchy one more step, you come to what I call "explanatory journalism," which is what a lot of this healthcare-reform reporting is all about: efforts to try to investigate the reality of what's in the legislation and explain it in a way that makes it accessible. It takes time, takes talent, takes people who know what they're doing. It takes an awful lot of commitment, financial and otherwise, of a newsroom's resources to do.
  • Finally, we come to the one that's most expensive, and probably the most vital one of all, and the one that people on all sides of the political spectrum recognize as essential. It is that watchdog role of investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is very expensive, because it's almost always done in opposition to something. It's done in the face of people trying to keep you from knowing something. That could take the form of hiding documents, or simply being unwilling to talk, or bringing a lawsuit, or any number of other things that make it very difficult to find the kinds of information out that serve that investigative role that I think Americans—even though they speak disparagingly of the press generally—recognize as essential to our government and to our society, because I think all of us know only too well that power needs watching, power in all its forms.

 

What's happening to this iron core is, I think, exemplified well by something that happened just a few years ago. You may remember the story of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was a very powerful Republican ranking member of the Appropriations Committee from San Diego, California, and a thorough crook, a man who had been taking bribes, a man who had been doing things that were absolutely against the public interest in taking bribes and getting the appropriations mechanism completely fixed in favor of certain people, and that kind of thing.

Well, two reporters in the Washington bureau of the San Diego newspapers' news service began to do some looking into Randy Duke Cunningham—something that prompted him to denounce them, deny everything, and so forth. But they kept digging. And it cost them money and it cost them time and it cost them lawsuits and Freedom of Information filings and so forth. But they finally published the news about what he had been doing, and he is now in jail. He's out of office, he's disgraced, and he's in jail.

They won, by the way, Pulitzer Prizes and were recognized by my world as having done something quite, quite important and extraordinary.

Well, what's happened in just the last couple of years? That bureau no longer exists, it's gone.

Those reporters are gone. The San Diego newspaper has changed hands and is now in the hands of people who probably would be extremely unlikely to pursue that kind of a story.

That is what is happening to the iron core of news, and that's why I wrote a book that tries to raise the alarm—I consider it not a lament, but a call to arms—about this, because this is something that affects all Americans and is important to all Americans.

But it's not just the quantity of news that's in play here as this is happening. What's happening is that the values that have been embedded in this contract with the public that newspapers made back in the 19th century is coming unglued, and along with it many of the values that were the ones that Warren Hoge and I at The New York Times, and others of you who are involved in journalism, have known as the traditional values of American journalism, which is a model for the rest of the world.

For instance, the idea of journalistic objectivity. Now objectivity has taken a real beating. The whole concept of it is something that is a straw man, I think, for many people. Believe me, there are many legitimate things to be concerned about in regard to journalist objectivity. But I think for my purposes it is important to understand what you're talking about and not slam what I consider to be a phony objectivity that is easy to crap.

I mean objectivity is not "he said, she said" journalism. It is not simply finding somebody to express the opposite side of an opinion. That is not objectivity. But nor is it a "perfect truth." I think the idea that journalists are supposed to be perfect objective creatures finding a perfect truth is not what objectivity was intended for at all.

It is a practical truth. But it is not a truth based on journalists having no opinions. It's assumed that journalists have opinions. That's where the idea of objectivity came from, because it was the mechanism for reining in that assumed opinion. Just like a scientist would begin an experiment with an idea of what the outcome is going to be, a journalist often enters a story with an idea about what the story is. But the point of objectivity is that that doesn't matter. It has to be tested against the evidence that you can find, and then you have to tell the story straight.

One of the examples that is a real beacon to me, and I think really gets at what objectivity is as I understand it and value it, is a story that came because a reporter at The Bergen Record—a woman who was a reporter at The Bergen Record did that thing which journalists sometimes do: she took some initiative and did some reporting.

This was back in the time of the Clinton Administration, when the issue of late-term abortion, called partial-birth abortion, was in political play. It was an opportunity, because of the brutality of this form of abortion, in which the fetus is extracted and the head is crushed—it's a terrible thing to hear about and read about. For that reason, people who were opponents of abortion saw this as an opportunity to finally get some leverage on this issue of abortion.

So the people who were anti-abortion advocates had a whole set of statistics that they began flooding the news media with. The people who were on the pro-abortion-rights side of the argument did exactly the same thing, except their statistics tended to be completely different.

I won't go into the whole details of one thing and another, but the point is that the mainstream media, including The New York Times, believed the abortion rights side and basically discounted what the people on the other side of the issue said. These people on the other side essentially said that there were a lot more of these abortions than the abortion-rights people said there were, they were done more routinely, and they were done earlier in pregnancy than the abortion-rights people had claimed.

Well, this woman at The Bergen Record began talking to abortion doctors just in New Jersey. What she found was that, just in New Jersey alone, the numbers of these kinds of abortions and when they were performed and so forth completely countered what she had been told by the abortion-rights people. Now, this is a woman whose political perspective is for abortion rights, but her journalistic perspective was that her obligation was to tell it like it was, which she did. She reaped a whirlwind in many respects. But what she did was tell the truth.

This caught the attention of David Brown, a medical doctor at The Washington Post, and, to his credit, he then went out and did the same thing. He went out and found out what the story was. He also personally is very much for abortion rights.

They did this knowing full well that this information that they were gathering and that what they were reporting was going to be used by people who were not in agreement with them politically. But that wasn't the point.

That is the point, though, of objectivity as far as I'm concerned. And I can tell you that in the world we live in now, objectivity is viewed as old-fashioned. It's viewed as much more fashionable to write with an opinion embedded.

I think that opinion journalism is fine. I like it. I like reading it. I'm glad it's there. But it's not the same thing.

I think abandoning the objectivity standard does two things that are bad, in particular. One is it removes the ability to hold journalists accountable for being objective. It removes the idea that if you're trying to be objective then you can be judged on how objective you genuinely are and what your evidence is for what you say.

Number two, I am convinced that objective reporting is by far the most persuasive way to report—not to confirm something you already believe. If you want to change someone's mind about something, it is objective reporting that stands much more likely to do it than advocacy reporting.

For example, the war in Iraq began with a great popularity among the American people. That changed. I am convinced that it changed not because of people ranting about in on cable television one way or another. It changed because of newspapers, like The New York Times and other news organizations, that put reporters on the ground, and over time they painted a portrait of what was going on in Iraq that became persuasive as the closest we are going to get to the truth of what's going on over there.

When people changed their minds about Iraq, in my opinion it was because they came to trust the objectivity and the accuracy of the reporting that they were getting.

I think losing that would be a terrible thing and would divide us even more than we are now into people who choose to believe one thing or choose to believe another, and simply take those visions of reality as reality. That's not, I think, the best way for us to run our country.

Another thing that's genuinely in play is the idea of journalism ethics. I know that that's considered something of an oxymoron by some people. But I'm telling you that journalism ethics in this country are real. I think that you will find, if you open your mind to it, that no institutions of power are as transparent, or as willing to acknowledge their mistakes especially, as the nation's newspapers.

I'll give you, for example, the notorious Jayson Blair case at The New York Times. That was a horrible episode at The Times. It was a complete failure in many ways. But what I think The Times deserves credit for is that they did the most extensive mea culpa. They went back and found out what happened and they put it in the paper. You won't find doctors and lawyers doing that in the same way. I think that is at the core of the ethic that journalists operate under in this country, especially, as I say, newspaper journalists.

What we're moving into increasingly, with an online culture that is infecting the rest of news, is a culture that makes some sense but is not the same one in terms of its values. It values, for instance, speed over accuracy. It values edge over fairness and balance. And, above all, it values entertainment over importance or significance. We are demanding increasingly to be entertained at all times.

If you go to a website, even ones like The New York Times', you now see a hierarchy of most-sent articles, which tend to be the ones that attract the most attention, and are almost always—well, that are not necessarily—the most important. They are usually the most novel, the most entertaining, if you will.

I think that is a pernicious idea, because we need to be informed and we need to be nourished. We can be overfed but undernourished, just like we can with our bodies, in terms of news. I think increasingly what's happening is as newspapers frantically try to solve their business problems, they are inclined to give people what they want at all costs at the sacrifice of what they need. That includes how they spend their money on journalistic resources.

We increasingly now have a newspaper idea that the way you solve your problem is by becoming hyper-local. Now, hyper-local can mean a lot of things. Hyper-local can mean you really dig into what's going on at the school board and government and what's happening in people's lives in a way that's meaningful. Or it can mean that you spend those resources covering tee ball like it was the Red Sox—which happens now around the country. I have nothing against tee ball. I know grandchildren who play tee ball are a great source of sales of newspapers. But you know what tee ball is? Tee ball is for little kids, where you put a ball on a tee and they're allowed to hit it, so they don't have to be pitched to. It's basically for kids this size [indicating]. And it's wonderful. But it's like pre-Little League, if you will. This is something that parents of course love.

But the point is if you send a reporter out to cover tee ball, are you not sending that reporter to the state capitol to cover what's going on in the legislature, which is certainly increasingly a place that is bereft of journalistic people looking over the shoulders of those in power?—which is especially ironic, since it's at the state capitols that most of the legislation that affects our lives is taking place.

Now, I know people in New York feel that their state government is so superb that it needs no oversight. But I think you would agree with me, that anyone would agree, that power needs watching, and increasingly that is inclining to the opposite.

I think it's also important—perhaps this is my prejudice as a longstanding newspaper man—that newspapers, or certainly news organizations, what they call the "legacy press," survives for institutional reasons, in several respects.

First of all, it was these news organizations and their profits that have made possible the Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and fighting off boycotts and doing the kinds of things that happen when you do your job in a journalistic sense and make powerful people angry and incite them to try to stop you. This is something that takes money, and it is something that historically has been done almost entirely, as I say, by newspapers that were willing to spend the money to do it and withstand the ire of the advertisers and others who were angry when something unpopular was put into the newspaper.

I think newspapers also have a "muzzle velocity" to what they do that would be terribly missed. I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I remember very well the Sunday morning when the Boston Globe's front page was devoted to the story about the Catholic Church protecting priests who had been sexual predators. This was a hugely important story, as I think you all know.

It's something that grew out of Boston to go all over the world. It was something that the prestige and power of the Boston Globe made into a story that the Catholic Church could not ignore, could not ignore any longer.

But remember something that you probably don't know: the information on that front page—most of it, much of it certainly—had already been reported. It had been reported by the Boston Phoenix, which was an alternative newspaper, which was back then—this is enough years ago so that the idea of an online alternative was not even there—the equivalent of the online journalism that I think we may be looking at in the future, which will be there, will be high quality, will be valuable information, but won't have the institutional power to make power pay attention to it. That's what the Boston Globe's front page did, and that's the power of a front page and what is lost when those front pages cease to exist.

Many of you have probably been reading about the idea that newspapers are closing all over the country. They are in some cases. I mean, Ann Arbor, for instance, a city of 150,000, is a city now that does not have a daily newspaper. But there have been anomalies like that here and there over time.

What is actually not understood very well is that newspapers now still, despite these terrible times, are making an operating profit—most of them are.

I think, in an odd way, as I think about trying to save the news, because that's my actual purpose—and not newspapers necessarily, because I recognize that what's going to happen is more important than newspapers—it's saving the news that I care about. But newspapers have done this work, and I think giving up on them too early would be a terrible mistake.

I want to save newspapers—of course my own newspaper included. But I think it's important to bear in mind that the newspapers that are making money are making money because they have made cuts—not because their revenues are up, because their revenues are down dramatically. But what they have done because of the economic situation we've been in is something they have needed to do for another reason, which is the digital reason, because it's the digital world that's changing the world for newspapers.

What they have done is to be complacent. They were fat and happy for a long time. I should say we were fat and happy for a long time. We cannot afford that anymore.

What has happened because of the economic downturn is that it has forced the newspaper industry to do something it was going to have to do, which is to retool for the digital age—which means smaller, which means almost certainly less profitable, which means that you not only of course reduce your expenses in the newsroom, which I hope will come back to a certain extent, but you reduce your expenses in all kinds of other ways that newspapers have built in because of the happy, fat times.

For instance, the Boston Globe has been going through throes. I think that one of the things that is overlooked in this negotiation that they've been doing with The New York Times and The New York Times' demands for concessions from unions, is that at the Boston Globe, The Times was dealing with a company that had lifetime job guarantees for advertising salesmen who were not selling any advertising because there was no advertising to be sold, and they were simply not geared to sell advertising in a digital age, which means selling it in combination with online and other things.

The point is that there were plenty of things at newspapers around the country that could be cut.

They've cut muscle and bone at the same time. But what they have done is made themselves, even in these bad times, operationally profitable. The ones that are in bankruptcy are not in bankruptcy generally because they can't make a profit, but because they have such gigantic debt that they can't service that debt.

What's going to happen, I believe, is that the newspaper industry is going to get one last chance to save itself. Because of this economic downturn, they are operationally profitable. When the economy starts to improve, newspapers are going to start making some money again, because some of that advertising revenue that went away will come back—not all of it, but some of it.

So they are going to have some money, and money that can be spent in a number of ways. It can be spent by making the shareholders happy with dividends. It can be spent by doing things that are off the core mission of journalism as far as I'm concerned. It can be spent on peripheral things, starting news businesses or doing things online that are the equivalent of that tee ball coverage I'm talking about.

I am absolutely convinced that the thing that will save newspapers, and the only thing that will save newspapers, is serious news, is providing content that is valuable enough to people like you to make you swallow hard and go out and pay for a subscription to The New York Times, instead of simply looking at it online, but pay for a subscription at the very least, or at least giving your attention and eyeballs to a website that they can then sell advertising around. This is, in my opinion, an economic problem that is going to have to be solved by a capitalistic market solution.

I am very glad about the enterprise and willingness of nonprofit organizations to make a contribution to this kind of journalism, and their contribution is increasingly important. News organizations are being fed now by high-quality nonprofits that are focused on investigative reporting or health reporting or things like that. And a number of online new start-ups are also feeding the local news of traditional newspapers because they find, as I said at the Boston Globe, the muzzle velocity of their news is much, much enhanced if their news is picked up by the major newspaper and is given to the public still as the main mechanism for calling a community's attention to what's going on that's important that they need to look at.

I think that it is very important that that money be spent wisely and be spent on content, on quality, and that the values that are embedded in what I have been talking about today—not just the quantity, but the values there—are sold and demonstrated to people in a way that makes them believe that it's in their interest to support that newspaper.

I think there's a lot of conversation about paying for or not paying for content. I don't know how that's going to come out. Maybe there'll be some mechanism derived for deriving some revenue stream from that.

I think personally that it's more likely that high-quality content will bring a high-quality audience that will allow newspapers to be able to charge more than they have been able to for online advertising. But that remains to be seen.

I wish I could tell you this morning that I know what the solution is. I don't. But I do know this: that it's very important that the solution include the values of newspapers and traditional media in that bargain struck in the 19th century, in which we said to the public, "We will perform a public service." I think it's very important that the newspapers of this country not walk away from that commitment to public service, and that the people like you, who are the people who read these newspapers, value them, and make them the profitable enterprises they need to be should hold them accountable.

When you buy your subscription, I believe you should also write the editor and I think you should say, "Look, I am one of your customers. I have made a deal with you as far as I'm concerned: I'll pay for a subscription, but you have to deliver me the news. That's what you owe me."

I think that message has to be communicated to the nation's newspapers, because in this moment in time when they have the opportunity to save themselves by doing the right thing, they're going to be tempted not to. It's going to be people like you—and the purpose of this book is to go out and say to people like you all across the country, to the extent that I can: Tell them. Tell them what you want. Tell them what you absolutely insist on. If they want your business, this is what they've got to give you.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Alex, I have a 27-year-old son who is inquisitive. He's well educated. He reads The New York Times every day, and he has never once in his life ever bought a copy of it. The reason I raise his example is I think we, people of our generation, at The New York Times have been somewhat complicit in our own undoing, in that we allowed generations to rise up with the notion that news is free.

Do you think there's a way we can dial that back? In other words, have you seen a mechanism—Rupert Murdoch has one idea; The New York Times has some other ideas—where we can once again charge for content? I'm not as optimistic as you sound about the return of advertising in anything like the amount or the abundance that we will need to fund the kind of journalism that we both believe in. Have you seen a mechanism that you think might work to charge for content?

ALEX JONES: I think a couple of things.

One, there is a very crotchety, iconoclastic man named Walter Hussman, who owns newspapers in Little Rock and Chattanooga, Tennessee, who charges for his online news, and he does that successfully.

I can only say at the Shorenstein Center we are investigating this. Even this semester we have Bill Mitchell from the Poynter Institute looking into this very question. A lot of people are, of course, looking into this very question. I think that there may be ways to do it.

But I think that, as you know, the equation is if you start to charge, then you lose your audience, and that audience is generating advertising online revenues—not sufficient, but are you going to lose more than you gain? That's the question. I don't feel like I know the answer.

I believe that the closest likelihood to making this a success is if newspapers are allowed to act in concert and do it as a group together. I think if you put The New York Times and The Washington Post and the L.A. Times and The Wall Street Journal and so forth all in the same defended area, then for a lot of people that's going to be something worthwhile.

I have a guy who works at the Shorenstein Center who's really a terrifically thoughtful man about the web. He opened my eyes to something that I had never looked at certainly quite this way, but he certainly looks at the web this way. He said: "The web wants to be free. The web hates making money. The web hates for you to make money at a business through people's interactions with your website."

If you think about it, these gigantically successful websites, like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace, they don't make money, because if they try to do things that will make money, the people who use them rebel and basically say, "We're not going to participate and we've got alternatives that we can go to that will do the same kind of thing."

Now, is that going to apply because there are so many sources of news that probably are not going to be charged for? I don't know, but I think it's entirely possible.

I guess the thing that I'm trying to say is that I don't know whether that can happen or not. I think that there are going to be a number of streams of revenues that are going to be used to do what I think will be required. Part of it may be charging certain people for certain parts of a news report.

But fundamentally, the important thing as far as I am concerned is that that critical mass of revenue is generated by advertising, by payments, by ancillary businesses, by whatever means, to fund the news that is the public-interest news that has been promised by these news organizations because of the way they are protected by the First Amendment and the role they have in our First Amendment.

QUESTION: I want to thank you very much for your presentation. Obviously what you have to say is essential and very, very important.

However, I feel constrained to respond to something you said. You've emphasized power needs watching. I think that the papers, the press today, and the most important papers in the United States are not watching power.

When we went into Iraq, you said it was immensely popular and so forth. We had just been attacked, it was 9/11; the reaction was a natural one of great fear, which was fed into by the administration, and they used that to go into Iraq. There were so-called weapons of mass destruction. Many people, out of fear and lack of knowledge, believed it.

There was no questioning of this in the papers. There was intimidation of most of the press. There was fear of not having access to White House information, not being called on at press conferences, and so forth.

When the public finally woke up, I don't think it was because The New York Times did such a great job. I read it word-for-word every day, I want you to know. But the public began to realize that this was a fiction.

ALEX JONES: Why do you think they realized it? Because the press was there watching to see what was going on.

QUESTIONER: No. Because people like Hans Blix from the United Nations, Mohammed El Baradei from the United Nations, were raising their voices constantly.

ALEX JONES: Well, as I say, I am certainly not going to try to defend the press for making terrible errors, and I think that was probably one of the great ones.

But I think it's important to bear in mind that at that time we had a president of the United States who was telling us this and we had no one in Iraq who could do the kind of reporting that later proved to be the mechanism for saying what was going on in Iraq. There was simply no one there.

QUESTIONER: Reporters were embedded.

ALEX JONES: Okay. Believe me, I don't dispute what you're saying about the need for more and better journalism. All I'm saying is that, no matter how you think about the journalism we have, I think without these institutions it would be infinitely worse. That's my view anyway.

QUESTIONER: I agree with that.

QUESTION: Many people now are going back and saying, "Where was the coverage on the lead up to the financial crisis?" So we have two great failings, this and the coverage leading up to the War in Iraq.

We all agree that this type of reporting is critical—the question is: how are we going to save it? The internet is going to play a critical role in one way or another. The New York Times has dozens of people now who are trying to figure out how to maintain that type of reporting, marrying it to the web and to the internet, and using the website.

And it's not just newspapers—journalism is being recreated now by the web. You have blogs. I mean The New York Times has about 100 blogs, in which you can not only get Paul Krugman expanding on his column, Andrew Revkin on the environment, and so on.

This is a way of trying to get beyond what you can put in a column in a newspaper and maybe dig deeper on these types of issues.

Because of institutional pressures—President Bush was so popular, Wall Street was so powerful—the press really fell down in a lot of these cases. There are a lot of internet sites cropping up that are looking into these things. It's true they don't have the reach that newspapers have, but newspapers are realizing the add-on that that can provide, and I think are trying to respond to it.

ALEX JONES: I completely agree with everything you've said. I think that they are benefiting from what's being done on the web.

I think that the point I'm trying to make is that journalism is a job as well as a calling, and we are now in a situation in which some people are simply unable to make a living doing the kind of journalism that I think is really important. An infrastructure of journalism that is based on reporting, as opposed to commentary, I think is very important. It's very important to the commentary.

I think that there are some bloggers who report, but most bloggers are people who do analysis of one kind of another. It's not that they don't bring things to that analysis—they do. What I am concerned about, though, is that that core of reporting, of professional reporting, is something that is in great jeopardy, and I think that is something that would do great damage to the very—I mean I think this is a symbiotic relationship.

Just as those bloggers feed and inform and help what's happening in the newspapers' pages, the newspapers traditionally, and the people who are reporters of whatever medium, NPR [National Public Radio] or whatever, are the ones who are providing most of that core of information that the blogosphere basically revolves around.

QUESTION: I certainly agree with the thrust of your excellent remarks. But how do you cope with the fact that advertisers have, as we've all read, focused on this youth demographic, 25 to 50 or 45, and how do you cope with that trend, which is an ever-present force, and doesn't necessarily that demographic comport with your idea of traditional core values of news?

ALEX JONES: I think that what we probably are moving toward is a world in which there will be several different versions of news, and it will take many forms.

I think that young people will be like many of us, will get their information in several different kinds of ways—not just from several different sources, like The Washington Post and The New York Times, but from newspapers that report either online or in print in a more traditional kind of way, from "The Daily Show," from videogames that may be the way people actually follow politics.

We may be, though, entering a world—and this is one of the things that's most frightening to me, frankly, because the web offers so much opportunity for distracting ourselves and entertaining ourselves, because it is so very fascinating and is so almost infinite—where we are increasingly, many of us, inclined to basically pass by news altogether and head straight for kinds of fantasy/virtual worlds. One of the great success stories of the web are fantasy games in which people adopt an avatar and simply live a parallel life and spend many, many hours of the day living in that world.

It's like fantasy sports have taken over sports. If you look now, you can find probably more on fantasy sports than on the real coverage.

So, I guess, what I would say is generationally it has been well established that newspaper readership has gone generationally down from the time it was, from the late-World War II period, and then the Boomers, and then their children, and so forth. I'm not sure how much you can do about that.

But I think the important thing is an attention to news, period. That is something that ought to concern us a lot.

Look, I am here to advocate, not free speech, but informed speech. But free speech comes first. There are going to be gigantic quantities of free speech. If you get your news and it satisfies you from reading blogs and leaving it at that, then that will be what you do. I think that that will be better, as far as I'm concerned, than losing people altogether to this virtual world in which they simply tune out, live in their own self-referential place, where they hear only things that reinforce their own views to the extent that they're involved with public affairs, and simply pass away from the attention to news that I think has been traditional and critical to this country. I think that is a great danger in and of itself.

That's a different subject, but it's something that we at the Shorenstein Center have done some research on. And it's not encouraging, as far as we're concerned, about the habits of young people when it comes to simply engaging the news at all.

On the other hand, traditionally people become interested in news when they have children, when they have things about education and government that they care about. So maybe there is going to be a bit of generational growing-up. I hope so.

QUESTION: I'd like to just ask you a further explanation of objective vs. advocacy journalism and how it is implemented through headlines and pictures in the newspapers.

ALEX JONES: I can tell you that headlines are probably—when people talk about newspaper bias and press bias, usually they're talking about the headlines.

Headline writing is a genuine art form and it is sometimes abused. But I think that's what tends to make people more angry than anything.

QUESTIONER: Should The New York Times or The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, among other outlets, enforce an editorial policy whereby opinion and advocacy journalism is more confined to the op-ed pages, less to the pictures on the front page and the headlines?

ALEX JONES: Well, I can tell you that if I were running The New York Times, which they have not invited me to do, I would expand the op-ed page of The New York Times. I think that the most powerful pages of The New York Times are the front page and the op-ed page. That is a page that I think ought to be where this national conversation at the highest level takes place.

A lot of that space is dedicated space to columnists. I think there are an awful lot of people out there whom I would love to read. I think that The New York Times ought to carve out the space for that. I think that would be a smart marketing thing for them to do.

But I take your point about photographs. I had something very interesting happen to me when I was at Harvard a few years ago. I had a student in my class who was Chinese, and she was a very sophisticated journalist, and she had been in this country for some time. This was at the time when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in China's air space, you may recall. It was a big issue.

She decided for her paper for me to compare the coverage of that story in The New York Times and in the Chinese newspapers. When I was reading her paper, she was very surprised to find that The New York Times had much more information about what was going on much more quickly than the Chinese papers, because in the Chinese papers they wait to find out what the government policy is going to be about any given thing, and that's how they decide what the headlines are and so forth.

But then, she said something that really stopped me. She said, "But then, of course, I saw on such-and-such a date that The New York Times indicated that America should dominate China in perpetuity." What the hell was that?

I called her into my office and I said, "What were you talking about?"

She gave me this look that was like "Don't kid a kidder, you know what I'm talking about."

I said, "No, I really honestly don't."

Well, this is what she was talking about. If you remember, there was a big issue about whether the United States would apologize for this. Colin Powell, who was then the secretary of state, did not apologize, but he expressed regret; he expressed his regret that this had happened. He did it at the UN.

There was a picture on the front page of Colin Powell, with his hands out like this [indicating], expressing regret. And immediately underneath it was a photograph of a Chinese sailor on a ship with binoculars scanning the ocean, still trying to find the remains of one of the Chinese pilots that had been killed in the collision. Because Colin Powell was on top and the Chinese sailor was below, this she interpreted as being a statement by The New York Times that America should dominate China in perpetuity.

So the next time you see a picture and you assume that it's some kind of a political statement, I would only invite you to at least think about that. I think that people give us too much credit in the newspaper business for conspiracy. We're not capable of it usually. It's an astonishing thing.

I think that one of the things about newspapers that is really under-appreciated is the enormous amount of skill and effort and brain power and experience and just raw effort that goes into every day assembling that newspaper, deciding what appears on the front page, what the arrangement should be that says to you "this is more important than that," and so forth. You're getting a great bargain, because you're getting the brain power collectively of a staggering number of very talented people.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, I thank you for sharing your brain power with us this morning.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less