National Press Club

"Wire" Producer Laments Future of Professional Journalism

June 9, 2009 | By Hope Katz Gibbs |

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Clad button-down blue shirt, no tie, faded black jeans and black-and-white wing-tip shoes, former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon — producer of HBO’s The Wire — said professional journalism self destructed.

Simon, who has earned awards and fame writing and producing NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, the Emmy Award-winning HBO mini-series The Corner and The Wire, spoke at an NPC Luncheon Monday.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that the Internet crept up on us,” said Simon, who said he is worried about the future of journalism since before he took a buyout in 1995. “We destroyed ourselves. We didn’t care enough about the product. All of the research and development money went to Wall Street. The people in the board room wanted monopolies — and now they are lamenting about the demise of newspapers as they play 18 holes on the golf course in Hilton Head.”

The journalists, he said, tried to help.

“Some of the great editors sacrificed themselves rather than fire their reporters. But not at the Baltimore Sun. No one stood up, and we went from having 500 reporters in 1985 to 400 in 1995 to 160 today. At the same time, Baltimore has expanded. How can you cover the city, and turn out a great product, without trained reporters and copyeditors? You can’t.”

Simon said he doesn’t believe the solution is for more bloggers to come on the scene.

“I don’t believe in citizen journalists. This is a craft and a learned skill. You have to pay people to do it right and you have to pay trained people to edit their articles. And you can’t expect someone to do it well — for free.”

Although Simon insisted he doesn’t see any future for the profession under the current business model, he does find hope in having national newspapers — such as The Washington Post and New York Times — go to an online-only product where subscribers pay a fee of $6 or $8 per week.

Another option, which he sees as the worse case scenario, is for those national pubs to have locally zoned editions such as The Washington Post Denver.

“But even if they pull this through the keyhole they still have to hire the cream of the buyout crop of journalists, realize that 5 to 6% growth is OK, and put the rest back into the product.”

What he really would like to see, he said, is for more publishing companies to be forward thinking.

“We need to plant more olive trees, but what most newspapers firms what to do is plant flowers and make everything look pretty. You plant olive trees and you don’t get olives for six years. Someone needs to be thinking about what is coming more than 6 months or a year from now.”

What newspaper does Simon subscribe to?

“The New York Times,” he said. “It’s delivered in Baltimore and has great national and international coverage. What can you do?”