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David Simon On The Downfall Of American Newspapers

Last week, David Simon- former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of The Wire on HBO- testified before The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during a hearing on The Future of Journalism. Instead of blaming the internet and the recession for the decline of print, Simon took the newspaper industry itself to task. An excerpt:

When you hear a newspaper executive claiming that his industry is an essential bulwark of society and that it stands threatened by a new technology that is, as of yet, unready to shoulder the same responsibility, you may be inclined to empathize. And indeed, that much is true enough as it goes.

But when that same newspaper executive then goes on to claim that this predicament has occurred through no fault on the industry’s part, that they have merely been undone by new technologies, feel free to kick out his teeth. At that point, he’s as fraudulent as the most self-aggrandized blogger.

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.

Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers–confident that American consumers were mere captives–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 proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, 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 communities served by that journalism was betrayed.

Read Simon’s words in their entirety here.

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