It’s just a coincidence that the essay “Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?” by the impresario of The Wire, David Simon, appeared in the Washington Post the same day news broke of the top editor of the Los Angeles Times having been forced out over a refusal to make further budget cuts. Virtually every major magazine–as if by divine decree–has run a David Simon profile recently, and in each one the former Sun veteran has eloquently bemoaned the state of contemporary newspapering. And the departure of James O’Shea from the LA Times marks the fourth time in less than three years that either the top editor or the publisher has “quit” rather than make budget cuts demanded by the owner.
What was different about the latest LA Times departure was that it took place not under the much-detested Tribune Company ownership but the would-be savior of the Times, entrepreneur Samuel Zell. No less odd is that, according to the Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal, O’Shea’s departure had been planned about a week before the announcement, yet nobody at the Times bothered to come up with some corporate-friendly spin. According to the New York Times, Nancy Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the LA Times, simply said, “I don’t have any comment for you.” It’s as if newspaper owners have given up caring to explain themselves. “This is the way of the world,” they’re telling us. “Get used to it.”
Regarding Simon’s newspaper critique, what is odd–at least if you’re a fan of The Wire, and I defer to no one in that department–is that it mixes up problems with no relation to one another. I don’t like that ambitious yuppie on the city desk any more than anyone, but what’s he got to do with the budget cuts that are destroying the paper’s institutional memory? And other Simon complaints about what’s happened to the Baltimore Sun–where he worked and upon whose woes The Wire focuses–do not strike me as relevant to the industry’s current conundrum. Perhaps his editors were overly obsessed with prizes, but since when have editors not been obsessed with prizes? Perhaps they did force him to oversimplify complex social phenomena, but again, when was that not journalistically the case?
I don’t begrudge Simon his hobbyhorses. I have my own, primarily the business’s refusal to stand up to–or even acknowledge–the war on press freedom the Bush Administration and its allies have been waging since they came to power seven years ago. But the guys who run these newspapers are focused on one thing only, and that’s survival. You might be, too, if you were faced with facts like these:
The combined market value of independent, publicly traded US newspaper publishers has fallen by 42 percent in the past three years.
The Washington Post Company, with circulation down 14 percent since 2000, now calls itself “an education and media company,” as the balance of its profits comes from its purchase of the Stanley Kaplan educational testing business.