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David Simon On The Death Of Newspapers: 'My Industry Butchered Itself'

Via Democracy Now!, David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the HBO series "The Wire," testified Wednesday at a Senate hearing on

Via Democracy Now!, David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the HBO series "The Wire," testified Wednesday at a Senate hearing on the future of journalism. He warned that "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.

He points out that most bloggers aren't hanging out at City Hall or at cop bars, trying to cultivate sources:

"... 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.

Well, yeah. But let me point out here that naive and inexperienced reporters are not unique to blogs. When I was a journalist, I used to run into neophyte Ivy League-grad reporters all the time, and I'd have to explain the simplest things to them. They were baffled when I'd call out some elected official for violating the state Sunshine Act: How did I know that? I'd carefully explain that reporters had attended all the public work sessions, a topic had never been discussed on the record, but there was just a unanimous vote in its favor - with no apparent discussion.

"Oh!" they'd say. But they didn't really understand, and didn't seem to care, either.

Simon also points out that old media can't completely blame new media for the financial pressures that led to its current state:

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.

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.

I would really love to sit down and have a beer with this guy.

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