'Losing the News' by Alex S. Jones

Crumbling newspaper industry creating a revolution for news media

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Will there still be a place for investigative reporters such as David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh in tomorrow's newspapers?

Will there be any news media left, except perhaps The New York Times and The Washington Post, to serve as watchdogs over government and hold the powerful accountable?

The problems are obvious. Newspapers are losing advertising revenue and readers to the Internet and scrambling to cut expenses, including laying off the most experienced and well-paid staffers.

A number of papers have gone out of business and many others are combining sections, getting smaller and carrying less news. And stories are getting shorter and shorter, influenced by what's happening on the Web, where almost anything over 150 words is considered too long and unlikely to be read.

The newspaper business is fighting for its life, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones in this penetrating analysis of an industry in turmoil.

"Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy"
By Alex S. Jones
Oxford University Press ($24.95)

The real crisis is the erosion of what Jones calls "the iron core of news," or daily press coverage of everything from business and governmental affairs to news from abroad.

This "accountability news," reported by professional journalists, provides the material the rest of the media feed on and is in danger of disappearing, believes the author, who covered the press for The New York Times from 1983 to 1992.

Part of the problem is the time and money required to cover serious stories. A skilled investigative reporter can cost a news organization more than $250,000 a year in salary and expenses for only a handful of stories. A single project can sometimes take months or even years.

"Losing the News" is filled with examples of dramatic changes taking place in news coverage.

The Boston Globe, for instance, has won five Pulitzer Prizes since 2000 and has a distinguished history of foreign reporting. But money problems have forced it to close all its foreign bureaus and eliminate the position of foreign editor, Jones notes, and its front page now has "a strongly local cast."

Other examples include the venerable and respected Christian Science Monitor, which became the first national newspaper to abandon print and go online last year after a century of continuous publication.

And by the spring of 2009, half of the once-mighty Los Angeles Times news staff had vanished.

In one of the most provocative chapters in the book, Jones points out that much of the public doesn't believe the press is objective in its coverage.

Many reporters themselves believe objectivity is an outdated notion, but Jones is convinced it's one of the qualities that matters most in journalism.

How important is it? He writes convincingly about how gritty reporting of the facts about the war in Iraq turned many early supporters -- despite their suspicions of the press -- into opponents of the war.

There's much more of interest here, including an exploration of the "new" news media and the story of the author's own family's small newspaper in Greeneville, Tenn., where he was first exposed to journalism in the 1950s and where his father and several brothers still work.

He also interviewed a number of well-known people in the field, including Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group, with 57 daily papers, including The Denver Post, is the nation's fourth-largest newspaper company.

Singleton's newspapers, like many others, are aggressively experimenting with both their print and online editions.

The world of the future is going to be centered on the Web and digital technology, acknowledges Jones, and saving the news has to begin by recognizing that.

But for journalists such as David Shribman, executive editor and vice president of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his mission remains "putting out a very good, very serious -- and thus old-fashioned -- newspaper."

Nobody yet, including Jones, has come up with solutions to save newspapers, but his terrific book makes a strong case for why they're important.

"One thing is certain, he concludes. "The revolution in news now taking place will be critical to defining what kind of a nation we become in the years ahead."

Elizabeth Bennett has a special interest in this subject. A freelance writer in Houston, she was book editor of The Houston Post, which folded in 1995.


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