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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 5, 2012

In sober times
Alex Jones places value on the objective news reporting that bolsters democracy

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Alex Jones last week provided the elixir disheartened newspaper people — buffeted by the recession and shifting technology — needed.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the press for The New York Times and now directs the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Jones riveted a room full of journalists at the annual New York Press Association convention last Friday.

He started with a charming tale about his grandmother, a teacher, who, in 1916, found herself unexpectedly in the newspaper business. “My grandfather had become too enamored of John Barleycorn and one night, he came home from a poker game and had signed a note to take over a failing newspaper,” said Jones.

The paper in the Republican town of Greeneville, Tenn. was The Greeneville Democrat.

“In October of 1916,” she would tell her grandson, who adored her, “I put on my hat” — she always wore a hat when she went out, said Jones — “and went down to take over The Greeneville Democrat.”

His grandmother could quote from memory what the rival paper wrote: “A woman has become proprietor of The Greeneville Democrat. This newspaper will not be alive when the roses bloom.”

Then, she would tell her grandson, “Four years later, I owned both…And do you know why I owned both newspapers?” she would ask.

Jones well knew, but he also knew his role in the story and would ask, why.

“Because they were drunk and I was sober,” concluded his grandmother.

The Jones family is still in the newspaper business in Tennessee, and Alex Jones has made a career covering the press. He wrote The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. Most recently, in 2009, he published Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy.

“I’m fundamentally a newspaperman,” he told the crowd at the convention. He made a sharp distinction between reporting news based on fact and reality, and writing based on assertion.

“It’s the basis upon which we have a national conversation,” he said of the former. Fact-based reporting, he said, is the fundamental reason newspapers exist. “If we abandon our obligation to provide that,” said Jones, “it won’t matter if we continue or not.”

Newspapers, Jones said, provide 80 percent of the “iron core” news, while local television casts focus more on sports, weather, and police blotters. “It does not keep tabs on school boards and county commissions.”

A journalist’s job, said Jones, is part of “a public covenant.”

He told a story about how, as a young man, he worked for a small daily in Athens, Tenn. where he discovered a county executive had done something blatantly crooked. Jones had done the research and knew he had to report it. “I was scared,” he recalled, but he proceeded with his story.

“There was power in knowledge,” he said, digressing to speak about the revolution brought about by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of an alloy that would stand up to multiple printings. “It made information, knowledge, something that could be distributed. The powers that be tried to put the genie back in the bottle and control it,” said Jones.

“The point is, I did do it,” he said of confronting the commissioner and writing the story. “It took courage…That is when I became a journalist. I owed it to my readers to confront this powerful man that had done something wrong.”

Jones had other moments as a journalist, of getting it wrong, hurting people, being lazy, and not taking the trouble to check. But he continued to be motivated by “the thrill of pursuing a story, racing against a deadline, making a difference, shining that light.”

He told the crowd that had gathered at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs, “At a time when our kind of traditional journalism is in great peril, it’s a heartening thing to see a ballroom filled with people in the newspaper business.”

As news staffs dwindle in a generational and technological revolution, Jones said, it challenges “the very values that made us different…and made our communities value us enough to stick with us.”

He went on, “The only thing that will make us survive is if we continue to follow these values we espouse.” The value most in jeopardy, he said, is the reporting of objective news.

The Web is powerful, he said, but it values speed over accuracy “a kind of truthiness versus truth.”

“The culture of the Web,” said Jones “values edge over fairness…It values the voice,” as if to say, “Don’t bother me with the facts.”

He went on, “Young people believe everyone lies.” They think, “I’ll go to a number of places. I’ll figure it out myself. I won’t trust anyone.”

The idea of objective journalism was invented in the early 20th Century, said Jones, because journalists are assumed to have bias. “You have to test your bias against the evidence and let the evidence speak loudest,” he said.

“Losing editorial muscle has damaged us,” said Jones. “Business isn’t what it once was and never will be….The thing I worry about most is the crisis of confidence…We feel beleaguered.”

But, he told the crowd, “I believe in you…I hope you will continue to believe in yourself and fight. He spoke of how The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times, at the height of the recession doubled the price of its print edition. And even though it was providing less than it had, eliminating its foreign staff, for example, The Globe lost 30 percent of its print circulation. Since its online news was free, Jones said, “The headline for me was, ‘Seventy percent continued to subscribe.’”

He pointed out, too, that The New York Times, which adopted a pay wall about a year ago, has generated about $100 million. “They pay for what they value and they can’t get elsewhere,” he said of the online subscribers, “like your news for your community.”

Jones concluded by describing his best moment as a journalist. Working for The New York Times, he was covering the Bingham family, which had owned, for generations, the paper in Louisville, Ky. “They fell out,” Jones said of family factions. “I found people who would speak to me…give me that little piece of gold.”

He worked on the story for four days straight, smoking and drinking iced tea. He called his wife in the middle of the night after he filed the story. “‘Susan, I don’t even care if they publish it,’” he said, “‘because I know it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ My heart was soaring.”

He won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

“I don’t value the Pulitzer Prize any more than the memory of the way I felt that night,” he said, telling the crowd, “It’s out there for you. Go get it…You serve your readers. I’m proud to be a journalist. I’m proud to be a newspaperman. I’m proud to be one of you.”

He received resounding applause and a standing ovation.

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