Valuing Journalism: David Simon

David Simon, who I love as a storyteller:

And this slow suicide — as the great Molly Ivins called it — will continue unabated until the industry swallows hard and takes its product — every last newspaper — behind a paywall.

And if they don’t do that?

If not, then it is the day of the “citizen journalist,” which is to say, the day of the amateur. And American institutions, or for that matter the world as a whole, will not be held accountable by individuals doing this as a hobby.

Paywalls have nothing to do with what happened to the Times-Picayune. I saw a lot of carping last week about “how many people bitching about this on the Internet actually subscribe” and whatnot, as though commenting on Twitter was itself an act destructive to Noble Print. I saw a lot of whinging about how “people don’t read” anymore. I saw a lot of eulogizing about newspapers being a dying form, as if the Times-Picayune wasn’t profitable.

Make no mistake here: The Times-Picayune is not the victim of the Freedom Loving Internet or changing times or reading habits of the young’uns or anything other than a rapacious corporate desire for profit over the public good, and that’s a problem that afflicted journalism long before the Internet came into being. Speaking as someone who worked in newspapers when we went from cut-and-paste to actual computer layout, who saw two newspapers create their very first web sites, both before and after the same problem existed: The people in charge were greedy, venal, lazy and stupid, and liked playing with matches.

They liked fudging circulation numbers and screwing up distribution routes, undermining newsroom budgets when they weren’t outright stealing. They liked telling reporters there was no money for journalism while buying drinks for their parties. They liked firing people who had been in place too long, hiring young cheap college grads, and then telling the older folks still left that it was the younger folks’ fault for taking a job that was offered to them. They liked changing what was covered from one day to the next. They liked letting minimum-wagers “sell” their subscriptions and they liked delivering so inconsistently that even if people wanted the paper, they couldn’t find or get it.

And they could get away with all this because even with TV and radio, they were still the dominant form, and there was enough money to cover up all but the most catastrophic of their mistakes. When the dot-com bubble burst and American manufacturing went into a death spiral and the economy started to tank, the money started to dry up and people started seeing fire where before there’d only been smoke.

The idea of that “industry” (really a disparate collection of corporations that have no incentive to cooperate in any way and in fact share little beyond a medium) “swallowing hard” and coming to one conclusion about improving itself is impractical at best, even if you believe paywalls are the answer. Any smart companies will let the stupid, greedy ones burn, and paywalls or no, the stupid greedy ones will end up as charcoal because this isn’t about form, it’s about managing money and mission, and these people suck at that and have no incentive to change.What incentive is there, when you can gut a company and walk away with millions?

While that fire’s raging, where does that leave those of us who do care about journalism, as I have no doubt Simon does, deeply? It leaves us with people wanting to do journalism. To hold institutions to account. To do what freelance reporters and “amateurs” — like newspaper publishers always are before they buy presses and file incorporation papers — have always done, which is to find out something that’s going wrong and tell as many people as possible.

What do they do? Some of them will publish online. Some of them will form nonprofit collectives and fundraise from those who do care about supporting this kind of work. Some of them will continue to work for the profitable papers that aren’t run by stupid hacks. Some of them will freelance and have day jobs, as many people who call themselves journalists already do. Some of them will start their own newspapers, which by the way w ouldn’t be the worst idea for a well-connected, successful reporter and producer to do in New Orleans.

Knocking those people as hobbyists before they’ve made their bones, and telling them they have no chance of accomplishing their mission, is not helpful to them and it’s not helpful to journalism. Internet triumphalism is tiresome, yes, but so is Internet fatalism, and it’s hard not to take this sort of thing personally when you’re out there busting your ass online BECAUSE nobody in print gave a shit what you were trying to do, back when it was rude to point out that the war on terror was bullshit.

Let’s be clear about this: When we have fights about amateurs versus professionals, when we have fights about print versus online, about paywalls that make pennies, about subscriptions instead of ads, about form and function instead of mission and management, we are having the fight the people in charge want us to have while they run away with the piggy bank.

We are letting the arsonists decide who gets to be on the fire brigade.


11 thoughts on “Valuing Journalism: David Simon

  1. Actually …, my answer is that that’s working for them and that’s great if the NYT continues to be run sensibly and with the interests of journalism in mind. I’ve never said PAYWALLS ARE ALL TERRIBLE AND WON’T WORK, I’ve said they’re not the answer to the problem typified by what’s happened to the Times-PIcayune, because loss of subscription revenue isn’t the problem there. The paper has 75 percent market penetration and was making a profit so significant they were paying out bonuses last year when many papers were offering pay cuts.
    Mismanagement, shortsightedness, prioritizing profit over mission, will exist no matter what “revenue streams” come to pass if they aren’t addressed as the genuine problems they are. Paywalls, no paywalls, we’ll end up in the same place.
    And what works for the NYT may or may not work for a paper that doesn’t have as wealthy, Internet-savvy and wide a potential subscriber base, or which doesn’t produce work on the level of the NYT, which many papers don’t.

  2. And for all the ‘”journalism” produced by the NYT, there is a shitload of garbage produced by millionaire celebs like David Brooks, Maureen Dowd and that dumbass tool a few years back who served as Scooter Libby’s stenographer.

  3. What A said.
    This all sort of reminds me of decades ago when the railroads cut all their passenger service. It wasn’t because passenger service wasn’t making a profit. My father-in-law was involved in what was then the Burlington-Northern’s passenger and express service out of Chicago, and he said the company had never NOT made a profit. It was just that there was so much more profit to be made in those 100-car coal trains that there wasn’t any reason to bother with the small amounts they were making from passenger service. So entire regions were cut off from good passenger service, which was picked up by AmTrak whose service is usually indifferent and often terrible, something that need never have happened.
    Making a profit is not the goal of modern business; making ALL the profit is their goal. I know a whole bunch of people making comfortable livings publishing weekly newspapers. Dailies would be no different if they were run by people actually interested in newspapering for profit rather than short-term profit and no interest in the long run–or newspapering–at all.

  4. “we are having the fight the people in charge want us to have while they run away with the piggy bank. ”
    “We are letting the arsonists decide who gets to be on the fire brigade.”
    2 very true statements. Unfortunately, these are pervasively true across so many fields including business and politics.

  5. Ironically, the link to David Simon’s article has an advertisment on it for kochfacts responding to the “corruption” of MSNBC. Wonder how much the Koch folk would like to disable any news service, much less one that has reports on some of the most egregious anti-environmental actions.

  6. Sorry, inaccurate quote. I looked back at the Koch page and the wording used was “dishonest” and “distorted”.

  7. “We are letting the arsonists decide who gets to be on the fire brigade” is the best summation of late capitalism I have ever heard.
    Molly Ivins would be proud.

  8. One name: I.F. Stone.
    From the 1930’s to the 1970’s his name stands out as an ‘Independent Journalist.’ The Weekly Reader after he lost his gig(s) at ‘real’ papers, delivering insightful, document-based reporting that spoke ‘truth of power’ to the people. He made a decent living – doing what needed to be done. You can still find copies of his work collected in his ‘non-conformist histories’ of the post-war world.
    Journalism can be done, and can still support journalists – but it needs to be worth reading and paying for. The problem, as I see it, at the Idaho Statesman, the New York Times, or Chicago Tribune is, (in addition to points listed) the shit just isn’t worth my time. The reporting (directed from above) is intermittent and final. But then again . . . such has it ‘always’ been, and thus shall it always be.

  9. I had this argument with Simon to his face last year. That a paywall will not solve the fundamental problem of journalism today, which is the mutation of Paper High Management from putting out a quality product to bean-counting. That this is about them not caring enough about the business to hire and pay quality journalists to do Their Jobs, be it on paper or pixels. That I refuse to pay for crap and disinformation that passes for news because the hedge-fund managers who now run the business know they can get away with it. That his newspaper, mine and yours were not killed by those of us who just want information to get out there any which way and how.
    Guess what. He agreed with me. And it boggles my mind as to why he keeps bringing it up again and again.
    (He has a free blog and comments at Back Of Town and New Package where he commended the quality of the free writing. So there.)

  10. How then to explain the substantial revenue that the NYT is now realizing through paid online subscription? A revenue stream that is growing, significant and very telling. Answer that specifically, rather than attempting to refute the logic with generalities.

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