National Commentary

Newspapers Can Blame Themselves

 

bentonmug“Cities Without Newspapers,” shouts the cover headline of this month’s edition of the American Journalism Review. It announces the story by U.S.A. Today legal affairs editor Rachel Smolkin that paints yet another grim picture of where traditional urban daily newspapers have gone and are heading.

bentonmug“Cities Without Newspapers,” shouts the cover headline of this month’s edition of the American Journalism Review. It announces the story by U.S.A. Today legal affairs editor Rachel Smolkin that paints yet another grim picture of where traditional urban daily newspapers have gone and are heading.

Making all the data about failing papers and chains worse is the author’s documentation of the link between newspapers and healthy democracy, represented by things like voter turnout rates and the responsiveness of elected officials. Both are significantly better, as are judicial decisions, when there’s a vibrant newspaper covering the issues, she reports, citing studies by prestigious economists from the University of Chicago, MIT and Stockholm University.

But then there’s a Pew Research Center poll indicating “an alarming disconnect between newspapers’ role in civic life and the public’s appreciation of it,” Smolkin notes. “You get the sense that many people recognize the source of their news, especially when it comes to online news,” she quotes a Pew person. “They may be following a link, they may be forwarding a link, they may be on Facebook and click on a link. People may be getting more information from newspapers than they realize.”

But the Internet, and the bad economy, may not be the chief culprits in the demise of the great American newspaper, as is the common wisdom.

Not so at all, argues David Simon, former Baltimore Sun police beat reporter and creator of the popular HBO drama, The Wire. Simon was scathing in his indictment of top decision-makers in the newspaper industry during remarks at a National Press Club luncheon last week that was carried on C-SPAN. He suggested newspapers have no one to blame but themselves for what’s happening to them.

It’s a similar view to what I’ve held and written about before, being a newspaper owner, albeit of a smaller weekly. I’ve observed up close and personal, and indeed felt the pressures on me, as amidst the newspapers and chains around me what Simon asserts has been true for the entire industry.

Simon was introduced as having left the Sun “because some S.O.B. bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.”

Basically, he said that profit motive and Wall Street pressures did in newspapers, as buyouts to expand chains, bringing in business leaders who were not grounded in the newspaper business, led to ill-fated conclusions that newspapers could make more money with a lousy product than a good one.

Buying out journalistic talent was one way used to erode the quality of newspapers, he said. When you fire people, you tend to fire those with the least seniority. When you buy people out, it is the best people who go, taking their experience and institutional memories with them. The chains “eviscerated newspapers for pure profit.”

Gone are the days when newspapers believed first in their content, providing news that couldn’t be found anywhere else. In fact, when the U.S.A. Today model of short stories “no more than 12 column inches in length,” with “no jumps” won the hearts of the business leaders who were accumulating papers into their chains for the sake of besting their competition, the death of the newspaper industry was virtually insured.

“Generalized news is irrelevant” he said. No longer did newspapers strive for “news you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

“I covered my police beat in Baltimore not out of altruism, but because I was paid to do it, but as a result, I was able to dig deep to get to the heart of a story,” he said. “It should be the goal of a good professional journalist to say, ‘I really know this beat.’”

But in-depth stories are undesirable now because they “generate copy for a news hole that is shrinking.”

Real reporting is something that no casual or volunteer blogger or pundit who treats his work like a hobby can do, he added. “I don’t believe in citizen journalism,” he said. “Journalism is a skilled profession.” He added that a good editor can destroy fraudulent journalism before it gets into print, but that there are no such constraints in on-line blogs.

He was not optimistic that the situation will be turned around.

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