Tuned In

Is David Simon Right About the News?

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Pick up your local newspaper. Read the bylines on the front page (the ones that don’t say “From Wire Service Reports”). One out of four of the names you read are planning on getting the hell out of the newspaper business. This is the finding of a Ball State professor, who did a study finding that newspaper reporters are cynical about their profession and burned out by workload, money and work-life balance issues, and at least a quarter are looking for an exit strategy–a third of those under 35. (Link via Romenesko.)

Cynical, overworked money-strapped journalists–dog bites man, as they say. But it’s relevant to this blog, what with all the attention to this season of The Wire and whether David Simon has been unfair or heavy-handed in portraying the problems of the news media.

Some of those criticisms have to do with his roman-a-clef portrayals of specific Baltimore editors, and I’ll abstain on that issue, which I don’t think is relevant to what the show has to say about the media nationally. Others have said that he has made the newspaper brass into uncharacteristically one-dimensional caricatures. I think there’s a point there, but it’s in keeping with the previous seasons of the show. For Simon, upper management are always tools: that’s how he’s portrayed police bosses like Rawls and Valchek, pols like Mayor Royce and the bureaucrats running the school system.

On the bigger picture, though, I believe Simon is right. Newspapers—local papers in particular—are doing not “more with less” but less with less. Or they’re trying do more with fewer—fewer bodies—the result being more copy on more platforms, but shallower coverage and burned-out staff. While there are many things you can blame your particular pet media peeves on, ultimately Simon agrees with Woodward and Bernstein: you gotta follow the money.

If you want evidence, look at the latest fantasy to grip journalism. The other day, John Ellis at RealClearMarkets floated the speculative, but tempting, idea that Google might dip into its moneybags and buy the New York Times. “If it proffered a Murdoch-like, no-auction bid of $4 billion,” he asks, “wouldn’t the Sulzberger family have to accept it?” Media critic Dan Kennedy latched onto the suggestion as proof that, for the beleaguered newspaper industry, there are actually “exciting times ahead.”

Are there? Right now, it looks like Google has better things to spend its money on, like buying up big chunks of wireless spectrum–cellphones and other wireless devices are becoming not just tools but media devices, and sexier, pricier ones than dead-tree papers like the Times.

But you can’t blame journalists for wishful thinking. They see the editor of the LA Times getting canned for not going along with Corporate’s layoff plans. They see that the outlets they work for are owned by ever-bigger public corporations dedicated to cutting costs and raising profits. They see ever more headlines about layoffs (even, horrifyingly, TV critics). Oh, and apparently the economy is spiraling down the toilet, so a lot more people are going to get fired. Yay!

They realize that if anyone is going to sustain newspapers down the road, it’s going to be someone willing to make lower profit margins, or even lose a little money in the name of preserving the prestige of the brand. Somebody like Google, with its stock price soaring while our parent companies’ are cratering, and with its benign motto “Don’t be evil” (as opposed to Rupert Murdoch’s implicit, “Screw it, be as evil as possible!”). And as my colleague Lisa Cullen writes, the free cafeteria food doesn’t sound bad either.

Until that wish comes true, it’s either more more-with-less or dusting off the old resume and looking for a new line of work. And in that light, the newsroom Simon depicts–shrinking, depressed and with all eyes trained on the exit doors–doesn’t seem like quite such a fantasy. Not as much as Google coming along and saving us all, anyway.