Simon Casts His Stone

Senator John Kerry conducted a hearing today on the state of newspapers in this country. One of the men called to testify was David Simon, a former police beat reporter at the Baltimore Sun and creator of the award-winning HBO series The Wire.
Democracy Now has the entire transcript (and video) of Simon’s damning testimony.
In a blistering tirade, he casts a plague on both new media’s and old media’s houses.

The internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.
The very phrase “citizen journalist” strikes my ear as Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker, just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.

Gawker, for one, answers back in a post called Dead Wrong Dinosaur. But is he?
Simon does offer this olive branch to bloggers, bereft though it is of olives:

And while some of our internet community is rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it’s also quite good, even original.

Speaking of the need to monetize professional “high end” journalism, Simon ads:

A freshman marketing major in any community college can tell you that if you don’t have a product for which you can charge people, you don’t actually have a product.

I think the guy makes some good points. But here’s the thing, all sorts of businesses are facing massive upheaval. The good people who work in these businesses naturally need someone, anyone, to blame. Craig Newmark has taken his share of the blame for making online classifieds free, but it’s not Craiglist’s fault that newspapers are sputtering and grasping for air. To say that Craiglist, content aggregators and citizen commentators are bringing down “high end” journalism is a farce. All businesses experience radical upheaval at some point in their life cycles. They either react well to the changes and become even stronger corporate bodies, or they whimper and wither away.
I’m reading a great business book right now–The Ten Commandments for Business Failure by Donald Keough. In the book, Keough shares lots of examples of companies who lost their way via a series of notable, but terribly common mistakes. One of his rules for certain business failure is “Be Inflexible.” He describes how Republic Steel, for one, refused to adapt to the rise of aluminum. Execs at the steel company could have easily used the company’s deep pockets to buy their way into aluminum; instead they called aluminum “the weak metal” and refused to budge from their pig headed positions. Consequently, there is no Republic Steel today.
Change is the only constant and I believe both new media and old could make some positive changes. New media would do well to continue to improve its product by breaking news, reporting fairly and accurately and so on (as if they were old media). Old media, on the other hand, needs to become more like new media by being fast, omnipresent, and almost, but not quite, free. Yes, I’m advocating for a media world where the distinctions between amateur and pro are utterly blurred. It’s all media and it’s all competing for your attention. AdPulp, for instance, competes for your attention with literally every other page on the Internet. That’s the media business. It’s not easy to court an audience, but that’s the gig we signed up for.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.