It’s not all the shareholders’ fault

Of all the paradigms being disrupted these days, none is more interesting than that of books and book publishing. We all know about how the actual publishing process is evolving, but what you may not realize is that the path from aspiring author to published author is also being disrupted.

The established institution — like so many others in our culture — is being disrupted from the bottom up and old pathways are overgrown with new foliage. The obvious new path is self-publishing, and another is that more bloggers and geeks are writing books these days. They know how to write, because their efforts are being read by people every day, and they have the reputation with potential book buyers to get the attention of publishers.

But one old path that’s closing isn’t really evident — that from newspaper journalist to author, which is the grand dream of many budding journalists, although they might not say so. It’s not polite to state up front that you’re in it for you.

Writers need to write, and newspapers have traditionally provided a tremendous vehicle for that. It’s not just the sensational stuff, like “All The President’s Men;” it includes thousands of books all along the importance spectrum.

One such man is David Simon, who was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 13 years before a series he wrote on the Baltimore City Homicide Division, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was turned into a best-selling novel, and then into an NBC series. His second series and subsequent book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, became an HBO mini-series, and Simon was on his way. He’s now Executive Producer of the HBO series The Wire, and his life as a writer is fully established.

But he began as a reporter in Baltimore.

In an interview with the fan site Fancast, Simon observed the overgrown path, but his comments strike me as remarkably shallow for a man of his position:

The newsroom where I used to work (the Baltimore Sun) had 460 people. Now it has 300. And there are people out there who just don’t care. They’ll make more money putting out a mediocre paper than they would putting out a better paper. They know this. It’s their equation. They’re quite content with mediocrity.

And within that culture we have people that are saying, ‘oh no, we’re going to do more with less,’ which is one of the great lies of the 21st century. What it means is we’re going to less with less. And that’s the nature of what journalism is becoming.

So here we have a “famous” guy, who became famous by taking a year to write a newspaper series that brought the paper recognition and awards and rocketed Simon into the future, now using the pulpit given to him to throw bricks at the tough business decisions being made today. I find that pretty disingenuous.

Why don’t we do a cost/benefit analysis on Simon’s original series?

You see these sort of ‘we gotcha’ stories, bite sized morsels of outrage, half-assed scandals. No one is tackling big problems. That kind of ambition is gone. When I went into journalism school, which is over 20 years ago now, high end journalism seemed like it was growing by leaps and bounds in its ability to assess the most delicate and ornate contradictions in society.

You look at some of the coverage (of) Watergate and some of the examinations of political infrastructure that followed on the part of high end papers. It was very impressive and there was every reason to believe that it was (going to) become more so, that newspapers were going to become more serious and instead the opposite happened.

Look, we all wish we had the time and resources to build a career as a successful executive producer while being paid by a local newspaper, and while Simon rails against the contemporary press and actually brings his outrage into the HBO series, we all need to back off the blame game and take a look in the mirror. What real, lasting cultural change did Simon bring to Baltimore’s streets? What role did this style of making-a-name-for-yourself journalism play in the distancing of newspapers from their readers?

It’s easy to cast stones, but as the old saying goes, it’s not very smart to do that from glass houses. What we’re reaping today is partially the fault of public companies more interested in the next quarter’s profits than the role of the press in our culture, but they didn’t invent the Internet or the disruptions that are originating with the people formerly known as the audience. I believe the worship of the fame of Woodward and Bernstein is directly responsible for much of what Simon finds wrong with the news these days.

And the next David Simon may come from YouTube. Would it really be all that bad? We’ll see.

Comments

  1. Don’t get me wrong; I love David Simon, and I’ve followed his work closely for the last 18 years.

    But he’s always been somewhat out of touch when it comes to understanding how business works. As the years have gone on he tends more and more to see himself as the Great White Saviour Of Baltimore.

  2. You might be interested in this audio interview with David Simon: http://www.mrmedia.com/2007/02/fridays-with-mr-media-david-simonthe.html .
    Thanks!
    Bob

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