Press Box

Ink Hole

Alex S. Jones thinks failing journalism makes failing democracy. So why won’t he prove it?

In his despairing book about the future of journalism, Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, Alex S. Jones worries that the slow-motion collapse of traditional news-gathering media—broadcasters, newsmagazines, and newspapers (especially newspapers)—might drastically diminish democracy.

In Jones’ view, these old-fashioned collectors and disseminators of “news of verification” produce the “iron core of information” that sustains our democracy and fuels all the derivative media. Without the iron core, no editorial page, columnist, op-ed artist, blogger, talk-show host, or aggregator will know what to say. Without the iron core, Jones fears, the public will have little clue about what governments, corporations, politicians, and the wealthy are up to.

New forms of journalism may prevent the iron core from corroding, Jones writes, but he doesn’t have a lot of faith in “citizen journalists” or the reinvention of traditional media to halt the coming media apocalypse. It generally takes money to make consistently great journalism, and Jones lays out how the iron core was made possible by an economic model—now in tatters—that tossed off immense profits for decades to support foreign and regional news bureaus, Washington bureaus, investigative coverage,  and all the rest we associate with quality journalism.

Just because Jones heads Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, don’t mistake him for a pointy-headed intellectual pining away for some lost journalistic Eden. He hails from a newspaper-owning clan in Greeneville, Tenn.,served as managing editor of the Daily Post-Athenian in Athens, Tenn., and covered the press—among other topics—as a New York Times reporter. Other résumé highlights: He snagged a Pulitzer Prize, hosted programs on the press on NPR and on PBS, taught journalism at Duke University, and with Susan E. Tifft has authored two well-regarded newspaper histories, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty (1991) and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (1999). Jones doesn’t bleed printer’s ink; he breathes it.

Quality journalism, Jones seems to argue in Losing the News, helps sustain democracy by giving readers the vital information they need to vote intelligently and engage as citizens. I write “seems” because after reading the book a second time and taking a boatload of notes, I can’t say for certain whether Jones really believes the press that we’ve come to take for granted is really essential for democracy. If it really does “feed” democracy, as his title puts it, he produces only tangential evidence to support his argument.

Sure, Jones notes that most journalists believe democracy would be diminished if what we call quality journalism vanished. That’s to be expected. Journalists, yours truly included, hold a very high opinion of their work. He conveys, efficiently enough, how outstanding coverage (Watergate, Pentagon Papers, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the NSA story) has benefited society. But for reasons I can only intuit, he shies from making the direct case that quality “iron core” journalism actually nourishes democracy by keeping governments honest, assisting voters in making informed decisions at the ballot box, or stimulating political involvement.

The “exact nature” of the loss to society if quality journalism expired, Jones writes, would be “unclear,” which is a very large hedge. Perhaps Jones never chalks his cue and lines up the quality-press-equals-a-vibrant-democracy shot because it’s impossible to make. Democracy thrived in the United States in the 1800s, long before the invention of what we call quality journalism. Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections. Compare that with the 55.3 percent and 56.8 percent turnouts in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

I won’t accuse quality journalism of poisoning the democratic impulse, but as long as Jones is going to hedge, I will, too. Could it be that deep-dish reporting that uncovers governmental malfeasance and waste—the sort of news Jones and I prefer over fluff, sports, bridge columns, and comics—doesn’t promote activism or participation? Could it be that such exposés end up souring the public on democracy and other institutions?

Not to be snide about it, but is quality journalism the best tool to foster democracy? Advocates of participatory democracy and government accountability might be smarter to invest their time directly in reforming government. For instance, wouldn’t the passage of tough sunshine laws that required Web publication of all nonclassified government information and proceedings do more for accountability than preserving the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Detroit News?

As Jones concedes, only a sliver of a quality newspaper—about 15 percent—contains the sort of core news that he finds so important to democracy. The remainder is dominated by ads and “crowd-pleasing soft news, features, comics, gimmicks, editorials, entertainments, amusements, and such.” That the mass audience’s appetite for core news is, as Jones puts it, “limited,” would seem to diminish—though not erase—Jones’ warning that the uncoupling of newspapers from democracy will result in tragedy.

Newspapers print quality news for the same reason restaurants serve vegetables: Quality news is good for you, and it’s the obligation of newspapers to serve what’s good for you. But no restaurant or newspaper punishes patrons who ignore their healthy servings. For all his fretting, I suspect that what really troubles Jones is not the death of newspapers or even the diminution of democracy but the potential loss of that small percentage of content that he and other elitists (like me!) value so highly.

Not completely lost in Losing the News is an appreciation that something terrible, wonderful, and, yes, very democratic is sprouting in the compost of the dying media. He does possess a conservative’s fear of the Internet, concerned that it has created an audience with a short attention span that demands greater velocity, more irreverence, more subjectivity, and great crudity. But he’s also open to the possibility that journalistic standards he respects have a chance to take root there.

Jones acknowledges that the Web amateurs who scrutinized the 60 Minutes II segment about George W. Bush’s service record humbled the pros of mighty CBS News, but he really could give more credit to the Web. Did not Josh Marshall of Taking Points Memo win a Polk Award for his coverage of the firings of U.S. attorneys? Just this week, the New York Times cited for breaking a story about the wildly excessive bonuses being handed out at the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Thanks to the Web, the veggies served by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other old and new institutions are consumed by millions more news diners than ever before. Who knows? Perhaps that suggests that the audience for vegetable-laden journalism is even larger than Jones dares to imagine and that democracy is safe.


Disclosure: The Jones-helmed Shorenstein Center has twice flown me to Cambridge, Mass., and put me up overnight in a hotel in return for my participation on journalism panels. I’ve also attended a couple of Shorenstein lunches in D.C. I’ve not been bought by the center, only rented. What’s the best Web scoop you’ve seen recently? Send nominations to If you like that Twitter feeling, sign up for my feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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