I think a lot about the future of the newspaper industry (as I should, given that I am 28 and still have most of my working life ahead of me). Last week, I read an interesting interview of David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. It was wide-ranging, but inevitably it touched on the problems of the newspaper industry. (I say inevitably, because Simon has long commented on those problems, including devoting The Wire’s final season to them.)
He has a very interesting take on it, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it:
Bill Moyers: I read something you recently told The Guardian in London: “Oh, to be a state or local official in America”—without newspapers—“it’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”
David Simon: Well, I was being a little hyperbolic.
Bill Moyers: But it’s happening.
David Simon: Yes. It absolutely is. To find out what’s going on in my own city I often find myself at a bar somewhere, writing stuff down on a cocktail napkin that a police lieutenant or some schoolteacher tells me because these institutions are no longer being covered by beat reporters who are looking for the systemic. It doesn’t exist anymore.
“We were doing our job, making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us?” I would buy that if I wasn’t in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet. I took the third buyout from the Baltimore Sun. I was about reporter number eighty or ninety who left, in 1995, long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time when the Baltimore Sun was earning a 37-percent profit.
We now know this because it’s in bankruptcy and the books are open. All that R&D money that was supposed to go into making newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.
I mean, the guys who are running newspapers over the last twenty or thirty years have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It’s even more profound than Detroit in 1973 making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car. Except it’s not analogous, in that a Nissan is a pretty good car and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it’s great for commentary and froth, doesn’t do very much first-generation reporting at all. The economic model can’t sustain that kind of reporting. They had contempt for their own product, these people.
Bill Moyers: The publishers. The owners.
David Simon: You know, for twenty years, they looked upon the copy as being the stuff that went around the ads. The ads were God. And then all of a sudden the ads were not there, and the copy they had contempt for. They had actually marginalized themselves.
I was being a little flippant with The Guardian, but what I was saying was, you know, until they figure out the new model, there’s going to be a wave of corruption.