Friday, May 08, 2009

David Simon on the future of newspapers

It's bleak, unless someone comes up with an economic model breakthrough, and fast.

Simon, creator of "Homicide" and "The Wire" on HBO, was also once a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In his testimony to a Senate hearing chaired by John Kerry last Wednesday, he skewered corporate newspaper executives for their greed and hubris as well as those of us in the so-called New Media for our cheekiness and scavenger-like use of the work done by the gumshoes. He also dismisses the idea of a non-profit status for newspapers, one I thought had some merit.

Read the entire thing, but here's a snip:

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.

Much more, all of it cogent, here.

Update: The Salon of Somervell County has a rejoinder to Simon in the comments. (I promise to work on commenting here much easier very soon.)

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