THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

Reporting on the threat posed when reliable reporting fades away

Alex S. Jones writes that journalists should remain focused on civic-oriented, watchdog reporting. Alex S. Jones writes that journalists should remain focused on civic-oriented, watchdog reporting. (AP)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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It has been an annus horribilis for newspapers.

Dailies in Seattle, Denver, and Tucson went dark in 2009, as did several dozen small-town weeklies. The Boston Globe was threatened with closure, as was the San Francisco Chronicle. And we still have more than three months to go.

The timing could not be more appropriate for veteran newsman Alex S. Jones’s latest book, “Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy.’’

This is not a hopeful book. It’s more of an obituary for the industry that gave Jones an enviable career, first at his family’s own small paper in Greeneville, Tenn., then as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times, and a plum perch at the nexus of journalism and academia as director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

“Losing the News’’ is one of the clearest assessments to date of the sweeping technological and financial changes that overturned the modern tradition of objective newsgathering and dissemination.

Now that the medium is endangered, so is the message, Jones writes. The availability of an “iron core’’ of news - carefully reported facts and information allowing citizens in a democracy to make informed decisions - rests on the edge of a knife.

This is old news (forgive the pun) to most of us in the media business.

But the rest of the Twittering, Facebooking, Hannah Montana-watching world remains oblivious to the fact that they are being disenfranchised, relieved of basic information crucial to being a responsible American citizen. Not buying a newspaper today hurts more than the publisher - it hurts the republic.

The world is fast becoming a wild, manipulative clamor of information, without reliable filters, trustworthy actors, or agreed-upon rules, says Jones.

And it could get worse.

“My nightmare scenario is one of bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered and ineffectual bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity, and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service for the rich and powerful,’’ Jones writes.

In this dark world, he predicts, the wealthy grow more knowledgeable and powerful, the masses are left in a sort of cesspool “awash in opinion, spin and propaganda.’’

Jones has few solutions to offer up in the book’s final pages, with a slim chapter called “Saving the News.’’ His somewhat unsatisfying message is: Stay the course.

Journalists should stay focused on civic-oriented, watchdog reporting; publishers should refrain from firing them whenever possible; and readers should demand quality news and information.

Jones’s reporting and writing in “Losing the News’’ is top-notch. But his assertion that traditionally reported news equals good citizenship is not entirely convincing.

Yes, old school, shoe-leather reporting uncovered the Watergate and Pentagon Papers scandals. But it was disturbingly ineffective during the McCarthy witch hunts and the US invasion of Iraq.

It was not mainstream media that brought us the most explosive footage of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, or the recent Iranian government repression of student demonstrators.

The unanswered question in this book is more about finding the news than losing it: Can a passionate citizenry armed with cellphones and blogs be as powerful, or as righteous, as a lone ink-stained wretch with a reporter’s pad and a deadline? Like it or not, it seems we are about to find out.

Erica Noonan is the bureau chief of the Globe West edition. She can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

LOSING THE NEWS: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex S. Jones
Oxford University, 234 pp., $24.95

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