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.
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.”
The truth is that both Simon and Huffington are right, as this writer, University of Pennsylvania professor C. Edwin Baker, Bernie Lunzer of The Newspaper Guild and Ben Scott of Free Press explained during a more nuanced hearing organized two weeks ago by the House Judiciary Committee. Yes, newspapers are dying, and in the process an enormous journalistic void is being created. No, Internet journalism is not filling the void. But it might; in fact, it almost certainly must.
The key is to find a way to make sure journalism survives even if newspapers do not, and, frankly neither Simon nor Huffington–nor any of their fellow presenters on Wednesday–had much to offer in this regard.
Simon’s entertainment of ill-thought plans to turn newspapers into toothless non-profits is disturbing. And his suggestion that big media companies that he admits have “butchered” the industry be given the gift of relaxed antitrust rules–so that they can commit the butchery on a larger and more coordinated scale–is downright dangerous.
There actually are some ideas worth pondering, as Bob McChesney and I noted in a recent Nation cover story: “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.”
But there will be no cure until there is a proper diagnosis. And Simon’s great accomplishment Wednesday was to deliver that diagnosis in his compelling testimony to the Senate.
That testimony is worth reading in its entirety. But here is what editors refer to as “the nut graf”–the section that explains the point of the broader story:
Wall Street and free-market logic, having been a destructive force in journalism over the last few decades, are not now suddenly the answer. Raw, unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or public mission is at issue. If the last quarter century has taught us anything–and admittedly, with too many of us, I doubt it has–it’s that free-market capitalism, absent social imperatives and responsible regulatory oversight, can produce durable goods and services, glorious profits, and little of lasting social value. Airlines, manufacturing, banking, real estate–is there a sector of the American economy where laissez-faire theories have not burned the poor, the middle class and the consumer, while bloating the rich and mortgaging the very future of the industry, if not the country itself? I’m pressed to think of one.
There will be time for the debate about solutions. For now, it is not just useful but necessary to be clear about the cause of the crisis in American journalism. On this point, what Simon says is spot on.
It wasn’t the Internet.
It wasn’t the current economic downtown.
It was a lousy newspaper ownership model that saw civic and democratic values replaced by the rapacious greed and commercial calculations of big media companies.