I’ve been reading with some fascination the latest round in the garment-rending “What’s happening to our newspapers?” lament — this one sparked by the current season of The Wire and a Washington Post op-ed by its auteur, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon.
I haven’t been watching The Wire. (I know, I should be.) But I’ve read Simon’s piece — a thoughtful but I think sentimental and wrongheaded portrait of the decline of newspapering that coddles the industry for its failure of foresight.
Simon writes with the perspective of a newsroom veteran who entered the field in the wake of Watergate:
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches.
My journalism pedigree is of the same vintage as Simon’s, and though I never went to journalism school, I shared his idealistic fervor. During the 13 years that Simon worked for the Sun, I worked first for the Boston Phoenix (three years) and then for the San Francisco Examiner (a decade).
But my memory’s a little different from Simon’s. Apparently he was lucky enough to experience the ’80s as a golden age of fat editorial budgets and bold projects. Not once in my career have I worked for a newsroom that actually had the resources to devote to the sort of comprehensive coverage that Simon fondly recalls. When I entered print journalism in the early ’80s recession, with magazines closing left and right, it already seemed to me to be a decrepit and failing institution.
At my papers, the pennies were being pinched from the start. The Phoenix’s alt-weekly pay scale enforced an up-and-out track for most talented writers (and there were many of us). The Examiner, stuck in a dead-end afternoon-paper slot and propped up on joint-operating-agreement life support, received some injections of life from its publisher, Will Hearst, but never had many extra resources, and ultimately succumbed to its fate.
Simon recalls a halcyon era of “comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage” declining in the ’90s into a news diet of “celebrity and scandal, humor and light provocation.” I’m sorry, but this is sheer fuzzy nostalgia.
I always saw print journalism as doomed. I loved it anyway, the way you might love a beautiful old car whose engine leak is too costly to repair. There was no way to know how much longer the old newspapers would run, but — outside of exceptional cases like the Times and the Journal, which face their own struggles — they plainly weren’t going to run forever. When the opportunity to leave for the Web came along in 1995, I took it without hesitation.
Here we are, a dozen years later, and only now does it seem to be dawning on many newsroom veterans that the entire industry missed the boat. Simon blames narrow-minded executives, and they are surely at fault, but they were also stuck in a transition that was bound to overpower them. Complaining that newspapers should have charged for their online wares “when they had the chance” is foolish and self-deluding — like wondering why you missed the chance to boost your restaurant’s profits by charging for air. That model was never going to work.
Newsroom leaders, though, should have seen that the arrival of the Net doomed their classified revenue — and with it, their profits. That was obvious a long time ago; rather than sit frozen in terror, smarter publishers might have begun to plan for a future without the old “bundle” of sports scores and stock prices and classified ads supporting unprofitable but socially valuable in-depth reporting.
There’s a larger dynamic at work here, a gigantic example of the business-school concept of the “innovator’s dilemma.” Today, newspaper lovers like Simon look back at the moment in the mid-’90s when, they feel, the industry took a wrong turn, and wonder why: Why weren’t the great newsrooms in the forefront of figuring out how journalism would and should work in the new medium? The answer lies not only in the industry’s preference for maintaining short-term monopoly profit margins, but also in the mindset that dominates any established field.
Just as Microsoft isn’t going to be the company that brings us the Web-based operating system we need and will have within the next decade — even though it could afford to do so, and plainly should, if it wishes to seize the future — so the great newspaper editors and publishers were simply incapable of stepping out of their mental frameworks in order to explore a genuinely new and different news environment. They would dabble; they would set up their little adjunct Web sites and even hire a Web-only columnist or two, and the most radical of them would make their reporters drag along video cameras to do “multimedia reporting.” But why would any of them have said, “The Web is the future — let’s move there as fast as we can?” It simply made no sense for them. Only the dispossessed emigrate.
This failure of vision was, I think, universal among journalists, myself very much included. Our group at Salon was smart enough — or maybe just restless enough — to jump ship for the Web at a very early date, and we did our share of risk-taking and innovation. But we, too, stayed in the comfortable world of the “Web magazine,” doing what we knew and loved best. That gave us some unique value but it prevented us from making bigger breakthroughs, on both the business side and in the newsroom.
Like David Simon, I wish that the journalism world I graduated into in the 1980s matched my dreams. But I’m not going to confuse a youthful pipe-dream with a lost golden age. I know that we’re prone to imagining golden ages at the distance of a couple of decades. But I find it astonishing that any journalist would look back at the 1980s as such an era — a decade, like the present one, in which the U.S. media embraced an incompetent president’s wretched lies “on bended knee”, cheered a rich-get-richer economy and happily highlighted McNews nuggets over “serious work.”
The question that Simon poses now is:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
I think much of it was intellectual vanity — albeit a healthy sort, the sort that frequently motivates talented people to their best work. The big pieces we loved to write were more avidly consumed by our peers than by our readers, who, more often than we liked, were buying the paper not for our prose but for the Little League scores or the classifieds or the TV listings.
The news itself remains valuable. But most people are happy getting the headlines. There is a market for “comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage.” But it’s a niche. Through accidents of technology and business and culture, we inherited a structure that worked to subsidize the “big pieces” and sell them with the rest of the information. That structure is gone now.
So we’re entering this rough transition period, which could last as long as a couple of decades. That’s little consolation for those losing newsroom jobs. But those among the displaced reporters and editors and disappointed journalistic dreamers who have an independent spirit and a creative drive will find their way through the landscape. Look at Simon — he’s managed to work in TV, an even more pathetically pandering medium than newsprint, and wrestle it towards telling “comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic” tales.
[tags]david simon, decline of newspapers, journalism, media, san francisco examiner[/tags]
- December 12, 2008 @ 10:47:45 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- January 22, 2008 @ 12:32:54 by Scott Rosenberg