Back in May David Simon, creator of The Wire, asked lawmakers to relax the nation's anti-trust laws so newspaper owners could get away with collusion. Now he's telling the New York Times and Washington Post to flout the laws completely.
In a sort of open letter essay to the publishers of the Times and Post published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Simon pleaded for the newspapers to blatantly defy federal anti-trust laws and just blame it all on him when the FBI shows up on their doorsteps.
You must act. Together. On a specific date in the near future-let's say September 1 for the sheer immediacy of it-both news organizations must inform readers that their Web sites will be free to subscribers only, and that while subscription fees can be a fraction of the price of having wood pulp flung on doorsteps, it is nonetheless a requirement for acquiring the contents of the news organizations that spend millions to properly acquire, edit, and present that work.
No half-measures, either. No TimesSelect program that charges for a handful of items and offers the rest for free, no limited availability of certain teaser articles, no bartering with aggregators for a few more crumbs of revenue through microbilling or pennies-on-the-dollar fees. Either you believe that what The New York Times and The Washington Post bring to the table every day has value, or you don't.
You must both also individually inform the wire-service consortiums that unless they limit membership to publications, online or off, that provide content only through paid subscriptions, you intend to withdraw immediately from those consortiums. Then, for good measure, you might each make a voluntary donation-let's say $10 million-to a newspaper trade group to establish a legal fund to pursue violations of copyright, either by online aggregators or large-scale blogs, much in the way other industries based on intellectual property have fought to preserve their products.
And when the Justice Department lawyers arrive, briefcases in hand, to ask why America's two national newspapers did these things in concert-resulting in a sea change within newspapering as one regional newspaper after another followed suit in pursuit of fresh, lifesaving revenue-you can answer directly: We never talked. Not a word. We read some rant in the Columbia Journalism Review that made the paywall argument. Blame the messenger.
Yeah, we're sure that'll fly really well with the feds.
And of course, Simon couldn't resist taking another of his patented shots at the internet on his way out of the door.
In the newspaper industry, however, the fledgling efforts of new media to replicate the scope, competence, and consistency of a healthy daily paper have so far yielded little in the way of genuine competition. A blog here, a citizen journalist there, a news Web site getting under way in places where the newspaper is diminished-some of it is quite good, but none of it so far begins to achieve consistently what a vibrant newspaper, staffed with competent, paid beat reporters and editors, once offered. New-media entities are not yet able to truly cover-day after day-the society, culture, and politics of cities, states, and nations. And until new models emerge that are capable of paying reporters and editors to do such work-in effect becoming online newspapers with all the gravitas this implies-they are not going to get us anywhere close to professional journalism's potential.
Detroit lost to a better, new product; newspapers, to the vague suggestion of one.
In other words, the internet may look like a Toyota, but it's really a Hyundai. Or something.
Now, I agree with Simon that some sort of payment model for newspaper content needs to be developed, but as my colleague Ryan Tate pointed out so well back in May, Simon, who hasn't worked as a journalist since the mid-90s and is clearly staggeringly ignorant about many aspects of the internet, is, simply, a "dead-wrong dinosaur" in his assertions about the inability of the web to cover "the society, culture, and politics of cities, states, and nations." There are numerous websites doing incredible work covering society, culture and politics on a national level, and in his post, Ryan cited a few examples of individual citizens using blogs to shine light on issues in their local communities, something that continues to happen more and more all over the place. Hell, a group of plugged-in Alaskan citizens just about drove Sarah Palin to the brink of insanity with their pesky meddling, and as inexpensive, high-speed access to the internet continues to proliferate and the cost of the computer equipment necessary to create online content continues to drop, this sort of thing will become more and more commonplace.
As a collective source of news the internet is certainly not yet on par with newspapers that have been around for decades, but personally I've become much more comfortable getting my news from passionate individual observers than I am with getting my news from an institution forced to play politics with other institutions in order to maintain its oh-so-sacred "access" over the passage of time. If anyone should understand this feeling and sympathize with it, you'd think it'd be David Simon. After all, The Wire was a show about the corruption of American institutions, one of which was a newspaper! And frankly, let's be brutally honest here, the stuff taught in journalism schools isn't exactly, well, rocket science. Is it helpful and advantageous to have such an education if one chooses to embark on a career in media? Yes. But is it an absolute prerequisite? No. Because the lack of a journalism school education is nothing that can't be overcome with sheer determination and simple common sense. Period.
Look, I don't want newspapers to die. I love newspapers. They've been an integral part of my daily life since I was a kid. Ideally, in a perfect world, some happy medium can be reached, some middle ground can be found where newspapers and internet news sources are both able to survive and thrive. But in the course of the natural progression of things, sometimes things just die. Yes, it's sad, but it's just the way it is. Accept it.
The irony in all of this is that The Wire, the television show David Simon created/produced/wrote, owes a lot of its success to, wait for it—the internet! The Wire was, and continues to be, the darling of internet people. Web buzz played a huge part in the show's staying on the air for five seasons, not to mention how it's helped the show remain a part of the national conversation since going off the air. Hell, I personally rented and eventually bought the complete series on DVD earlier this year entirely because of the giant internet circlejerk over the damn thing. So, yeah, this is all so very, well, ironic.
Finally, I like David Simon a lot and he's someone that I and many others look up to, but really, it's time for him to just shut the fuck up.
Build the Wall [CJR]