For the definitive dramatic take on why and how the newspaper industry has fallen so hard, watch season five of HBO’s The Wire, much of which is set inside the beleaguered Baltimore Sun newsroom. The show has it all: The ever-present desperation and dread. The hushed, huddled stand-up meetings in which colleagues whisper about who they think the next round of layoffs will hit. The strain of fewer people, many with less experience and training than they need, trying to handle more responsibilities for diminishing pay and benefits.
The show is so dead-on because it was created by a man who knows. Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon has observed print media through the good times and the awful. Last week he testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that it’s a fallacy to blame the Internet for print’s demise. Newspapers, Simon said, are hastening their demise because management sacrificed the craft of journalism for the bottom line. Rather than strengthening their products, newspaper executives protected outrageous profit margins at the expense of quality.
Anyone listening carefully may have noted that I was bought out of my reporting position in 1995. That’s fourteen years ago. That’s well before the Internet ever began to seriously threaten any aspect of the industry. That’s well before Craig’s List and department-store consolidation gutted the ad base. Well before any of the current economic conditions applied.
When newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now—because bankruptcy has opened the books—that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, the men and women who might have made the Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary—something so strong that it might have charged for its product online—they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.
Simon’s solution to the problem, however, seems as narrow-minded and protectionist as the corporate practices he resents. He says the way to save old-school style journalism is to move to a subscriber-paid online model and for news sources to “protect” their content from bloggers. Guess Simon doesn’t realize that links to news sources actually direct traffic their way.
Wire creator David Simon testifies on the future of journalism [Reclaimthemedia, via Mediabistro]