May 7, 2009

David Simon tells Congress what I’ve been saying — only better

Filed under: Publications — grahamophone @ 12:30 pm

Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon delivered a harsh indictment of corporate-owned newspapers during a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. He belied the argument that bloggers and citizen journalists can replace traditional reporters and eloquently explained why unrealistic profit expectations did more to kill journalism than the Internet and other new media.

Print journalism, he said, became a money-making tool for national corporations and slowly surrendered its ability to do important, expensive investigative reporting.

“Where family ownership might have been content with ten or 15 percent profit, the chains demanded double that and more,” he said. “And the cutting began, long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.”

He said what I have been saying for years about the state of journalism, and made arguments about local journalism that mirror my arguments in this piece about the Rocky Mountain News.

Read on for the text of his testimony, and a link to a video of the same.

A couple of quick notes before Simon’s words:

• I am glad the Senate gave Simon and others a forum to talk about newspapers, but the hearings smell of government intervention in the private news industry. Government ownership or control of newspapers is not acceptable. They need to be a watchdog of government, not an arm. Simon argues for a non-profit model and a way for surviving newspapers and wire services to charge news aggregators for content. Both can be accomplished without government intervention.

• Bloggers offer counterattacks to Simon’s criticism of citizen journalists. They offer examples of bloggers working on firsthand, investigative reporting. However, they are the exception, and they don’t cover every city. Bloggers also typically come from a slanted perspective. Newspapers may also slant the news, but they also cover more of it. A newspaper is expected to cover all the local government discussions and decisions that affect the community. Bloggers are more likely to pick and choose decisions that fit their niches. I am trying to start some first-hand reporting on local stories here in Fort Collins, but I need more steady freelance income before I can afford to “donate” more of my time as a citizen journalist. And no matter how many city council meetings I attend, I cannot keep up with the full staff of the local daily and weekly newspapers.

Enough of my ranting. Here is video of the testimony from “Democracy Now” (which is growing while most other media is shrinking, but that’s another issue for another blog entry), and the full text of Simon’s testimony.

“My name is David Simon, and I used to be a newspaperman in Baltimore. What I say will likely conflict with what representatives of the newspaper industry will claim, and I can imagine little agreement with those who speak for new media. From the captains of the newspaper industry, you may hear a certain martyrology, a claim that they were heroically serving democracy, only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology. From those speaking on behalf of new media, weblogs and that which goes “twitter,” you will be treated to assurances that American journalism has a perfectly fine future online and that a great democratization is taking place. Well, a plague on both their houses.

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 else. The internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It’s nice to get stuff for free, of course, and it’s nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet community is rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it’s also quite good, even original. Understand, I’m not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But you do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don’t see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others—pressing sources. You don’t see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism is a profession. It requires daily full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out. Reporting was the hardest and, in some ways, most gratifying job I ever had. I’m offended to think that anyone anywhere believes American monoliths, as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives, can be held to gathered facts by amateurs presenting the task—pursuing the task without compensation, training or, for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care who it is they’re lying to or who they’re withholding information from.

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; he 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.

Well, so much for new media. But what about old media? Well, anyone listening carefully may have noted that—I’m sorry. Cut that part. Anyone listening carefully may have noted that I was brought out of my reporting position in 1995. That’s well before the internet began to threaten the industry, before Craigslist and department store consolidation gutted the ad base, before any of the current economic conditions applied. In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, the industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street. We know now, because bankruptcy has opened the books, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly a hundred reporters and editors in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits.

Such shortsighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers offered up Chevy Vegas and 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 we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free market logic that has proven so disastrous for so many American industries. Indeed, the original sin of American newspapering lies in going to Wall Street in the first place.

When locally based family-owned newspapers like the Sun were consolidated into publicly owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the community served by that journalism 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 money putting out a mediocre paper than a worthy one? Where family ownership might have been content with ten or 15 percent profit, the chains demanded double that and more. And the cutting began, long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.

Editorially, the newspaper chains also brought an ugly disconnect into the newsroom and, by extension, to the community. A few years after the A.S. Abell family sold the Sun to Times Mirror, fresh editors arrived from out of town to take over the reins of the paper. They looked upon Baltimore not as essential terrain to be covered with consistency, to be explained in all its complexity, year in and year out, for readers who had and would live their whole lives in Baltimore. Why would they? They had arrived from somewhere else, and they—if they won 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, as veteran reporters and homegrown editors took buyouts, news beats were dropped, and less and less was covered with rigor or complexity. In a city in which half the adult black males are without consistent work, the poverty and social services beat was abandoned. In a region where unions are imploding and the working class eviscerated, where the bankruptcy of a huge steel manufacturer made thousands lose medical benefits and pensions, there was no longer a labor reporter. And though it’s one of the most violent cities in America, the Baltimore criminal courts went uncovered for more than a year.

Meanwhile, the out-of-town editors used manpower to pursue a handful of special projects, as Pulitzer-sniffing as one does. The self-gratification in my profession does not come, you see, from covering a city and covering it well, from explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world to citizens, from holding basic institutions accountable. It comes from someone handing you a plaque and taking your picture. And so, buyout after buyout, from the first staff reduction in 1992 to the latest round last week in which nearly a third of the remaining newsroom was fired, the newspaper that might have mattered enough to charge online for content simply disappeared. Where 500 men and women once covered Central Maryland, there are now 140.

I don’t know if it’s too late already for American newspapering, but if there is to be a renewal of the industry, a few things are certain and obvious. First, the industry is going to have to find a way to charge for online content. Yes, I’ve heard the postmodern rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn’t. It costs money to send reporters to London, to Fallujah, to Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, to keep them there day after day. It costs money to hire the best investigators and writers and then back them up with the best editors. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund this kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me. A freshman marketing major in any community college can tell you that if you don’t have a product for which you can charge people, you don’t actually have a product.

Second, Wall Street and free market logic, having been a destructive force in journalism over the last few decades, is now not suddenly the answer. Raw unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or public mission is at issue. 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 governing hand most viciously. Moreover, it’s 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 for spelling it correctly when you do something dishonorable. As love-hate relationships go, it’s a pretty intricate one, and an exchange of public money would prove unacceptable to all.

But a nonprofit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything the government can do in the way of creating nonprofit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued. And further, anything that can be done to create financial or tax-based disincentives for bankrupt or near-bankrupt newspaper chains to transfer or donate unprofitable publications to locally based nonprofits should also be considered.

Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can openly discuss protecting copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered. Absent this basic and belated acknowledgement that content matters—in fact, content is all—I don’t think anything can be done to save high-end professional journalism.”


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