The Senate held a “The Future of Journalism” hearing this week, and I finally caught up with the testimony of David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who parlayed that experience into “Homicide” and “The Wire,” then recently followed it up by producing the splendid HBO Iraq miniseries “Generation Kill.”
For the complete document, here’s a link, by way of Jim Romenesko’s Poynter site. But the key passages include Simon’s observation that because newspapers can’t monetize the Internet sites that are aggregating their content, “the parasite is killing the host;” and that the industry’s demise began out of greed and mismanagement “long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.”
Simon left the Sun in the mid-1990s, right when I was starting at another Tribune newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. And with the benefit of hindsight, I think he’s right about almost everything — including the pervasive effects of a “prize culture” that he documented in the final season of “The Wire,” where editors push Pulitzer-bait projects at the expense of the nuts-and-bolts reporting that actually serves their local community.
As for greed, Tribune got into the layoffs-in-pursuit-of-bigger-margins business long before the Internet began leeching away profits. Indeed, I was hired there to fill a vacancy left after job cuts and a hiring freeze imposed about a year before I started in ’96.
Simon closed his testimony by outlining several proposals to help “save” newspapers, which mostly boil down to providing antitrust protection that would allow them to collude on a system to charge for online content; and facilitating the shift to non-profit status. Both sound like reasonable ideas to me, though I confess to some skepticism about either gaining much traction. For starters, too many on the right are delighting in the financial woes assailing what they deride as the “mainstream media” (see Jeff Jacoby’s Boston Globe column on the misguided gloating) to let such measures to move forward without turning it into a political circus.
Meanwhile, Simon is moving ahead with his next HBO series, “Treme,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Based on his Senate testimony, it’s an appropriate choice, because the guy knows a thing or two about how to clean up a complete mess.