The Koch brothers and The Baltimore Sun

25 Jul
July 25, 2013

Some nice folk hoping to help craft a better future for my alma mater, The Baltimore Sun, stopped by the office a few weeks ago and asked me some questions about what I thought about the Koch brothers, those politically passioned gentlemen, purchasing the half-empty husks of what remains of the Chicago Tribune newspapers.

 I replied in detail, but of course, they needed a shorter sound bite:

Okay as far as it goes, but I’d like to be a little more clear about why the Koch family isn’t really cut out to be a publisher of American newspapers.  It isn’t that they are rightist libertarians and I am not, honestly.  As I said in my remarks, but which do not convey fully in the edited clip, I’d be as distressed if Ariana Huffington or George Soros wanted to purchase and operate The Sun.  Why?  Because 1) they are engaged in ideological advocacy and 2) they aren’t from Baltimore and their ties to my community are insufficient to guarantee a responsive and locally committed newsgathering organization.

The second criteria is one that I would apply — and do apply — as well to the national corporations that decades ago began scarfing up America’s locally owed newspapers and stringing them into chains, congealing the nuance and idiosyncracy of various American cities into a generic product.  And then, armed with an economy of scale, they took their monopolistic creations to Wall Street, where the analysts explained that by cutting costs — reporters, news hole, coverage — they could actually make more money putting out weaker, shittier newspapers than good ones.  Wall Street was right in the short term.  Wall Street is always right in the short term.  The long-term health of an industry?  The future beyond the next fiscal quarter?  Sustained economic growth?  Not really the Street’s problem.

No, for the long term, print journalism showed contempt for its own product — and for its connection to the cities and regions it claimed to serve.  And when the internet then arrived, and newspapers needed to demand a real revenue stream from within the new delivery model, they had already eviscerated themselves.  Unsure of their own product, they gave it away, and foolishly so.  And now, it is a long, hard fight to maintain and restore that weakened product through the obvious, inevitable and belated advent of the newspaper paywall.

You would have to look long and hard to find an industry in which the captains so thoroughly butchered their own future.  Not even the American auto industry in the 1970s, with its Gremlin- and Pacer-adorned contempt for the American consumer fully on display, did as poorly.  After all, Detroit lost out to the Japanese and Germans, and let’s face it, to the better cars that were actually being built overseas.  The newspaper industry took a beating from the internet, which, while democratizing commentary, has proven itself thus far incapable of providing much in the way of first-generation beat reporting and high-end journalism, save for what it leaches from mainstream media.  If only the newspapers themselves had, in the run-up to digitization, maintained the substance and vitality of their actual product.

Living through the first stage of institutional decline at a chain-run newspaper, replete with buyout after buyout and the paper’s homegrown perspective being marginalized at the expense of from-elsewhere editors who regarded Baltimore as a way-station to some higher promontory in the parent company, I am opposed not only to the Koch brothers or George Soros or any other ideological player buying a newspaper and pretending to journalism, I’m also dead set against chain journalism.

There have been consortiums of potential buyers in Baltimore for more than a decade now — and they have asked Tribune Company time and again to sell The Sun back into local ownership, undoing the last three decades or so since the Abell family took the money and severed the ties between Baltimore and its newspaper.  At times, offers were made for The Sun that Tribune executives now only wish were on the table at this late date, given how spare the future of print journalism has become.  And yet each time, the Tribune company held the property hostage, all the way into bankruptcy.

And now, with 120 or so reporters and editors covering the same metro area that used to occupy the efforts of 500 such folk, comes the Koch brothers, introducing the additional threat of political advocacy to what remains of The Sun.  Honestly, if they were rabid rightists from Baltimore who nonetheless declared and observed a willingness to leave the news pages alone, I would trust their effort more than the corporate greed to which The Sun and other regional papers consigned themselves a couple generations ago.  The executives of Times Mirror, and later the Tribune Company,  had no political agenda other than appeasing the Wall Street analysts, making their quarterly numbers and getting their bonuses.  But that was enough to mortgage the future of American print journalism.

Being right-wingers isn’t the unpardonable sin here and I said so on camera, though the point got lost in the editing.  Even a right-wing, libertarian greedhead can make a promise to keep mitts off the news columns and keep it, if only to broaden the readership for a more centrist product.  But there’s nothing that out-of-town ownership can do to care enough about whether the Baltimore Sun actually covers Baltimore and covers it well. They’re not from here. And so, the very mission and purpose of the newspaper itself can never matter to them the way it should.

If newspapers are going to be great again, it will be because they reasserted control over an on-line revenue stream and because they are run by and for and about the people of the cities in which they are published.  The neglect of that second principle is the original sin of print journalism in America, and only a return of a newspaper to local ownership and control offers any real chance at ideological indifference and reportorial quality.

Selling the paper to the Koch brothers will hurt Baltimoreans in fresh ways.  But having The Sun remain a Tribune Company hostage is  a futile exercise as well.  In the end, what will be required is for Baltimoreans to own and operate a newspaper about the region in which they live.  If it can be The Sun, then so be it.  But if The Sun remains in the sway of those who are not vested in the city that the paper covers, then it will continue to fail.  And eventually, when the need is great enough, Baltimoreans will gravitate to a new, online news entity that actually demonstrates daily, unaligned journalism.  The last three decades convince me that there isn’t a middle-ground here worth talking about.

 

117 replies
  1. Timo says:

    I just read David Carr’s article covering the mess at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/business/media/philadelphia-newspapers-owners-at-war.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&src=dayp&adxnnlx=1381760020-x/ZkdIx9FaQ9jXtVwPoJRQ

    Norcross and Hall’s actions reminded me of this Koch brothers post, but I was perplexed at the way in which Carr paints Bill Marimow a martyr for great journalism. This may indeed be the current situation at the Inquirer, but the story seems discordant with Mr. Simon’s experiences with Mr. Marimow at The Sun. Perhaps because the Inquirer is Marimow’s hometown paper, he treats it differently; or perhaps, compared to the actions of Mr. Norcross, his are the lesser of two evils.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I have no opinion on Mr. Marimow and the dynamics in Philadelphia, to which I am a distant bystander. Detached as I am, it seems that Mr. Marimow stands in opposition to the business and political interests of some of the Inquirer ownership; in that regard, he seems to be entirely justified. I never knew Mr. Marimow, or for that matter Mr. Carroll, to make the independence of the newsroom subservient to either the business interests or outside political interests of the publisher. That was never their vice. Not in Baltimore, certainly.

      My disappointment with their brand of journalism comes from the rampant Pulitzer sniffing, the indifference to the substantive task of actually covering a metro region for its own sake, and a willingness to take on complex issues that are multi-faceted and therefore unlikely to catch the eye of a prize committee. I never doubted their ethics with regard to newsroom independence. In the end, I held their ambitions for high-end journalism — and ultimately their ethics in willingly allowing a fabulist to practice his craft over a period of years, despite repeated complaints — in low regard.

      But again, I know what happened in Baltimore only. I am no judge of Mr. Marimow’s performance elsewhere, nor would I claim to be.

      Reply
  2. Mike Davies says:

    Why would the Koch’s want a newspaper chain? As a platform I assume. Newspaper’s may be a thing of the past but reporters are not. We need more of the old school type. As of now Greg Palast is one of the few doing anything of note.
    Thanks
    Mike
    PS: We love Treme :)

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Is there a point?

      Do you think that the flaks and spokesmen and media gurus hired by every administration come from somewhere other than the reportorial ranks? Where do you think the public relations world comes from, not just in government but in private industry?

      Regardless of the institution, the administration, or the ideology.

      Meaningless story.

      Reply
  3. dolly says:

    I agree with all your thoughts – on consolidation, chains, ideological agendas, etc . I think anti-trust rules should be way stronger for news ownership.

    But I confess to a cynical sense of relief that at least the Koch brothers are not going into the news business to turn a profit. I feelthis way because if I pick up another anemic newspaper trying to squeeze another dime out of its crap product I think I am going to be sick. I am so sick and tired of seeing what news companies that are solely interested in profit did/are doing to their products. It is heinous to encounter these disaster products.

    It is too bad that these independent former superstar daily papers like Baltimore, Chicago, LA, NOLA, Philly, and old solid ones like Hartford and Providence, Rocky Mountain News are dissappearing, but the Kochs could go into the business whether or not they had to fire up their own brand new dailies or buy the hulks of ones that are going down. (I wish they could make it part of the deal that the Kochs have to retire the names – Sun, Tribune, Times, etc)

    I would rather someone publish because they have something to say over someone like Dean Singleton who always never saw the business as anything but a profit vehicle, always compromising news to squeeze his 33-percent out of each paper he owned. Ideology is preferrable to me than a Singleton type of owner.

    Kochs really want to own a press to say stuff, to publicize their views. That is quintissential First Amendment activity., (Ditto Huffington) It is more honest than Singleton.

    But of course, neither approach replaces the great independent news institutions we used to have. Any town or city is less for lacking it. It’s a disaster they are gone, total disaster, even though my ideal paper and approach is more akin to the British paper, The Guardian. Slightly different sense of independent journalism than the American ideal.

    Reply
    • dolly says:

      I’m a big fan of McClatchy these days. When I read McClatchy reporters I feel like I am back in the days before our news hearts were all broken.

      That Reuters story you posted was a good one, though. I caught it myself.

      In general I think Bloomberg eats Reuters lunch on legal and business coverage, maybe most everything. It’s definitely usually faster and more comprehensive.

      I read the Guardian too, and like to catch the Aussie mainstream papers sometimes. Anyone else read them? I think Australia’s strong antitrust laws shows in the quality of their newspapers and television news.

      I also occasionally check out Der Spiegel’s online English language site though I am not sure how much that will take off.

      In radio, I really, really miss Pacifica’s news department. That was a really superior news service in its day. NPR just doesn’t hit the spot like it did.

      Reply
  4. Bones says:

    Mr. Simon,

    What are your thoughts on Jeff Bezos purchasing the Washington Post? One positive (which may be the only one), is that no one is losing their jobs.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Would prefer that ownership remain local to Washington D.C., of course. Though The Post, having gone public years ago, albeit with an A-share stock that kept the Grahams in control of the product, wasn’t wholly a local entity and was in some respects dependent on Wall Street. Still, the connection of the paper to its metropolis was meaningful.

      That said, Mr. Bezos hasn’t revealed himself to be much of an ideologue — save for his insistence on Amazon uber alles. If he maintains his claim to ignore the editorial direction and leave those decisions in Washington, well, there could have been worse buyers. Shocking how little is now required in terms of capital to purchase one of America’s top newspapers. But The Post and Ms. Weymouth as publisher have grossly misplayed the arrival of the internet, being extremely late to the inevitable paywall. They’ve leached a lot of talent out of the newsroom and the product is substantially weaker. I think the Grahams were under great pressure to find a buyer with deep pockets. Now, a lot will depend on Mr. Bezos and why he wants to own a newspaper, and what he understands about independent journalism.

      But overall, it is never good when a metropolitan daily isn’t locally owned, even in the case of The Post which still has a national presence. It is first and foremost the Washington Post. If a consortium of Washingtonians could have been engaged to buy the paper for $70 million, that would have been optimum.

      Reply
      • Jonathan says:

        I used to work at a “subsidiary” of the washington post called Kaplan. Subsidiary is in quotes on purpose. This company ran a private, for profit um “college” and completely dominated the financials of the washington post because it was getting fat on all that student loan money. The ruse worked like this: rope in people who barely graduated high school, get them to take out loans, take the money, and who cares after that. Now that the money has dried up, it’s time to sell off everything to try to stay alive.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/business/media/washington-post-profits-drop-sharply.html
        http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/education/10kaplan.html?pagewanted=all

        The little piece I worked for (which wasn’t education related) was sold off to a private equity firm (tpg) looking to corner the market on insurance licensing two years ago. This private equity firm already owned one of our competitors (sircon which is owned by vertafore) and they bought us to eliminate the competition, laying every one off.

        So, this is just another part of the fire sale that’s been underway for about 3 years.

        Reply
      • dolly says:

        I am concerned about Bezo’s understanding of independent journalism. He does not show that independent streak at Amazon, where he shut down Wikileaks without any protest in response to a request from former Sen. Joe Lieberman.

        That bothered me, but it would bother me beyond belief if he ran a newspaper that way.

        Reply
  5. Ryan says:

    Great piece Mr. Simon, as always.

    I just feel somewhat compelled to note that in your soundbite, you pronounced ‘Koch’ three different ways. I make note of this not to trivialize your message in any way, but because I once offhandedly mentioned the Koch Brothers in a conversation with my boss and was met with snickering when I used the least likely pronunciation (rhymes with jock). I guess I’m in good company.

    Reply
  6. James says:

    David – have been following your thoughts on newspapers for a while now. Wondering if you’ve had a chance to read about the turnaround of the Orange County Register in Southern Calif. Reinvestment in content, hiring great reporters. Paper deliveries. Hyper local. Branching into neighboring cities to challenge other papers on their ground. It sounds like the reinvestment in high quality reporting is helping turn the paper around. I do not live in Orange County, but have read about this recently and wonder if you had any opinion. Thx. Article: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/rieder/2013/07/24/money-columnist-rieder-newspaper-war/2578511/

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Very attentive to OCR. It is an argument against the logic that slow starvation is a means to an end for the industry.

      Reply
      • Mike says:

        After Tribune destroyed the LA Times, I finally switched to the OCR a few months back, as they made an offer I couldn’t refuse. They are basically giving the paper away by providing gift cards, Angels and Galaxy tickets, Del Mar tickets, etc. I’ve received more in return, from a monetary standpoint, than I have paid for the actual paper.

        The local coverage is immensely better than the LAT now, but the editorial page has not changed one bit, and the stark raving mad OC electorate is a sight to behold, I must say. The Tea Party is alive and well, so I do miss the more moderate viewpoints of the Times.

        Reply
  7. Bryan C says:

    This kind of rambles and hopefully it somewhat relates to your central point. I live in Kansas City and occasionally I will go to the microfilm reader at the local library and read through the Kansas City Star newspapers from throughout the 20th century. I feel like it wasn’t until the mid to late 1970’s and early 1980’s that newspapers started to really cover the city at a high level. The reporting before that at the local level was very dry and it didn’t seem to go into great detail on the local issues. In my mind, the “good ol’ days” really only lasted 10 to 20 years. Right now, would I love another experienced city education writer covering the public schools or a high level crime reporter at the Star? Of course, but I don’t feel like the quality has taken a big enough nose dive from where it was 20 years ago that the demand is there for a non-profit to take over.

    Reply
  8. katie says:

    Gannett’s laying off 100+ people today. Our hometown newspaper is taking yet another hit.

    Reply
    • CW says:

      It will be interesting to see what happens to Gannett’s chain of local papers now that the parent company really makes money off of its websites and off of the hotel-distributed paper of selected high school sports scores. As much of the classifieds in Gannett’s papers are cross-sold with the websites, valuation is a challenge.

      BTW, Gannett laid off 12% of its employees at my local paper. It’s down to 60 reporters and 150 other staff.

      Reply
      • dolly says:

        Gannett: I’ll never forget picking up a copy of USA Today when the first Gulf War started and realizing that everything it had to tell me about this war was contained in a giant three-color graphics spread replete with pictures of pilots swooping in bombers etc.

        I pulled a page and made a fan out of it, — fan, the kind you accordian fold and wave at your face to keep cool.

        I was really upset the paper was replacing the various large metros at hotels and on planes. If I stayed in a hotel in Philly I wanted a complementary Philly Inquirer, not USA Today etc

        Reply
  9. Milford Ave Charlie says:

    I know that I’m late to the party here. Have you considered building a partnership of Baltimoreans to buy the Sun and its associated intellectual properties from the Koch Brothers? They may be buying the Tribune company for the remainder of its real estate, just as Zell did at the height of the last real estate bubble. They might be interested in pocketing some quick cash if the price made sense.

    Altogether unrelated – I do not know how you keep up with the sheer volume of responses, given the projects that you may have in development.

    CW

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      There are at least two viable consortiums of Baltimoreans that have the demonstrated capital to purchase The Sun. They’ve been in place from before the Tribune Company went into bankruptcy. They have put money on the table repeatedly. I have been peripherally involved in some of their efforts, and I support those efforts.

      Instead, the paper has been held hostage by Chicago, and frankly, the Tribune Company is a corporation which has a fiscal responsibility, if they choose to sell its assets, to take the highest bidder. Certainly, if the Koch brothers want to throw the last dollar on the table, and if Tribune Company is selling, then they’ll have the newspaper.

      The point of making the video and undertaking a petition, for opponents of such a sale, is to let the Koch brothers know that the product, as they envision it, might have trouble maintaining a local audience and allegiance.

      Reply
      • Yojimbo says:

        I’ve probably missed it; apologies if I have. Is the link to the petition posted somewhere on the Audacity blog?

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          No I should do that for them. Trouble is I am traveling and not attending as I should

          Reply
          • yojimbo says:

            Ah, there’s the address, subtitled in the video! I was in a public place and couldn’t play it.

            Reply
          • CW says:

            If the Working Families Party is behind any petition, I think that it can be dismissed out of hand. My conversations with some of their members at protests has been that the group is comprised of unionized government employees (SEIU and CSEA here in metro NYC) with a smattering of active ANSWER and ex-ACORN staffers. The names and e-addresses are probably more important to them than the goal of the petition itself because they can be solicited for fundraising and for politicking unrelated to the petition. Your Baltimore mileage may vary.

            CW / Milford Ave Charlie

            Reply
            • David Simon says:

              Dismissing anyone’s statement out of hand because of their other political stances is argumentum ad hominem. What it does it matter who they are or what else they advocate? Here, I am in agreement with their views on the Koch Brothers owning and operating American newspapers.

              Another thing: Since when did representing unionized employees become a negative? Not in my book, brother.

              I’ve been a dues-paying union man my whole life. Never crossed a line, never will. Sorry.

              Reply
              • CW says:

                It isn’t about crossing picket lines. It isn’t about your union membership. I just do not care to associate my name with ANSWER, the remains of ACORN, Laborers International and other groups with a history of corruption that apparently go hand in hand with the Working Families Party in my state. Moreover, as a private sector employee/partner, I often disagree with the platforms of the WFP which promote increasing public sector programs, compensation, numbers employed (much more important than compensation), and taxes without any assurance of improvement in services or infrastructure.

                Reply
                • David Simon says:

                  If it isn’t about unions, then don’t bring up unions. You were the one who offered that non sequitur, and I called it out as such. These people are opposed to the Koch Brothers using general interest newspapering as a totem for their ideology. So am I. At that point precisely, I am content to let them ask me questions on the matter, to answer, and to sign a petition with which I agree.

                  The guilt-by-association reasoning of folks who look at a given statement and say, A says the same thing as B, and B says X, and I don’t like X, so A must be wrong is wearying. And when you — not me — directly state that support for public-sector unions is your X, well, even worse from my point of view. Without collective bargaining, the necessary tension between labor and capital disappears and it is a race to the bottom for the American worker and the middle class. That’s as true for public-sector labor as elsewhere.

                  So we do not agree on substance, to be sure. But more than that, we definitely don’t agree on a rhetorical dishonesty that utilizes the equation above.

                  Reply
              • CW says:

                This is a follow-up to my post beginning “It isn’t about crossing picket lines.” I realize that you may think that I’ve insulted you, because of your association with the petition. That was not my intention. I am also not familiar with the Sun as I was when I lived in MD. I live in an area serviced by an mediocre Gannett paper. I would rather have the Kochs, or Scaife, or just someone who gave a damn that the paper would have good local coverage and more than just wire service articles for non-local news to service a market area of roughly 1.5 million and a weekday circulation of about 100,000 (they claim more). It doesn’t matter to me where the ownership actually resides.

                CW

                Reply
                • David Simon says:

                  I can’t begin to repeat all of the fundamental arguments against chain-ownership of newspapers and what befell American journalism when family-owned and locally-committed newspapers went to Wall Street to secure the future of their essential civic industry. Your post, anecdotal at best, is in direct opposition to a national dynamic thirty years in the making.

                  Rather than repeat all of that here, I’ll direct you, if you are interested, to my testimony before the Senate subcommittee that held hearings on the decline of prose journalism a few years back. That argument still stands for me. It is on this website.

                  Reply
                • steven zhou says:

                  What makes you think the Kochs or any other billionaire out there would care about local coverage or your local paper?

                  They’re not from your area. You think the reason they wanna buy a paper is because they want to restore local coverage for people like you and me?? That’s preposterous. Their objective is ideological and perhaps monetary (although they do swim in money). If you want better local reporting, better to support community ownership.

                  Reply
                  • cw says:

                    Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post’s print and web properties will be interesting. Bezos says that there will be local editorial control. However, Bezos will run future internet development out of Seattle. As of 5:50pm, the full details of the transaction have not been released.

                    Reply
                    • David Simon says:

                      It is fraught, and local control is preferable. But Mr. Bezos has not revealed himself as much of a political ideologue and his willingness to cede editorial control locally offer some cause for, if not optimism, then for delaying the onset of the opposite.

                    • steven zhou says:

                      I’m skeptical. That paper’s revenue has been in steep decline as I understand. Bezo hasn’t shown himself to be as much of an extreme ideologue as, say, the Kochs. Still, DC ownership would be better.

            • Yojimbo says:

              The association of the petition with WFP — and tangentially with SEIU, and ACORN — is big, big plus. Your denigration of it is in reality the best of all possible endorsements.

              Reply
      • dolly says:

        Hasn’t Tribune Co said it wants to sell all papers together too? I know they were relenting finally with the LA Times, willing to spin that off individually.

        What’s that guy’s name? Ziff? Griff? I can’t figure out why the hell he went inot the news business to begin with. The day he showed up you just knew the ship was going to go down.

        if you hired someone to secretly destroy that company, you could not have done better than him.

        Reply
  10. Leslie says:

    As heartsick as any here about the death or dearth of quality journalism, I simultaneously worry for my brother. Hanging on still, but just barely with 20 odd years at the “Chicago Tribune”, at just 56 he might as well be 80. Tasked with training the 1/2 priced hacks who no doubt are meant to replace him, the stress, and demoralization may do him in long before any reasonable heads prevail. Just damn sad!

    Reply
    • Seymour says:

      This is essentially why I got out of chasing a reporting job, and took up nursing. I looked at it as dispassionately as I could (which is rare for a hot-head like me), and looked at my ability for reporting (I felt good, but not good enough) and said to myself, no bro, do you want to be on the scrap heap in 10-15 years, or get a qualification which will carry you through to your dying days in a field which is crying out for qualified people? Always sick people, right? And for someone who isn’t money motivated, it seems like a brilliant fit. I still get help people.

      Reply
    • dolly says:

      I ditched it too. It is depressing but there are some wonderful other opportunities out there, lots of ways to be creative and when the moment comes I am sure your bro will grab them. If not, remind him, just keep reminding him. He needs to look ahead. There is nothing more depressing than being gradually squeezed little by little each year. Almost all of us have gone through that at one of these dying newspaper or another. And the insecurity is at unbearable levels.

      Reply
  11. Bones says:

    While papers have to have revenue from the internet, I don’t see how they can compete with digital outlets offering free news. Now the New Haven Independent, mentioned in the comments, is a great thing and we need more of them.

    I have two local papers where I live. One offers free online content, the other offers limited free pageviews (7 articles I believe). I often go to the free site. I don’t know how prevalent this is, other than the major cities (I live outside the third largest city in PA). How can the pay site compete? On the flip side, how long can the free site stay that way?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      The digital outlets have been living on news leached from MSM. And that is drying up and will continue to dry up.

      Rule of basic economics: You get what you pay for. And the internet is free. In terms of newsgathering — not commentary, but original newsgathering — it reads like a fucking free shopper.

      Reply
    • dolly says:

      The New Haven Independent has nonprofit status, which is getting much harder for news outlets to get. The IRS is cracking down on it.

      That said, the New Haven Independent is good. It is hyper local and puts out a lot of news for a tiny operation but the newsroom does not and never did embody the news values and ethics traditions of traditional news institutions.

      There have been lapses. There are examples of some lack of accountability and transparency to the community on some of the news choices that its made,

      In one story, it even lied, outright lied about who the defendant was in a lawsuit and only admitted it when a reader looked up the case file and confronted them, and buried that admission in the comment section, It was jaw dropping.

      You just don’t see that at a place not run by one all-powerful honcho lording it over a handful of staff with a small board of tightknit directors like New Haven Independent has.

      Reply
      • dolly says:

        Also, commenting freedom is nothing at all like, say, what David Simon fosters on his own blog. The commenting section of the New Haven Independent is a wonder of social engineering. It is controlled with an iron fist, funneled super-consciously in distinct directions. I know people who refuse to participate at all in the online dialogue on that site because its too heavy-handed and that repells them.

        Reply
    • Dolly says:

      For those commenters who read the New Haven Independent, are interested in it and who mentioned it here, read the NHI story at this link, and read the reader comments by posters “Anon” (there are several) and the poster William Kurtz (there are at least two) with an ear to discussions about why NHI won”t name the police officer being sued in federal court.

      It speaks for itself. I’ve never worked with colleagues who followed the line of thinking that shaped this story.

      http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/jewu/

      Look for bracketed editor notes in the comment section, such as these:
      ” [Note: The officer in question is not Billy White.]”
      “[Yes, that’s the case..]“

      Reply
  12. steven zhou says:

    Once again, a great read.

    I’m not sure that young, up-coming journalists will to exert an organized political will to undo (at least partially) what’s now an entrenched reality. I’m hopeful that things can change, but having just come out of a graduate journalism program, I don’t see the necessary vision or energy.

    I assume that the future of high-end journalism rests, for the most part, in the hands of a younger generation. There’s a lot of fear out there (not just for journalists I’m sure) that there just aren’t enough opportunities for everyone. Students, at least in my personal experience, are taught first and foremost to adapt–not to buck the trend. The overall assumption is that “journalism,” if you can still call it that, now exists on the internet in an “upgraded,” and digitized format. You better be “with the new” if you want a job in a post-Great Recession world.

    This is ridiculous.

    There’s also a lot of talk in these circles about how the overall trend is a kind of “dispersion” that will replace the old hierarchies and anachronisms of newspapers. So if some guy wants to do sports reporting, then he should just pay for a domain and run his own website. The same for politics, courts, city hall, etc. Bringing up the problem of credibility, or lack-thereof, is to be called “unrealistic.” The “new journalism” is touted as something that will escape the bureaucratic clunkiness of editors, copy-writers, etc. And if you want a job in this new, dog-eat-dog climate, then you better get a positive attitude. That’s what 23, 24-year-old journalism students are being told in one way or another.

    It really sounds/reads like some sort of post-modern dystopia. “Information wants to be free,” we’re told. But doesn’t it cost money to cover a city (and the world) effectively??? But that’s also “negative talk.” The internet will save everything.

    Reply
    • seymour says:

      Agree, the internet will save the world. News (i.e. misinformation) corporations (e.g. Fox News, BBC, Times, WaPost, et al) are now unfortunately complicit in the propaganda machine. These organisations which proclaim they are journalist organisations are little more then the messenger boys. That’s why I have zero sympathy for these organisations going to wall – the sooner the better imho. Once they’re toast, maybe a new paradigm which can actually report the actual news will emerge.

      Reply
      • David Simon says:

        This stuff has been spouted for the last two decades and you know what? The internet is a marvelous delivery tool. It’s the medium of the future to be sure. And cutting down trees and tossing them on doorsteps is an anachronism.

        But the newsroom — the reporting and editing and institutional memory of a non-aligned, but paid and committed class of professionals — is an essential. And the internet has in two decades failed to replicate in any intelligent way the work product of such. If you think so — if you think all this democratized commentary is the equal of first-generation news reporting — then you actually don’t know what reporting is and what it actually requires and how the original news report of current events must come to be. You’re just ranting, which is your right and which is certain to occupy the internet as well. But you actually have no clue about what journalism has been in the Twentieth Century and why it is more essential than ever.

        Reply
        • dolly says:

          I have to admit, I can not see 10 or 20 years ahead on this. I can’t figure out what digital business model is going to be suitable for fostering the kind of newsrooms we are losing.

          Do you know anyone who has mapped this out? Do you have ideas about how it can be pulled off? Can it be pulled off? Can it be pulled off now? If not, what are the missing pieces?

          Reply
      • steven zhou says:

        I was being sarcastic.

        Your assessment is too reductionist. Who broke the story about Obama’s “Kill List?” The NYT. Without the Washington Post (and Dana Priest, namely), would you know anything about the Bush-era blacksites? Without the Washington Post, would you know about the extent of the American security state as laid out in Priest and Arkin’s 3-part “Top Secret America” report (also a book, very good btw.)?? I hardly ever agree with the editorials from either paper (esp. the Post), but both papers still do real news. Their reporting, though it can suffer from the lie of omission sometimes, is still very sound. I have a feeling that you don’t read either.

        I just so happen to have worked for a while at a city desk in Ottawa. I have plenty of bad things to say about that paper, but everyone would be worse off if the paper ceased to exist. It actually makes an effort to cover the city well. Do you see Huff Post or whatever else’s out there covering crime in your city? No. Do you see them covering your courts? No. I can go on.

        Of course there are problems with the so-called MSM. They’ve been well-documented. Not just newspapers, but TV as well. Especially TV, which has way more constrictions than print. Still, you should see exactly where “alternative media” (which can be very good) get most of their news and their sources. There’s a huge amount of linking to “conventional outlets.”

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          Yeah, he read right through your actual point. Kind of a metaphor for his entire argument.

          Reply
          • seymour says:

            ps – you might want to take the blinkers off and view your hero, Obama, in a different light.
            Obama is a hypnotist because this is the 21st century and race together with gender and class can be very seductive tool of propaganda. Obama’s very presence in the Whitehouse appears to reaffirm the moral nation. He is a marketing dream but like Calvin Klein or Benetton he is a brand that promises something special, something exciting, almost risky as if he might be radical as if he might enact change. He makes people feel good. He is a postmodern man with no political baggage and that is faked. In his book dream from my father, Obama refers to the job he took after he graduated from Columbia in 1983. He describes his employer as a consulting house to Multinational Corporation, for some reason he doesn’t say who his employer was or what he did there. The employer was business International Corporation, which has a long history of providing cover for the CIA with covert action in infiltrating unions from the left. I know this because it was especially active in my country Australia. Obama doesn’t say what he did at business international. And there may be nothing absolutely sinister. But it seems worthy of inquiry and debate as a clue to perhaps who the man is. During his brief period in the senate Obama voted to continue the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a presidential candidate he received more corporate backing than John McCain. He promise to close Guantanamo as a priority but instead has excuse torture, reinstall military commission, and oppose habeas corpus. Daniels Ellsberg was right when he said under bush a military coup had taken place in the U.S. giving the pentagon unprecedented power.

            From Pilger’s speech – Obama and Empire. You disgust me.

            Reply
            • David Simon says:

              I have three heroes. Woody Guthrie, I. F. Stone and Ella Thompson — and some days I am not all that sure about Woody. Your presumptions about my political alliances have been conjured in abject ignorance.

              As to my disgusting you, I can only call that juvenile behavior on a website that strives for a better level of rhetoric and adult demeanor. Look around you and realize that people argue on this site without descending as you have. You do not disgust me. Your capacity for grown-up argument is sorely pressed thus far, but personally I don’t know you. And while the Internet allows those with limited self-control to vent in ways they would never do in personal and public discourse, absent the obvious anonymity of the medium, all of us here aspire to better behavior. Those that do not, do not remain long. Take a breath. Be a mensch. An apology is owed. No one insulted you personally; why do you feel the need to debase your own arguments by doing exactly that?

              Reply
            • steven zhou says:

              It’s ironic how you quote Chris Hedges (you might want to cite him on that Calvin Klein/Bennetton line, which is his, not yours), someone who has explicitly criticized the NYT and yet doesn’t want that paper to disappear–for precisely the reasons I’ve laid out. I had a chance to meet the man and his family. He’s as disappointed as anyone about conventional media, but absolutely acknowledges that “alternative outlets” can’t do much real reporting.

              You also make no effort to address any of the substantive points that have been made. But anyway…

              Look at the alternative. You want the world to rely on ppl like yourself and the websites you run? What about the editors to hold you accountable? Do you have fact-checkers to make sure you’re not a screw-up? You have no real infrastructure to both support you and hold you accountable at the same time.

              I can go on. Of course you have none of those things because all you can do is run your own website the way you want. That just won’t fly. Chances are (if you look around), you won’t produce much news–only froth. You quote people like Pilger (who writes for The New Statesmen, a “mainstream” UK newsmagazine) and Ellsberg, but you fail to acknowledge that like Hedges and Simon, they all come to the same, basic conclusions about the state of the media: real, high-end reporting crafted by trained reporters/editors must be reinforced, not replaced by bloggers and professional victimizers.

              You also refer to Chomsky, who’s made that point so many times that it’s almost boring to hear him again and again. Chomsky always cites Robert McChesney as the best media critic/scholar he knows. RM, along with The Nation’s John Nichols published a book together that makes the same point–but much, much more forcefully. (Death and Life of American Journalism, the book is called)

              Look, if you’re going to make your simplistic points on this blog, then make them. But please don’t use Pilger, Ellsberg, Chomsky, and Hedges–all of them my heroes–as cover for your own incompetence. They don’t deserve it.

              Reply
  13. Nameless Smokehound says:

    I’m a 28-year old dude from Philly, and possibly the youngest newspaper reader in the Mid-Atlantic region. And, being from Philly, there is nothing better in the world than opening up The Inquirer (yeah, the actual paper, not philly.com on a Kindle) with a medium iced Dunkin’ Dark Roast in hand. I agree with you on pretty much everything, Mr. Simon (first and last time I kiss your ass), from the ingenuity of The Wire explaining the universe, to the fact that we have bigger problems than the NSA’s non-invasive collection of all our phone numbers. But especially, I concur that to truly investigate, expose, explain, and fix a city’s issues via the free press, one must be from that city.

    This applies also to popular culture. Growing up, everything entertainment from the big screen to the tv was New York City or California. All we had was Boy Meets World, and even as a 10-year old I knew that show was bullshit. It “took place in Philadelphia,” yet not only were the accents and outdoor scenes SO NOT PHILLY, I could see that the producers didn’t even try to understand our culture, let alone set foot here. Then The Wire arrives. For the first time ever, a show for a small segment of insiders that eventually brings in the outsiders, opposite how the network garbage exists to appeal to the Heartland, the comfortable majority, solely for ratings and advertisements.

    Even though I’m not from Baltimore, it’s close enough. It’s definitely within the realm of Real American Cities alongside Philly. You got it
    right.

    (Ok maybe that was more than one ass kiss)

    Reply
  14. RFK Posse says:

    ROOOAAARRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  15. Tom Paine says:

    There’s an awful lot of capital that’s already introduced into our electoral process. Newspapers, the Fourth Estate, are supposed to be outside of that. … Ultimately, the only chance that democracy has, if you ask me, is that somebody stands on the outside of some of the excess and the fraud and basically calls foul. That doesn’t happen if the newspapers represent a particular ideology.”

    Respectfully, this is sure a stretch. Our media, including print has been one of the most corrupt wings of the current administration. You say they don’t represent a particular ideology with a straight face?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      You suggest that the media has been “one of the most corrupt wings of the current administration?” Hyperbole much?

      My face is straight. Your words are bent.

      Reply
    • seymour says:

      Bang on the money. The newspapers who have set themselves up as the impartial conduits for truth are the exact opposite. Chomsky got it right. The propaganda model of media is 100% correct.

      Reply
      • David Simon says:

        This is so reductivist as to be embarrassing. At their best, before Wall Street had its way and before corporate journalism traded its mission for higher profits, newspapers wrote a rough draft of the Twentieth Century and performed so much civic function that you should be embarrassed. From Zola to Swope to Ernie Pyle to Halberstam and Woodward & Bernstein, there is as much honesty and worthy dissent in the work of newspapering to be cited and revered as there is failure and ineffectiveness to be regretted. For every sneer you offer, I can probably name two instances in which newspapering served essential civic function and told truths that were otherwise ignored. From my own experiences at a single newspaper, I know that I could point to the newspaper on a daily basis and find an essential element for intelligent self-governance.

        And here you wander around ignorantly pretending not merely that the glass is half-full but that we don’t need to drink at all. Yes, all we need to do is wander around the internet listening to the ravings of whatever ideologue with whom you happen to agree. That will serve journalism’s functions. Sure.

        Reply
        • seymour says:

          Man, you’re like a sport’s fan lamenting the good ol’ days before their team was eviscerated. That team is toast – and won’t be resurrected. I’m dealing with what is, not what was. Sit back, Simon, in the glory days, if it makes you feel dewy eyed. Newspapers on the whole today are fucking rubbish, propaganda tools of the establishment. I’ve noticed any time you want to rubbish an argument, you spout some bollocks about someone else’s ideology, whilst conveniently ignoring your own.

          If you can seriously claim that today’s papers haven’t failed – you need to take the rose-tints off. But I expect nothing less from a PRISM apologist.

          Reply
          • David Simon says:

            The systemic failure of print journalism correlates in no way to some sort of corresponding success on the part of the Internet in achieving first-generation reportage. Your entire construct is built on an equivocation fallacy.

            Except for the part where you attempt to denigrate my argument about journalism by voicing your displeasure at another position to which I adhere. That’s argumentum ad hominem.

            Can you rise to a better level of rhetoric or is this sort of intellectual dishonesty and name-calling your best effort?

            Reply
  16. Other David says:

    What are your thoughts on going the non-profit road, where people in a community, perhaps with local government assistance, buy up a newspaper and then make it a non-profit entity with the purpose of only sustaining itself? The newspaper would still be able to charge for papers, ads, and paywalls, but the profit motive would be for self-perpetuating financial stability instead of sending more money to Wall Street. I’m a novice in these areas, so I’m guessing that there might be hundreds of ways that this might not work. It might be tricky to govern, but maybe a system like The Scott Trust which operates The Guardian and The Observer would work.

    Reply
  17. Colin Ross says:

    Mr. Simon,

    Have you heard of the New Haven Independent? It’s an online-only daily news source that has become the most in-depth source for New Haven city news (I am not affiliated with them). This is part of their mission statement:

    “The New Haven Independent is produced in conjunction with the Online Journalism Project, a not-for-profit effort to promote professional-quality “stand-alone” and “hyperlocal” news sites on the Internet. Our main financial sponsors are listed on the right-hand column of the homepage and most inside pages. This site relies on three sources of revenue: grants from foundations to support specific areas of reporting, such as health care, similar to the way that National Public Radio obtains charitable grants to support independent reporting; general ongoing sponsorship grants from institutions; and donations from readers. The reporting on this site is, as the name says, “independent.” All financial contributions to the site come with the understanding that contributors will not determine (or have any responsibility for) the articles produced on the site. (Feel free to contact us with further questions about the site’s financial support.)”

    The reporting is excellent and encourages a lively online debate with readers. Just thought you’d be interested in checking it out.

    Reply
    • Nameless Smokehound says:

      I now live in New Haven. The Independent is truly an awesome concept. I read it all day long. Interestingly, you will find real and raw actual journalism, an article about strong arm police interrogation tactics right next to a police officer being honored as Cop of the Week. Real unbiased journalism, written and read by New Haven people.

      Reply
  18. Justin says:

    Remind me again why I just enrolled in J-school?

    Reply
    • seymour says:

      You couldn’t get into law or medical school?

      Reply
      • seymour says:

        No wait – I know. You read “All the president’s men”, and had visions of toppling the “man”?

        No, wait, you watched “All the presidents men”, and had visions of being a celebrity journalist like Bernstein?

        Seriously, though, you’re probably a maladjusted malcontent – who is probably oppositionally defiant, and is unfit to work in any other industry. If so, you’ve found your calling.

        Reply
    • Greg Casey says:

      Because in spite of all of the buyouts, mergers, talk-tv nonsense masquerading as journalism, low pay, weak job prospects and blasted out funding model, people still have a basic desire to learn about the world around them.

      You enrolled in journalism school to learn to tell a story that means something to someone in a way that can capture their attention. That’s still worth something to some people. If you can learn that on your own, drop out.

      Reply
      • seymour says:

        If people want to learn about the world, they need to stop reading newspapers, and start taking classes in history. The only thing anyone needs to learn about the US’s modern foreign policy is one word: Oil. The rest will follow.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          Yes, why read broadly and attempt to acquire an unaligned assessment of the day’s events when we can sneer at such an effort and instead sit at the feet of Mr. Seymour, who will extol for us on that which matters and allow us to ignore that which does not.

          Reply
  19. Matt says:

    After reading this great post, I see a lot of parallels between newspapers and public education (I’m an elementary school principal). Corporations and private interests coming in to try to streamline delivery, lack of local influence, the profession being degraded to the point that potentially great teachers/reporters consider other lines of work. I don’t know if education did it to itself, but it’s worrisome. Like the best news coverage, I believe public schools that focus their efforts on the needs of their constituents provide the best product. Thank you for sharing your thinking so clearly and passionately.

    Reply
  20. seymour says:

    I was doing a journalism diploma a few years ago in Dunedin,NZ. I dropped out, and started my own newspaper, The Dunedin Guardian , an on-line newspaper (one reporter, one editor, one sub, one webmaster = me). I had to give that up too though ‘cos I moved city for a job. However, I broke a few council stories the local behemoth missed through focusing mostly on freedom of information requests into the local council. I found out some interesting stuff, like secret property portfolios, and even forced them to reveal redacted information in council reports by appealing to the ombudsmen. I found running my own newspaper more rewarding in some ways than submitting stories to the local paper – I wasn’t constantly defending myself to my editor for being “unconscionable” for one thing. But the web hits were quite low, and I could never drum up enough interest in local council stories. The best story I published in terms of web hits was the council’s secret property portfolio, and Bin Laden’s body dumped at sea (from wikileaks). But I couldn’t generate enough interest to make the website a sustainable venture through attracting advertisers. I felt I could give the local behemoth a run for their money, because their website is a piece of shit, but it just didn’t happen.There’s so much competition on the web, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to carve out a niche.

    Reply
  21. CIEC says:

    I think the benefits of local ownership are overrated. I don’t think that whether the Baltimore Sun or any other newspaper is locally owned is going to have much bearing on whether it is successful. Local ownership hasn’t seemed to be a huge positive factor in most other industries. There aren’t very many locally owned pharmacies, electronic stores, sporting good stores in this country compares with chain stores. There are far fewer locally owned grocery stores than large chain grocery stores. Customers have long shown they generally prefer the benefits that chains provide (such as economy of scale) over any positives that come from local ownership. There’s no doubt that sometimes owners from other cities can lack the understanding of a particular market and make poor decisions as a result. That may have happened at the Sun when you were there. But that doesn’t mean it is an inevitable result of non-local ownership. With a news organization, non-local owners can easily empower people living in the city to make the relevant decisions and to make sure they have the resources to do so. As you know, it works in the television industry. You managed to write the best television series ever made, if not the best work of fiction ever written, which was largely about Baltimore despite the fact the show’s owner, Time Warner, is not a Baltimore company. So there’s no reason that can’t happen in the newspaper business.

    Reply
    • Les says:

      But the business types you name are selling a universal product. News is not universal. What happens in New York matters little to someone living in San Francisco. Media companies, especially those pushing a political message, tend to forget this.

      Reply
    • longwalkdownlyndale says:

      I’d have to disagree with you. Newspapers really have to have a feel for the community their covering, that is the enormous ancestral knowledge of aplace’s culture and what’s important, in order to connect with readers and make it make sense to pay to read about. Other wise they can just read about the goofyness of John Boehner on CNN. I’m from Minneapolis and lived in Baltimore for a year and the place was very different in my eyes. The enormous cleavages between the haves and the have nots, the divide between blacks and whites and regular everyday cultural differences struck me as being pretty big. Indeed they struck me as being things I didn’t fully understand. Newspapers face the same reality, but on a much larger scale.

      You could cover “corruption” in either city but in my Midwestern hometown you are going to get a few pretty lame attempts pounced on by the FBI while in Baltimore you get insane systems set up making it possible to lose your house for not paying a water bill. That’s a big difference, and it takes someone from the city, or a person invested and interested in learning about the city, to understand that difference.

      Reply
    • Lex says:

      I’ll concede the possibility that newspapers without local ownership can succeed as long as the reporters, editors and ad reps are largely local and work hard to build relationships with people in the community. In my experience, though, where distance ownership really hurts is money. Chain owners still feel that papers should be generating the 25%+ profits of the bad old monopoly days, and for reasons ranging from the economy to the Internet, that’s never going to happen again. Yet they continue to hoover the money out, and jobs and quality go with it.

      Reply
  22. Joyce says:

    Hi from Baltimore! Have you seen the Batimore Brew
    http://www.baltimorebrew.com/
    They seem to be fighting the good fight with respect to covering local issues. It is free and I’m not sure how it’s financed. I agree that solid, local reporting AND investigative journalism is crucial to keep the powers that be in check (political or otherwise) but I am unsure if enough people are interested in much less willing to pay for this type of reporting.

    Reply
  23. CyberVinnie says:

    I’m from the TV generation, so I guess I’ve always taken newspapers for granted, but something happened here in Pittsburgh recently that I think captures well the decline of local reporting.

    Several months back the Chief of the Pittsburgh Police suddenly resigned. A few days prior it came out that the Feds were conducting an investigation. Long story short, the Chief was redirecting the proceeds from the fees collected for special police assignments, like concerts and sporting events, into a slush fund accessible to several high-ranking police personnel through debit cards. Both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Tribune-Review (owned by our own version of a Koch brother – Richard Mellon Scaife) were blind-sided. Now the mayor has decided not to seek re-election, and though there are rumors, no one seems to have a clue what’s going on. It used to be that the newspapers were the ones to break stories like this, but now it seems they’re just chasing them.

    When I was growing up, Pittsburgh had two dailies: the Post-Gazette in the morning, and the Press in the afternoon. I used to hang-out with my best friend at his newsstand downtown after school and watch him sell a couple hundred newspapers in about 90-minutes. You’d do well to find a box on the corner anymore.

    Reply
  24. Bluenote333 says:

    I live in LA, (work a few blocks from the LA Times building). In the past months, there’s been several protests against the Koch brothers acquiring the LA Times, half the staff has threatened to quit should Tribune Co. sell to them, and Ex – FCC Chairman, Reed Hundt, recently spoke at UCLA against the sale. I’m curious, has there been such public outcry in Baltimore?

    How might one acquire the link to the petition you speak of?

    Finally, a hearty thanks to your wife for urging you to fill these proverbial pages! And thanks to you for doing so… I’ve been reading since your first NSA post.

    Reply
  25. Edward Copeland says:

    It grinds on me to hear the rote answer that the Internet alone brought along the sinking fortunes of the newspaper industry. It had been on a downward spiral long before that. One thing I always wondered is why when newsprint prices went through the roof in the ’90s, no one seemed to even consider other, cheaper printing material to publish their product on. The problem at all the papers I ever worked at always tended to be the top executives chasing readers they were never going to get. At one of mine, an American Idol winner happened to hail from our state and the top editors used ANY excuse to put her on the front page, assuming it would increase newsstand sales. They didn’t follow the logic that even if that were true, why would someone who picked up the paper solely because of a popular singer return the next day to see what the City Council did? Another time, I kid you not, Anna Nicole Smith’s death got a bigger Page 1 spread than Gerald Ford’s death did. Everything was geared to get young readers. Unless you were a freak such as myself who read newspapers at a young age, those readers barely exist. Young readers aren’t rushing to The New York Times online; they want to see what’s up with Kim Kardashian. Our paper spent millions on makeovers and consultants and, in one of our meetings one consultant asked what’s the most important thing for a reader to have, I was the only one who got it right by shouting, “A driveway.” I love the movie “Network” but a couple of years ago, I noticed for the first time in one of Chayefsky’s brilliant screeds for Howard Beale that he mentions that less than “15% of Americans read newspapers” — and that was 1976, long before the Internet. The publishers just get dumber and dumber, firing entire photo departments in Chicago and copy desks in Denver. While they chase these elusive audiences that don”t exist, they piss off the audiences they had. Now, local TV stations, which have pretty much sucked all along, are falling into the same trap. I can’t tell you how many older people I’ve heard bitch when a newspaper or local newscast tells them that if they want to know more about a story, go to their Web site when most of them don’t have computers. When my one paper threw everything into its online efforts, it ignored the most recent Census figure that showed that our state was one of only two that had fewer than 50% of its population with home computers and many of those who did had poor, dialup connections that made spending much time online reading frustrating as hell. My former boss on a copy desk said — before the Web really took off — when the newspaper industry dies, it won’t be because of competition, it will have committed suicide.

    Reply
    • Dan Mitchell says:

      Your complaints are valid, though I can’t help but picture you making them with your tongue wrapped halfway around your face (not that I blame you.)

      But while it’s true that newspapers – in very general terms – were getting stupider in the years leading up to the unleashing of the Web, they didn’t lose all that many readers (that is, paper for paper – or per capita, if you will), and profit margins remained very high — much higher than in most industries. That lasted for several years *past* the rise of the Web, in fact. But there’s no question that Internet was the proximate cause of swift declines in profits and the massive layoffs we’ve seen over the past decade.

      Before that, the stupid stuff didn’t totally push out the good stuff — there were enough people in most newsrooms to do both. Things were bad, quality-wise, but they weren’t fatally so. If the Internet hadn’t come along, my guess is that the situation would be much the same, probably somewhat worse. There would still by highly profitable newspapers with full newsrooms, run by soulless corporate drones who were slowly squeezing the life out of them, but being resisted in their efforts by editorial staffs that still had the strength and standing to fight.

      Also, I’m not sure we should rely on statistics issued by Howard Beale. I think readership was considerably higher in 1976 than 15 percent, though I’m not sure of the number and don’t feel like looking it up. I grew up in working-class south Chicago, and nearly every family I knew got at least one daily paper and often two or three.

      Reply
      • Edward Copeland says:

        Who knows if the stat Chayefsky used is accurate but I do know that newspapers first started being intimidated by local TV, trying to emulate them with bite-size stories instead of doing the obvious thing: Do what TV can’t and go into depth. The waves of layoffs and buyouts are what hurt the quality as it usually was the dumbest senior members who stuck around and then when there were new hires, they’d get the cheapest and least experienced but no one was there to mentor them. In general, I’ve always been surprised by the ignorance not only of the public at large but of longtime journalists. One senior editor at a paper I worked for, who was around 50 at the time, during the news conference when the city desk announced we were covering a speech by the then-still-living Kurt Vonnegut had to ask who he was. He truly had no idea.

        Reply
    • bluenote333 says:

      I think this has happened across the board, not with journalism alone, but with most multi-media. I’ve just crossed the threshold of 40 yrs on this earth, internet arrived around the time I was 25. By that point, I was already a daily newspaper reader, and continued to buy hardcopy until a few years ago. To see what’s become of television and film in that time falls under that umbrella as well..

      I’m also relatively active in community efforts, starting in Austin, Texas (hello, THE GOURDS!) & now in LA where I live. I’ve noticed a glaring downward spiral in the younger generations participation at a grassroots level. The voter turnout in our recent city elections was embarrasing for such a metropolis as LA, less than 20%!! What can be done to inspire community activity amongst “everyone”? Does globalization & the technoligical revolution spell doom for tending to one’s own backyard?

      Additionally, I worked in the music business for a time. Most of the companies I was employed by either had to close their doors or faced corporate takeover. One such company came along and said “we shan’t change a thing!”, then proceeded on their hatchet job of pink slip handing or forcibly elbowing out the old timers, in favor of USC business graduates who knew nothing of music. At a staff meeting regarding new releases, a David Bowie record was the topic of discussion and the “USC Business Graduate” to my right leaned over and said “Who’s David Bowie?” I bring this up in relation to what might come of the seats that will be filled by huge corporations running the “entertainment” industry, including journalism……

      Reply
  26. fred says:

    While it a noble idea that papers be free of political influence, it seems somewhat impossible. Most people have some sort of political viewpoint. And no matter who “owns” a paper, that person or persons will undoubtedly have a political view. Now maybe not to the extent of the Koch brothers, but it seems that unless you are simply covering a beat or reporting on sports there is going to be times when political views by either the editor, writer, or owner will come in to play.

    This probably sounds stupid, but it would be nice to have a publicly funded paper that covers the local municipality/state municipality. Obviously there are 1000s of problems that could arise in that scenario, but it would be nice to have information availability be mandatory

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      In all my years in newsrooms, I never had a line editor make me slant a story politically. It never came up for discussion. And what happened on the ed pages didn’t influence what happened with the news coverage. I’m always amused when people imagine mainstream newsrooms as political cabals.

      But then, it used to be that people reared as journalists became the editors and even the publishers. I knew it was all bad road in the early 1990s when, after Times Mirror bought us up, we went down to the conference room to hear the new corporate CEO talk to us about the future. Fella named Willes. One minute he was running General Mills and selling cereal. Next minute, he’s publishing some of America’s newspapers. Dude talked for an hour and a half and never once mentioned news. Or journalism.

      Reply
      • dolly says:

        You know someone knows nothing about news too when they hold a meeting that is an hour and a half long. These dickheads … a news meeting is 10- minutes long. In that 10 minutes major conflicts are resolved and najor decisions are made.

        All you peole who work at companies outside news – how can you tolerate all these meetings? What on earth are they for?

        Reply
  27. katie says:

    My father worked his entire adult life at The Cincinnati Enquirer and I remember a huge shift when Gannett bought the paper. In fact, when I expressed an interest in majoring in journalism in college in the mid-80s, he put his foot down and said no way, because newspapers were on their way down.

    I heard you speak in Cincinnati a couple of years ago and you opened my eyes about how this is more than just a pity. Without robust state and local coverage who is really keeping an eye on what’s going on in the halls of power? For as much as we love our presidential politics, the local and state happenings are what really effect our daily lives. Without someone paying attention, we will only know what they want us to know.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      No one thinks it matters to cover the zoning board until you come one day and there’s a strip joint and pawnshop on either end of your block. Then suddenly, the idea that someone would be paid to cover a local news beat year in and year out makes more sense than the amateur hour of everyone writing what they feel and think on the internet.

      Reply
      • Gonzai says:

        I have friends who are currently being screwed royally by a neighbor who held enough sway with the zoning board to dump a bunch of tickets and citations on them. Given that the county was clearly stacked against them, I suggested they should contact the press. And then we all looked at each other blankly, and wondered, what press? Who covers stuff like this anymore? And if we found a publication that covered it, who the heck do you contact there?

        You don’t think it matters, until suddenly it does.

        Reply
      • katie says:

        I forgot to compliment you, Mr. Simon, on a perfectly placed, “bless their hearts.”

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          It assumes they have a pair, which good manners does require.

          Reply
        • Zuster says:

          I LOL’d at the “bless their hearts” too.

          I will say, as the spouse of someone who has been involved with both editorial and production at large newspapers over the last 40-odd years, and as the descendant of former owners of smaller weeklies, I have watched what is happening with print journalism with dismay for about the past 10 years.

          I would never encourage someone to become a journalism major at this point in time, sad to say.

          Both my spouse and I feel that the only place newspapers are going to continue to thrive are the smaller weeklies, which have strong local ties. Everyone wants to read about how the local high school football team did. Everyone wants to see their kid’s photo in the paper from the county fair. But national and international news? We can get that online, if we learn to read through the bias, which isn’t as hard as you’d think once you try.

          I read this morning that the Cleveland PD laid off 50 more people from editorial. Makes me sad. But as my 87 year-old father said to me recently, as I was bemoaning the changes in the industry, “Buggy makers hated when the automobile was invented too. Learn to adapt.”

          Reply
    • Doctor Memory says:

      Katie: hey. Your dad almost certainly knew my grandfather. If you get a chance, ask him if he recalls Paul Lugannani?

      (The opinion about the effects of the Gannett buyout seemed to be pretty universally shared: until his dying day, my grandfather would only refer to USA Today as “that paper”, as apparently Gannett strip-mined their local papers of resources and talent in order to launch the McPaper.)

      Reply
      • katie says:

        Ah – I googled his name and I’m sure you’re right that they would have known each other. Unfortunately, my father is deceased as well. It’s a shame — there are so many great stories from those days that are lost.

        Oh yes, McPaper is right. And they just keep laying people off. They’ve even changed the production of the paper to make it smaller — tabloid size. Detracts from the whole newspaper experience.

        Reply
  28. Kevin Stevens says:

    Here in Western New York, Warren Buffet owns the daily. And while it seems he is hands-off from an editorial standpoint, he’s been sucking money out of this town for 20+ years, along with the cutbacks like those you mention. It’s even gotten to the point where the bar the reporters used to frequent had to close for lack of business.

    Newspapers may die, but Pro Publica gives me hope journalism won’t.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Pro Publica does great project work. They come to town, pick a good target, go to work.

      Problem is they then leave town. And what is vulnerable with the decline in print journalist is the consistency and depth of hometown beat reporting, day in and day out.

      Reply
      • Laser Haas says:

        Pro Publica is biased; because of where the funding comes from.

        I chatted with Mr. Steiger when he was picking his staff and all so happy to walk away from his Wall Street Journal massacre by Ruppert.

        Andrew Kreig has an article in HuffPo today, about the passing of Helen Thomas and who she really was.
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-kreig/helen-thomas-pioneered-an_b_3642463.html?utm_source=Alert-blogger&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Email%2BNotifications

        Mr. Kreig wrote a his first book decades ago – titled Spiked! About the ongoing demise of the media.

        It continues and shall continue – until we demand that our Washington D.C. folk make it a law that monopoly of the media is forbidden.

        WaPo would collapse tomorrow – without Kaplan.

        Chicago had a savior in Thane Ritchie (who was willing to buy it with personal monies); but they locked him out.

        Bankruptcy Code & Rule of Law participant Kenneth Klee made moot his stature when he took the job on as Bankruptcy Court Examiner of the Tribune case. (He should never be permitted to be involved with writing the Code/Rule of Law again)

        Star Tribune went bankrupt when it was getting more revenue and readership vast….

        Though the L.A. Times (part of the same affair) – has killed/nixed our stories – someone of good faith there made a promise to never redact/remove “Shake-up roils federal prosecutors” story in March 2008. (It was yanked down twice – prior to the promise).

        I dare say that the Koch’s will do much worse a job. Karl Rove is foaming at the mouth about the opportunities presented, should Koch’s get on a roll with this quest. As is Liz Cheney right now – in her announced run for Senate.

        I’ve signed your petition (why isn’t there a link here)?

        Would be glad to hold up signs at the famous “Block” (while eating Johnnies) – Just Say No To Koch…

        Reply
        • Kevin Stevens says:

          “Pro Publica is biased; because of where the funding comes from.”

          To quote the late Mr. Hitchens, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

          Reply
      • Dan Mitchell says:

        Exactly, and this is what the digital triumphalist types *always* miss. At this point (since I have personally confronted many of them with the facts of empty statehouse bureaus, terrible coverage of city halls, cops and courts, schools, declining quality in what little DOES get produced, and etc.) they’re simply being intellectually dishonest in their championing of “citizen journalism” and whatnot.

        If you write something about how journalism is fine because look at all the people covering the White House, Congress, Google, and the Middle East, and completely ignore the gutting of local and regional newspapers, you’re not worth paying attention to. And yet a huge number of the people who write about this stuff do just that, consistently.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          I testified in front of a Senate panel on this stuff with Arianna Huffington. She remarked that the future of newspapers was of little moment because the internet was taking up the good fight. She was actually going to begin paying 40 reporters and editors to cover Washington and national issues.

          “When I see a Huffington Post reporter at the Baltimore zoning board hearing, I’ll know we’re okay.” I replied.

          She looked at me as I was from some other planet, which I guess I kinda was.

          Reply
          • Dan Mitchell says:

            I remember that. And look at what HuffPo has done with its much-heralded local efforts like HuffPo Chicago – fuck-all, basically. And look at what AOL has done with Patch – worse than fuck-all. (To be fair, Arianna has nothing to do with Patch, but still.)

            A lot of people hear the word “journalist” and think of Wolf Blitzer, or the NYT White House correspondent. Or maybe their local anchorman. Or Glenn Beck. Many of them have no idea what’s been lost. What’s sad and sick is that so many media pundits — who are charged, after all, with examining these issues — appear to be no better informed.

            Reply
      • Les says:

        It seems odd Mr. Stevens cites Warren Buffett as a negative in the comment section given that Mr. Buffett echoed the sentiments mentioned in this piece.

        His stance on Berkshire’s purchase of several daily newspapers is detailed in the last annual report where he makes it clear that to survive newspapers must create an online strategy and that local newspapers must address local issues.

        He also stated that it’s imperative that they retain their independence in both coverage and editorial opinions and that they can’t skimp on how much local news they choose to cover or attempt to reduce their publication cycle from the daily news.

        While it’s not the same as local ownership, the newspapers owned by Berkshire Hathaway have a far greater range of freedom in the way they can conduct their business than those run by other entities.

        Reply
        • Kevin Stevens says:

          I can say that his words do not match his actions, as demonstrated by massive cutbacks in the newsroom. And the money still flows out of town. If he wants the newspaper in this town to survive, he sure isn’t putting his money into it.

          As I said, I credit him for staying out of editorial, but there’s more to it than that.

          Reply
          • Les says:

            I guess it’s easier to quote a maxim than it is to live by one S you haven’t provided any evidence that Mr. Buffett has been “sucking the money out” of what I am guessing is the Buffalo News other than an anecdote about the closure of a bar.

            You also seem to be unaware of how businesses owned by Berkshire Hathaway operate. Mr. Buffett makes no decisions in regards to how the paper is run. He does not operate them nor demand a level of profit. He only intervenes if a business is being poorly run. The Buffalo News has faced the same problems as most other papers, a decline in readers because they were offering their content online for free while incurring the costs for producing a physical product they they were charging people to acquire.

            The financial information of The Buffalo News is filed along with the rest of Berkshire Hathaway’s businesses. If there is something untoward in the manner in which it is being run it shouldn’t be a problem to point out where in the financial report the evidence lies that operations are being sacrificed in the name of profit.

            Reply
            • dolly says:

              He cited massive cutbacks in the newsroom.

              Reply
              • Les says:

                But without any evidence that those cutbacks were done at the behest of Mr. Buffett. Which seemed to be his claim.

                Given that Berkshire Hathaway generally finds itself with too much money and nowhere to spend it, I’m going to need something more than anecdotes to believe he was calling up the Buffalo News demanding that they squeeze a million out of the budget.

                Reply
          • dolly says:

            I have to say I am really surprised. I always assumed that Buffet fully expected that newspaper to run at a loss and didn’t care if it ever turned a profit, within reason of course.

            I always thought it was a pet project of his. He was really close to Kay Graham. He is the one who told her to set up WaPo ownership shares the way they did to retain control of the newspaper.

            He never struck me as someone who didn’t get it.

            Reply
  29. debris54 says:

    Unfortunately, newspapers lost their place in society decades ago… as did, apparently, intelligent discource. “TV consciousness” is now the mainline.

    Reply

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