David Simon1 was interviewed by Bill Moyers (video here if you missed it) about what fictional tales like The Wire can say about our corrupt institutions that journalism cannot. About 2/3 through the interview, Mr. Simon reminded me of how newspapers, as a business, made decisions to increase their profits at the expense of newsgathering, and thus sowed the seeds of their own destruction:
BILL MOYERS: I read something you recently told “The Guardian,” in London: “Oh, to be a state or local official in America…” without newspapers. “It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”
DAVID SIMON: Well, I was being a little hyperbolic. But-
BILL MOYERS: But it’s happening. I mean, it’s becoming true.
DAVID SIMON: Yes. It absolutely is, it absolutely is. To find out what’s going on in my own city I often find myself at a bar somewhere taking, writing stuff down on a cocktail napkin that a police lieutenant or some school teacher tells me. Because these institutions are no longer being covered by beat reporters who are looking for the systemic. It doesn’t exist anymore.
And this is not all the Internet. This was a– you know, there’s a lot of the general tone in journalism right now is that of martyrology. Of-
BILL MOYERS: Being martyrs, right.
DAVID SIMON: Yes, we were doing our job. Making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us? I would buy that if I wasn’t in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet because I took the third buyout from the “Baltimore Sun.” I was about reporter number 80 or 90 who left, in 1995. Long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time– those buyouts happened when the “Baltimore Sun” was earning 37 percent profits.
You know, we now know this because it’s in bankruptcy and the books are open. 37 percent profits. All that R&D money that was supposed to go in to make newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world. It went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product– that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.
I mean, the guys who are running newspapers, over the last 20 or 30 years, have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It– it’s even more profound than Detroit making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car in 1973. That– it’s analogous up to a point, except it’s not analogous in that a Nissan is a pretty good car, and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it’s great for commentary and froth doesn’t do very much first generation reporting at all. And it can’t sustain that. The economic model can’t sustain that kind of reporting. And to lose to that, because you didn’t– they had contempt for their own product, these people. I mean, how do-
BILL MOYERS: The publishers. The owners.
DAVID SIMON: Yes, how do you give it away for free? You know, but for 20 years, they looked upon the copy as being the stuff that went around the ads. The ads were the God. And then all of a sudden the ads were not there, and the copy, they had had contempt for. And they had– they had actually marginalized themselves
By the time the Internet had its way, I mean, they’re down to 180 now. You don’t cover the City of Baltimore and a region like Central Maryland with 180 people. You don’t cover it well.
And the institutional knowledge of the place disappears. And so that was– I was being a little flippant with “The Guardian” but what I was saying was, you know, there’s going to be a wave of corruption until they figure out the new model and reestablish– the institutional memory of these places, there’s going to be a wave of misbehavior.
[Click to read more of Bill Moyers Journal . Transcripts | PBS David Simon]
Remember this fact next time you hear a Sam Zell type complain about why they are cutting staff, again.Footnotes: