What David Simon, auteur of The Wire,doesn't (and does) understand about the newspaper business.

What David Simon, auteur of The Wire,doesn't (and does) understand about the newspaper business.

What David Simon, auteur of The Wire,doesn't (and does) understand about the newspaper business.

Media criticism.
Jan. 22 2008 6:27 PM

Simple Simon

What the auteur of The Wire doesn't (and does) understand about the newspaper business.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

David Simon's fire-ant fury at the suits who gutted his beloved Baltimore Sun has been documented by The New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, NPR, the Atlantic, Slate's "TV Club," and elsewhere (see Hitsville.org for the complete links). On the long shot that some had missed his message, Simon transcribed the music that's been blaring in his head and published it directly in the Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section over the weekend, damning the newspaper industry of the mid-1990s for squandering its chance to be the media of the future. He writes:

At the moment when the Internet was about to arrive, most big-city newspapers—having survived the arrival of television and confident in their advertising base—were neither hungry, nor worried, nor ambitious.

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Not remotely true. The newspaper industry began worrying about losing its hold on readers as early as the 1960s, assigning task force after task force to the problem. So acute was the perceived crisis that in 1976, Los Angeles Times media reporter David Shaw asked in his multipart series, "Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?"

The bad news began to mount in the pre-pre-Internet days of the 1980s, when the number of dailies published in the United States began a slide that continues. By 1990, total newspaper circulationbegan to dip, and most ominously, the percentage of adultswho read newspapers commenced cratering in 1970. About 78 percent partook of dailies then, and by 2003, only about 54 percent did.

It was Simon's good fortune—and the good fortune of his Baltimore Sun readers, I should add—that his career at the newspaper, 1983 through 1995, coincided with some of the most profitable years in the history of newspapering. His Sun could afford a newsroom staff of 500 and assign reporters to the specialized beats he so admired—prisons, poverty, labor—because unusually high earnings made it all possible.

The declining health of the Sun tracks the economic crack-up of the city in which it is published. In his CJRpiece on Simon, Lawrence Lanahan annotates the city's economic fall. It has lost 28 percent of its population over the past three decades, and a major chunk of its manufacturing base. About 20 percent of Baltimoreans live under the poverty line, about 40 percent of the black population isn't employed, and so on.

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Not even a newspaper can repeal the laws of economics.

The rapidity of the newspaper industry downturn has come as a surprise to even the savviest press magnates. When the well-run and much admired McClatchy newspaper chain purchased the Minneapolis Star Tribune for $1.2 billion in 1998, well into the Internet era, newspaper consultant John Morton spoke for the chorus when he wrote in his American Journalism Review column that "in the long run it will prove to have been well worth it." The Morton column said the same thing about the New York Times Co.'s 1993 purchase of the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion. Neither Minneapolis nor Boston suffers from Baltimore's many ills, but by 2007, McClatchy had dumped the Strib for $530 million and the Times Co. had written off about 60 percent of the Globe's value. In retrospect, Tribune made the same miscalculation when it bought the Sun and other Times Mirror newspapers (Los Angeles Times, Newsday, et al.) in 2000 for $8 billion.

Simon fails to appreciate that the newspaper no longer enjoys the centrality to American life that it had through most of the 20th century. In a sympathetic but critical piece about Simon in the Atlantic, Mark Bowden quips that when he worked at the now-defunct Baltimore News-American, everybody joked that "people didn't read our newspaper, they played it." The News-American and every other newspaper had number and word games, scores, racetrack results, TV listings, comics, coupons, and other diversions. As entertaining as a newspaper is, it can't compete with a cell phone, he observes.

Newspapers also exploited what former hedge-fund manager Andy Kessler calls EPILIT, short for Entertainment (or Editorial) and Perishable Information Leading Indirectly to a Transaction. As long as newspapers could situate themselves between customers and their transactions and had little competition, they thrived. Need a car, job, apartment, or used lawnmower? Looking for a deal at the local department store? The daily newspaper was your destination. But free online sites—Craigslist, Monster, Cars.com—ended newspapers' classified hegemony.

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The 20th century rise of the advertising-dependant department store helped create the modern newspaper, and their decline paralleled that of the newspaper franchise. When I first moved to Washington in 1981, multipage ads from Garfinckel, Hecht, Raleigh, and Woodward and Lothrop choked the A section of the Washington Post on an almost  daily basis. Today, all of these stores are gone, as are their advertising dollars. The same story has played out in practically every U.S. market, leaving only Macy's Inc. (Macy's and Bloomingdale's) standing. See Wikipedia for a long list of departed department stores. 

The size and character of cities change. Retail and advertising patterns change. And technology changes. No title in the American newspaper has been left untouched by these recent upheavals. Even the Washington Post and the New York Times—controlled by Zen masters who acknowledge only the highest news values—have cut coverage, features, and staff. Those reductions, while nowhere as drastic as the Sun's, stem from the same pressures facing Baltimore's last daily. If Simon wants to be consistent, he should reload and take aim at Graham and Sulzberger.

Simon actually gets the last point, writing at the close of his Post article that maybe the Internet made "retrenchment and loss" inevitable at newspapers. If he really believes that, then all his carping about the Baltimore newspaper tragedy sounds hollow to my ears.

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Forgive me for cannibalizing this previous column. You'd have done the same thing if you were me, only you'd have done a better job of it. Meanwhile, I wonder what sort of dramatic series could be spun out of the life and times of a Web magazine. Send your ideas to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)