What happens next

I have been called a “professional writer” and a “freelance journalist”. Both these people are exaggerating. I’m actually a rarely-commissioned hack and a dilettante blogger who happens to be better with semi-colons than contraception and enjoys a terrifically retarded career path because of that.  But people still sometimes disregard my colossal ignorance and ask me what I think the future of publishing will be. You know who they should be asking? David Simon, whose evidence to the Senate Commerce Committee is one of the most complete and most powerful summaries available of what’s gone wrong for print, and why bloggers can’t replace newspapers:

to read the claims that some new media voices are already making, you would think they need only bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing. They don’t know what they don’t know – which is a dangerous state for any class of folk — and to those of us who do understand how subtle and complex good reporting can be, their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly 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.

There are several bloggers in my sidebar who do put in the shoe-leather (or whatever the equivalent is in ISP tracking), who go to the meetings, have the contacts, know their terrain. But the costs in time and server space mean that only a few rare people can blog like that, and blog well. Then there are the people who specialise in commenting on the output of the rest of the media (and I’d count myself as a junior member of that group) – it’s an essential check on the mess that reporting has got into, but if all the newspapers in the land dropped dead, casual commentators like me won’t offer much to fill the gap.

What makes Simon’s opinion especially worth hearing is that he does nothing to obscure the newspapers’ part in their own demise:

When I was in journalism school in the 1970s, the threat was television and its immediacy. My professors claimed that in order to survive, newspapers were going to have to cede the ambulance chasing and reactive coverage to TV and instead become more like great magazines. Specialization and detailed beat reporting were the future. We were going to have to explain an increasingly complex world in ways that made us essential to an increasingly educated readership. The scope of coverage would have to go deeper, address more of the world not less. Those were our ambitions. Those were my ambitions.

In Baltimore at least, and I imagine in every other American city served by newspaper-chain journalism, those ambitions were not betrayed by the internet. We had trashed them on our own, years before. Incredibly, we did it for naked, short-term profits and a handful of trinkets to hang on the office wall. And now, having made ourselves less essential, less comprehensive and less able to offer a product that people might purchase online, we pretend to an undeserved martyrdom at the hands of new technology.

Like Clay Shirky, Simon recognises that the future of journalism could be one of many economic models under discussion, it could be something totally novel, or it could be nothing at all – just the long slide into bankruptcy. I’m convinced that there’s a future in paper. It’s a beautiful medium with exceptional creative potential, and a valuable tactile connection to an audience. But current affairs are too quick-moving to live off of design values. The news belongs to the internet, and if it can’t make a living online, it’s going to starve, struggle, and finally die.