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

January 7, 2010

As newspaper owners around the world battle with the problem of trying to find a way of making news on the web pay, this should be a very timely book - and it almost is.

Alex Jones brings a special perspective to the decline of the American newspaper industry. For not only is Jones the director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former New York Times reporter but, perhaps most importantly, he is a member of a fourth-generation newspaper-owning family in the small town of Greeneville, Tennessee. This perspective has given Jones a great love of newspapers - but love can be blind, and I fear that staring too long at The Greeneville Sun has induced a few blind spots in Jones' journalistic vision.

His central argument is that the main cause of the crisis currently facing newspapers is a "flight from objectivity", which has led to a collapse of public esteem in journalism and hence declining sales. Chance would be a fine thing.

For it is not the alleged high-mindedness of the American newspaper-reading public that accounts for the decline in newspaper sales (while this trend also affects the UK, it is not yet universal), but the enormous power of the web to provide news and divert advertising revenue, the onrush of tabloidisation and the fact that television news long ago swept newspapers aside as the public's primary source of breaking news.

But for Jones it's all about objectivity, and he makes a clearly heartfelt plea for the restoration of objectivity as the "gold standard" for journalists. He defines objectivity as "a genuine effort to be an honest broker", which sounds very much like the current consensus among most practising journalists and journalism educators: that objectivity itself is unattainable (and perhaps non-existent) but the pursuit of objectivity is itself a noble and sufficient endeavour.

My problem with both Jones and this current consensus is that, partly as a result of the internet and also because of our greater understanding of the role of the media in society, even the pursuit of objectivity is becoming something of a chimera. For the very notion of objectivity avoids addressing a huge range of questions about the nature of "truth", "facts", "balance" - indeed, all the sacred cows of so-called objective journalism.

I would argue that journalists require a finely tuned sense of "subjectivity" to practise good journalism: not the subjectivity of bias, distortion and prejudice, but a subjectivity that enables them to interrogate their own work in order to answer the most important question of all - "am I being fair?"

For fairness is something that most journalists will tell you that they feel more than they think. Fairness is knowing if you have tried to honestly reflect what your various interviewees have told you; fairness means having made a real effort to seek out all sides of a story; fairness means trying to reflect the many-faceted aspects of whatever is being reported in as even-handed a manner as possible.

However, blind spots aside, this is a good read and it provides some sharp insights, and sad reminders, of what local journalism meant in a small town in Tennessee in the previous century.

It is all fascinating stuff, if not a totally reliable guide to the global news industry's trials and tribulations in the 21st century.

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

By Alex S. Jones. Oxford University Press. 256pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780195181234. Published 10 September 2009.

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