Plumb Lines

April 9, 2009

Wire Service

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 6:03 am

Anyone I’ve seen in the last two months knows about my recent obsession with The Wire. So I took interest when I saw David Simon, the show’s creator, was ranting about how the decline of American newspapers will spur a rise in corruption. Simon is not known to be subtle. The Atlantic ran a profile of him a year ago titled “The Angriest Man in Television.” It is no surprise Simon feels this way about newspapers. He is a newspaper man who dedicated the fifth, final season of The Wire to getting revenge on The Baltimore Sun, the operation that soured him on modern day newspapers.

The ranting and ravings of concerned journalists claiming newspapers are somehow the bedrock of democracy and a bulwark against corruption form a  growing cacophony. The old guard failed repeatedly in the past two decades, and its greatest failure is that it refused to comprehend or to integrate the Internet into its business model. Now the AP complains that search engines and news aggregators linking to its stories are “stealing.” How dare they blame consumers for not paying—that’s what consumers do. They look for the best deal, and free is certainly a good deal. Furthermore, people in our generation share news by e-mailing links around not by buying a newspaper. This allows friends to enjoy a personalized, endorsed digest from multiple outlets. So in the face of having a poor product, journalists like Simon are trying to make newspapers seem vital to the American way of life.

The claim that newspapers somehow stand between us and Thunderdome is an exaggeration. News will still find a way to get around in the absence paper editions. Journalists complain that now people select their news based on bias. That’s true , but was it not true in the past? Only then there were usually just two papers, the first with a conservative editorial board and the other with a liberal one. And no one ever forced someone to read every article in a newspaper. Yes, democracy will do just fine without newspapers.

I am indifferent to the future of newsprint, really. What I might miss is the ability to have strong local coverage of new stories, but most local newspapers will never manage to earn enough money from advertisements given that Craig’s List is free. I also worry about sites like Politico and its “model for nonstop and unanalyzed reporting.” Blogs publish instantly, and sometimes it is nice to slow down and think a little. This is why I believe weekend  analytical editions might become popular. Whatever form newspapers take in the future, I’m sure that democarcy and corruption will probably remain at about the same levels. David Simon will continue to be angry.

-Michael E. van Landingham

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1 Comment »

  1. Michael,

    I only worry about the decline of quality, not the decline of the medium. I just hope that somehow good, quality reporting can be preserved. Right now the only honest reporting comes in the form of written news – either online or on paper – certainly not in television. Can we preserve honest, analytical reporting on a large enough scale if Newspapers die? Can we do it better, perhaps, if we can cut down operational costs? For instance, a local newspaper in a town of 50,000 people might simply employee too many people, have too many operating costs (printing, large facility etc.) whereas an online iteration of the same organization might be much, much cheaper to run, thus freeing up some cash to pay people to actually do some good reporting. Local news sites wouldn’t need to do as much syndicated news either, and could focus a great deal more on the local.

    So if that’s the case, I say bravo! But if there is no way to make online news at all profitable or even manageable as non-profits, I’m not sure that this change will be beneficial…

    Comment by E.D. Kain — April 10, 2009 @ 12:05 pm


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