I recently came across this thought-provoking essay about the nature of newpaper journalism today. It’s written by David Simon, a wonderful reporter at the Baltimore Sun and author (It was his literary nonfiction “Homicide” that led to the development of the television show in the 1990s–I have a first edition). He feels that the newspaper newsroom just isn’t a place to call his professional home anymore. His writing really captures the feelings a journalist has about his craft, and also the tensions felt as business pressures continue to increase, all from an insider’s perspective.
Simon writes: “Emerging from childhood, I had seen Halberstam and Hersh take apart the fraudulent premises and practices of Vietnam, then followed daily as my hometown paper brought down Nixon for stealing an election and lying about it. My father, a public-relations man with latent ambitions as a newsman, took all the local papers and The New York Times on Sundays, as well as every newsmagazine. When I was twelve, he took me to Arena Stage for a Front Page revival. â€œWho the hellâ€™s going to read the second paragraph?â€ wailed Walter Burns.
“I laughed until I hurt and left the theater oversold. I would be a newspaperman. I would join the great gray line of ink-stained hacks, a character of the kind that my father knew and loved. From the Swopes to the Runyons, from Broun to Pegler to Mencken, then back again to Hecht and MacArthur, Homer Bigart and Meyer Berger … On a given day, I learn something that you didnâ€™t know and then, my authority drawn only from scrawl on pages of a pocket notebook, I write it up clean so the rest of you can get your hands filthy with ink, reading my righteous shit. In the less fevered lobes of my brain, it was as pure as that. I swear it was.”
I love those lines. I felt the same way when I was a reporter, although I don’t think I could express it as clearly as Simon. It’s as if you are called to a mission. But I’m afraid that as long as journalism continues to be judged with the same set of standards as entertainment, it may not be long that our society will have to learn the hard way what it’s like to function without a solid “fourth estate.”
Simon tells his story of how he had to leave his profession behind. His paragraph about newspapers is about the best description of the industry today: “At the very edge of being rendered irrelevant by the arrival of the Internet — at the precise moment when their very product would be threatened by technology — newspapers will not be intent on increasing and deepening their coverage of their cities, their nation, the world. They will be instead in the hands of out-of-town moneymen offering unfeeling and unequivocal fealty to stockholders and the share price. And when the Chicago Tribune Company buys Times Mirror and more buyouts follow, the tipping point will be reached. Instead of a news report so essential to the high-end readers that they might — even amid the turmoil of the Internet — still charge for their product online and off, American newspapers will soon be offering a shell of themselves in a market unwilling to pay for such and then, in desperation, giving the product away for free. The window will close; newspapers will not be getting better, stronger, more comprehensive. Not ever again.”