The Local: David Simon on the doomed relationship between cities and their newsrooms

THERE ARE A COUPLE OF BIOGRAPHICAL FACTS about Simon that inform this view of the world.

Before he was a writer-producer of critically acclaimed television shows, he was a local newspaper reporter—he worked for 13 years at The Baltimore Sun. And he believes that the type of granular, labor-intensive journalism that newspapers do is inherently valuable and impossible to replicate without a willingness to invest real resources.

(See: that tragic, Sun-focused final season of "The Wire".)

And of course there's the fact that he's now in a position of being able to lament the fall of workaday journalism from a distance. Currently on his docket, are: a second season of "Treme," a miniseries about the Lincoln assassination, a project based on Legacy of Ashes, and another book. "A lot of writing," he said.

Maybe the most important thing is this: he's from Baltimore, which he believes is a special place. He also believes that Cleveland and St. Louis and Trenton are special places, and that it takes a certain amount of local knowledge to understand each of them.

He's a regionalist, and this has shaped his work in obvious ways. It also shapes his views of the American media, which, he believes, is in the throes of a long, slow suicide.

“Long before they were at the point of being confronted, newspapers went away from value,” he said. “They decided they could make more money publishing a shitty newspaper than a good one. So the buyouts began five, six, seven years before the internet raised its head. I was a '95 buyout. There were buyouts in '92 and 93 at The Baltimore Sun. I took the third buyout—I was '95. By the time I left they’d trimmed about 150 positions. And there was no internet-news logic in '95—you had to wait another five years for that shit to start showing up and to have a real impact. So this was a contempt for the product. They despised the product.”

Simon does not see the decline of newspapers as a part of an evolutionary process in which buggy-whip salesmen are yielding to a new, enlightened class of independent journalist. The loss, in his view, is unmitigated.

“Public information is no longer public information, because the institutions here in Baltimore, the police department, the school board, city hall, the state police, the state department of health and human services, everybody, the entire infrastructure of government and quasi-government does not have to fear their newspaper,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about a FOIA or a lawsuit because Chicago ain’t paying for a lawsuit. So tell them to go fuck themselves, and keep the documents. They don’t have to fear being pilloried for not providing public information. Pilloried by who, by a newspaper that less and less people are reading every day? Pilloried by the internet, by bloggers who are supposed to be taking—do you think any police commissioner worth his salt gives a fuck about what somebody blogs about him?”

It’s not that Simon sees no value in blogging or “the internet.” He says that bloggers can sometimes force traditional media to cover important stories. And, in the course of discovering the real, known-only-to-locals New Orleans he depicts as a co-creator of "Treme"—which is about to finish its first season on the air, and has been picked up by HBO for a second—he cited three locally written blogs as sources of inspiration.

His point is that when it comes to newsgathering, individuals aren’t a substitute for local institutions. 

“The newsroom is the essential vehicle for understanding a city, because it’s not one guy at a computer trying to figure shit out,” he said. “It’s a newsroom full of sources, it’s a newsroom full of people who spent half their career on a beat. When the city hall reporter is 24-years-old, you know, you ain’t going to find out what’s going on in city hall.”

Nor is it any consolation when new-media companies hire reporters to cater to a national audience.

Of Arianna Huffington and her 13-million-unique-visitor-a-month Huffington Post, Simon said, “She can dabble like a dilettante in national politics—‘I’m going to hire eight, nine people, actually pay them a salary, maybe, call them an investigative team and loose these eight, nine people on Washington.’ When human beings can’t find out what’s going on in Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Trenton and everywhere else in the United States, how does that save journalism?

"The day that there’s a bunch of Huffington Post reporters in Baltimore, and there’s a Baltimore edition of the Huffington post, then you know what it is? It’s a newspaper and it’s online—it’s an online paper and it’s something to be reckoned with. But until they’re going to be there every day and until they’re going to have 40, 50, 60,000 readers in Baltimore, concerned about the issues in Baltimore, the Huffington Post doesn’t mean shit to the average American. It doesn’t mean shit to people in New York if they want to find out about metro coverage.”

For Simon, the galling thing is not that print is yielding to online—he makes a point of saying that he has no interest in preserving newsprint (“you know, cutting down trees”). The problem is the disappearance of a bunch of local outlets, to be replaced by a few big national ones.

So, for example, he believes simultaneously that The New York Times and The Washington Post are essential players in any scheme to save journalism—he believes that they are sufficiently indispensable to be able to establish a precedent by which readers are asked, HBO-like, to pay for quality content—and that a future in which the industry is reliant on The New York Times could be a bleak one.

“Now they’re either too scared by the new media, or they’re too frightened of each other, because if the Post does it and The Times doesn’t, or vice versa, then they’re in trouble,” he said, of a potential arrangement in which the Post and Times agree to put their content behind a paywall. “Either they’re too scared and they don’t have the guts, or there’s something a little bit—I don’t want to say sinister—but something a little more capitalistic about it. Which is to say, maybe they imagine a world in which there’s no Denver Post, no Baltimore Sun, maybe not even a Chicago Tribune.

“Maybe they imagine a world in which there’s a New York Times St. Louis edition and they’ve hired six or seven guys who used to work at the Post-Dispatch and a couple of sports reporters to cover the teams, and one business reporter to strip a business story on top of the national business news, and they publish The New York Times with a little thing on it that says St. Louis edition, and inside is the equivalent of two or three pages of local news.”

I asked whether this “capitalistic” plan wasn’t exactly what The Times was pursuing, by its own account.

“Well if that’s the idea, St. Louis will not be properly covered,” he said. “The New York Times will make a shitload of money, or The Washington Post, if it’s The Washington Post that’s doing it. You know, it’s what’s happening in Britain, where there’s only national papers. They’re struggling, but the regional papers are dead and dying. If that happens, something very delicate is going out of the world, which is the reporter that knows St. Louis, and has devoted a lifetime to covering it, and to prying the truth out of the people who are governing St. Louis, or not governing it as the case may be.”

It should also be noted here that Simon has complicated feelings about New York, and about the attitude of the New York media toward the rest of the country, and about The Times in particular.

“New Yorkers, generally speaking, and not all of them, but many New Yorkers, and particularly New Yorkers who are Manhattanites, and engaged in the communicative arts, shall we say, they really do view the world like that old New Yorker poster. Ninth Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Hudson River, China. That is the New York view of the world and it has been ever since I’ve been a reporter. In a sense it’s corrupting because they can’t even speak the same language as the rest of America.”