Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Down in the Hole: The Newspaper Business is Just like Any Other Business, Only More So

If you were one of the unfortunates at the Houston Chronicle whacked by the wide-swinging scythe of publisher Smilin’ Jack Sweeney’s “position elimination program,” take heart: You can set aside some of that buyout money (if you got bought out---hey, the Hearst Corp.’s hurtin’) to get hooked up to the cable and order HBO (which, we must sadly report, has risen by $10 a month under Comcast's ownership of the city's cable monopoly). Then you’ll be ready to pull up a chair come January for the fifth and final season of the network’s The Wire---now the best show on television after the exit of The Sopranos*---whose main story line will be devoted to downsizing at a big-city monopoly newspaper. It will be worth forgoing a few meals.

We can’t wait for the new season: It’s probably the first time we’ve actually looked forward to something on television since we heard The Beatles were going on Ed Sullivan. Given The Wire’s grand theme---the relentless commodification of the human, on all fronts---and its past treatment of the drug war, urban politics, the declining white working-class and shot-to-hell public schools, we suspect its approach to the faltering newspaper business will strike a chord for anyone involved with, or concerned about, the faltering newspaper business.

In a long story on The Wire in a recent New Yorker, bombastic creator David Simon offered some lacerating insights on the state of newspapers. We knew that Simon was a long-time cop shop reporter for the Baltimore Sun before his book Homicide was turned into a television series in the early ’90s, but we were surprised to learn that he had worked at the Sun as late as 1995 and left only after “bitterly” accepting a buyout offer, believing the newspaper “was squandering talent under new management.” (“Tone-deaf and prize-hungry and more interested in self-aggrandizement than in building lasting quality at the paper,” is the way Simon describes his superiors; the last season of The Wire will be partly set at a newspaper called the Baltimore Sun.) He’s a newspaper guy but clearly sees the medium’s major (and self-imposed) limitation:
This final season of the show, Simon [said], will be about “perception versus reality”—in particular, what kind of reality newspapers can capture and what they can’t. Newspapers across the country are shrinking, laying off beat reporters who understood their turf. More important, Simon believes, newspapers are fundamentally not equipped to convey certain kinds of complex truths. Instead, they focus on scandals—stories that have a clean moral. “It’s like, Find the eight-hundred-dollar toilet seat, find the contractor who’s double-billing,” Simon said at one point. “That’s their bread and butter. Systemic societal failure that has multiple problems—newspapers are not designed to understand it.”
Yes, there’s little that comes neatly packaged in black-and-white on The Wire, but it’s a more accurate depiction of the master narratives of urban life circa 2007 than you’ll ever get from reading a daily newspaper, including the two or three left in the country that are worth a shit.

*Meaning it’s the second-best show of all time, behind The Sopranos and just ahead of The Beverly Hillbillies.

1 comment:

Matt Stiles said...

The Wire is indeed the best show on television, but this season will be a tough one to watch.

I realized this fact when I read a quote from creator David Simon on Evan Smith's blog:

"The newsroom where I used to work had 460 people. Now it has 300. And there are people out there who just don’t care. They’ll make more money putting out a mediocre paper than they would putting out a better paper. They know this. It's their equation. They’re quite content with mediocrity. And within that culture we have people that are saying, ‘oh no, we’re going to do more with less,’ which is one of the great lies of the 21st century. What it means is we’re going to do less with less. And that’s the nature of what journalism is becoming."

Ouch.