Editor’s Note: John Nichols testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy at its April 21 hearing on “A New Age for Newspapers: Diversity of Voices, Competition and the Internet.”
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.
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 to 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 and 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.