Death of the Newspaperman

Don’t blame the Internet, the industry’s decline is self-inflicted.

David Simon

The captains of the newspaper industry, martyrs all, claim they were heroically serving democracy to their utmost, only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology and the arrival of all things web-based. Partisans of new media, weblogs and Twitter assure us that American journalism has a perfectly fine future online and a great democratization in newsgathering is taking place.

The editors used their manpower to pursue a handful of special projects—Pulitzer-sniffing.

In my city, there is a technical term we often administer when claims are plainly contradicted by facts on the ground. We note that the claimant is, for lack of a better term, full of it.

High-end journalism is dying in America and, unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere. The Internet is a marvelous tool and clearly the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from print publications, whereupon aggregating Web sites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers and magazines themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It is nice to get stuff for free, of course. And it is nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our Internet commentary is – as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort – rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.

I am not arguing against the Internet and all it offers. But you do not run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at city hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism – the kind that acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place – is a profession; it requires a daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and corporations can be held accountable by amateurs working without compensation, training or sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

The idea is absurd. Yet to read the claims of some new media advocates, you would think they need only bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing. They don’t know what they don’t know – which is a dangerous state for any class of folk – and to those of us who do understand how subtle and complex good reporting can be, their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist” strikes my ear as Orwellian.

A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; she is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.

Old’ media’s excuses 

So much for new media. But what about old media? When a newspaper executive claims that his industry is an essential bulwark of society and it stands threatened by a new technology as of yet unready to shoulder the same responsibility, you may be inclined to empathize.

But when that same newspaper executive then goes on to claim that the industry bears no blame, that it has merely been undone by new technologies, feel free to kick out his teeth. At that point, he is as fraudulent as the most self-aggrandized blogger.

I took a buyout in 1995. That’s 14 years ago, well before the Internet ever began to seriously threaten any aspect of the industry. That’s well before Craigslist and department store consolidation gutted the ad base, well before any of the current economic conditions applied.

In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable ever discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun eliminated its afternoon edition and trimmed nearly 100 editors and reporters while the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, men and women who might have made the Sun a vehicle for news and commentary strong enough to charge for its product online were ushered out the door so Wall Street could command short-term profits.

Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers – confident that American consumers were mere captives – offered up Chevy Vegas, Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan.

In short, my industry butchered itself and did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries.

Cash before quality

And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.

When locally based, family-owned newspapers consolidated into publicly owned newspaper chains, a trust between journalism and the communities it served was betrayed. Economically, the disconnect is now obvious. What do newspaper executives in Los Angeles or Chicago care whether readers in Baltimore have a better newspaper, especially when you can make more putting out a mediocre paper than a worthy one?

The profit margin was all. And so, where family ownership might have been content with 10 or 15 percent profit, the chains demanded double that and more. And so, the cutting began – long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.

But editorially? The newspaper chains brought an ugly disconnect to the newsroom and, by extension, to the community as well.

A few years after the A.S. Abell Family sold the Baltimore Sun to the Times-Mirror newspaper chain, fresh editors arrived from out of town. They didn’t look upon Baltimore as essential terrain to be covered with consistency and explained in all its complexity year in and year out for readers who live their lives in Baltimore. Why would they? They arrived from somewhere else, and if they could win a prize or two, they would be moving on to bigger and better opportunities within the chain.

So, well before the arrival of the Internet, veteran reporters and homegrown editors took buyouts, newsbeats were dropped, and less and less of Baltimore and central Maryland were covered with rigor or complexity.

In Baltimore, a city in which half the adult black males are without consistent work, the poverty and social services beat was abandoned. In a town where the unions were imploding, the working class eviscerated and the bankruptcy of a huge steel manufacturer meant thousands were losing medical benefits and pensions, there was no longer a labor reporter. And though it is one of the most violent cities in America, the Baltimore courthouse went uncovered for more than a year and the declining quality of criminal casework in the state’s attorney’s office went largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the editors used their manpower to pursue a handful of special projects – Pulitzer-sniffing. The self-gratification of my profession does not come from covering a city and covering it well, from explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world to citizens or from holding basic institutions accountable on a daily basis. It comes from someone handing you a plaque and taking your picture.

The prizes meant little, of course, to actual readers. What might have mattered to them was comprehensive coverage of their region and its issues, with real insight, sophistication and consistency.

Where 500 men and women once covered central Maryland, there are now 140. And the money required to make a great newspaper – including the R&D funding that might have anticipated and planned for the Internet revolution – went back to Wall Street, CEO salaries and big-money investors. The editors took their prizes and got promoted; they’re probably on what passes for a journalism lecture circuit these days, offering heroic tales of past glory and jeremiads about the world they, in fact, helped to bring about.

Financing future media

It might be too late for American newspapering. So much talent has been torn from newsrooms over the last two decades and the ambitions of the craft are now so crude, small-time and stunted it’s hard to imagine a turnaround. But if there is to be a renewal of the industry a few things are certain and obvious: The industry has to find a way to charge for online content. Yes, I have heard a rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn’t. It costs money to send reporters to London, Fallujah and Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, and to keep them there day after day.

Second, Wall Street and free-market logic, after decades of gutting journalism, are not now suddenly the answer. Raw, unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or mission is at issue.

If the last quarter century has taught us anything, it’s that free-market capitalism, absent social imperatives and responsible regulatory oversight can produce durable goods and services, glorious profits and little of lasting social value. Airlines, manufacturing, banking, real estate – is there a sector of the American economy where laissez-faire theories have not burned the poor and the consumer, while bloating the rich and mortgaging the very future of the industry itself?

Similarly, there can be no serious consideration of public funding for newspapers. High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously. Moreover, it is the right of every American to despise his local newspaper – for being too liberal or too conservative, for covering X and not covering Y, for spelling your name wrong when you do something notable and spelling it correctly when you are seen as dishonorable.

And it is the birthright of every healthy newspaper to hold itself indifferent to such constant disdain and be nonetheless read by all. Because in the end, despite all flaws, there is no better model for a comprehensive and independent review of society than a modern newspaper.

As love-hate relationships go, this is a pretty intricate one. An exchange of public money would pull both sides from their comfort zone and prove unacceptable to all. But a nonprofit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally-based ownership and control of news organizations. The government should pursue making a nonprofit status for newspapers and creating financial or tax-based incentives to facilitate the transfer of ailing newspaper chains to local nonprofits.

Lastly, Congress should consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions with regard to the newspaper industry, so the Washington Post, the New York Times and other newspapers can sit down and openly discuss protecting their copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid, online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered.

Absent this basic and belated acknowledgment that content has value and content is what ultimately matters, I don’t think anything else can save professional journalism. 

This article was adapted from testimony before the Senate subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet on May 62009.

David Simon, a reporter on the Baltimore Sun city desk for 12 years, is the creator of the acclaimed HBO television series The Wire, for which he served as executive producer and head writer for six years. Most recently, he has adapted the nonfiction book Generation Kill into an HBO miniseries.
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