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David Simon, Arianna Huffington and the Future of Journalism

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May 11, 2009

We who still practice the journalistic craft in the shattered remains of American newsrooms have developed a particularly high regard for David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the HBO series The Wire.
John Nichols: Fools look for a fight between newspapers and the net. The challenge is to defend print and digital journalism, in an age of big-media myopia.

Simon may technically deal in the realm of entertainment, but the entertainment industry is--for better or worse--the definitional force in the media these days. And a greater extent than anyone in media, Simon gets it, which is to say that he understands the threat that the decline of newspapering and the ensuing collapse of journalism poses for civic life and American democracy.

He used The Wire to portray the decline of a major daily newspaper and the damage done to the major urban center that relied on that had--before the layoffs came--counted on that newspaper's reporters to keep an eye on crooked politicians and corrupt corporate interests.

So when Simon was called to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the future of journalism that was convened Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry--who is justifiably concerned about the potential closing of the Boston Globe--it was good news.

Kerry, who has always been more interested in media issues than most senators, arrived with some weighty quotes but not much else. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee mused about how: "The words of Joseph Pulitzer are still true--our republic and its press will rise or fall together."

Simon cut to the chase, noting that both are in freefall. Then he delivered the really bad news:

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.

That is a diagnosis of what Simon refers to as "what went wrong in American newspapering," rather than a prescription for curing the ills of the industry.

Simon frankly acknowledges that there may not be a cure. Kerry referred to newspapers as "endangered." Simon said, "I don't know if it isn't too late already for American newspapering. So much talent has been taken from newsrooms over the last two decades and the ambitions of the craft are now so crude, small-time and stunted that it's hard to imagine a turnaround."

Some of Simon's fellow panelists inclined toward the notion that the answer can be found on the Internet. "The future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers," declared Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post project is making a go at online journalism.

But Simon was bluntly dubious. "The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing, is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance," he snapped, in the hearing's ultimate "ouch" moment.

Much was made of the supposed clash between "old-media" Simon and "new-media" Huffington. The New York Times spilled digits about it, with an unsettlingly defensive post by Eric Etheridge. And Jane Hamsher wanted everyone to know that "Online News is Not Arianna Huffington's Dastardly Plot to Destroy the Newspaper Industry."

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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