Swimming in the Press Pool: David Simon Doesn’t Understand Newspapers

The veteran Baltimore newsman is a great writer, but he’s too caught up in nostalgia and arrogance.

Mike —

You’re probably already on top of this, but wow — I believe this more than anything else I’ve read on the subject. (Maybe my Baltimore bias is showing …)

David Simon’s Congressional Testimony on the Future of Journalism (pdf)

  —Crunchable founder Chris Klimas (via Facebook)

Chris —

I like David Simon a lot. His writing is snappy and clever, as evidenced in his testimony (pdf) to Sen. John Kerry’s May 6 hearing on the “Future of Journalism.” He’s a great screenwriter and a justly-admired reporter.

And he’s a crappy media analyst.

His testimony captures his feelings of betrayal at the hands of the people he blames for destroying not only the newspaper he loves — The Baltimore Sun, where he worked for 12 years — but the very essence of newspaper journalism. He witnesses to how The Sun changed as reporters were laid off and coverage thinned out, leaving few to shine light into Baltimore’s many dark corners.

It’s a moving chronology, but that’s it. Nearly all his attempts to explain the causes of newspapers’ financial collapse are clouded by his lack of understanding of newspapers’ business side and an arrogant nostalgia for the newsroom he knew as a cub reporter.

In Simon’s Golden Age, hardscrabble reporters pounded their beats “at City Hall [and] in the courthouse hallways [and] at the bars and union halls where police officers gather.” Newspapers were owned by benevolent local families who valued nothing more than the Sacred Bond of delivering truth to their beloved cities.

That newspaper of yesteryear was so vital to society, in fact, that he argues that Congress ought to suspend anti-trust laws so that newspapers can engage in some well-deserved online price-fixing for their precious reportage.

“[H]igh-end journalism — that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession,” Simon insists, sneering at “citizen journalists” and bloggers. “It requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out [...] Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways the most gratifying job I ever had.”

Simon seems downright offended that some unwashed, pajama-clad amateur working in her bedroom could pretend to produce work on par with that of a Professional Journalist.

But reporters — Simon included — aren’t demigods with miraculous access to the truth. They might be great artists or great detectives or merely great tradesmen, but every single one of them — Simon included — started out with no more skills than any modern-day blogger. Despite Simon’s claims, plenty of those amateurs are already out working the news beats on their own; I already run into them at county council hearings and community meetings.

Simon, convinced of his professional brethren’s inherent superiority, also tars bloggers, online aggregators, and search engines as parasites who sponge off the work of the dedicated pros. He fails to grasp that if it weren’t for bloggers and search engines, even fewer people would read newspaper reporting.

Simon’s understanding never expands beyond his self-serving image of truth-seeking yeomen journalists, besieged on one side by the freeloading bloggers and on the other by the greedy corporate overlords from halfway across the country.

“But when [a] newspaper executive then goes on to claim that this predicament has occurred through no fault on the industry’s part, that they have merely been undone by new technologies, feel free to kick out his teeth. [...] In short, my industry butchered itself, and we did so at the behest of Wall Street [...]“

  —Simon’s testimony (p. 4-5)

Simon is absolutely right that newspaper journalism began declining long before the Internet posed any threat to its bottom line, as newspaper owners began bleeding their products’ quality in pursuit of Wall-Street-friendly profit gains in the 90s.

But for Simon, all of the blame for that lies with the out-of-town corporate overseers, who apparently cared nothing for papers like The Sun because they happened to live somewhere other than Baltimore.

Who does he think sold out the papers to the media conglomerates in the first place?

Oh, right — he admits the “A.S. Abell Family sold The Sun to the Times-Mirror newspaper chain.” So they’re the ones who lined their pockets selling a Baltimore institution to a soulless conglomerate — and yet they’re exonerated of responsibility for what happened next, because they’re from Baltimore.

(Local ownership does not guarantee a thriving newspaper, by the way. To this day, The Chicago Tribune’s corporate overlords still live in the same town as the newspaper, and that hasn’t seemed to help much.)

Greed is not incompatible with good newspaper stewardship, and the owner’s ZIP code is irrelevant. If I own The Baltimore Sun, and if I’m smart, I want to make sure it’s producing a quality, saleable product for as long as possible — whether I live in Baltimore, Chicago, or Sheboygan.

The problem was that owners, local and otherwise, hitched the newspapers to Wall Street, where everyone spent the past few decades stubbornly refusing to believe in bubbles. In the same way that investors were convinced that gravity didn’t apply to home prices anymore, they also believed that newspaper profits could just keep going up and up and up. As those profits soared past 20 percent, past 30 percent and to 37 percent, prudent financial minds might have wondered if there would be a bust at some point.

Simon seems unconcerned with even imagining how so many reasonable businesspeople could have made such a myopic assumption. Instead he takes the cheap-shot tactic of vilifying the out-of-town owners and editors, implying that their very out-of-townness is what prompted their shallow chasing of journalism awards (as though no home-grown editors have ever done the same) and prevented them from ever understanding the cities in which they worked.

By this logic, I will never be an adequate reporter in Bethlehem, PA, simply because I grew up in Ellicott City, MD.

“It costs money to do the finest kind of journalism. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund that kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me. A freshman marketing major at any community college can tell you that if you don’t have a product for which you can charge people, you don’t actually have a product.”

  —Simon’s testimony (p. 8)

Simon, like many print veterans, seems perplexed and even offended that newspapers began giving away reporters’ work product on the Internet for free. But Simon forgets why newspapers started charging for their printed content in the first place. It certainly wasn’t because owners were making a principled statement about the societal value of quality reporting.

In fact, newsstand and subscription fees don’t actually pay for any reporting. It’s more like a service fee, to help cover the costs of the newsprint, ink, printing presses, delivery vans and hundreds of employees that are all involved in getting an ink-stained piece of tree pulp in readers’ hands each morning.

Meanwhile, delivering the same journalism content over the Internet costs next to nothing; all it takes is some server space and a handful of Web designers. In other words, newspapers didn’t start charging to deliver their content online because it didn’t cost anything to deliver their content online.

What’s been paying the newsrooms’ bills for all these years has been print advertising revenues. In some cases, ad revenues even help bail out money-losing circulation operations (as press critic Jay Rosen has pointed out, cost of printing and distributing the San Francisco Chronicle for seven days is more than double the $7.75 that weekly subscribers pay; here’s the original reference).

Simon is right that journalism, as an industry, needs an online “product for which you can charge people,” but he’s looking at the wrong product. Newspapers’ problem is that they’ve been too lazy to develop Web advertising that most businesses would actually want to buy.

As I’ve written before, this is an industry that managed to convince millions of people that advertisements were the best reason to buy the Sunday newspaper. And yet, it seems the best we can do online is to throw up infuriating pop-up windows and looped animations showing somebody dancing about a mortgage rate.

By the way, the profitability of an ad is directly proportional to how many people see it. For that reason alone, newspapers should be kissing the feet of the bloggers, aggregators and search engines that bring hundreds of thousands of online eyeballs to the newspapers’ sites every day to see those ads.

But instead of gratitude, print veterans and other pundits assail Google for daring to make money while performing that service. It’s ludicrous — like attacking newspaper delivery people merely because they want to receive a paycheck for putting our product in front of people.

“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.”

  —Simon’s testimony (p. 8)

That’s true enough. As Simon accurately points out, most people in this country have had some miserable experiences lately at the hands unencumbered capitalism.

But perplexingly, Simon then argues that Congress ought to “consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions with regard to the newspaper industry, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can sit down and … plan an industry wide transition to a paid, online subscriber base.”


Just seconds after he noted how relaxed regulations allowed companies to wreak havoc on the “airlines, manufacturing, banking [and] real estate” markets and industries, now he’s asking for more relaxed regulations?

Moments earlier, he had declared: “there can be no serious consideration of public funding for newspapers. High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously.”

So, handouts of money from the government are bad, but asking the government to rig laws in your industry’s favor is just fine?

Oh, and don’t forget that earlier bit about the greedy, evil corporate owners from out of town. Apparently, Simon believes relaxing the regulations on their industry will somehow inspire a pervasive altruism across the industry, and there’s no chance that money-grubbing overseers might abuse the price-fixing power he wants to give them.

Amidst this illogic is buried another proposal that has better potential for success: Turning newspapers into nonprofits. Simon asks for federal help in making that transition, though it’s not clear how essential the feds’ involvement would really be. Several news organizations — notably including The St. Petersburg Times and lefty magazine Mother Jones — set themselves up under nonprofit ownership years ago.

Simon doesn’t go into much detail on this plan, fixating again on the idea of local ownership — apparently assuming that the nonprofit model is more likely to favor small organizations running each city newspaper. But implicitly, he hints at what’s probably the biggest advantage to the nonprofit model: Capping profits means newspapers couldn’t go back to chasing those short-term returns driven by Wall Street.

Another advantage — unmentioned by Simon — is the strict scrutiny that US tax law applies to nonprofits, which might theoretically make it harder for evil corporate types to raid their newspaper companies.

Simon’s loyalties lie with the journalist friends he left behind when he “took a buyout from the Baltimore Sun and left for the fleshpots of Hollywood.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of his respect for and faith in those reporters. In fact, he’s counting on them to save the industry: Any money that comes from turning newspapers into nonprofits, he argues, would be well-spent hiring back all those laid-off print veterans.

However, personal loyalty will not save this industry. Neither will attacking executives based on their address, or assailing companies like Google merely because they seem to be making money online when newspapers aren’t. Collusion’s not a great bet, either.

As a professional reporter, I’d like to believe that Simon’s main point is correct — that my reporting and writing are the most valuable thing my newspaper has to sell. But that’s false.

Newspapers make their money not by selling journalism but by selling their audience to advertisers. From a business perspective, my work exists merely to draw someone’s eye to the lingerie ad on the facing page. This industry won’t start to thrive again until smart businesspeople find a more profitable way to use my writing and reporting to do exactly the same thing online.

Simon’s right that the best reporters among us devote our careers to pursuing truth and justice — but if truth and justice are all newspapers have to offer, then newspapers will die. Even nonprofits have to make money.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck