The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard is populated by smart people who debate and write about the important issues involving the media and democracy. For eight years, the Director of this Center has been a thoughtful and charming southern gentleman named Alex Jones who is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist.
He has just published a new book called "Losing the News" which is a must-read for anyone interested in the media, democracy, policy formulation, activism and in perpetuating the type of public conversations that have propelled national and global progress.
A slo-mo media crisis
Alex's thesis is simply that the implosion of the business model for traditional print and broadcast media is creating a vacuum in the type of news gathering, analysis or revelatory investigation which is in the public interest.
"News -- or something that looks like it -- will exist in the future," he writes. "There will be, through the Web, a torrent of news and opinion, but high-quality news is expensive to produce and in ever shorter supply."
Of course, devotees of the Web and its "new" media -- YouTube, blogs and websites -- often disdain newspapers and traditional media as entities which are populated by elitists, propagandists or sell-outs to mercantilist interests or media conglomerateurs.
News is separate
They are partly right. Media malpractice exists, but the facts are that only newspapers, rich networks and wire services with their armies of reporters, deliver or break that product known as "news." And Alex makes a compelling case that the death knell for good newspapers and broadcasters will impair democracies and communities alike.
Of course, not all journalism deserves to be hoisted on the public-interest pedestal. He divides news into categories from "accountability news" or that which holds government or powerful interests accountable to "advocacy," "tabloid," "entertainment" and others.
He also describes the hierarchy of news gathering in an incisive way which explains the importance of good journalism.
The hierarchy of news
"Bearing witness" is the meat and potatoes of reportage or eyewitness accounts of everything from criminal trials to war zones, riots, city council meetings, press conferences or speeches by leaders.
Next is "following up." Good journalism doesn't hit and run but revisits events or statements to see what transpired, i.e. were promises kept, forecasts accurate, threats turned into action or whether statements made were accurate.
"Explanatory journalism" involves deeper analysis by experienced journalists of data, sources, facts and complexities. Then, at the very top is "investigative journalism" which involves time-consuming and expensive probes unearthing news that the public should know, but which the rich and powerful want to keep secret.
The most famous example of newsgathering, from the bottom to top of the hierarchy, was the Watergate scandal. It began with a rookie police reporter working for the Washington Post who wrote about a suspicious burglary of the Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and ended with the ousting of President Richard Nixon.
So who is going to undertake these important and expensive efforts as advertising falls along with readership? The Web users who merely criticize or riff off the news?
As he writes: "Political and news-related bloggers are parasites, just like Google News. They do not report news but comment on what newspapers and other traditional media are still churning out. The free riders are using content that they don't create to build juggernauts of Web advertising power while the originators of the content are struggling."
Fortunately, some of the world's newspapers, including this one, have reacted by cutting costs, innovating and monetizing the news online to be able to survive. Others haven't, or won't.
"Losing the News" should be required reading for those concerned about democracy and social justice. That is because we are what we read, as individuals, as citizens and as voters.
Diane Francis was a Shorenstein Fellow in 2005 and blogs at National Post
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