This is the dry story of a statistic.
By which, I mean to say, it is a story that today’s newspaper is no longer equipped to cover very well. And it is certainly not a story that could be easily gleaned by anyone who hasn’t at some point been a full-time beat reporter, a veteran who has covered an institution like, say, the Baltimore Police Department or the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office for year after year, learning to look behind the curtains, knowing enough not to accept a stat at face value.
You’re reading it here because I once covered crime in Baltimore for a decade and a half, and because I still live in Baltimore and still spend time now and then with detectives and lawyers in that ville. And after years of shared experience, some still talk freely enough in my company.
I have no doubt that a few simplistic souls will note that this is appearing on a blog, and that I am therefore, technically, a blogger. And if the story itself finds any traction anywhere, they will say, “See. Simon did that using the internet. He wasn’t working as a paid, professional journalist. So all that he claims for professional journalism, and the lower regard he has for our vaunted citizen journalism, is unwarranted. He is proof of our very argument.”
Which is lazy. And dumb. And embarrassing in its lack of intellectual rigor. But this being the internet, it will be said by some. They will tweet it, and it will have all the appearance of being clever in 140 characters or less. But it is flippant and useless, which, frankly, is a common outcome when people are thinking in 140-character morsels.
No, the reason I am able to tell you this story is not because I am now an amateur or because I have a blog. It is, above all, because a news organization paid me for years on end to cover the same approximate beat on a full-time basis. For the first three years or so, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I wrote a lot — more than 300 bylines in one year alone — but much of it was credulous and reactive, leavened only by what police and prosecutors told me; none of it carried much of the nuance or understanding required to actually acquire any deeper truth. That stuff only began showing up after I’d had some years of learning the game, of rummaging documents, of learning which sources to trust. I did all of that not as an amateur, and not as a hobby. I did it for 50 or 60 hours a week because the Baltimore Sun had a sufficient revenue stream to pay me a living wage and benefits so that I could take a mortgage and raise a family and show up to do the work on a daily basis. I didn’t do it because I loved cops or hated cops, or loved or hated criminals or lawyers or bureaucrats. I didn’t have any other agenda than the news report itself. The sinecure of professional prose journalism, which is now threatened by a new economic model, was the only place in my city where resources were once allocated for an independent, unaligned voice to spend years in the bowels of a civic institution — long enough that I began to understand what a statistic might represent, and what it might not represent.
When I did the job, there were at least half a dozen different police reporters like me working at the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun. We covered some ground. Today, there are two such creatures struggling to keep up, not only with the daily headlines, but with the kind of institutional reporting that is required for a story like this one to be not only discovered, but understood in all of its obscure, but essential back-and-forth. This is no reflection on those guys: In a newsroom with more empty desks every month, they are buried by the workload. They get to as much as humanly possible, and indeed, they have at points undertaken fine institutional reporting, witness Mr. Fenton’s work on the underreporting of sexual assaults in Baltimore. But make no mistake: The Baltimore Sun of the 1980s or the 1990s — staffed with a half dozen or more police reporters, some of whom had been gathering sources since the late 1960s — would have acquired all of the motivations and implications as the policy change was implemented, and it would have been not only a headline, but a full-blown controversy long ago.
That isn’t to credit myself at all. This is a story that a Roger Twigg or an Ann LoLordo would have nailed long before I ever found my way to the headquarters building. The Baltimore Police Department was a beat; and it was covered as a beat, as an institution. The daily tally of crime and punishment is always the easy part. What happened yesterday is cake. A smart fourteen year old can call a police spokesman, get rote facts and report what occurred in the 1400 block of East Baltimore Street. But what is actually happening within the institutions themselves? And what that will mean to a city? That shit, my friends, is what makes journalism a career for grown-ups.
The above preamble is important, I think. Because the story I’m going to relate to you is the kind of tale that is disappearing from the pages of American newspapers. It is arcane, and it is a bit boring and very much inside-baseball. It is also, tellingly, more important to the welfare of a city than dozens of this-happened-yesterday-police-said stories that remain a staple of our news report, both on- and off-line.
* * *
In 2011, the Baltimore Police Department charged 70 defendants with murder or manslaughter.
Yet in 2010, the department charged 130 defendants with such crimes. And the year before that, the department charged 150 defendants with killing another person in Baltimore.
Crime — and murder — is down in Baltimore — until the present year at least, when the department is again contending with a moderate spike in homicides. But it did not decline by 50 percent. Not even close. Yet, in the span of a single year, the department’s deterrent against the most serious criminal act imaginable has been cut in half. From an average of 140 defendants over the previous two years, Baltimore police are now only able to charge half as many defendants.
What is happening?
Are Baltimore’s killers showing more cunning, are murders becoming harder to solve? No indication of that from any quarter. Did the homicide unit lose a ton of veteran talent? Nope. Not between 2010 and 2011 at any rate. No, the dramatic collapse of the department’s investigative response to murder is the result of a quiet, backroom policy change that has created a bureaucratic disincentive to charge people in homicides.
And what is this change?
Beginning midway through 2011, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, for the first time in modern history, became the sole arbiter of when to charge a defendant in a homicide investigation. Previously, that decision rested with the police department, which would do so in consultation with prosecutors from the Violent Crimes Unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office. Which is to say, while police detectives were expected to take guidance from prosecutors — and did so — they were nonetheless free to arrest defendants if they felt the evidence warranted a charge.
Is this bureaucratic change in any way an improvement, perhaps?
Well, yes and no. Like I said, this is story that requires some sense of the real-life stakes involved, some nuanced understanding of the back-and-forth. And, too, it requires an insider’s knowledge of how statistics themselves can be manipulated for institutional purposes.
In 1988, for example, there were 234 homicides in Baltimore. Tracking all of those cases, a reporter would learn that 22 of them were cleared by the police department through arrest, but then later dropped by the state’s attorney’s office prior to indictment. What did that mean to the police department? To the prosecutor’s office? To the city of Baltimore?
Well, for the police department it meant credit for solving 22 cases that they didn’t actually solve, given that the evidence was insufficient for prosecutors to obtain even a grand jury indictment. Why? Because the FBI’s crime reporting logic allows police departments to take credit for all cases cleared by arrest, regardless of whether those arrests are any good at all. Once an arrest has been made — even if charges are subsequently dropped — the case is credited as cleared, and its status as a cleared case doesn’t change.
For the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, there was no institutional cost to be paid for these 22 weak sisters. Why not? Because the State’s Attorney only computes his overall conviction rate — a statistic that he will run on for reelection every four years — using cases that have been indicted by a grand jury. Cases dismissed prior to indictment don’t count against him either.
Get it? Twenty-two murder cases in that given year of 1988 went under the rug, with neither side in this dynamic taking responsibility for the outcome. The police department took credit for the arrests, even though the cases were dumped unceremoniously without even a grand jury indictment. And the prosecutor in Baltimore took no responsibility for these cases in assessing his own office’s performance. By such statistical dishonesties –of which this is not the only one, believe me — the Baltimore department was able to maintain a clearance rate in the high sixties in that given year and the State’s Attorney was able to claim a conviction rate in the low eighties in that same year. But of course, the actual chance of anyone going to jail for any length of time for killing anyone in Baltimore in 1988 was just below 40 percent. Whoever said there were lies, damn lies and statistics needs to create a fourth, more extreme category for law enforcement stats.
Nonetheless, this was the status quo in Baltimore prior to 2011.
Was there an incentive for detectives to charge an insubstantial case just to get it off the books? Absolutely. Was there no meaningful threat to the prosecutor’s conviction rate as a result? Not really. Both institutions had conspired to create a statistical black hole in which they could hide a meaningful percentage of their failure.
But last year, the new State’s Attorney in Baltimore — who, notably, had campaigned for office on a claim that he would be more aggressive than his predecessor in pursuing violent criminals — managed to quietly prevail on the police commissioner to change the long-standing policy. Going forward, the prosecutor’s office alone would decide when to charge a murder or manslaughter case.
In agreeing to this, Baltimore’s Police Comissioner, who until his recent retirement had been quite effective in certain other aspects, had opened the door to a fresh, unanticipated hell. By eliminating any bureaucratic tension between the homicide unit and the prosecutor’s office, the commissioner had effectively let the air out of the city’s entire deterrent against murder.
True, there would no longer be cases charged and then dropped — that fundamental deceit had been eradicated overnight. But now, a new, more profound dishonesty began to overtake the system. Now, the state’s attorney — acting unilaterally and without any possible contradiction by police commanders — was free to charge only those cases he was absolutely sure he could win in court. Now, police had not only been prevented from charging murders in which they had weak evidence, but also from charging those cases in which evidence was substantive, but not necessarily ironclad.
Why would this happen? Because, again, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore is a political creature. He needs to run for reelection every four years. He lives by his conviction rate, and by his high-profile successes. He fears nothing so much as to, say, lose a murder case in court, or be obliged to drop the charges publicly, after indictment, when, say, a witness backs up — and then, a year or two later have the same defendant commit another crime. And why was the defendant on the street able to commit another crime? Because the prosecutor failed to convict that defendant in court. Those are the headlines from an elected prosecutor’s worst nightmare.
Left alone to shape his own statistics, Baltimore’s State’s Attorney — instead of being more aggressive against violent criminals — is now, on the charge of murder, at least, the least aggressive in modern history. Yes, some of the cases he is no longer charging do indeed represent cases with weak evidence. But others include not-so-marginal casework — murders in which police follow-through, good pretrial prep by the trial attorneys, and yes, a little witness protection could make the difference between a killer getting a pass or getting a long prison sentence. Now, given the police commissioner’s abdication, dozens of such cases are all being quietly dumped by Baltimore’s top prosecutor.
The cost to the police department is, of course, in its clearance rate for murder, which — when you eliminate the other statistical subterfuge of prior-year clearances — is down in the high twenties when last I checked. Now, the city homicide unit is not only rightly being denied credit for cases that it should never have charged, but detectives are not getting proper credit for cases in which they have indeed developed sufficient evidence for indictment. Now, such cases — if they are not surefire courtroom victories or surefire pleas — are not being charged by a prosecutor consumed with matters of public image.
How many such cases are there? Well, again using 1988 as an example, there were 40 cases of murder and manslaughter that were indicted by a grand jury, but in which charges were dropped prior to trial. Many of these prosecutions collapsed because witnesses recanted, or changed their stories or could not be located. Shepherding and protecting witnesses is a recurring problem in Baltimore and many cases that are strong enough to charge in the immediate aftermath of a crime are later problematic after months or even years before a case is heard. But then, the problem with such prosecutions is not in the cases themselves, but in the ability of the legal system to maintain, protect and follow through with state’s witnesses. Not charging such cases in the first place is scarcely a solution to anything.
In any event, using 1988 as a means of comparison, it’s within statistical probability to suggest that of perhaps 50 or 60 defendants who were not charged by Baltimore prosecutors in 2011 and who would have been charged under prior policies, as many as two out of every three had sufficient evidence against them to have resulted in an indictment. Meaning that for every case in which Baltimore police might have once wrongly charged a defendant on insufficient evidence, there was now, conservatively, another case, or may even two, dumped by the prosecutor’s office even though sufficient evidence to proceed existed.
So if you’ve read this far, and you understand the actual dynamic in play, you’re probably saying to yourself: What’s the solution? In the past, the detectives and lawyers simply swept their mistakes under the rug, with neither side taking responsibility for the bad stats. And now, because the state’s attorney has prevailed in this contest of statistical gamesmanship, the police department clearance rate has been savaged and some bad cases are no longer being charged, yet at the same time, good murder cases aren’t going forward. Which is worse? And how can this be fixed?
Well, it’s easy. And I’ll give you as long as it takes you to read past the next string of asterisks.
* * *
When a statistic gives you lies, you don’t try to parse the lies. You change the stat.
And in this instance, the solution is so simple, so utterly apparent that it’s almost embarrassing, or it would be if public officials in Baltimore were actually capable of embarrassment.
Of course, the solution would long elude police department officials. After all, they’re not exactly in the business of looking for truth in stats. They dumped their mistakes for years, taking clearances in cases where no indictment ever followed, and now, having lost that easy out, they’re still in the early stages of grief, notably denial and anger.
And the prosecutor? He has no incentive to solve the problem. He’s in the catbird seat, having shed any responsibility for bringing anything but the most obvious and winnable dunkers. If the new policy stands, he can look forward to reelection without fear of a single ugly headline.
City Hall? The mayor? Her staff? Well, if they rely on the stats provided by their law enforcement leaders, they’ll think that the prosecutor is doing fine, that his conviction rate is higher than ever, and that it’s now the homicide unit alone that can’t manage a sufficient deterrent. They’ll blame the wrong folks, if they get around to blaming anyone at all.
And meanwhile, in 2012, there’s now a nine percent increase in murder — a quiet harbinger of a new dynamic in which this quiet, backroom policy change has created an absolute disincentive to charge and prosecute murder aggressively. And if you don’t think one thing is related to the other, think again. The same people you leave on the street, uncharged, for a 2011 killing are still out there in 2012, and for them, the game remains the same. So for the citizens of Baltimore, charging only half the number of murder defendants as in previous years is indeed a threat to fundamental public safety. But the idea that any outsider — any citizen — is going to have a handle on the back-room revolution in charging policy is absurd on its face.
No, for this, you need: A beat reporter.
Preferably a veteran. Someone with a few years of being lied to and jerked around by the same institution he now understands. You need a pack of them actually — enough to handle the daily news report and still have manpower enough to report on the systemic issues within the bureaucracy. And behind those reporters, you can use a good editor, and a careful copy desk, and maybe a full-throated editorial writer coming behind. For this, you need an institution that is on the outside but understands the inside, an agency that isn’t aligned with cover-your-ass prosecutors or bury-the-mistakes police detectives. To catch this mess when it first starts, you need a staffed newsroom that does this every day, that hears about this change when it happens — almost a year ago — and writes about it immediately, before 50 or 60 murder defendants go uncharged and about as many cases are quietly shelved.
Because if you look at the problem on paper for more than ten minutes, you’ll likely see that the solution is certain and obvious and easy.
No, it makes no sense to go back to the past deceits. You don’t want to return to the days when detectives could take a clearance for a case that should never have been charged. But neither do you want to live with the present policy, when a prosecutor can featherbed his electibility by reducing his responsibility for deterring the crime of murder by as much as 50 percent.
A good, healthy news organization looks at past and present, and reports — in all possible context — on what is at stake. It shames those responsible for their frauds and argues for accountability. It looks at the lies, at the stat games, at the real and ugly motivations and it says, simply, that to be accountable to the citizens of Baltimore for their actual performance, public officials must do three things:
1) Restore the police department’s ability to charge any crime, but encourage their continued consultation with prosecutors during that process.
1) However, change the clearance rate for the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit. From now on, give no credit for clearances by arrest that fail to result in a grand jury indictment for murder or manslaughter. Eliminate the incentive for detectives to prematurely or wrongly charge a defendant in a homicide.
2) Similarly, change the conviction rate for the city State’s Attorney and make his office responsible not just for the disposition of indicted offenses but for all offenses charged. Eliminate the prosecutor’s incentive for dumping cases in a similar fashion.
In the past, neither agency took responsibility for the weak cases that were wrongly charged. In the present, one agency — alone, with no check-and-balance — is taking responsibility only for the easiest of workloads. By making both agencies responsible for the totality of the investigative deterrent, we eliminate the gamesmanship and stat-based dishonesty. Police will have lost any incentive to ignore prosecutors and charge a weak-sister case that can’t be at least indicted. And prosecutors have lost any incentive to dump the tough, but necessary prosecutions of less-than-certain convictions. Everyone is responsible. For all of it. And given that everyone is now responsible, a certain feature of the new dynamic will be cooperation between the homicide unit and prosecutors. After all, both are going to be blamed for the same failures, just as both will be credited with the same success.
Baltimore officials — the mayor, say — could do this unilaterally, as a means of making their law enforcement leadership more accountable for making the actual city safer, rather than compiling their best possible stats. God knows how much good could be accomplished nationally if the FBI and the Justice Department actually revised the way they compile such stats.
In any event, it’s almost too simple.
Last week, I was asked to speak at the Barristers Law Club gathering in Baltimore, and I accepted, knowing that the Baltimore State’s Attorney was a member and would be present. What ensued when I brought all of this up wasn’t personal, but it was pointed. The gentleman in question sat stoically, making no statement and asking no questions. But rather than consider the benefits of changing the stats so that everyone was made responsible for all of the casework and all of the outcomes, others in the room rushed to his defense.
They know him to be a fine man, and a worthy state’s attorney. Why worry about making our statistics reflect the actual extent of his performance when we all know he’s doing such a fine job? If he’s only charging half the murders his office did previously, he has his reasons.
I continued to argue the point, noting that while I am sure he’s an excellent fellow, perhaps we want our institutions held fully accountable for the sheer hell of it. I mean, after all, the next state’s attorney may not be quite as high-minded and heroic, and we might then want to know how many cases that desperate fellow is quietly sweeping under the rug.
It went downhill from there. My guess is if I was half as honest as I needed to be, I won’t be invited back to address that esteemed group further. And my guess is that this blog item, unless it gets picked up and reframed by mainstream media — by institutions large enough and central enough to civic life to cause a state’s attorney or police commissioner some real grief — won’t matter either.
* * *
The problem, of course, is that I’m not institutional. I’m an ex-police reporter who still talks to people. And, every now and then, a law club asks for some remarks or I get the inclination to write a blog item on something that happened months, or even a year earlier. In this instance, that leaves me in a position to parse some statistical bullshit. But it’s certainly half-assed and indirect. It’s not what a healthy institutional press is capable of achieving. Not even close.
And for all of us, the stakes are profound. It’s hard enough to hold agencies and political leadership accountable in a culture that no longer has the patience or inclination to engage with the actual dynamics of actual institutions. At this point, we are having trouble as a society recognizing our problems, much less solving any of them. But absent a properly funded professional press — one that covers the civic bureaucracies with constancy and tenacity, we’re going to have even less of a shot going forward. Again, this particular policy change that has done such damage to the investigative deterrent in Baltimore occurred almost a year ago. The Baltimore Sun was able to report at points on the complaints of detectives against the new policy, some of whom have been frustrated getting cases charged. But the net effect — the fact that the number of murder defendants had been halved by the new policy went unaddressed. And the implications of all this — as detailed above — haven’t been fully reported. Again, The Sun still has some hard-working, committed folk, but they are younger and fewer, and they are spread thin across a civic firmament that is, if anything, even more complicated, more self-protecting, and more entrenched.
As for the blogosphere, it just isn’t a factor for this kind of reporting. Most of those who argue that new-media journalism is growing, exploding even, in a democratic burst of egalitarian, from-all-points-on-the-compass reportage are simply never talking about beat reporting of a kind that includes qualitative judgment and analysis. There’s more raw information sure. And more commentary. And there are, for what it’s worth, more fledgling sites to look for that kind of halfway-there stuff. Usually, such sites are what folks point at and laud when they argue that the bulldozing of mainstream media can proceed without worry. At one point last week, I noted a comment on a journalism website in which a new-media advocate pointed out that local websites were perfectly capable of printing the details of every murder as they occurred — as if such a feat undertaken by so-called citizen journalism isn’t mere accounting, but something on the level of real reportage.
Beat reporting — and the beat structure of a metropolitan daily — is what is dying here. Absent a fresh online revenue stream, newspapers can no longer sustain veteran reporters on institutional beats the way they once did; not in the numbers necessary to keep bureaucracies honest. And the blogosphere? Good luck. The day that a citizen journalist can summon the sources, patience, clarity and tenacity to uncover such back-room machinations, to sort and filter the implications and then land a careful critique of the dynamic — well, that will be the day that he or she has spent two or three or four years covering that institution or agency. In this case, that means two or three years of drinking beer in cop bars and taking prosecutors to lunch and saving home numbers of whichever disgruntled police commanders are willing to talk about the dirt. And the day such a citizen journalist devotes that much time to such a crusade, I’m willing to bet it’s because someone is paying them an honest wage to go to work every day. Which makes that person not a citizen journalist at all, but a professional reporter; which brings us more or less right back to the world that the internet supposedly vanquished.
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What do you mean by damage to the investigative deterrent ? Are u talking about a criminal being more likely to go out and commit more crimes bc he/she Is fairly certain the initial charge wont make it to a grand jury ?? Thx!
simplistic soul 🙂
Excellent post. I was led here by a footnote in “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform”, an excellent book by John Pfaff. Thank you for your work.
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I was led to this post by “The View from LL2” blog, which I was led to by the podcast “Undisclosed: the State vs. Adnan Sayed,” which I was led to by a link in an article about the podcast “Serial.” Your post is fascinating not only as it relates to the Adnan Sayed case, but also in light of Freddie Gray’s recent death and the subsequent riots in Baltimore. I admit I never gave a lot of thought to the disappearance of beat reporters and true investigative reporting until this moment. My hope is that the popularity of “Serial,” et al, will inspire a resurgence of this vital type of reporting.
My father was law enforcement and so I grew up knowing that while law enforcement may have the best intentions, they are human and therefore imperfect. In fact, my father died in a police standoff…but not in the way you probably think. After his retirement, his already dangerous addictions turned deadly, taking him from arrests, to jail, to rehab, to being a fugitive of justice. When apprehended, he took his own life as he lay surrounded by his own kind, guns drawn & pointed at him. The policeman had become the perp. There is often a very thin line between the two.
[…] This “charge them all and let the prosecutor sort them out” style of policing was a major cause of a schism that developed between the State’s Attorney’s Office and the B…. It was also a major contributor to each of the false convictions discussed […]
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As a homicide prosecutor (not a boss, just a soldier) in a major metro area I have been a fan of your work for awhile and just came across this blog. Reading about the homicide stats and the massaging of those stats is so unbelievably familiar I had to check to make sure you were talking about Baltimore and not my city. Trust and believe, this stuff is not limited to Maryland, but is instead the way of doing business in any zip code with a body count. I, for one, believe any analysis of “conviction” rates is at its best phony (they can be juked too easily) and at its worst detrimental (young lawyers are scared to try the tough cases cause – you know- you might lose one). I’ve been at it for awhile and when I was coming up you weren’t considered a real DA if you had never lost a case, if you haven’t had to apologize to a family after a shooter walks free. That’s how prosecutors are made. Anyone can win a DNA case. with a confession.
Nowadays people look at our work like its a sport, wins and loses, who beat who…a lot gets lost in the process.
Anyway, I’m rambling….great blog, glad I found it.
In the first full year since Mr. Bernstein implemented his new policies and new standards for murder indictment, the actual murder rate in Bawltimore has jumped 10 percent.
At least one double murder was committed by a suspect that Mr. Bernstein’s office declined to charge with homicide in early 2011 when offered the case by detectives.
More on that to come.
Excellent article and excellent debate
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There is one flaw in all of this, and that’s the suggestion that this is done to improve the State’s Attorney’s conviction rate. While I agree that the move would, in fact, improve the conviction rate, to my knowledge, the conviction rate is not tracked. Or, at least, is not made public. Can you direct me to any source that can give the specific conviction percentage for the BCSA Homicide Division? The FIVE unit? I have not seen any elected prosecutor in Maryland quote a conviction rate for many years, and I was under the impression that they had stopped trying to quantify it.
If there is no publicly available conviction rate, then Bernstein has no incentive to junk the numbers. In fact, just the opposite — he has an incentive to try as many people as possible, because he can tout the number of homicide convictions without havng to answer for the homicide acquittals.
Those numbers were indeed available under the administrations of Swisher, Schmoke and Simms, and were eminently reportable. And they were reported. I know because I did so at points, at least with regard to homicide. And I recall seeing conviction rates in the mid- and high 80-percent range, and even 90-percent range, conveyed in campaign literature by incumbents during contested elections.
If they are no longer being utilized as direct political fodder, my first inclination is to wonder if they are no longer figures that give any comfort to the incumbent. Perhaps the rate — even with the added benefit of fewer charged cases — is no longer what it was, which would reflect on the poor casework of recent administrations, or for that matter, the continued and profound alienation of the Baltimore jury pool in the wake of the mass-arrest policy of a gentleman seeking to become governor from the mayoral perch.
And perhaps, the current state’s attorney, looking at a conviction rate that is, say, sixty or seventy percent, would like to claim, by the time of the next election, that he had improved matters greatly.
But more important than all of this, your supposition ignores the fundamental fear that an elected state’s attorney has with regard to all casework. If he takes a case — especially a higher-profile case such as a murder — and fails to convict on that case, he produces a record of that failure in the public domain. If that defendant then kills again a year or two hence, and the reporters in looking up the history, discover the failed prosecution, then THAT becomes a simple and politically harmful narrative. As I said in the original post, these are the headlines of a prosecutor’s worst nightmare. And not taking anything but sure winners guards against such headlines, fundamentally.
Let me add that I do not believe that the SAO does not keep records of the adjudication of every murder and compile statistics based on such. The VCU used to maintain massive blue binders showing the present-day disposition of every single murder, year in and year out. And stats were kept and adjusted on every year, and they were offered with assurance and pride when a reporter asked or when an SA was addressing a civic group or voter forum. Indeed, it was hearing such figures offered up publicly that convinced me to actually track one year’s worth of homicides through the system, along with court reporter M. Dion Thompson, for an article that ran in 1994 and detailed how neither the police clearance rate, nor the SAO conviction rate, reflected the actual disposition of murder cases.
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I understand that the UK based Daily Mail is now the largest newspaper website in terms of unique page views, having recently eclipsed the NY Times. In order to do this the Daily Mail has consigned any serious articles about politics, crime, war, and so forth to the far corners of the site, in order to concentrate on such important matters as whether Lindsay Lohan has gained or lost weight in the last week.
This says to me that people are in the main not concerned about important things. I rather think that they make a conscious effort to not be concerned about important things. Why would anybody choose to read an in-depth analysis of a complicated social issue when they could instead laugh light-heartedly at the latest celebrity wardrobe malfunction?
That did get me thinking though, along with some of the excellent comments above regarding what people actually bought newspapers for in “the golden age”, as I guess we could call it. Perhaps the general populace was never buying newspapers for the news – and the only people that were buying it for the news were the people who were being written about?
Here in the UK as I guess you may have noticed, we have been embroiled in an enormous scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the links between that organisation and our central government. Murdoch has been able to apply leverage to successive administrations using his mass-market tabloid, The Sun.
It is still the most circulated paper here in the UK, and so when that paper throws its weight behind a political party, the political parties take notice. However, the main reason for The Sun being the paper with the highest daily circulation is (at least as far as I can divine from co-workers over the years) that on page 3 of the paper every day there is a picture of a woman baring her breasts.
In a roundabout way, I guess I’m wondering whether quality journalism really needs to be coupled with mass circulation daily news sources to survive; it seems that profit has become an enemy to it. Is it of essential importance that the stories are available to everyone, even if the majority don’t want to read them?
I love this post. Once again, I feel like I’ve learned something. After being a fan of The Wire and its power to educate while delivering a narrative compelling and powerful enough to motivate digging into the subject material, this inside look at yet another numbers game in Baltimore reads almost like a sequel or an episode summary from season six. The game remains the same, oh indeed.
I wonder if, Mr. Simon, you’ve ever given any thought to being a professor? Your so good at teaching, even if that’s not exactly what you do, I can’t help but think you could really be useful in a school of journalism somewhere.
Secondly, I was wondering what your favorite current newspapers are and who are the writers you most look forward to reading on a daily or weekly basis, because whatever and whoever they are … I want to send my money their way.
^you’re so good at teaching. … Dammit, I had to make a typo like that on a line like that, didn’t I? Obviously, I need all the learnin’ I can get.
As a prof myself, I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing. Would be one of the few that could hold the students tension for hours.
I suspect, however, that the pageantry and pretentious would give Mr Simon hives.
I agree whole heatedly that the Sun is in no position to properly pursue the type of crime reporting we need, and that we are worse for it. I also agree that the drop in charged murder cases is notable and requires explanation. My question is whether there is any benefit to the police having unilateral charging power for murder at all. You note that in the past, BPD consulted with the SAO before charging, so if that was the case, under the new policy the only type of cases uncharged are those in which the BPD and SAO disagreed as to whether there was sufficient evidence to proceed. Presumably, the prosecutor is looking as to whether there is evidence to convict, while the police is more concerned with probable cause to charge. Isnt it better to have the prosecutor make the call before charging so that more investigation can be done where warranted, than to have someone charged and later dismissed? After all, there is little benefit to charging someone that cannot be convicted at trial. That is not to say that the SAO should only take slam dunks, but they should be ale to determine if the case is sufficient to proceed. If not, there is a potentrial for injustice in that someone is charged on weak evidence or little more than suspicion. There is , after all, a clear check that does not require significant investigative reporting – the discrepancy between killings classified as homicide (nearly 200 last year) and murders charged by the SAO (70). That number requires explanation. I just don’t think giving BPD unilateral charging power is the answer. As to your statistical recommendations, I think they are good suggestions too.
You don’t want to give the BPD unilateral power over this decision. Me too. But neither do I want to give the SAO a unilateral veto. I want to compel the maximum amount of cooperation between the two, while leaving neither agency the opportunity to dump its failure in the other’s backyard.
If the BPD had the power to charge, but could not take credit for the stat without a true-bill indictment, then an evidentiary standard is applied. And remember — an assistant state’s attorney has to walk that case into the grand jury, meaning if the SAO thinks the BPD is charging irresponsibly, they have absolute power to deny the homicide unit any credit whatsoever for the arrest.
At the same time, if the SAO is ducking everything other than the dunkers and easy pleas to a point where, say, there isn’t a trial team willing to bring a good, cohesive circumstantial prosecution into court, then the BPD commanders can at a minimum make a statement by charging the cases nonetheless. And the cost to the SAO is that the arrests they refuse to take to grand jury count against its conviction rate. So there is an institutional penalty for ducking the hard, but prosecutable cases.
In short, each agency would have leverage on the other in terms of the stats. And where once the stats were corrupted by a “black hole” in which neither agency took responsibility for weak cases/tough prosecutions and simply dumped them prior to indictment, now the SAO has the power to limit its casework to surefire winners and little else, with no cost to his public record of performance.
By restoring the BPD’s ability to charge, but changing the nature of the stats so that both agencies hold some leverage over the other, a more honest case-by-case assessment will result. The flaw in what you are saying lies in the “presumably” by which you begin the sentence “presumably, the prosecutor is looking as to whether there is evidence to convict…” That presumes a prosecutor that is never a political creature and always a pure professional. Which presumes far too much for the real world. The prosecutor may, in fact, be looking not whether there is sufficient evidence to convict. He may be looking to assure himself that there is so much evidence that he stands little chance of having anything other than a successful outcome. For a fellow who criticized the last occupant of his office for not being aggressive enough with the cases police were bringing her, this would be a notable retreat.
I completely agree with you that there is no victory in having police charge a case wrongly or prematurely. And cases should always continue to be investigated if there are leads, and if the evidence against a suspect needs tightening. But here, again, a little bit of the real world needs to be addressed. Working murders in Baltimore — even at lower rates of homicide — is like mowing the lawn. Detectives catch a case and they shake it for a while and see what comes. If the case has some profile, if the victim is more ‘innocent’ than not, if some leads come to light, they shake it for a while longer. But eventually, fresh murders come around on a squad’s next night shift and the older files get less work. Eventually, they go dormant. If a state’s attorney pends a case because he thinks other specific avenues should be pursued, that’s one thing. If he pends 20 or 30 as a matter of routine, saying there isn’t enough to charge, there isn’t the manpower to continue investigating those murders and all the fresh homicides that continue to land on the unit.
By your logic, the state’s attorney can send everything back but the dunkers and say, nice try, guys, but keep working and see me when you have a case I know I can’t lose. And he can do that repeatedly to the point of diminishing investigative returns. By my logic, he knows that while he should and can do that with cases that are under-developed, he is also under pressure to accept some cases that with good pretrial work, a competent trial team and maybe a little bit of witness protection, can be brought to a legitimate jury verdict if necessary. He might win or lose that case, but he is in fact doing his job by bringing a tough but legitimate prosecution. Right now, the SAO can send everything back into the homicide unit’s lap — legit cases and bad arrests both — without any institutional cost whatsoever. By changing the stats, the BPD might still not get credit for an unindicted case, but they could as a means of protesting a timid and uncommitted SAO, charge those cases that they believe are sufficient for prosecution. And the SAO, under the changed stats, suffers the dismissal in his conviction rate.
I believe that such a scenario is worst-case — that with each agency able to impact the other’s performance metrics, more cooperation will be the order of the day, not less. Police commanders will need the SAO to take their cases to grand jury or there is no gain for them. The state’s attorney is obliged to be aggressive on strong, but-not-surefire cases and take an honest number of those because if he sends everything back, the BPD can charge the cases and immediately impact the stat that matters for his reelection.
And may I just add that with a few more back-and-forths like this one, it is not unreasonable for me to lay claim to being the Bill James of homicide statistics. Reading the above back, I am reminded of James’ efforts to achieve a metric to honestly measure a player’s defensive skills, given how meaningless fielding percentage has proven to be.
If anyone can solve the inherent dishonesty of a prior-year clearance being added to the current year’s arrest rate, while the actual murder remains tallied in the prior year, it might be Mr. James himself. Anyone got a number for that guy?
how about replacing the clearance rate with an overall conviction rate, measured against the total no. of homicides, and applying that to both deptartments? we’re all in this together, some one metric grounded in the absolute reality faced by all citizens seems like it would be a good thing.
p.s. huge fan of your work and dedication to our societies health: many thanks for both.
[…] best known for his work on The Wire (although I also give him more credit than most for Treme), took to his blog to break some news … or at least, to air a theory. In short, he thinks that murder stats in […]
[…] * David Simon unjukes a stat. […]
[…] crime dramas and leading to nicknames like "Bodymore, Murderland." DAVID SIMON David Simon | Dirt Under The Rug In 1988, for example, there were 234 homicides in Baltimore. Tracking all of those cases, a […]
So here’s the question: How does a guy so astute at juking the stats that he becomes Police Commissioner get played so thoroughly by the State’s Attorney?
Or did the Commish prevail upon the SA for some unrelated considerations?
The former beat reporter in me knows there’s a story here, even it’s just a simple matter of the Top Cop flipping the bird to his successor on his way to five tee times a week….
Yeah. Very curious.
But it well happened before Commissioner Bealefeld departed, so I don’t think it was flippant. I think he saw merit in the change. What that was, I have no clue.
I’ve been harping about the failure of citizen journalism and the top-down armchair crap that passes for journalism for awhile now. It is simply impossible to get to the heart of the matter without knowledge and relationships built over time through hard work and digging. Information is cheap, knowledge is expensive. I have always maintained that “investigative reporting” is not a niche, all real reporting is investigative, or should be.
At best, I get blank stares. At worst, I get blank stares from people in the newspaper business. WTF?
This new trend of newspapers to primarily follow twitter for leads on breaking news at the expense of greater depth of true storytelling, the kind of stories that can affect real change and actually engage readers, the kind of reporting that only they can do, is a race over the cliff. Fuck breaking news. That game is gone. You cannot win it. Leave it to the whores with the helicopters. And the bloggers with cell phones. Follow it up with the real story, about people, and lives, and policy, and what it means in the greater context, and how that relates to the daily slog of the dude reading your shit. What does it mean? Why should I care? What can I do about it?
Sure, the business model is broken but I am tired of that being the excuse for more systemic failures of leadership in the newsroom that began long before the current crisis reached epidemic proportions. The vision thing is lacking. It seems even the idea, albeit an idealistic one, of newspaper’s role in society has somehow been lost in the corporate hegemony. Even then, wouldn’t common sense dictate that in tough times you focus your energies on those things you do well, and that only you can do well as an institution instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator? Wouldn’t you re-examine the “must haves” of newspaper journalism and prioritize resources based on the must-haves of a functioning civil society? Too, if in fact you are headed for that not so good night, do you really want to go whimpering like a beaten dog?
But then, what right do I have to say this? I sold my little newspaper to big corporate and they destroyed it. I’m going to hell. I’m seeking redemption but I can’t make the business model work.
I am cynical, and more than a little worried about the future of the republic, but thank you for telling it like it is. That it needs to be said is discouraging. I had always thought it obvious but, obviously, I was wrong. Not even many news organizations “get it” anymore it seems. Apologies if this is less than a cogent argument/rant.
My favorite anecdote in this regard involves, I believe, the Riverside, California daily. The publisher there was convinced he could save money by having employees in Pakistan or the Phillipines make the police rounds and compile the local blotter. Then he could fire his overpaid reporters.
I don’t think that idea actually went anywhere, but I remember reading an item on Romenesko and thinking to myself that the people actual in charge of the newspaper industry at this critical point in time need to be lined up and shot. Or at the least, kneecapped.
As an added aside, I know the Exec. Editor of a state capital city daily who spends “at least 50 percent” of her time scanning twitter feeds for news leads and makes assignments accordingly. No beat, no leads, settle for what flotsam may come skimming across the surface. And it’s not like she has a choice in the matter.
David, if you care at all about your blood pressure, do not read Anna Tarkov’s piece at Poynter, Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism,”” or listen to the latest edition of This American Life.
The anecdote you mentioned is not only real but now prevalent and growing. Local news is being produced in the Phillipines, Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.
A few points to consider:
1. True, the number of murders did not decline 50 percent year over year, however, the cumulative effect of murders dropping from 282 to 196 over a couple of years is important – prior year cases and exceptional clearances make up a good number of clearances each year, and with less each year, you find less from the past to reach back and close.
2. Also, there’s been a fairly good decline in domestic homicides in Baltimore, and the feds have been, reportedly, taking on more and more cases involving murderers who the city cant tie to a murder but who the feds can get for drugs or guns. It gets them off the street, but doesnt help the BPD homicide unit up its clearance rate.
I know that you are pointing to a pronounced drop year over year as evidence of a sudden and specific shift, but I also think you can’t discount the above factors as contributing to what COULD be a one year anomoly.
3. Finally, Bernstein’s interference notwithstanding, the clearance rate has been slipping for years now. At his most meddlesome, he’s standing in the way of maybe a handful of cases. If you disagree, ask someone in homicide how many cases are pending. A dozen? Some of those are pending not because of prosecutorial interference but because prosecutors haven’t gotten to them yet, and when they do, that number will drop down to 5 or 7. Five or seven cases are five or seven lives, but not the call to arms you make it to be in this article.
4. Suggesting a change to UCR – a nationwide, sluggish program – is a novel idea, but seems arbitrary and I’m not sure it’s the local beat reporter’s job to advocate for that a change, but to point out the friction between the two sides. In this case, it seems as though that happened, last year.
1. Agree that the prior year clearances are a source of grand manipulation. Something, too, that DOJ would do well to rethink in its guidelines for law enforcement stats. The decline in prior year clearances is something I did not consider. But, conversely, it could also be argued that the decline in caseload-per- detective and per-prosecutorial trial team should actually improve the clearance and conviction rates on the remaining caseload. Last I checked, the federal guidelines for death investigators suggested a caseload of no more than 4 to 5 homicides in a given year. Until recently, I don’t think a Baltimore homicide detective ever got close to that figure. The rotation was a brutal taskmaster and many murders got a three-day shake before new business took over. In short, the overall decline in homicides should, perhaps, be an a boon to the efficacy of investigation both at headquarters and at the courthouse.
2. If the U.S. Attorney’s Office is targeting those suspected in homicides and using gun cases or other charges to get time on them, then yes, that is a meaningful factor. I haven’t heard from anyone in the Baltimore department that there is any overt coordination between the State’s Attorney and federal prosecutors to approach tough homicide cases in that way. The cases that are pending and that are not being charged are not, according to my contacts, being aggressively channeled through an alternate federal process on any specific basis. Which is to say, there’s always been a federal component to the overall deterrent, with the feds taking drug and gun cases off the pile. Citing it now as being somehow unique as a factor in the calender year at issue doesn’t explain much. If there is a program by which Mr. Bernstein and his subordinates are specifically isolating 2011 homicide suspects in key cases and then engaging federal investigators, then that would be notable, I agree. But Baltimore detectives aren’t complaining that their suspects are being federally pursued, they’re arguing that they’re not being charged at all.
3. Cases pending now? How about cases from a year ago that are no longer pending, that are now back in the files, never to be worked further and as open as the day is long. The number of current pending files is effectively the number of cases in which the outcome is now being debated. But at issue are all of the 2011 cases since the State’s Attorney became the sole arbiter of this dynamic. As well as all of the 2012 casework, and going forward. The net effect can’t be measured merely by current pending cases, can it? That’s a rather specious statistic altogether, in my opinion.
4. You will recall that in the article I speak of a full-throated editorial writer coming behind the beat reporter. It is certainly within a beat reporter’s purview to examine the weakness of the statistics by which public officials justify their actions and to note where such statistics can be misused. And then, at a healthy news organization, there are others who can argue the point further and even suggest improvement. They have a whole page for that, I do believe.
But clearly, you are someone with real knowledge of this universe. And your point about the decline in the numbers of prior-year clearances is well-taken. I hadn’t thought of that.
Allow me to counter with one other minor corruption in the homicide stats that moves the numbers in the opposite way. Until, I believe, the middle of the last decade, the Baltimore Police Department counted justifiable homicides in its overall total of UCRs. Why? Well, a homicide is a homicide whether it can be justified or not. In a given year, such cases –including fatal police shootings — might hit double digits. Somewhere in the middle of Mr. O’Malley’s big run at reducing the murder rate, the department elected to begin omitting justifiables from the murder rate, allowing the city an instantaneous 4 or 5 percent drop right off the bat. I can’t say that the change came from City Hall. Perhaps there was a definitive change from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Perhaps justifiables should never have been included in the first place. But, hey, it did change. So that all recent comparisons of the homicide rate in Baltimore to figures from the 1990s and earlier are skewed in an apples-to-oranges way. Nifty, huh?
I guess the proof of your argument will be in the pudding. If this policy stands and the 2012 numbers go back up, then you can argue that it is indeed an anomaly, and that the absolute institutional disincentive to charge anything but winning cases did not sway an elected prosecutor from being as aggressive as he claimed he would be in the last election. And if the numbers stay down in 2012 and 2013? Can we concede that perhaps something statistically meaningful has occurred? Meanwhile, you must admit, that’s a lot of violence and a lot of casework to put to an experiment.
I’d argue that a healthier, more definitive outcome would be for Baltimore to unilaterally seek statistics that actually measure problems and solutions. Make everyone responsible for those things, then proceed from there with the knowledge that there is no incentive for either the homicide unit or the prosecutor to do anything but the best thing with every case. Is that so revolutionary? Well, by standards of the usual civic dysfunction, perhaps. But logically? What would it hurt? Nothing. All the dirt would be out from under the rug. And police and prosecutors would be compelled to sort through it and dispose of it to the best of their combined abilities. And Baltimoreans would know exactly what the deterrent against murder is and what it isn’t.
Gee, what a nightmare.
I won’t get into a tit-for-tat because I’m simply pleased that you responded, but on your answer to 1.), I would say that the homicide unit had the benefit of this lower detective-to-caseload ratio for something like three years prior to Bernstein (08-10), and the clearance rate continued to hover in this high 40s-low 50% range. As the denominator dropped, the numerator plunged even further. This is a fundamental, ongoing problem that goes beyond Mr. Bernstein, though he has a role to play, and a change in the national rules would go a long way, even if that is a pipe dream. These are ideas worth discussing, just not the disaster of government and media that it is made out to be.
Wallace, my brother.
Tit-for-tat is the only way to progress an argument. And isn’t that why we’re here? Give no thought that by proceeding, you are being rude. Rude means nothing to me, which is why I so much enjoyed reporting, I suppose. Mencken called journalism “the foam from the lip of mad dog.” Hyperbole to be sure, but I like to believe he meant it as a compliment. On this blog, if you hew to the content and avoid genuinely dishonest rhetoric, there is no rude.
In reply to the above, I would point out that indeed the decline in the clearance rate of cases would give Mr. Bernstein less to work with and I am aware that the clearance rate from the homicide unit is not what it was a decade ago. But you in turn have to concede that this trend — at least regarding active 2011 cases — is not markedly and dramatically different from the unit clearance rate in 2010. To claim it as an underlying explanation for a 50 percent decline in murder defendants seems far too long a reach.
Your notable point that there would be less prior-year clearances to leaven the rate, given the overall decline in murders is well taken — up to a point. And that point is the homicide unit’s clearance rate. Less prior-year clearances will harm that rate. But how many of the 2011 cases the SAO takes to indictment? Prior year clearances have nothing to do with that stat, do they? The figure of 70 defendants are predicated on the 2011 cases alone. And, further, let’s also for a moment examine what a prior-year clearance is: It is often, perhaps even more often than not, a non-prosecutable case. It can be a paper clearance, with detectives going back and finding out that a killer has himself died and obtaining a cleared-by-exception ruling from prosecutors, or finding out that someone convicted and sentenced for crimes already has committed two additional murders — cases that will be cleared by exception if the suspect is already serving, say, a life sentence. Meaning: The decline in prior-year clearances can never fully affect, on a one-to-one ratio, the numbers that the SAO manages to indict. Many aren’t prosecutable to begin with.
Your point about the detective-to-caseload ratio doing little to improve the homicide unit’s clearance rate is entirely correct. I don’t disagree. Clearly, there are issues within the unit that need to be addressed as well. But less casework should benefit investigation not only before arrest, but after indictment. The best investment that the system could make is to maintain the presence of detectives on a case not merely up to the point of arrest, and then, a few days before trial, but throughout the long journey to court. That’s when indicted cases fall apart. When witnesses back up. When witnesses disappear. When other evidentiary problems begin to show themselves. It’s in pretrial that cases often go bad. Whether the need is to change the rotation-logic in homicide, or to create a separate folo-up unit of detectives that operates under the supervision of the SAO is another discussion. But keeping the case together should be easier for a system that is burdened with less overall crime. If it isn’t, that reflects on both police and prosecutors.
Lastly, regarding the pipe-dream of getting national stats to more accurately reflect reality:
Who cares what the Department of Justice does? Their mandate is for local departments to report crime data in a certain way and so, Baltimore can report it nationally in just that way. Then Baltimore’s leadership — the mayor, the council president, prosecutors and police officials can — for our own civic purposes — offer citizens a more accurate assessment. There is no penalty for doing so. There is no consequence other than greater accountability and more responsible governance. The feds aren’t going to fine us for acknowledging, in our own civic context, the weaknesses of DOJ’s stat-gathering. If they want bad stats, send ’em bad stats. And then we’ll proceed with honest ones. Will our stats look warm and fuzzy compared to D.C.’s or Detroit’s? Well, nationally, we gave them the same corrupt stats as other cities, so no. And locally, who cares? Here, the priority is improving the casework, or it should be.
That is no pipe dream. That requires only the will and integrity of the people we elect and appoint here in Baltimore. Why you are in awe of DOJ’s authority to foist bad stats on us, I have absolutely no clue. National inaction, in this case, is no reason for our own.
Mr. Simon, here’s what I am having trouble wrapping my head around: If the beat reporting you’re writing about is so essential to helping people understand how their political institutions operate (and I believe it is), why isn’t there a market for it after the collapse of the ad-funded newspaper model?
If the public placed as high a value on quality journalism as we in newspapers think it should, professional beat reporters would be able to earn a living wage today, especially with all the enhanced story-telling opportunities made possible by the Internet (a superior medium to newsprint, imo).
Clay Shirky might be correct when he argues that it was always a small minority of folks in any community who truly gave a shit about local news, and they were subsidized by the people reading sports, clipping coupons, selling their bikes, etc.
People also smoke cigarettes and eat junk food and watch reality TV. They do a lot of inessential and even negative things. And they fail to do a lot stuff that would benefit them. How does that translate to questioning the essential social and civic value of beat reporting? The point of this post is to show that the value is inherent, regardless of the market.
How to maintain a revenue stream to support that essential civic good? That is another debate, I agree. But that debate does not begin with you questioning the unique merits and value of institutional journalism by citing the market issues and the problem of finding support for that kind of journalism. That’s ass backwards, sorry.
To take up the issue of how to support this civic good, allow me to save us some time and suggest you begin by going to the website of the Columbia Journalism Review. Check out my initial response to the travails of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the subsequent comment thread. Then go to Howard Owens and his arguments in opposition and that comment thread. And then, finally, go to the in-house response from a CJR editor to Mr. Owens which points to the excesses of his hyperbole. Then you’ll be up to speed.
In brief, I believe that local news can be sustained through an online revenue stream. But it requires that institutional journalism value and protect its own copyright and act as an industry to protect that copyright. And further, it requires a real reinvestment in that product. And if existing news organizations don’t make that journey, then internet start-ups will. And eventually, professionals will be paid to report on civic institutions. That newspapers went down the wrong road for so long and leached so much talent and product doing so makes the road home harder and longer. But the success of the New York Times paywall and the fact that the industry as a whole is now following that example marks, at least, the end of the beginning.
The reality is you are absolutely right.
The majority of newspaper readers never were more than passing interested in the politics, crime, and scandal. That is the grand illusion that was 20th century journalism–and, interestingly enough, it was just about 100 years of delusion.
The news stories always did fill the space between the ads; that’s why they called it the news “hole.”
For most people, newspapers meant classified ads for products they might have been craving, crossword puzzles, obituaries, racing forms, coupons, recipes, reviews of movies and books, comics, advice columns, how-to-tips, the weather report, stock quotes, box scores, high school sports, regional sports, national sports, real estate listings, business news, and so on.
The Internet (and any given Iphone app) does all of that so much better than a newspaper that people just don’t seem to miss ‘em. And not missing ‘em, they find discussions like this one moot and empty.
Perhaps the whole thing is a justification of a career inadvertently misspent capitalizing on the misery of a small. miserable, cursed southern town. I’m not engaging in ad hominem here, mind you, and I’m certainly no psychiatrist, but maybe the lines and lines and lines and lines of blog space here devoted to trying to salvage Baltimore and its old-style journalism (What, for godsakes IS he working on?) is a deep-seated guilt reflex centered around the premise that “Hey, we did have one good season; then they asked for more and we were able to cobble together five seasons that, long after the fact, we decided fit together as a sort of ‘artistic gestalt.’”
It’s Hamlet–begging forgiveness for the running through of Polonius behind the arras. Baltimore reamed. Treme. The whole plot turns on that moment.
The obsessive overt attacks on anyone who contradicts or disagrees is the clear marker of the syndrome.
Yet you are engaging in argumentum ad hominem. And weakly so.
The blog is predicated on the idea that argument — when it hews to a certain degree of rhetorical integrity — is a good thing. A valued thing. It says so overtly in the introduction, which if you haven’t perused it, you might do so. If you come here and want to argue the content then you are entirely welcome and even encouraged. But you should expect an argument. Just as you can also expect that the argument will be directed at your assertions, not at who you are or your reasons for engaging.
If you come here to pop-psychoanalyze the operator of the blog for overtly seeking argument and saying so — and you try to bolster your own arguments with personal characterization, you are, I regret to inform you, being intellectually dishonest.
In that light, if you can approach the argument for what it is, and restrain yourself from the weak-ass fallacy of attacking the standing or purpose of your opponent, proceed. If not, then, well, what are you doing here?
No. Not really. I don’t see the aeppal of being command staff. I’ve been a boss. It’s got its own hassles and headaches. Plus, a police boss doesn’t get to pick who works for him half the time. What if I had to supervise someone like you? I get a terrible burning sensation just thinking about it.But if I were still on patrol in the Eastern I’d be a bitter burnt-out motherf*cker by now. How did J.W. do it?If I were still a cop in Baltimore, I could see myself happy in one of two places: floating on a boat in the Patapsco or walking the beat in Greektown.Other than that. I’ll take life up here in the Big Apple. And weren’t you supposed to visit this weekend?
This is sort of what DS himself said, but it seems to me worth putting the point more broadly: there are public goods which can’t be arranged and paid for by individually-incentivized market mechanisms. We, as a society, rely upon public goods in a great many areas — the environment, the doing of science, the teaching of children, the maintenance of infrastructure, and on and on. None of these things can be done just by the market (at least not for everyone — some will go to a privileged few even under a purely market system). The misconception that the market will solve everything, that every good will be produced by the market and that, conversely, if it’s not produced by the market then it’s not a good anyone truly needs, is at the heart of the rot of our society in a great many ways. Good reporting is just one example of a public good that we are suffering for want of, do to the market-uber-alles mindset that has triumphed in this country over the past several decades.
(And, since, as Mr. Simon says, this is the internet, and one’s words are wont to be misinterpreted, let me say that, yes, of course, markets have an essential role to play in many areas of life. For that matter, markets have an essential role to play even in many areas which are public goods — with competition for the public funding improving the quality of the public good. But we need to understand that there are essential social goods that the market will not provide on its own — without (depending on the specific case) public funding, sensible regulation, or simply adoption of the whole enterprise by the people, for the people.)
I will not pretend to be able to explain what Mr Simon wanted to say better than himself, but I honestly do not think that this was what he was saying at all (or not as I understand it).
The idea of promoting paywalls relies exactly on the existence of a market that is willing to pay for well in-depth researched and professional reporting. And it assumes that those payers can sustain, or contribute greatly to sustaining, the institutional but independent coverage of a certain number of civic life issues (the “outside but on the inside” allegory).
Outside of that kind of market being maintained and grown, there are no other substantial sources of funds for truly independent journalism: I live in a country (Serbia) where some of the biggest media (paper and tv) are state-owned, and trust me, the publicly funded journalism is much worse because it leads to an impotence of a different kind, where corruption in different forms: implicit, explicit and auto-censure, becomes the norm. A strong(er) democracy might be somewhat immune to these effects, but not for long, and certainly not forever.
[…] lost his taste for the job, though maybe he now better understands how important it was. In fact, this recent blog post (yes, he blogs!), which was forwarded to me by ArtsWatch friend Greg Newland, gets right down to […]
[…] necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other. I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David […]
The newish stat issue sure makes tough work for a defense lawyer.
A veteran beat writer might go a long way to solving the problem. He or she might solve my problem and your problem. But what if no one else has a problem. Maybe the real problem is a populace that doesn’t care. I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud.
I’ve read your piece in CJR and the corresponding comments. I agree with you on the paywall issue. However, it’s the advertising side that’s really dying. (Perhaps you read Seth Godin?) And with a lack of ad revenue, it does come down to product. The Sun has gone/will go paywall. Let’s see where we are in a year. I fear that we find out no one has a problem. No one cares.
If I may oversimplify just for a moment… Perhaps the problem is two worlds that don’t collide quite often enough. We are a fragmented society. Community is dying. My second favorite line from all five seasons, and I have watched your creation a full four times through, is from Bunny Colvin. “I swear to God, come Monday, your world and mine ain’t gonna be the same.”
There’s no need to change the stat if no one cares enough to call ’em on it. It likely behooved the members of that audience to leave well enough alone. Everyone responds to their incentives. Think about the incentives of the collective “they” in this case. A friendship with our esteemed colleague was more important. Right or wrong, in this day and age, people seem to take a lot personally. Honest debate might have risked the friendship. My guess is it wouldn’t have, but what do I know about anything.
What I would have given to be in that room.
Glad I found the blog. Will read…
I’ve watched the public health system gutted, education gutted, environmental quality departments turned into pimps for the oil and gas industry, the looting of pensions and IRAs by Wall Street, our
“representatives” bought and paid for, the militarization of police departments, unions broken, and so on and so forth.
So forgive me if I think it’s a bit quaint that you’re tilting at windmills; trying to stave off the inevitable. I so admire the effort. I agree with your assessment that, without a viable and healthy press, democracy and the “public good” are doomed. I think that is the point.
The only question in my mind is whether Americans will turn off Real Housewives and start holding people accountable, by any means necessary, if it comes to that. I’m not optimistic.
Real Housewives may be the modern religion of which Marx spoke.
It is true though that no one cares. Heck Jimmy McNulty didn’t even vote in the presidential elections.
Could be as simplistic as learned helplessness. Rational voters seem to accept the transitory nature of existence and try to make their little life bearable without getting over excited. But try to enforce gun laws you get mass mobilisation of voters. Appealing to moderate conscientious voters never works
Excuse me, but Real Housewifes isn’t the problem. It’s possible to consume fluff and gossip AND also serious news and commentary. I do it and I know many others who do as well. We all need our diversions.
No, the problem is the prevailing societal belief that no one is accountable for anything. Everything is someone else’s fault. And if we can’t hold each other accountable, than how can we hold our institutions accountable?
David, thanks for this story. It arrives at an interesting time in my city (Sydney), where one of the major dailies has just announced significant redundancies, the world’s richest woman (no stranger to exercising political influence) has increased her stake in its ownership to nearly 20%, senior figures are calling for the scrapping of editorial independence, and the future of quality local journalism in this city is on shaky ground.
I correspond every now and then with Justin Fenton… Recently we had a ‘tiff’ about whether or not a murder in Harwood, labeled as Waverly on city maps should belong in which “neighborhood bounds”. No big deal on the face of it but the politics of spaces DOES matter. While J.F. defended the choice of labeling the locale based on tax maps as the grand arbiter there was no space to have a larger discussion (that both Harwood and Waverly *agree* the maps are wrong in the city office because they were DRAWN wrong for instance) about who makes these decisions about space, why they matter etc…. No, he’s just too damn busy trying to keep up (and he and Peter do a pretty damn good job all things considered). But it gets to your larger point – they’re producing news, not having time to gnash their teeth on it some times. Thanks for your piece.
And I’ve just heard from Justin the paper is going to be losing Peter, who has given notice. Which is not good at all. At least not for that newsroom.
But again this critique isn’t about the individuals. And I am in no way suggesting that if the reporters of yesteryear were made to operate in the current newsroom environment that any of us would cover any more ground than the paper now does. No, we were able to attack the institutional dynamic because the newspaper allowed sufficient resources to pursue criminal justice reporting on a variety of fronts. That is what is no longer possible on a consistent basis. And remember, we are only discussing crime reporting in this context. Multiply the last twenty years of staff reductions across the entire beat-reporting structure of a metro daily and you begin to see how much less of institutional Baltimore and Maryland is being examined.
One question: if what you say here is true, why hasn’t the murder rate in Baltimore skyrocketed? Nine percent seems like it could be a seasonal/sociological blip.
Of what, exactly, are you skeptical?
That the deterrent against repeat violent offenders has been found to have one of the most direct correlations to a city’s crime rate? Sorry, but that’s been established firmly for nearly two decades. As far back as the early 1990s, police targeting of the most serious repeat offenders for violent crimes in cities such as Boston and New York has been proven to dramatically reduce the murder rate. Conversely, take a look at post-Katrina New Orleans where the overall collapse of the District Attorney’s office under Eddie Jordan — and the prolonged lack of successful prosecutions of homicides — led in the ensuing years to the highest murder rates ever seen in modern America. On New Orleans drug corners, taking a murder charge was soon known as “doing your sixty,” given that defendants were routinely released at preliminary hearings at the sixty-day mark.
Given that the 50-percent decline in Baltimore’s prosecution of murder isn’t yet a year old, the full effect of such continued ineffectiveness is still likely to play out. Unless the criminal justice system rights itself, repeat offenders are going to become even more of a commonality for Baltimore homicide detectives. Given that perhaps as much as 60 percent of Baltimore’s violence is drug-related, and repetitive violence is endemic to the illegal drug trade, this has always been so. Any veteran detective can tell you of dozens of occasions in which a suspect was identified in a drug murder and then found to have been a suspect in prior killings. Do you seriously think a 50-percent decline in murder prosecutions is going to make that phenomenon less common? Or more?
The fact is, as you state, the murder rate in Baltimore is up 9%: It has in fact not skyrocketed. So the deterrent effect of murder charges is not proven; to the contrary, the 50% reduction in charges appears to be having a moderating effect on murder statistics and overall crime statistics. Zero tolerance, by the way, doesn’t mean “arrest everybody and sort them out later.” The theory (that has worked famously in New York City) holds that if you give enough of the serious offenders a taste of a robust, strict, timely criminal justice system, they do not become repeat offenders. Crime rates drop. Having professionally trained, well-paid journalists covering this and other cultural phenomena does not somehow legitimize the issue. Crime reporting does not deter crime, not now, not 20 years ago, not ever. Enlightened public policy can.
You’re just not correct. Sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.
Numerous studies have for two decades shown that repeat violent offenders and the effective targeting of such are the key to controlling the rates of violence in urban areas. In fact, as a law enforcement strategy it might be the only thing that actually works. Community policing? Nope. Zero tolerance? Nada. Those slogans were effective selling platforms. Community policing made everyone feel better without achieving much at all. Zero tolerance approximates the credit that a politician took for the rehabilitation of New York. In fact, it wasn’t filling the Tombs and Rikers that saved that city. It was a two-decades rush of Wall Street profits into the NY real estate market that effectively rebuilt Manhattan and a good chunk of the outer boroughs so that the only thing that could mug you in places like Alphabet City or Morningside Heights was a two-star restaurant. Absent that kind of cash influx, zero tolerance succeeds only in filling jail cells, destroying more families and bankrupting states under ridiculous rates of prison construction. Witness Baltimore. Or California.
No, solving violent crimes and locking people up who do those crimes at the best possible rate actually works. Why? Because with the advent and growth of the urban drug trade, homicide has become the work of repeat violent offenders. The bar arguments and domestics that once constituted a greater share of a city’s murder rate are now less of a percentage of overall violence. Instead, in cities such as Baltimore, police have acknowledged that between 60 to 70 percent of the homicides are related to drug activity. And if you leave violent offenders on the corners, they continue to kill.
You can believe otherwise, but from Nathan Barksdale to Roddy Milligan to Vernon Collins to Marlo Bates and ad nauseum, I can not only attest to this phenomenon over the last twenty years, I can use the names of two dozen suspects who went long and hard making bodies until finally someone made an effective case. Dennis Wise alone probably managed to drop twenty bodies before the legendary Rod Brandner finally built a case that got him a life sentence.
You seem to cling to the notion that merely because there is only (!) a nine-percent bump in the current homicide rate, six months after the state’s attorney elected to charge half as many murders that you have proven something. I’m really unsure what exactly. As I pointed out, the actual deterrent for homicide in Baltimore was already at about a 40-percent rate for arrest and conviction combined. If the State’s Attorney’s machinations reduced that by half, leaving only a 20-percent or 25-percent conviction rate, how many cases were dumped that would otherwise have been viable in 2011? Twenty, thirty? Are you really attempting to suggest that twenty, thirty defendants returning to the corners to do more violence are sufficient, over a six month period, to bump the murder rate more than 10 or 15 percent over the course of a single year? Isn’t a 9-percent bump halfway through 2012 plausible as exactly what I said it was: A harbinger. If the deterrent against murder continues to be halved for another year, and another year after that, and if the street sense on the corners becomes what it became in New Orleans — that to take a murder charge is to do sixty days only until a preliminary hearing dismisses all charges — then check back on your presumptions a couple years from now. At that point, the effect of the systemic failure will be pronounced and geometric.
Moreover, what are you actually arguing for? Less success in arresting and convicting killers? Are you really suggesting that it doesn’t matter to a city if we take people who kill off the street? That the deterrent to murder is irrelevant? Really?vTell that to the New Orleanians suffering through the worst crime — and some of the worst prosecutorial stats — an American city has ever seen. Or tell it to the people of Boston, who saw their police department, city prosecutors and U.S. Attorney’s office carefully target the 100 most violent offenders aggressively, taking almost all of them off the street in a 12-month period in the early 1990s. The murder rate in Boston fell within two years to the lowest rate in the modern era. That study of how to use retroactive investigation to incarcerate repeat violent offenders and dramatically alter a city’s crime culture is seminal to understanding modern urban enforcement. You seem either indifferent to or ignorant of actual facts and strategies known to law enforcement professionals for decades now.
As to your attempt to portray the State’s Attorney’s stance as thoughtful and judicious, rather than timid and political — this has led you to some confused misapplications. Witness your strange invocation of zero tolerance and an attempt to somehow redefine that policing philosophy to incorporate the State’s Attorney’s retreat. That makes no sense whatsoever. Zero tolerance, which deals with how departments treat minor felonies and misdemeanors has, um, zero to do with what we are discussing. These are murders. No policing philosophy or strategy ever contemplated argues for anything other than rigor in pursuing those who kill. And murders require the most fulsome and fundamental sanctions that society can muster against the offenders. If you can achieve enough evidence to indict and prosecute, you do so. If you cannot, then you cannot. But to charge only those cases that are surefire wins is self-defeating. A circumstantial case is often a strong case, but it requires hard work, prolonged follow-through and an attentive jury to bring home. And sometimes a verdict will, rightly or wrongly, go the other way. That is what the day in court is for, after all. But running away from the tough cases solves nothing. And the seeming diffidence of your comments with regard to what is at stake in this struggle, for society and the violence that threatens that society, strikes me as, well, remarkable.
I want to be careful not to use any ad hominem to prevent you from pursuing your chosen line of argument, but, from your handle of Clarence Darrow, I have to ask, are you an attorney? Do you practice criminal law in Baltimore? And if so, are you affiliated with the State’s Attorney’s Office? Because that could, perhaps, explain some of this. Or not. But I am now, I admit, curious.
One sidereal year from today, on the summer solstice, assuming that this blog is still in existence , that the Baltimore City State Attorney’s policy has not changed, and that Baltimore’s clearance stats are the same, we will revisit Baltimore’s murder rate and the issue of the “stat.”. At that time, appropriate apologies and retractions can be extended. You are a gentleman;. I take it you will honor this appointment.
If the city of Baltimore finds a way to arrest and punish half the people they once did for murder while having no negative effect on the rate of violent crime — meaning if you show me that we are sending half or even 25 percent less defendants to jail for murder and manslaughter as before and the corners do not heat up appreciably — I will do more than apologize. I will argue that police work is irrelevant, that murder is a completely random act and that we need never worry again about oiling the wheels of our criminal justice system in any manner whatsoever. That we would all be better off worrying about the Orioles and whether their pitching will hold up. And I will no longer waste a moment contemplating the beat I once covered in any fashion.
A sportswriter will be born. Or worse, a film critic.
But I have to know, what is a “sidereal year.” That is a new one on me. I am intrigued by that phrase, to be sure.
A sidereal year is the time required for the earth to complete an orbit of the sun relative to the stars. The sidereal year is 365 days, 6 hr, 9 min, 9.5 sec of mean solar time.
Very cool. I am no longer sure you are a Baltimore lawyer. Or perhaps I am fostering a stereotype.
Your sportswriter name:
Your film critic name:
D. Hunter Simon.
As someone with 30 years of criminal trial experience, on both sides, I enjoyed your piece, but I have a question. When the SA’s office declines to charge a homicide, are lesser charges ever filed? I’ve certainly both given and taken aggravated assault or robbery offers on death cases that were too weak to prosecute as murders. If so, then I think you should re-examine the stats to see how many potential murder defendants are off the streets. If not, and the SA is just walking violent offenders because he doesn’t have a bulletproof case, then this is a disgraceful act of official cowardice.
No, Mr. Adkins.
We are talking about cases that were nolle prossed or dismissed prior to indictment. Usually, when the Violent Crimes Unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office achieves a plea or guilty verdict on lesser charges, they credit that in their tally of outcomes. Or at least they did so when I was following their casework.
My understanding from detectives within the homicide unit is that many, many cases are hanging fire, waiting for prosecutors to charge the defendants. Again, some of those may indeed involve weak or insufficient evidence. The homicide unit is not without culpability in this dynamic. But other cases are simply not open-and-shut dunkers.
It is becoming harder and harder to appreciate your work seeing how you feel the need to trumpet your ego in every piece you write. Stop romanticizing about yesteryear. I have read your past work on the beat. Justin Fenton’s work for the Sun covering the police beat has much more depth than yours ever had. Your point is salient but the lead up was unnecessary. Deflate the ego a bit and appreciate the journalism out there for what it is and what it is not, but stop attacking one of the best journalist’s out there with your backhanded compliments before ripping Mr. Fenton’s work.
I hold Mr. Fenton’s work, as well as Peter Hermann’s journalism, to have great merit. And said so. My point was not personal, it was systemic.
Fifteen years ago, the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun fielded at least a half dozen Fentons, Hermanns, Simons, Twiggs, LoLordos simultaneously at various points on the crime beat. The cumulative effect was that the paper covered more ground.
I am glad that you regard The Sun’s product at this point as superior to the past. But I cannot. It is not possible for 120 newsroom personnel to cover the same ground as 500. It is not possible for them to spend as much time delving into the nuances of the various beats when they are called upon to deal with the greater daily workload that thin staffing demands. You don’t do more with less; you do less. That’s why they call it less.
The fact is this fundamental change in policy occurred a year ago. The Sun had not fully reported on the change and all its political implications at the time of this blog post. Indeed, the homicide commander was himself removed for arguing against the change with Mr. Bernstein and others. It is hard to imagine that Roger Twigg, for example, would not have brought news of such conflict into the newsroom a week into the dispute, or that The Sun, fully staffed, would have waited a year and fifty lost homicide prosecutions without delving fully into the issue.
That you think the paper, staffed as it is, covering the ground it can, to be sufficient is an opinion, of course. And you are entitled to it. The vast majority of those who care about prose journalism are deeply concerned about the empty desks, not just at The Sun, but at newspapers nationwide. And I can tell you that wherever I go in Baltimore, readers of the paper bemoan what has happened to The Sun.
None of that is disrespectful of Mr. Fenton or Mr. Hermann or anyone still laboring in that newsroom. And indeed, the piece makes that clear. Just as it makes clear that I am not seeking individual validation for having covered the beat in any exceptional manner, but instead for being part of a fully staffed institution that did so. It credits the institution. And it argues against a systemic decline in the institution of beat reporting that is predicated on the loss of revenue stream.
If you reread the piece without whatever jaundice you brought to it the first time, you’ll see that this is the case, that I’ve done everything possible to make clear that it was the institution that provided enough bodies to allow us all to amply cover the ground, and that I’ve gone out of my way not to make it about personalities at all. Perhaps your quick assumptions about my ego say more about you than about me.
As someone unfamiliar with the world of beat journalism I found it to be a useful introduction. I also thought he was clearly showing respect for the individuals still working, and was more disappointed in the system that wasn’t funding the same range of journalism work that it used to. Even if they happen to have, right now, the best beat journalist of all time, there’s still structural issues that, ironically, David touched on near the end of the article – what happens when that amazing journalist moves on? The department is much, much smaller, and there’s unlikely to be someone else with the sources and experience ready to step in to take his place.
Then again, maybe you simply think he shouldn’t be making sure laypeople can understand his posts, in which case we’re just never going to agree because we’re coming from very different starting places.
Echoing what Adrian said – I can feel the restrained anger of Mr. Simon at the institutional dishonesty that has resulted in real murders of real humans and the cavalier indifference of those whose putative jobs are to safeguard the lives of their citizens.
Some lives are more equal than others, it seems.
David – I’ve long admired your work since watching The Wire and I am a co-producer of one of the largest chapters of the TED conference (TEDxSF) – is there a formal protocol to invite you to be a speaker? Our next theme is on the topic of “Cities of the Future” co-hosted by SF Mayor Ed Lee and it would be an honor to have your thoughts on our stage.
I’ve never seen the case for beat journalism made better. You’re a credit to your ex-profession.
Couple of (albeit long) points:
1) This shift would be more upsetting if I didn’t remember former Mayor O’Malley’s policy that gave the BPD unprecedented police powers which then led to mass arrests, mostly among Baltimore’s black male population, with absolutely no chance of actual prosecution. This feels like the pendulum swinging the other way, based on the political ramifications of that period combined with the high level of prosecuted police “corruption” under Bealefeld’s regime (kidnapping case, the towing scandal, etc.). Good to call it out, and reminding us that journalism’s ideal purpose is to call these moves out until politicians get it “right”. What “right” is I have no idea though, as I feel my “right” would be different than my fellow Baltimoreans, and within those discrepancies these compromises are born.
2) I’m a fan of the low-tech paywalls that the N.Y. Times and, now the Baltimore Sun provide. They offer just enough of a barrier for the established readership to cough up a monthly payment without hurting the upside of viral coverage on the internet. My sources within the Bmore Sun say they are making good revenue off the paywall, though I’m not sure on exact figures. Intrigued if you can lean on your sources to see how that’s going?
Still, I don’t see advertising revenue, the major engine that fueled newspapers during their height between 60s-90s, ever coming back to its old numbers. Within those ad buys, prestige used to be a factor. A local grocery store or department store needed to be in the paper of record because it helped with branding and prestige. Circulation numbers were important but the image a full-page was an equal part of the package. Today, bottom-line, tech-based numbers (page views, click-throughs, unique users, etc) drive advertising purchases, with personal relationships playing a crucial but minor role.
This is literally the ad-buy decision making process now: “Yes, that’s a great 5-part feature on the Louisiana For-Profit Prison System you wrote there, but these photos of cats get 100K click-throughs a minute, so I’m buying the ad space on the cat photos. Also, I’m building my own in-house media brand that, through social network tools, will get our branding out there better than your newspaper/website.” For advertisers now, the prestige of being coupled to ‘good reporting’ doesn’t matter in this bottom line world.
Your cable package idea I think would have worked in the 90s but TV is in the crosshairs as the next media resource that will face the wrath of decentralization, with Hulu, Youtube and their competitors working to break the cable model. If ESPN ever finds a way to dump the cable companies while retaining their revenue streams, cable with be DOA. If papers did ‘bundle’ I’m also sure it would be on corporate lines. That’s subscriptions to Tribune Co., Conde Naste, etc., not just one neat package.
There are two models that have peaked my interest. In Baltimore we have the Brew, which, while I don’t agree with their overall viewpoint many times, they do do a great job leaning on established reporters who mine specific veins (city politics, development, the ports) that lead to excellent in-depth articles. They also raised solid funds using Kickstarter, helping expand their coverage.
Also, I always thought there was a future in developing an “urban think tank” model, using the national/D.C. model but that would fund a model of the local metro newsroom in the pursuit of good governance. Relying on grant money/a few big donors to create an endowment, coupled with a few diverse revenue sources, would work better than relying on Coca-Cola and Wegman’s for ad revenue. This one is a bit vague for me though, and I want to research its plausibility more.
You’re comparing apples to oranges.
Mr. O’Malley, in his pursuit of the governship, did indeed have his police department manufacture mass arrests of dubious legality for a variety of minor or non-existent violations. No one was more critical of that policy than me.
But these are murders. Not minor or manufactured misdemeanors. Failure to aggressively investigate and prosecute the taking of human life should in no intelligent way be compared to the mass arrests undertaken by a politician seeking higher office. All of our society has a vested interest in seeing those who kill pursued to the greatest possible extent.
One has zero to do with the other.
Regarding the possibilities and problems of an online revenue stream, that’s been argued elsewhere. And needs to be debated further. But the need for fresh revenue to sustain and advance this kind of institutional reporting — that’s the point of this particular post, in my opinion.
Thank you for your clarification. The paragraph with “State’s Attorney for Baltimore is a political creature” connected the political aspects of this situation with the O’Malley situation mentally for me, solely in a sense of a politician making a decision on criminal policy that would help his rise/protect his status. As a native and resident, I want to see murderers pursued vigorously and the stats correctly reflecting the issues in that endeavor.
I voted for Gregg Bernstein, feeling former state’s attorney Patricia Jessamy long worn out her welcome (looking back, that was an interesting campaign/election for all the wrong reasons). She was, though, verbal in stating when she didn’t prosecute a case for a perceived lack of evidence. I seem to remember the cops hating that. Will be interested to see how Bmore Sun or other media follow through on this situation, if, as you say, they do at all.
I know a homicide detective who not only voted for Mr. Bernstein over Ms. Jessamy, he made a contribution to the challenger’s campaign.
He says he now wants that money back.
What I admire is the restraint shown with the opportunity to publically scalp the SA.
It would have been easy, when you are clearly right, to tear him a new asshole. But that would have seen as grandstanding and the ensuing scandal would have distracted from actually solving the problem.
In a way, I guess that’s the difference between a blogger and a pro journo – the story is more important than the author rep. Bloggers need profile and this affects the focus of the story.
In short, cool.
I’m a law clerk at the public defender’s office in Cleveland. Your work was a major factor in helping me decided leave a career as a campaign aide and into law school and indigent defense. Sometimes working in and around such a broken system makes it hard to keep the fire stoked; thanks for giving me some motivation with this post on this Monday morning.