Review Essay

An Elegy for Journalism?

The Colorful Past and Uncertain Future of Foreign Reporting

In This Review

Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex S. Jones
Oxford University Press, 2009 234 pp. $24.95 Purchase
Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
By John Maxwell Hamilton
Louisiana State University Press, 2009 655 pp. $45.00 Purchase

The twenty-first century has been a traumatic one for journalism. Changes in how people consume news, combined with the great recession of 2007-9 and the business equivalent of reckless driving by some proprietors (such as the real estate mogul Sam Zell's steering the Tribune Company into bankruptcy), have produced an era that in retrospect will seem, at best, severely chastening and, at worst, catastrophic.

In Losing the News, Alex Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times and is now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, addresses how the rise of the Internet and the precipitous decline in advertising have left print journalism, especially big-city newspapers, in desperate straits. Jones' book is a cri de coeur. John Maxwell Hamilton's Journalism's Roving Eye, meanwhile, is a prodigious account of a specific form of newsgathering -- foreign correspondence -- that has long been buffeted by pressures to cut costs and waning public interest in what happens abroad, even before the more recent challenges posed by the Internet. Journalism has a raffish and colorful past, but the annals of foreign reporting are particularly suited to the storytelling that Hamilton provides. His book is an expansive narrative that also underscores serious questions about what is happening now.

Journalism is the craft of newsgathering. Over time, it has evolved to encompass a set of standards and practices that make it -- when it is done well -- a reliable provider of facts and interpretation. Anyone can report what he sees happening around him, but there is a premium on the experienced judgment of professional writers and editors. And this is what is at stake today.

For all its shortcomings and excesses, journalism is an essential -- even indispensable -- element of any functioning democracy. Traditionally, society's other great estates -- government, education, medicine, the arts -- have had a revenue model based on taxes, fees, insurance, or philanthropy. Journalism, however, has been

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