Menk2

Alexandria, VA

I’m late to this, but have been spending the last few weeks of the summer break gorging on episodes of David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series “The Wire.” It is a fiercely gritty, profane, violent, tough-minded look at the inner workings of the city of Baltimore in its death-throes. The series is smart and sad, one in which people are more often than not trapped by a combination of circumstance and bad and worse choices.

I took an interest in watching the series after hearing excerpts from Simon’s testimony this past Spring before the Senate on the state of the newspaper business in America. His testimony – like the series he created – was fierce, defiant, and brutally honest. What strikes one about reading this testimony is how thoroughly he shatters the contemporary myth that there’s some kind of inherent antagonism between defenders of the Free Market and an increasingly distant and ungovernable Government. Cheerleaders of the Age of the Internet have urged us to move on from the day of ink-stained hands, and revel in the ushering in of an era of unlimited information. Yet, Simon puts to lie the notion that the internet is any real replacement for the hard, gritty and local work of gathering news.

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

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It is nice to get stuff for free, of course. And it is nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet commentary is – as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort – rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.

Understand here that I am not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But democratized and independent though they may be, 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 and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism – that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — 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 until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history – no more than the last fifty years or so – a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modem newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

We should note that GUMMINT and INDUSTRY alike are only too happy to see those bothersome reporters dwindling, replaced now by internet news-spinners who will soon have very little news to actually spin. Yet, Simon also points out in his testimony that what really killed off the papers was not the internet.  The internet has decimated what was left of a dying business, but what originally sent the papers into a death spiral was none other than the cowboy FREE ENTERPRISE of the 1980s and 90s.  What killed the papers were the demands of stockholders to “unlock the value” that lie dormant in newspapers that were otherwise content to make a slow, steady and regular profit, rather than the 10% or more annual returns that were being promised every month in the pages of Kiplinger’s magazine. So, Simon testified, the “investors” went after the body of the newspapers until only a carcass was left:

In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary – something so strong that it might have charged for its product online – they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.

In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.

When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed.

Economically, the disconnect is now obvious. What do newspaper executives in Los Angeles or Chicago care whether or not readers in Baltimore have a better newspaper, especially when you can make more putting out a mediocre paper than a worthy one? The profit margin was all. And so, where family ownership might have been content with 10 or 15 percent profit, the chains demanded double that and more, and the cutting began – long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.

But editorially? The newspaper chains brought an ugly disconnect to the newsroom, and by extension, to the community as well.

A few years after the A.S. Abell Family sold The Sun to the Times-Mirror newspaper chain, fresh editors arrived from out of town to take over the reins of the paper.

They looked upon Baltimore not as essential terrain to be covered with consistency, to be explained in all its complexity year in and year out for readers who had and would live their lives in Baltimore. Why would they? They had arrived from somewhere else, and if they could win a prize or two, they would be moving on to bigger and better opportunities within the chain.

So, well before the arrival of the internet, as veteran reporters and homegrown editors took buyouts, newsbeats were dropped and less and less of Baltimore and central Maryland were covered with rigor or complexity.

In killing off the local connection between the news reporters and the city it covered – by obeying the abstract demands of placeless stockholders who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Baltimore and the out-of-town editors whose mandate was to cut costs – no one in the places where newspapers were being published any longer had any real reason to buy fluff filled with AP stringer reports.  By breaking the local tie, the citizens of places like Baltimore ceased to know and be given a key to understanding their city, and the internet wasn’t going out and hiring any new beat reporters to haunt the pubs where the pols and police hang out.  And, as a consequence, both the corporate and governmental powers can breath easier that fewer reporters will be sniffing around their increasingly unpatrolled activities.  Meanwhile, the citizenry will congratulate itself on all the information it is receiving over the internet and through the television set.  1984 meets Brave New World.

Tocqueville argued that one of the necessary conditions for the flourishing of mass democracy was the existence and persistence of newspapers and a public that attentively read the news.  With the death of our newspapers, stories about democracy may be moving from the front section to the obituary pages.  Soon our news will come from nowhere in particular, and we will descend further into the ignorance that is an endemic condition of our increasingly abstract and placeless lives.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Artie August 28, 2009 at 8:54 am

I usually find much to like here at FPR. Patrick Deneen might find it ironic that I spend more time reading FPR than I do my local paper, the Dallas Morning News, and I suspect that many Front Porch types spend more time with blogs and such than they do with their local papers.

One reason newspapers were dying even before the internet sucked the soul out of them was because so many of the people writing these “stories about democracy” had their own partisan axes to grind. I canceled my subscription to the Dallas paper in the run-up to the Iraq war when the DMN editorial staff was basically parroting Judith Miller’s WMD hysteria.

The only thing valuable in local papers now is local news. The ads, national, international news and the op-ed blather you can get on the internet. At least with the internet, you don’t feel guilty about all the trees and fossil fuel it took to get Sarah Palin’s latest uttering delivered to your doorstep.

avatar Patrick Deneen August 28, 2009 at 9:43 am

Artie,
I’m glad to read that you are a regular reader, though I hope you don’t think you’re likely to get a lot of “first generation” news from a place like FPR. I think of this site as a resource akin to an older journal of opinion – rich in analysis and thought provocation, but thin on up-to-the minute reportage.

Still, much of what I end up writing about is gleaned from the newspapers I read daily (I subscribe to three, our “local” – the Washington Post, which I consider to be a first rate paper – and two nationals, albeit based out of New York, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal). I fully recognize and acknowledge my own reliance on good reporting, and hope that the newspapers will be around for my children to read.

It’s an interesting question – perhaps one to be explored at more length here – whether we should expect simple “objectivity” from our news sources (the two “nationals” to which I subscribe aspire to objectivity in news reporting, but have a well-known slant in their editorial pages). Tocqueville, for instance, wrote at a time when newspapers were effectively organs for the various parties. If there has been disillusionment with the papers on the score you lay out here, it’s perhaps because a claim of pure objectivity that cannot be met by humans who are always of a mind about something.

All that said, what you say here about the WMD farrago was among the most shameful moments in modern newspaper history, and one thinks that a fellow like David Simon wouldn’t have let those stories get by without looking under the hood of that particular clunker. He was one of the reporters “downsized” in the 80s and 90s, and might have been one of a phalanx of reporters who would have asked harder questions about the WMD fictions – if “increasing shareholder value” hadn’t put them out to pasture.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 28, 2009 at 10:47 am

I have some friends who have preserved a cover from the Hartford Courant that had been used by former owners of their 18th century house as insulation. This was a common practice for many years, old papers were layered on the inside of exterior clapboards with glue, sealing out the breezes and giving scant insulation. In this case, the cover is from the early nineteenth century and it discusses both domestic developments during the War of 1812 and the movement of Napoleon as he maneuvered toward his final demise. Its a bit of our history brought into compelling immediacy. The Hartford Courant, as I understand it, is the oldest continuously operating newspaper in America. Bought some time ago by one of the national media conglomerates, the Courant closed it’s Capitol Reporting Beat this past summer and asserted it was going to put that cost cutting measure to work in beefing up its community reporting……something the local weekly sheets do far better already. This comes during the administration of a Governor who replaced a Governor shamed out of office due to political irregularities.

Though not a part of our government , the newspapers…the Fourth Estate…are a vital part of our Separation of Powers. Though always political, the papers still acted as a clearing house and inspector General for the news of our collective life. One can get no better comprehensive coverage of a story than from the newspapers. The internet is an echo-chamber. An enjoyable and interactive and sometimes original echo-chamber but an echo-chamber nonetheless. In addition to the role of Wall Street and short term profit expectations, one has to assume that the industry’s tone deaf coverage of the previous administration played no small part in their continuing decline. Instead of independent analysis and reporting , we get a recitation of sources and all the malign insider hoax-perpetuation of the Judith Miller Affair. And it continues apace. The blame must also lay at the feet of the citizen who has habituated themselves to an easy acceptance of the whiz, bangs and breeziness of the television news.

As much as anything though, I think incuriosity is at work here. Critical thinking , debate and a simple love of the language have been virtually cast off in our public school system, in favor of the kind of summary literacy of the technocrat where “works well with others” is more important than an original idea.

avatar Carl Scott August 28, 2009 at 1:53 pm

While certainly not agreeing with the WMD hufflepuffery in the above comments, which would be a national journalism issue anyway, Simon’s and Deneen’s thoughts seem spot-on to me, and important. I think the defacto return to partisan-aligned journalism from the 40s-90s interregnum the nation can probably handle, i.e., I do not miss Mr. Rather’s agenda being in power, but the growing scarcity of the local beat reporter is a serious, serious problem, and it’s good to be reminded of cowboy capitalism’s part in that, and its perhaps being the more important factor than the net.
Solutions anyone? Mitigating possibilities?

avatar Ted V. McAllister August 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Patrick,

Thanks for your essay. It raises in my mind a number of questions about place and locality. The most pressing in this context is “local knowledge.” Knowledge of a place, of a complex and sorted past to a place, of the convoluted relationships of the people and institutions that color a place, may be in peril (though I’m not sure). Isn’t local knowledge–knowledge that cannot come from distant sources and that draws from very interpersonal connections–important to local rule, to the ability of citizens of some place to participate meaningfully in their own governance?

avatar Rob G August 28, 2009 at 10:58 pm

One aspect of print journalism that makes our U.S. situation different than that of both Tocqueville’s time and, say, contemporary England is the fact that our papers tend not to admit their party/slant, in some attempt to appear “objective.” As is said above, objectivity of that sort is impossible, and in any case, the papers’ attempts to feign it are often questionable, if not downright silly.

Here in Pittsburgh we have two major dailies, one of which leans generally left, the other generally right. Everyone who pays attention knows this, yet there’s this unspoken hesitancy to call the Post-Gazette the “liberal” paper (except in the polemic of conservatives) or the Tribune-Review the “conservative” paper (except in the polemic of liberals). We have this notion in America that it’s somehow wrong for papers of this type to admit to or play to their bias.

Seems to me that print journalism would be healthier if all the papers admitted their slant, stopped feigning editorial objectivity, and were done with it. You’d then have a situation like that in England, where everyone knows what he gets when he buys a copy of the Times or the Guardian or the Telegraph, and furthermore, isn’t afraid to say so.

avatar James Matthew Wilson August 29, 2009 at 8:58 am

Very insightful, Patrick. One can rail against a free market for two reasons of course. If one takes the words “free market” in a more or less literal sense, one gets a natural phenomenon arising out of the natural social customs of private property; if one takes “free market” to include something like the stock market . . . well, then one gets a phenomenon with all the symptoms you decry. I wish there were a way to make mankind hear the pejorative content of the word “Usury” once more.

I wrote an Op-Ed piece a couple years ago called “Wisdom and Objectivity” (http://media.www.ndsmcobserver.com/media/storage/paper660/news/2006/10/13/Viewpoint/Wisdom.And.Objectivity-2348589.shtml) that was intended to flesh out some of the questions you and some of the commentators raise about objectivity versus “local” knowledge. My argument there was that the model of the newspaper as some cosmic objective entity was a strange and historically purblind one, and that we should set aside such hopeless models of news reporting in favor of wisdom, i.e. the hard work of slowly coming to trust that the writers and reporters of a particular publication are wise enough to see and speak the truth. Such persons would inevitably be “biased” as my students are wont to say; but one reads them because one trusts the “bias” is in accord with the truth. In sum, the modern newspaper model that existed for much of the twentieth century had many good elements, but it also sowed the seeds of its own evisceration by consistently claiming to be “fair and balanced.” Local knowledge, real knowledge, “connaisance,” is never fair and balanced, it is passionately driven toward the truth. Thus, pray God, some new model of locally committed papers with the sensibility and integrity of a good opinion journal will come into being. And, on that note, I’m going to go subscribe to the Philadelphia Bulletin, which meets precisely the characterization I’ve just given!

avatar D.W. Sabin August 29, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Carl Scott; “WMD Hufflepuffery”? What…., an Administration stovepiping inaccurate information to a major daily newspaper to gin up a war that shouldn’t have happened, thus delivering the nation on a silver platter to Iran on our wantonly spent dime while putting over 4,000 of our own soldiers in coffins…let alone the numbers of civilian casualties in the country affected…and this is “hufflepuffery”?

A solution is credible journalists who think journalism is more than simply ringing up “confidential sources” on a single side of any issue.

That said, this political stovepiping has been going on since Hearst and Cuba and even before when The Framers were having pamphleteers or papers do their hatchet work so some of that is to be fully expected …it just shouldn’t be the only thing we get..

avatar Artie August 30, 2009 at 8:34 am

Patrick, I don’t expect first generation or local news from FPR, but there’s no reason we can’t get local, first generation news from the internet. Lots of small town papers are doing it as we speak. When Simon wrote “The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting” he was enagaging in nostalgia, a McLuhanesque medium/message conflation. An essay is an essay, and reporting is reporting, regardless of whether it appears on newsprint or electronic medium. The internet doesn’t change the rules of what makes good reporting or good opinion making, it just changes the delivery medium. I think the biggest problem the internet poses for local news is revenue generation – getting paid for writing the local news. And that is a significant problem for sure.

Paper is wonderful, we all love to read from newsprint, but as a medium, it has some major drawbacks that the internet does not share. It is energy and resource intensive and the information it delivers is obsolete the instant it is printed. If we’re lucky the day-old newsprint gets recycled. If we’re not, it gets tossed into the landfill. If the content of newsprint is archived, it is most likely archived in the native tongue of the internet.

I think Simon has decided to shoot the medium instead of the message.

avatar Patrick Deneen August 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

Artie,
You haven’t read Simon’s argument quite correctly. He’s arguing that the internet, such as it is, will not be a replacement for what local reporters are able to do. What he sees right now are “second generation” internet bloggers spinning the content that is generated by reporters, and seldom actually going out into the places you need to go as a reporter to get the news first-hand. You implicitly concede this point when you write, “Lots of small town papers are doing it as we speak.” I suspect that if he thought that the internet reporting could effectively replace newspaper reporting, he wouldn’t object to the medium as such. He has elsewhere argued that newspapers do themselves no favors by providing free content on the web; in order to hire a decent reporting staff, they are going to need to charge for the content. A major sticking point is now that most denizens of the internet have gotten used to the idea that everything should be free. A younger generation, raised on the internet, will likely find the idea of paying for news well-nigh unthinkable – and they will get what they pay for.

As to Carl’s question of “what is to be done,” it is a good one and difficult to answer. Perhaps there’s the sanguine view that if the newspapers die in their current form as a result of a set of bad decisions over the past twenty years, new ones will take their place – that they simply fulfill a need that is intrinsic to humankind, the need to know what is going on. I’m less sanguine, at least in the short- to medium-term. Coincidentally, on the same day I wrote this post, this essay was posted at “Inside Higher Education.” Perhaps the Universities and schools could contribute, though fewer of them regard themselves as doing much of anything relevant to their physical location, but rather preparing students for the life of globalization and cosmopolitanism. I’m not sure many schools will encourage students to take up a local beat.

avatar Artie August 30, 2009 at 11:36 am

Patrick,

Just to be clear, the distinction I’m trying to make here is that traditional, newspaper-style reporting need not go away just because the delivery medium has changed. Everything the dedicated, hard-working local reporters and editors do could, in theory, remain the same except for the final delivery medium. I know of several small town papers that are already publishing the same local content on both newsprint and the internet.

As you say, the key issue here would appear to be compensation for reporters and editors in this new ‘free’ medium. The daily newspapers are clogged with ads and inserts that generate – I suspect – more revenue than the cost of subscription. For newspapers, or perhaps more accurately news _services_ to survive in the internet age, they will have to find new, more indirect ways to make money from their intellectual content.

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