Monday, March 02, 2009

David Simon tries to do more with less

In yesterday's Washington Post, "The Wire" creator David Simon recalled the good old days when he was still the crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun:
In the halcyon days when American newspapers were feared rather than pitied, I had the pleasure of reporting on crime in the prodigiously criminal environs of Baltimore. The city was a wonderland of chaos, dirt and miscalculation, and loyal adversaries were many. Among them, I could count police commanders who felt it was their duty to demonstrate that crime never occurred in their precincts, desk sergeants who believed that they had a right to arrest and detain citizens without reporting it and, of course, homicide detectives and patrolmen who, when it suited them, argued convincingly that to provide the basic details of any incident might lead to the escape of some heinous felon. Everyone had very good reasons for why nearly every fact about a crime should go unreported.

In response to such flummery, I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court, with his home phone number on the back. When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge.

And then I would stand, secretly delighted, as yet another police officer learned not only the fundamentals of Maryland's public information law, but the fact that as custodian of public records, he needed to kick out the face sheet of any incident report and open his arrest log to immediate inspection. There are civil penalties for refusing to do so, the judge would assure him. And as chief judge of the District Court, he would declare, I may well invoke said penalties if you go further down this path.
As you know if you watched season five of "The Wire," or if you read Romenesko, or have in any way followed the current state of the American newspaper, you'd know the crime beat, like every newspaper beat, has suffered in these trying economic times. And so when Simon felt that a police-involved shooting in his beloved Baltimore was being underreported, he decided to saddle up and look into the matter himself.

Hat tip to Chris Littmann.


Chris Littmann said...

David Simon is an absolute legend. I was talking to a blogger buddy who was also part of the "Heaven and Here" site and just said "Who even does something like this?" And he so aptly put it, "a real man."

Linda said...

There is so much in that piece that is so fantastic that I cannot help having my heart broken when he starts down the tired path of whining about blogs and citizen journalism, pretending they're all valueless instead of figuring out how to work through the fact that like most things that are cheap to do, most blogging is mediocre but some is fantastic and valuable, and the problem isn't that it's bad at replacing news reporting; it's that most of it isn't INTENDED to replace news reporting.

It's just ridiculous to dismiss the value some online writing has had in holding feet to the fire. It makes it look like axe-grinding, when in fact, he has a perfectly good point to make. He has to be one of the world's most frustrating human beings, to me, because there's such genius and such principle, and then he always goes off on some ill-informed rant and loses me.

Steve B said...


I completely agree with what you wrote. I really enjoy the things that Simon writes, but he strikes me as a very arrogant person. I think it's why I love it when he's telling a story, like he did in the first part of the Washington Post column, and I find him almost unreadable when he starts editorializing.

Either way, the Wire was the bestest show ever. Alan, any word on the status of his New Orleans show?

Ryan said...

Blogging may not be -intended- to replace news reporting, but it is replacing it, which is what David Simon is lamenting.

Why pay news reporters when you can get the same reporting for free? That seems to be the attitude, and I don't think that's 'ill-informed'.
As you point out, most of it is useless.

Otto Man said...

Why pay news reporters when you can get the same reporting for free?

Because it's *not* the same reporting.

As he noted, no blogger or citizen-journalist was on this story. Opinion and commentary are being replaced, sure, but bloggers don't pound the pavement and get the basic facts of a story like this.

Linda said...


Most of everything, I will repeat, is mediocre, especially things that are cheap to produce. Frankly, print journalism doesn't reliably cover itself in glory, either.

tabernacle said...

I never know what to do with that, either: when a person you greatly admire has *one*, just one, ridiculously kooky notion... On the one hand, it makes you want to question/doubt everything else; on the other, well, dude's human, is all one can say. Shrug. And I go crazy alternating between those two tendencies.

The piece is depressing, especially when considering that, in some places, there isn't a still-uncorrupted judge to be found. What then? Where do you start when the whole thing is rotten from top to bottom.

Anonymous said...

I don't think bloggers need to get so defensive about what Simon says. I think you are reading way too much into his words to assume that he thinks that no blogs or bloggers have value.

In fact, have read interviews where he has talked about blogs that he enjoys and the type of thinking that goes into their presentations.

That being said, he is not incorrect to point out that almost all blogging is reaction to other people's work. There is value in that, obviously. But we are missing so much with the way newspapers are now run as was shown in S5.

Muz said...

He's following on from a line of argument he took on one of the DVD extras.
The point is that when print is racing to the bottom to compete with the speed and convenience of the 'net, cutting left and right, who is going to do this job? Can blogging concievably cover it?
It's one thing to be a great science or politics pundit. They're relatively armchair/cafe chair activities often done as part of other occupations.
But who without a proper job in it and good backing can do a city police beat?

He's a little too down on the 'net at times, but generally I agree; it is a little hard to picture blogging covering that shortfall at the moment. Maybe someone will come up with a way at some point.

Anonymous said...

old media only has itself to blame for this. they got way too arrogant and they are paying.

Anonymous said...

Otto, if I understand you correctly, I think I agree- while there are great blogs out there, and the blog culture certainly is transforming the news business, it's encouraging a culture where commentary is replacing news. And while print journalism doesn't cover itself with glory, even the well-written blogs don't provide a whole lot of substantive counterbalance to the spin the way that this article (or others like it) does. That's pretty frustrating, especially considering the diminishing resources for daily newspapers. But on a brighter note, this was an incredibly refreshing read- what a writer. Looking forward to his New Orleans project more than ever.

SJ said...

Simon is spot-on. Bloggers are not investigative journalists like Simon and others, unless they are being paid to go out and do some actual reporting, meet some actual people, etc.

What do bloggers do but post info from actual news organizations and then add their commentary onto it?

tabernacle said...

Hee hee hee. It's going to dawn on you in a few seconds.

Andrew said...

What did Simon say about bloggers that wasn't true? He said that they're not news gatherers, which is true. They're commentators. Blogging and other forms of "internet journalism" may not be intended to replace news reporting, but they're certainly bringing about its destruction. And when there's nothing replacing the journalism that's currently being weakened or done away with, that's a net loss for society.

Linda said...

"they're certainly bringing about its destruction"

If people have stopped reading news or stopped being willing to pay for it, that's not being brought about by blogs. That's being brought about by a loss of interest in news, the beginning of which I think predates the growth of blogs. And it's completely regrettable, and it's completely dangerous, and it's completely bad news, and it's completely terrifying.

But that is the fault of individual citizens who have stopped giving a damn, not the fault of people who publish online instead of on paper. I think it's entirely too easy to absolve readers as passive and helpless, when the vast majority of them still have every opportunity to read journalism that may challenge them, and many are choosing not to, because they'd rather listen to commentators with whom they agree. If that's a bad decision (which it is), it's being made at the individual level. That's not as handy an explanation, but to me, it's more accurate.

Muz said...

I think Simon would say to that; people have always loved fluff and gossip and sensation, at least for the last hundred and fifty years of mass news media. But at least when there were standards of coverage the important jobs were still being done regardless of what's tracking big (and they've got to always be done, even when there's nothing to read about. That way, when there is...).
Papers have always had the option of shooting low (and frequently did), but many more than today were doing other good things as well. The reader is not entirely to blame. It's easier to give a damn when you give them something to give a damn about.

Number Five said...

1) Blogging is a medium, not a specific kind of content. Yes, in many ways the medium is the message, and yes, many of the first wave of blogs were mostly opinion-based and had little to do with traditional reporting. That's already starting to change, however. Blogs reporting on local neighborhoods have sprung up in many places. Some political blogs have hired reporters and broken news stories before newspapers have.

2) The imminent death of much of the newspaper industry is as much about the economics of technology as the culture of it. What allowed newspapers to do their great reporting was the fact that they could make tons of money off of commercial advertising/classified ads and sink a lot of it back into reporting, which is an inherently unprofitable activity. It also worked because newspaper owners had a sense of civic obligation (vs. only wanting to maximize profits) and because the reason all those eyeballs made ads profitable was because readers were interested in the news. But with the Internet, that advertising monopoly is gone, and with it, the newspapers' revenues are dying.

Some structure will develop to replace the current newspaper industry, and it some ways it won't be as good (the human cost, putting people like Alan's colleagues out of jobs, is especially bad). But in other ways, it has the potential to be even better.

3) David Simon is awesome. A few blind spots aside, his accomplishments are stunning. Any kind of future reporting will need his persistence, his intelligence, and his sense of justice to succeed.

Matthew said...

One clarification...there are bloggers who do pound the pavement and do some actual reporting.

Talking Points Memo, for example, won the Polk Award for Legal Reporting regarding the politically motivated dismissals of attorneys across the country.

Kel V Morris said...

There need to be more.

Nothing in David Simon's article was incorrect. He does not blame blogs for the death of the newspaper industry, he merely points out one of their failings, and honestly, someone needs to. The Internet and the Blogosphere seem to have taken on magical properties of late. The fact is, while many Americans are online, many more are not. David Simon may be arrogant, but in this case, he's also right. The surest proof--as a civilian journalist, David Simon was unable to get the story.

debbie said...

I don't read David Simon's comments as arrogant, but more frustrated at other people's work ethic, and, of course, institutions' structure (or lack there of) to support good journalism.
Some people have been calling for newspapers to be classified as non-profit organizations, which I think is a great idea. Big media is at its worse when it calls itself a business and makes decisions according to that mindset.

Andrew said...

Simon's point (as written to fit however many words) isn't so much that blogs can never do original reporting, but that they aren't. Real journalism is work. And yes, there are blogs like TPM and small hyperlocal sites that are doing real reporting. But while newspapers like the Sun are cutting back on their reporting while ad revenue dwindles, no one is stepping in to replace that reporting. And that reporting serves a public good.

But blogging is just a way of organizing and publishing words on screens, like the printing press. You can use a printing press to publish the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, Soviet-era Pravda, or The National Enquirer. There isn't anything special about the technology (except for the lower cost of entry to blogging.)

Just because most blogging isn't intended to be journalism, doesn't mean that journalists shouldn't be bloggers (or that bloggers shouldn't be journalists). Simon's point is that someone should. That someone needs to, because civil society functions better with a vigorous fourth estate.

Hatfield said...

Tabernacle's "wait for it" comment killed me, but I have recovered enough to point out that this is where blogs have the bulk of their value, in these discussions. Yes, they could get out there and do some real investigative journalism, and I heartily encourage such activity, but at least they help spread news that others might not have the time or inclination to seek out. And in turn, if a blog has enough readers, thought-provoking debates such as this spring up. Sure, in the end it only amounts to more commentary, but at least it's making people THINK.

I'm curious what Alan has to say about all this, though as our beneficent host, he may think it prudent to sit this one out.

Pete said...

She got beat, got her gun took.