Monday, March 3, 2008

Acts of Daily Journalism

If, like me, you're a big fan of David Simon and every word he's ever written (which means you're a big fan of The Wire, The Corner - book and series, and Homicide - book and series) then you'll want to pick up the March issue of Esquire, which features Simon's essay about his years at the Baltimore Sun and the decline of the daily newspaper. You can follow the link to Esquire's website to read part of the essay, but you'll have to buy the print version to read it all, which is a business model to keep in mind when thinking about the decline of the newspaper.

I spent my first two years of college thinking that I would graduate, go to j-school, and become a reporter. Simon is just five years older than I am, and he entered the profession at this same time, the early 80s, when newspapers were still wearing their post-Watergate glow. The daily paper wasn't only a source of news, but a source of reform and change. That statement isn't just a reflection of the idealism of the young; 25 years ago, newspapers were still flush with advertising revenue and could afford the kind of staff needed for investigative reporting. 25 years ago 24-hour news channels and the internet were just a dream.

To say that the newspaper has fallen victim to increased competition is to only tell part of the story. Simon concentrates on consolidation and how the cutbacks in staff enacted by conglomerates have made reporting of the real stories important to a city impossible, and I can see that this is true. The consolidation happened because newspapers were losing money, though, and they were losing money primarily because of the decline of the department store. Department store circulars, as well as department store multi-page spreads, are the lifeblood of the daily paper. As regional department stores failed or were consolidated, so went the regional and smaller-market dailies.

Newspapers also didn't adapt well to the internet. Most of them were late in developing web content and are now trying to survive with a business model where they charge for what they should be giving away (the print version) and not selling ads where they should be (for the web version). My hometown daily is incredibly cheap, only 50 cents, but I almost always just read it online, for free, without an ad in sight. No wonder that paper was eaten up by a larger chain; consolidation is the only way the paper can survive economically.

Of course, the decline of the daily can be seen as a tragedy, or as an opportunity. For Simon, who loved his work at the Sun, the daily's loss of significance is a personal loss. However, the inability of short-staffed dailies to report on the specifics of the lives of a city's residents simply makes room for alternative media to take up the slack. The monopoly of the daily has been broken, and there's more room for the free weekly or monthly, and for the blogger, to join in the conversation.

I hope the newspaper as we know it will continue. I hope to always have the opportunity to get ink on my fingers while I drink my morning coffee. But I also hope that the shrinking of the daily leads to the proliferation of other media, other voices.


tunsie said...

I remember a time when my cronies and i would meet at a cafe in central new jersey and we would go through the n.y.times and the philadephia enquirer and their hands would get dirty.but i wore was a nice time to be able 2 read something new everyday[as this website provides].we don't do that as often as we should any more maybe once or twice a month.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

tunsie said...

writers seem 2 b going the way of watch repair and shoe repair.i think people don't read as much as they use 2.people would rather meet 4 a gossip session or do something stupid like that while pretending 2 change the world 4 what they conceive is making it a better place.WAKE UP PEOPLE... READ A BOOK.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

Beth said...

El, do you actually get ink on your fingers online?

Elucidator said...

I said I wanted the "opportunity," even if I don't always take it. I do read the print version of the NYT several days a week, although they now use the non-staining ink. Damn them...