Friday, May 8, 2009

David Simon Blasts Citizen Journalism, Prescribes Non-Profit Newspaper Model

We listened to articulate, qualified, high-minded participants in Sen. John Kerry's subcommittee hearing on the bleak future of journalism this week (as his hometown paper, The Boston Globe, struggles to stay afloat).

One who impressed most was longtime Baltimore Sun cop reporter David Simon, who parlayed his journalism experience into a thriving career as a top TV drama producer. His venerated shows (including HBO's "The Wire") often investigate thorny journalism issues.

As Sen. Kerry noted, newspapers are an "endangered species," and Simon brilliantly took to task both old and new media: "A plague on both their houses... High-end journalism is dying in America."

Simon's reasoned rant was both diagnostic and prescriptive. He shares our disdain for the anti-professional notion of "citizen journalism," which he eloquently lambasted -- and every word is worth savoring:

I’m not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But you do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don’t see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You don’t see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism is a profession. It requires daily full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out. Reporting was the hardest and, in some ways, most gratifying job I ever had.

I’m offended to think that anyone anywhere believes American monoliths, as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives, can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or, for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care who it is they’re lying to or who they’re withholding information from.

Indeed, 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.

But Simon also endorsed a solution:

A nonprofit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything the government can do in the way of creating nonprofit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued. And further, anything that can be done to create financial or tax-based incentives for bankrupt or near-bankrupt newspaper chains to transfer or donate unprofitable publications to locally based nonprofits should also be considered.

No comments: