High-end journalism is dying and we need to save it

Former Baltimore newspaperman, David Simon, perhaps best known for his work on Homicide and The Wire, spoke before John Kerry’s Senate sub-committee on the future of journalism yesterday. As you might expect, he was brilliant. Sure, he discounted the contributions of blogs, many of whom really are producing valuable, original content, but, for the most part, he was right on the money. Here’s a clip:

….High-end journalism is dying in America. And unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host…

But a nonprofit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything the government can do in the way of creating nonprofit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued. And further, anything that can be done to create financial or tax-based disincentives for bankrupt or near-bankrupt newspaper chains to transfer or donate unprofitable publications to locally based nonprofits should also be considered.

Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can openly discuss protecting copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered. Absent this basic and belated acknowledgement that content matters—in fact, content is all—I don’t think anything can be done to save high-end professional journalism.

And here’s the video by way of Democracy Now:

I’ve said it a hundred times before, but if we really want to save this little democratic experiment of ours and put it on a decent foundation for the future, we need to start nurturing a vibrant, aggressive press. (We can’t allow another Iraq war or financial collapse to happen.) I’d go so far as to say that doing so is as critical to the future of our nation as fighting terrorism and saving the banks. Without a truly independent press with the resources to launch investigative initiatives, we’re sunk. As for newspapers, that’s a different story.

[Thanks to KJC for bringing this to my attention.]

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16 Comments

  1. Brackinald Achery
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions

    Intriguing.

  2. dragon
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    There is the possibility that “high end journalism” isn’t so high end. There is nothing inherently valuable about newspapers. What’s valuable is information, and it can be gathered by people — both pros and amateurs — across a variety of media platforms.

    From:
    Newspaper Narcissism
    Our pursuit of glory led us away from readers
    By Walter Pincus may 2009

    Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose—to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations—press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by “spokesmen” or “experts.” To serve as a counterpoint, we need reporters with expertise.

    Consider the worst of recent examples. I believe the Bush administration sold the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to the American people beginning with a public-relations campaign that started in August 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney kicked it off with a series of speeches on the growing threat from Saddam Hussein, and it continued almost daily, with key members of the administration giving speeches, statements, or press conferences. The result was that the threat from Saddam Hussein—his alleged nuclear weapons, the idea that he would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists—dominated news coverage right up to the time the first missiles hit Baghdad on March 19, 2003.

    Manipulation of the media was taken to its highest form by George W. Bush’s administration. It built, however, on what went on before.

    In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in his book Public Opinion, wrote:

    The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or to avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers.

    Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

    When is the last time you saw a major newspaper or television network set out its own agenda for candidates to take up? At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have lost their voices.

    But when it comes to editorial content, meaningful news about government, politics, and foreign policy is only one of the saleable elements. Good newspapers have to go back to delivering a daily product that our mass audiences want, and which provides to advertisers a unique means to reach consumers. Like supermarkets, newspapers must deliver quality in all departments.

    Yet at the same time, owners, editors, and reporters should push issues they believe government is ignoring. They should do it factually and in articles short enough to read daily, but spread over time. That is how Americans absorb information—by repetition

  3. dragon
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Classic projection of their own importance and getting the sheep to follow. Trust what we say, we are very important people.

    —-“But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host…”——

    Really.

    Where we get our information
    by kos
    Wed Apr 15, 2009 at 11:08:03 AM EDT
    Whenever we debate the future of newspapers, inevitably someone asks, “if they go out of business, where will blogs get their stories?” That’s a companion argument to “who will conduct investigative journalism”? Well, just as a wide range of journalistic enterprises are conducting investigative reporting (including online news outlets, television stations, and advocacy groups), so too will we get our news from a variety of different sources. In fact, we already do.

    Out of curiosity, I decided to see where the news we discuss on this site came from the past week, from Monday, April 6, to Sunday, April 12. If we linked to a source that got its information from another site, we followed the links until we got to the original source of the reporting (“secondary” source). In other words, I wanted to categorize the original source of information for every (front page) post on the site. Here’s the results of that link inventory:

    Newspapers: 102 primary, 21 secondary
    Blogs: 83 primary, 19 secondary
    Advocacy organizations: 77 primary, 9 secondary
    Television network: 69 primary, 14 secondary
    Online news organizations: 54 primary, 5 secondary
    Magazines and journals: 36 primary
    Political trade press: 28 primary
    Research/polling: 20 primary
    Wikipedia: 21 primary, 8 secondary
    Educational (.edu): 15 primary
    Government: 14 primary, 5 secondary
    Campaigns: 13 primary
    Books: 6 primary
    AP and other Wire: 5 secondary
    Radio: 4 primary

    “Online news organizations” include web-centric publications conducting original journalism, like HuffPo, and TPM. “Political trade press” are the DC-centric political newspapers: CQ, The Hill, Roll Call, and Politico.

    While newspapers were the most common source of information, they accounted for just 123 out of 628 total original information sources, or just shy of 20 percent. And a huge chunk of that, up to half, came from links in the Abbreviated Pundit Roundup, which is specifically designed to track what some of the nation’s top pundits are yammering about. In the unlikely and tragic event that every single newspaper went out of business today, we’d have little problem replacing them as a source of information. Even most of the pundits we’re following would stick around somewhere or other. It’s not as if Paul Krugman’s fate is intertwined in any way with the NY Times’.

    Again, this doesn’t mean I’m gleefull or happy or even neutral on the sorry state of the newspaper industry and the demise of so many great newspapers. It’s always sad to lose a good source of journalism. But we live in a rich media environment, easily the richest in world history, and the demise of the newspaper industry will simply shift much of the journalistic work they did to other media.

  4. kjc
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    i wasn’t aware that huffington post was doing its own news gathering.

    “Classic projection of their own importance and getting the sheep to follow. Trust what we say, we are very important people.”

    dragon, i’m curious; did you listen to simon’s testimony? cuz this is no way representative of his msg. he’s as disillusioned with newspapers as you are. I don’t know what a “rich media environment” is exactly but i don’t think we’re rolling in quality content.

  5. Posted May 8, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    dragon is on the right track. We do need good investigative reporting, but there’s not necessarily a reason that has to come from newspapers (or from whatever newspapers evolve into).

  6. Robert
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Why do people assume the problem is on the supply end?

  7. Tanis
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    “I’ve said it a hundred times before, but if we really want to save this little democratic experiment of ours and put it on a decent foundation for the future, we need to start nurturing a vibrant, aggressive press. (We can’t allow another Iraq war or financial collapse to happen.) I’d go so far as to say that doing so is as critical to the future of our nation as fighting terrorism and saving the banks. Without a truly independent press with the resources to launch investigative initiatives, we’re sunk.”

    Really? *This* is the nadir of our country’s existence? You don’t think that possibly the Civil War, the depression of the 1930s, the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation were greater threats to our brand of democracy? Good god, man, these problems are speedbumps in our 230+ year history. Man, I respected this blog, too.

  8. Curt Waugh
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I long for the good ol’ days where Hearst could whip up a war at a moment’s notice. A good, solid, meaningful war, too.

    It’s so completely different than Murdoch and… wait…

    What exactly changed again?

  9. Brackinald Achery
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    We need more aggressive sensationalized hysteria to lead us to new heights of stupid.

  10. Bob
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_DV54ddNHE

  11. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Tanis,

    An “informed citizenry” is foundational to democracy. Freedom of the press played an important role during all those little speed bumps you mentioned. Imagine those events and others in our history without the press.

  12. jorj
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Imagine how horrible the swine flu pandemic would have been without the press! People not falling ill and not dying all around us, and we would have just had our heads in the sand! Like sheep to the (s)laughter!

  13. Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    “Classic projection of their own importance and getting the sheep to follow. Trust what we say, we are very important people.”

    I’d think someone so anxious not to be one of the “sheep” could write their own posts instead of cut-and-pasting 99% of it from elsewhere….

  14. Posted May 8, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I think there should be entire industries always at the ready just in case I am hit by the urge to do something intelligent, responsible or productive.

  15. Posted May 8, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m much more sympathetic to Walter Pincus’ analysis.

  16. Lisele
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks, mark — I’m really glad I listened to Simon’s testimony.

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