Thursday, May 07, 2009

Former Baltimore Sun reporter and the creator of The Wire (the best TV show ever made), David Simon talks to Congress about the crisis of news reporting:

It's nice to get stuff for free, of course, and it's nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet community is rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it's also quite good, even original. Understand, I'm not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But you do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don't see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others—pressing sources. You don't see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism is a profession. It requires daily full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out. Reporting was the hardest and, in some ways, most gratifying job I ever had. I'm offended to think that anyone anywhere believes American monoliths, as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives, can be held to gathered facts by amateurs presenting the task—pursuing the task without compensation, training or, for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care who it is they're lying to or who they're withholding information from.

Indeed, the very phrase "citizen journalist" strikes my ear as Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker, just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.
Consider this: the LA Times is the only news organization that still has a reporter covering the budget state budget (which is $131 billion this year, including a $40B deficit). If that guy goes, who will be watching to prevent corruption? And obviously the politicians and lobbyists know this too. In other words, you're one reporter away from, in essence, a complete lack of accountability on the part of the government of the sixth biggest economy in the world. As he Simon says elsewhere, I'll stop worrying about the fate of investigative journalism when I see Huffington Post bloggers showing up week after week to the city council meetings of smallish American cities.

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

Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can openly discuss protecting copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered. Absent this basic and belated acknowledgement that content matters—in fact, content is all—I don't think anything can be done to save high-end professional journalism.
I personally don't think that non-profit is any kind of solution: it already exists, and doesn't seem to be staunching the bleeding. Perhaps there might be some hope if all the newspapers could be given an anti-trust exemption to be allowed to collude on collectively creating a micropayment scheme for news content.

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