Monday, June 08, 2009

Simon Says

One day many years ago, while relaxing on my couch watching the the NBC show "Homicide: Life On the Street," I watched a scene develop between a young woman reporter and her crusty (are there any other kind?) editor. I had an instinct for the line that was coming up, and bingo! There it was: "We don't report the truth; we report what people tell us."

It originally was uttered by Ben Bradlee and repeated in print by David Halberstam, but it was so impressive to me that I used it in every one of the nearly 30 college journalism classes I taught. And there it was on national TV! Not really a surprise, but today the writer of that episode (and the producer and creator of the series) confirmed to me that he remembered the line well.

I am referring to David Simon, the creator of "Homicide," "The Corner" and "The Wire," generally considered the best damn TV show ever. He was in one of my classes as an undergraduate, and I made a deal with him, because he was editor of the school daily and clearly a man with great talent. If he didn't want to do more than make a token appearance in my class, he could get a B. If he made some effort, he could get an A. He chose the latter, although he confessed today that when my final exam was to write a story about a White House budget proposal, he went to the library and found my own story, copied it and got an A.

You gotta give a guy credit for being clever, but it was pretty clear that he could have written a decent A paper pretty easily, and that any one of a thousand different ways would have been acceptable.

Anyway, to the point: I had been trying to get Simon to address the National Press Club for a couple of years, unsuccessfully because I couldn't get a hold of him. A Club colleague of mine plugged into the p.r. industry and with contacts at HBO secured him, and today I was at the head table.

Simon is pretty brilliant at capturing dialogue, including his own. He was addressing the Club on the disaster that has befallen journalism, and it is worth a read. (below) Or you may view it on C-SPAN.

My favorite part of his talk was the truism that no one will ever say: Reporters should be idiots and assholes--so that they will ask the questions that need to be asked. Unbelievably, I had been sneered at by White House colleagues for asking questions they didn't think were important! Imagine that! Anyway, on at least one or two occasions, by dint of asking before thinking, I stumbled onto a couple of pretty good "truths," including President Reagan using an American hostage for purely political purposes.

TIME: 1:00 P.M. EDT
PLEASE CALL 202-662-7505.

MARK HAMRICK: (Sounds gavel.) Good afternoon and welcome to
the National Press Club for our speaker luncheon today. My name is Mark
Hamrick of AP Broadcast. And I’m membership secretary here at the National
Press Club.

We are the world’s leading professional organization for journalists and
we are committed to the future of journalism by providing informative
programming and journalism education and fostering a free press around the
globe. For more information about our club, please visit the website at

And on behalf of our 3,500 members around the world, I’d like to
welcome our speaker and our guests in the audience today. We’d also like to
welcome those who are watching live on C-Span. We also provide our broadcast
over iTunes for podcasting.

We look forward to today’s speech, and afterwards, we’ll ask as many
questions from the audience as time permits. I would ask kindly that you please

hold your applause during the speech so that we have time for as many questions
as possible.

For our broadcast audience, I’d like to explain that if you do hear
applause, it is from guests and members of the general public who attend our
luncheons, not necessarily from always neutral working journalists.

I’d like to first introduce our head table guests and ask them to stand
briefly when their names are called. Beginning on this end of the table, Sam
Husseini, communications director with the Institute for Public Accuracy. He
assured me that I got his name right, which is important when you’re with the
Institute for Public Accuracy. Thank you. Andrew Schneider, associate editor of
Kiplinger Washington Editors, and chair of the NPC book and author committee;
Cheryl Arvidson, executive director with the Fund for Investigative Journalism;
Jeffrey Bartholet of the-- Newsweek Washington bureau chief; Marilyn Geewax,
senior business editor with National Public Radio.

On the other side of the podium, Angela Greiling-Keane. She’s will
Bloomberg News and chair of our Speakers Committee. Moving over the speaker
for just a moment, Lori Russo, organizer of today’s luncheon, and the new
managing director of Stanton Communications. Congratulations. Valerie Jackson,
associate editor with Platts; Ira Allen, public affairs specialist with the Fogarty
International Center and the National Institutes of Health; Skip Kaltenheuser, he
is independent writer and author of Letters From Washington. That’s a column
and international magazine. Rick Dunham, Washington bureau chief, one of our
former presidents here with Hearst newspapers. And glad to have Rick here as
well. Finally, Rem Rieder, he’s editor and publisher with American Journalism
Review. And now you can give your applause. Thank you. (Applause.)

Well, it may come as a surprise to some of you here today, as you’ve
watched our speakers luncheons over the years that we do not tend to invite
members of the press to speak at the podium. For one thing, it’d get way out of
control if we started letting those doors open. Right? But we have a special cause
to do that today, because our speaker is truly a special individual.

But generally, we think that journalists cover the news and we try not to
perhaps put them in a spotlight that they might otherwise feel uncomfortable in.
But as I said, today’s guest is an exception.

David Simon, a longtime journalist for The Baltimore Sun, honed his skills
reporting on the streets of one of the most dangerous cities in our country. And
after years of reporting the realities of inner city life, it wasn’t the murders, drugs,
or other horrific crimes that drove him out of the journalism industry; he left, he
told the Baltimore city paper in the year 2003 because, “Some sons-of-bitches

bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.” Did we have that right? Is that an
accurate quotation? Okay, sorry about that. Okay.

He took a leave of absence from the paper, and for a full year, shadowed
the detectives of Baltimore’s homicide unit. And the result was the Edgar Award
winning book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which became the basis
for NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. Now, he worked as a writer and later as a
producer on that award winning drama.

He went on to take a second leave of absence from The Sun to research
and write The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood. It was a
book about Baltimore’s drug trade. And that work inspired an Emmy Award
winning HBO miniseries. Homicide and The Corner then paved the way for The
Wire, his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful television
venture. That HBO drama, which ran for five seasons, depicted Baltimore’s
struggles with drugs, corruption, schools, and finally back to where we started, the

In addition to his sometimes unflattering depiction of the media in The
Wire, he continues to vocally criticize the state of contemporary American
journalism, taking aim at the producers and consumers of news. And last month
before a Senate panel, he said that he believes nothing can save high end
professional journalism.

Now, despite all of that, he is doing what he can. He continues to work as
a freelance journalist and author, writing for The Washington Post, The New
Republic, and Details magazine, among others I’m told. Ladies and gentlemen,
please give a nice National Press Club welcome to David Simon. (Applause.)

DAVID SIMON: Thank you. Well I don't know if it’s going to be clear
on the C-Span channel, but I managed to get some salad dressing on my shirt. I
did it because my credentials as a journalist were now suspect. I’ve been out of
the profession since ’95. But I felt that if I could leave a little of my lunch where
it could be seen, you know-- Would that it was Chinese food and I had my feet
up on the rewrite desk, it would be perfect. So this is for you right here.

Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m flattered. You know, it’s funny.
I feel better knowing now that journalists are not invited to do this, because the
funny part about my critique of journalism, such as it is, is that when you are an
expert in this country, meaning when you’re in the game, when you’re dealing
with it every day, you know, when you’re living and breathing it, you’re not an
expert. But you get a few years away and you have a television show or-- You
know, I mean, I’m an expert in television production now. But all of a sudden I’m
an expert in the media, so. There’s something strange about that. People keep

coming up to Ed Burns, who is now a television writer (that’s my partner) and
asking him about education, which is-- He was a former schoolteacher in
Baltimore. He said the same thing, you know? “When I was an expert, when I was
teaching, nobody wanted to hear from me. And now that I have a television show
and I’m not teaching,” you know, “..I have all the opinions in the world, and
everyone wants to hear them.”

So I’m a little suspicious of my own voice on this. But I did agree to
speak-- You know, I’ve written on it. I do care about where newspapers have
gone and where they’re going. I’ll correct the introduction in only one way. I
think I did say that I worried that it was too late for high end journalism. I’m a
little more open-ended about it than to say I don’t see any future for it. I certainly
don’t see any future for it in the current economic model.

And I certainly don’t see any future for it as long as the journalism
community continues to pretend that-- to a certain martyrology, to a sense that
we were doing our jobs, that we were heroic in our pursuit of our jobs, that we
were out here clearing the path for democracy, and then technology shifted and
the paradigm changed, and now we’re stuck. And it’s not through any fault of our
own that we’ve been caught behind the Internet.

I would believe that if I wasn’t in journalism for 15 years prior to the
arrival of the Internet. But it wears thin with me because I actually saw what we
did to our own product. I come from that portion of journalism that was affected
first and most by journalism’s abdication of its own ambition. I worked at a chain

When I went to work at The Baltimore Sun, it was family-owned. A
couple years after that, in 1985, we were bought by Times-Mirror. And we
congratulated ourselves on being bought by the good chain. “Thank god we’re not
Gannett,” we said. “Thank god we’re gonna be all right.” Then they were bought
by the Tribune Company subsequent to that.

I left journalism in ’95 after 13 years. I was the third buyout at my
newspaper. I was maybe reporter number a hundred or ninety to leave as The
Baltimore Sun’s newsroom rolls went from 500 down to 400. For those of you
keeping score, the Internet was not even a whisper in ’95. The Baltimore Sun was
a monopoly paper. Its profit margins, we now know because of the Tribune
bankruptcy filing, were 37.5%. So they were willing to pay for 500 people in
order to run the Hearst paper out of town, in order to run the News American into
the ground, which folded in ’86, and then to sustain an evening edition of the
paper for long enough to get as many of those viewers to cross-- (“Viewers” —
sorry. You know, I’m in another world entirely now.) --enough of those readers to
come over to an evening paper. But then they folded The Evening Sun, too.

They also ran zoned editions in four of the surrounding counties to try to
get as much circulation as they could in the growth areas of Baltimore. And they
did that until they figured out the easier thing to do, which is to buy the regional
papers in those counties and make that part of their monopoly. So they were
willing to have 500 and then even 400 reporters when the pursuit that they were
after was a monopoly. They were not willing to do it to make a great product or
even a good product.

And that’s what our industry discovered. They discovered this in the
1980s. And they went to Wall Street and Wall Street rewarded them handsomely
by basically saying, “You know what? We can make a lot more money putting
out a mediocre newspaper than we can putting out a great newspaper, or even a
good newspaper — more wire copy, less reporters, less coverage.” You know,
this was the bargain that we made.

And ultimately the people who were making this decision had less and less
to do with the newsroom and more and more to do with the boardroom. Two
years before I left, the fellow who had taken over the reigns of the Times-Mirror
company came to speak at my newsroom, fellow by the name of Willis. And he
gave a speech, talked for 45 minutes about cost centers and profit centers, and
never once mentioned news or journalism or the mission of The Baltimore Sun.
He talked about product. And this made perfect sense because before he was
selling newspapers, he was selling cereal for General Mills. And he’d done a
bang-up job of improving General Mills’s standing and its price per share in the
market. And so now he’d been given the reigns of a newspaper chain, even one of
the better newspaper chains.

And I remember walking away from that 45-minute talk which concluded
with him suggesting that, “Would it be so bad if reporters could, when you’re
doing a story and you see the potential for advertising, if you could maybe throw
a call to the advertising department?” I remember taking the elevator back to the
newsroom with a guy named Mike Littwin, who was one of the best reporters. He
was a columnist at our paper. The first two floors were in silence. And then when
the door opened on the newsroom, I remember Mike saying, “This is over. This is
over.” And that was early ‘90s. And, you know, two years later, I was taking the
third buyout.

We cheated ourselves. We destroyed ourselves. We did it at the behest of
Wall Street. We did it for cash on the barrelhead. The people who did it are now
on the golf course down at Hilton Head, probably bemoaning what happened to
the wonderful industry that they once helmed, you know, on the business side. On
the editorial side, the ambitions were stunted in another way, which is to say, the
same editors that would later stand up at a later point and sacrifice themselves
rather than make cutbacks at The L.A. Times did not stand up at The Baltimore

Sun because there were still worlds to conquer and there were still places to go
within the chain and there were still personal ambitions to be achieved.

No one stood up when The Baltimore Sun started emptying its doors. And
ultimately, we didn’t stand up at The Baltimore Sun and scream bloody murder
when it was happening to the Gannett papers five and ten years before us. To use
a historical phrase or misuse a historical phrase, when they came for the Gannett
papers, I said nothing because I didn’t work for Gannett. Eventually they came to
the Tribute papers. And now the only people left that have any potential ...
(inaudible) in journalism are the national papers, are The Post and The Times. The
chains have been eviscerated. And they’ve made incredible profits.

And yet what’s happened is, pure unencumbered, raw capitalism is never
the answer for anything that involves a public mission. It’s certainly not even the
answer for American industry. If you look at the way Wall Street and its analysts
and big money investors have played with American industries and have, you
know, depreciated the actual mission of those industries in order to achieve profit,
I mean, there’ll be somebody making money until the day they close the door of
The Baltimore Sun and The San Jose Mercury, you know, and Denver Post.
Somebody will figure out a way to make profit to the very day that they decide to
close the doors.

But they’ll be doing less and less journalism. And that would be my
critique, is that we did this to ourselves. And so that when the Internet came
along, all of the R&D money, all that research and development that was
supposed to be spent in the ‘80s and ‘90s so that we knew what the Internet was
and what its potential was, and so we had placed the industry in a situation where
it could thrive, where you could charge online and where you could deliver more
product, not less, and therefore justify charging online, that money went to Wall
Street. It didn’t go back into the newsrooms. It made for an inferior product. You

The Baltimore Sun now has 160 reporters covering a metro area that’s only
larger. It’s only grown. And there are still people getting up in newsrooms saying,
you know, “It’s all right. We’re going to do more with less.”

No, you do less with less. That’s why they call it less. You know? The
hyperbole-- You know, and when the Internet landed, the head editors at my
paper, five years after I left, when the Internet clearly was affecting American life
in every framework, the editors who were running my paper still regarded it as
advertising for their product, rather than the product. They made that mistake.
They said, “You know, these youngsters, they’ll surf the ‘Web’ — in quotes —
“…they’ll surf the ‘Web’ and they’ll see our product and they’ll realize they
really want to subscribe to the doorstep version of the paper.” And they were
saying that until just a few years ago.

I do think there’s one last hope for journalism, and it’s this. They must--
We must find a way (I’ll use the royal ‘we’ even though I’m not entitled to it) we
must find a way to charge online. We must create a new revenue stream for the
product. Now, would this have been easier before we eviscerated the product,
before we made it mediocre in most of the markets in America? Yes. It would
have been a lot easier when the product was something substantial and something
you couldn’t get anywhere else.

It now doesn’t resemble that in many markets. It will be easy, I believe,
relatively easy--- I think it’ll actually be harder than if we had not let the horse
out of the barn door. But it will be easy for the national papers to do so. And my
prediction is, within the next year, you’re going to see The Washington Post and
New York Times go to an online subscription pay model. And after they do it,
you’re going to see Murdoch do it. And then you’re going to see some of the
regional papers do it. And some of them might have enough substance to squeeze
through the hole and create a new dynamic. And that’s the only hope there is. And
with every day that you delay, another 30 reporters are bought out somewhere or
laid off, you know, another previously proper newspaper decides they can do
without a copy desk or a trained city editor. Every day of delay brings us closer to
the abyss.

But I think finally the big boys get it. It would have been nice if they’d
gotten it five years ago or even longer, but we are where we are. And that’s the
only hope I have left.

Now the scary part, I think, is this. If The Times and The Post wait long
enough, eventually you’re going to see national newspapers like in Britain. And
you’re going to see The Washington Post, St. Louis edition, The Washington Post,
Baltimore edition, The New York Times, Denver edition. And they’re going to hire
ten or twelve people to create a sort of-- an advanced USA Today version of a
local zoned paper. Where USA Today gives you a couple of paragraphs of what
your local news is, they’ll give you a couple pages, maybe a page and a half of the
local metro coverage.

And because they’re offering you The Times or The Post international and
national coverage, and because you can’t get that online anymore for free
(because they’re going to finally back up on the aggregators like Google and
Yahoo and reach a new accommodation with The Associated Press and Reuters)
you’re going to see this sort of modern version of the zone edition replace what
were previously substantive full-blooded metro dailies. That’s the worst case
scenario. I’d rather see locally-owned newspapers survive. And I’d rather see
them try for this model sooner rather than later. But I don't know that it’s going to

You know, I do think though that journalism has a value, that eventually
that value will restore itself. You know, if newspapers can’t make the transition,
you’re eventually going to see somebody do startups. You’re going to see and they’re going to hire ten or fifteen reporters, then twenty or
thirty reporters. And they’re going to pay for it with online subscription.
Because here’s the thing that we also missed. In my whole time as a
journalist, you lost money on subscriptions. The gas, the trucks, the printing
presses, the wood pulp, you lost money there, and you accepted that and you got it
on your display ads. That made it harder for us to see the future.

The truth is, if somebody pays for a third of what it costs The Baltimore
Sun to get it to your doorstep now, even less than that actually-- It’s $22 dollars a
month to get The Baltimore Sun. For eight dollars, for nine dollars, you get it
online, that’s all profit. There’s no trucks. There’s no gas. There’s no printing
press. That’s a revenue stream. You know, if you scratched it out on the back of a
notepad, you’ll find out, you know what? You can generate $300,000 dollars,
$350,000 dollars a month if you get a tenth of The Baltimore Sun’s subscriptions
online to commit to you. And with that, you can hire about 30 reporters. And
that’s about the size of a metro desk.

Now, the scary part of that is that a lot of our citizens are not going to get
it because they’re not online. And so the delivery model is not as democratic as
newsprint. And that’s something to content with going forward. But I do think
there’s a future. But it begins with content. We’re going to have to start believing
in content again. We’re going to have to pay for content to provide it, to hire back
the talent that we’ve leeched out. And then we’re going to have to make other
people pay for it. And if we don’t do that, then, you know-- If you put out a
product and nobody’s willing to pay for it, you know, any freshman business
major will tell you, you don’t have a product and it’s time to stop pretending. So I
think that’s ultimately where we’re going. And I think finally some people are
going to get there, but it’s way late in the game.

And on that happy note, my shirt has dried. So I think—

MR. HAMRICK: Yeah, we’ll find some questions. We have several
questions, essentially survival skills for those that are still working in daily
journalism. People want to know, what about young people? What is your advice
to them? Maybe the question would be asked, should they continue to strive for a
career in journalism? What about those of us who still work in newsrooms, all
these dynamics that have to do with shifting sands, not only in the industry, but
the pressures of many people having to work more with fewer resources in the
newsroom, a little practice advice for people who are still in the trade or thinking
about coming aboard?

MR. SIMON: You know, I really don’t consider myself an expert on
what to do if you’re still in the game right now. The one thing I’ll say that worked
for me, and I think worked for me in sort of a multimedia sense, where I had sort
of a marketable skill and I didn’t even know I did, was I managed not to get
promoted for my entire career. I started on the police beat. I ended on the police
beat. And in some perverse way, I’ve parlayed the police beat into something in a
completely different medium.

There’s something in this, which is this. When I was in journalism school,
what they told us (which was the lie) was that newspapers were going to become
more sophisticated, more complex. Beats were going to be more specialized. You
know, you were going to be assigned to cover something and you were going to
need to cover it the way a good magazine writer might cover it. They used to tell
us, we’re going to become more like magazines, and magazines were going to
become like, you know, literature. That’s what they said in the ‘70s.

You know, Ira Allen was one of my journalism professors. I don't know
that he went this far. He worked for UPI at the time, but-- you know? But I did
have-- I had a feature-- you know, this is where we were going. We were going
to cede the ambulance chasing to television, and we were going to become more

Well in truth, it became more generalist. I mean, I lived through that
moment where USA Today showed up and everyone at The Baltimore Sun said,
“You know what? We should stop jumping stories. If you’re jumping a story, it’s
too long.” You know? You know, newspapers needed to become more
sophisticated, more adult, more essential on every beat. And they didn’t.

And there’s something that I would argue. If you're a young reporter now,
make yourself an expert in something. Stay put. You know, get to be aware of
something. Because it may translate-- If you’re not at a newspaper tomorrow,
there’s somebody that wants to know about that, whether it’s “transpo”, whether
it’s crime, whether it’s politics. Make yourself essential somewhere. For god sake,
don’t be a generalist. We’ve seen what generalism has done to newspaper. It’s
made them irrelevant. And that would be my big argument there.

MR. HAMRICK: So unfettered capitalism, not good for the industry as
you described it in your speech? There’s discussion of possible non- or
not-for-profit model. Do you see any future for that working?
MR. SIMON: Well, I mean, I see that-- You know, if the chain
newspapers in these second tier towns, which have been so eviscerated and are
providing such mediocre product, if they don’t get it together, if they don’t turn

the corner and pull themselves through the keyhole of a pay model online, it’s
going to fall to startups. And yes, I think a non-profit startup in Baltimore, in San
Jose, in any of these cities that are now underserved journalistically, is going to
work. You know, you’re going to be able to hire the cream of the bought out/laid
off crop of journalists. And if you’re committed to putting the money back in, I
think you’ll actually grow it. I mean, if you do the math on the-- You know, pull
out a cocktail napkin there and do the math of six, seven, eight dollars a month for
ten percent or fifteen percent of what the newspaper’s prior subscription base was,
and realize that all of that money, all that is now profit. It’s not circulation cost.

Again, circulation was a cost center. We didn’t see it. But that’s been
transformed. And I think on a small scale basis, where everybody is committed to
just covering the regional area, you know, there’s no room for-- A lot of things
are not relevant anymore to the local paper-- you know?-- the comics, the
crossword puzzle, national coverage, you know?

But there is still a market in these regional areas for journalism. And I
think ultimately, it will be a non-profit or a very modest profit, that somebody has
to say, “You know what? Five, six percent growth is okay. Let’s put everything
else back into the product.” And nobody’s said that in journalism for 25, 30 years.
And nobody was compelled-- Nobody stood up and said, “What are we doing to
our own ambitions?” So here we are.

MR. HAMRICK: Somebody asked, how can reporters keep this from
happening to the industry again? That presupposes that they can, I guess.

MR. SIMON: Well, in a way, the non-profit model is the only way you
can do that. Because I believe that some of these chains, you know, the Tribune
Company and its ilk are so badly run that if they do manage to pull through the
keyhole and create a new revenue stream out of online subscriptions, they’ll run
right back to Wall Street, rushing their profits in to try to boost their share price
and try to appease the analysts. I see no suggestion that suddenly leadership in
journalism has turned a corner. So I worry about--

You know, even if the model changes and gives them some breathing
room, I worry that they won’t have-- You know, in this country, politically and
financially, nobody plants an olive tree. You know? They all plant annuals. They
plant flowers that come up real pretty in the form of quarterly profit statements
and price per share on the financial side. Politically, it’s the same thing, you
know? Nobody cares about what the economy is going to look like six, seven
years from now, which is why we’re in the state we’re in.

You plant an olive tree, you’re not going to get an olive for seven years.
But, you know, we need some olive trees. You know, I worry that even if you
create this new revenue stream, they’ll butcher it. They’ll screw it up again.

MR. HAMRICK: I guess there was some back and forth, either through
the media, or maybe it was in an actual public setting involving you and Arianna
Huffington about blogs.

MR. SIMON: That was at the Senate.

MR. HAMRICK: Okay, right. I guess you were sort of quoted as saying
that, you know, you’d like to see a blogger cover a city commission meeting or
something to that effect. Can you go over the difference between the traditional
journalism outlet and the blogs, and what you see as the challenge in, let's say,
migrating the quality of content there?

MR. SIMON: I don’t believe in unprofessional journalism. I’ll call it
that. I don’t believe in citizen journalists. I don’t believe in bloggers as anything
other than an additional resource that can provide raw information that can then
be synthesized by professional journalists. I believe that journalism is a craft and a
profession and that you pay people. And then you pay people to edit it.

And the failings of the Internet to provide a professional product are
myriad and obvious to anybody who’s actually been in journalism. But I’ll give
you just one of them. The best editor I ever worked with, one of the best editors,
one of the two best editors I ever worked with was a guy named Steve Luxenburg,
who some of you may know from The Washington Post, really great guy. Steve
could make the story disappear with three questions. He could make it go into the
metro advance basket and never come out again because it didn’t deserve to come
out because it had premises that seemed plausible, and yet, you know, when you
scratched the reporting, there was a hole so big you could drive a delivery truck
through it.

And that was an incredible gift, the ability to destroy a fraudulent piece of
journalism before it was published. No such thing exists on the Internet. You
know? People sit in a room and they put two facts together, and goddamn it, it’ll
equal four, you know, whether it does or not. And there is some great stuff being
done in the ream of commentary, because there’s a lot of smart people who blog.
And for commentary, which sells itself cheap on the Internet, it’s completely

But to cover a beat as a reporter is-- You know, I would not have done it
for free or to inform my blog or for some, you know, sense of civic duty. I did it
because The Baltimore Sun paid me a salary that I could support a family on and

that I could-- You know, it was a living wage that they paid me to go to the
Baltimore police department, you know, and kiss enough desk sergeants’ ass
every day to find out what was going on, and then to kiss somebody else’s ass to
find out where I was being lied to, and then to compare one lie to the other, and
then to take them out for drinks afterwards to find out, you know, what else
wasn’t in that day’s story that might make a follow-up story. It was 14, 15 hours a
day. Nobody does that as a hobby.

And the vanity of the Internet, having sort of approached the very edge of
what journalism is, the vanity of it thus far, of this very immature medium, is to
say, “We’re already doing journalism. Look,” you know, “…I went to a council
meeting,” you know? “I reported on this.” Yeah, you went to the public-like,
kabuki face of politics, which was the council meeting, you know? But later on, if
you actually knew anybody in the bowels of the city administration, you might
have actually reported on what’s really going on. But for that, you would have
needed to be a full-time-- And you deserve to be paid.

Well, journalism has done so badly at that. And that’s what we’ve--
Listen — while the guys at my paper were pursuing this Pulitzer and that
Pulitzer and, “We’re going to do a project on this. And we’re going to report on
how good our reporting is. And then we’re going to try to get the governor to
schedule hearings. And then we’re going to report on the hearings. And then we’ll
put it all together. And, by the way, we care about this from January to December
because after that, it’s another Pulitzer submission, so we won’t care about this
issue after December 31st,” while they were doing that and pouring resources into
that because that’s their resumes, The Baltimore Sun ceased to have a labor
reporter in a city where the unions were being eviscerated. It ceased to have a
poverty reporter in a city where half the adult black males are without work. I
mean, that’s not an economic model that is viable. That’s a model for
unbelievable poverty.

You know, it ceased to have a court reporter covering the city courthouse
for a year and a half because all they did was generate copy, you know, for a news
hole that was shrinking. So, you know, what do we do? Let’s just stop covering
the courthouse, because that way, you know, we’ll fit. You know, the beat system
was the first thing they eviscerated because, you know what? Nobody wins a
Pulitzer Prize, and nobody gets promoted, and nobody gets to be the
editor-in-chief of The L.A. Times because they covered the hell out of their city.

You know? Journalism has its own false statistic, the editorial side. And that false
statistic is the Pulitzers.You want to fix journalism on the editorial side? If the Pulitzer Prize committee started saying, “You know what? We’re going to give out five
Pulitzers for beat reporting every year, but you have to cover the beat for three

and a half, four, five years”-- That’s right. I mean, when you’ve actually covered
it long enough to actually have an impact in terms of, you’re all over this,
whatever agency or whatever issue you’re-- You know, you’ve been a medical
reporter four or five years. Now submit your stuff for a Pulitzer. The level of
sophisticated in newsrooms would have gone up and not down. And it wouldn’t
be about juking(?) some project and making it sound like you really hit a homerun
when you basically hit a single over the second baseman. Instead, you would
actually be increasing the paper’s capacity for doing great journalism. But, you
know, the gamesmanship of our awards-centric profession is such that that’s just
not going to happen.

MR. HAMRICK: I’d just like to note, I’ve never won one of those
awards. Just helps my credibility—

MR. SIMON: Me neither.

MR. HAMRICK: Is it your view that one of the turning points had to do
with the concentration of media among shareholder-driven companies? Was that
really what changed in the timespan that you’ve been referencing?

MR. SIMON: Yeah. The chains and publicly-owned newspaper
companies run by businessmen, not by people who’d come up through the
newsroom, completely divorced journalism from its original mission and made it
a profit center for Wall Street. And they very quickly came to the conclusion (and
they were correct) that we can make more money in the short-term by putting out
a lousy product than by putting out a good product. Let’s cut the news hole. Let’s
cut the staffing. You know?

Think about the idea of buyouts. Buyouts were the operative way in which
we reduced ourselves as a profession. That shows you the contempt we had for
our own product. You need a reduction in force because somebody at the head
office says so? Layoffs. Do layoffs. Seniority-- Most of these are guild papers, or
a lot of them are guild papers. Or even if they’re not, just do it by seniority. Take
the young guys who haven’t covered that beat for eight, nine, ten years. Don’t
take the institutional memory of the paper.

By the way, the guys who can take the buyouts, you know, they’re jerks
like me. They got an option. You know, somebody’s saying, “Come work on the
TV show.” Somebody else is giving them a book option. The Washington Post is
saying, “Yeah, we’ll hire you if The Baltimore Sun offers you a buyout.” The
people who took the first four, five, six buyouts from The Baltimore Sun had
options. Not all of them — there were some good people who stayed because
they really wanted to stay, because they were committed, because their kids were
in school. But by and large, when you go with buyouts instead of layoffs, you’re

saying, “We want to take the most expensive reporters. We want to take the ones
who have the most benefits. We want to take the ones who are making the most
money. All we care about is the bottom line. We know that what’s going to
happen is, the buyout ranks are going to be filled with the people who were the
best people, who have other options.” But we went with buyouts, not layoffs. That
tells you what was going on back in Chicago and L.A. and everywhere else. They
just didn’t give a damn about the product. All they cared about was that, you
know, “Five percent, ten percent, fifteen percent? Not enough. Gotta make thirty,
thirty-five, thirty-seven and a half percent.” It was shameful. I mean, we
destroyed ourselves.

MR. HAMRICK: One member of the audience asks, given how badly
the big media outlets performed on huge stories with a ton of resources like the
Iraq war, why should the public trust them at all?

MR. SIMON: Because the alternative is even more miserable. You
know? Yes. Listen — kudos to the Pulitzer this year for not giving anything out
for financial reporting. They got that one right. And Iraq was pretty much a
systems failure by most mainstream media. But ultimately, I don't believe that any
other framework--

Listen — it doesn’t matter whether-- I do believe that bringing dead
trees to your doorstep is now anachronism, that whatever else happens, you know,
we’re in a path where every-- you know, more and more subscriptions are going
to be going online. The issue is whether people will pay for them.

But given that I do believe that that is-- You know, the future of
journalism is people who are paid to do this job. If more people are paid more to
do this job, if the salaries improve, you’re going to get a better class of reporter. If
you're able to hire more editors, not less, and if the editors have more experience,
you’re going to get a better class of product as well.

But until that happens, I just don’t see any merit to the idea of a thousand
bloggers, you know, equals, you know, a hundred paid reporters, and because
there’s so many more of them, they’ll be in so many-- I just don’t buy it. I mean,
I read a lot of blogs, you know, everything from commentary to arts criticism.
You know? There are things that are at newspapers now that are irrelevant.

Criticism, television criticism, film criticism is basically irrelevant, you know?
There are better sites for film criticism than there are film critics at newspapers.
That’s just true. I mean, there’s no reason why you can’t watch films and
comment on them as a hobby. That, you can do.

But journalism, covering something as self-sustaining as self-protecting as
an American institution, be it a police department or the State Department, I don't

see it happening except if people are paid to be in an adversarial stance against
that institution in terms of trying to acquire information that they institution
doesn’t want you to have, and get it out. And I don't see that being done in any
other way than with mainstream media model.

It could be a mainstream media model where it’s directly to the Internet. It
could be the equivalent of an I.F. Stone newsletter that just covers one aspect of
American government, you know? You know, it doesn’t have to be-- But the
thing that will make it consistent is, whoever’s working for whatever framework,
they’ll be paid, and they’ll be paid enough to make it worthwhile. And they’ll be
paid enough to bring people into the profession who can do that job. And until
that model is restored and people are paid, I don't see any-- You know, as bad a
job as we’ve done over the next ten years, watch what happens without us.

MR. HAMRICK: Someone asks, assuming that you would, how do you
propose greater stakeholder involvement in improving journalism?

MR. SIMON: I’d have to ask what a stakeholder is.

MR. HAMRICK: My guess is, yeah, someone who is a consumer of
news, which is just about--

MR. SIMON: You know, this is going to sound really wrong. But I never
really cared about what the readers thought. I’m the worst marketing guy in the
world. They used to tell me that, “The readers want shorter stories. The readers
want really localized news. The readers want this. The readers want that. The
readers want punchier headlines. The readers”-- you know? I can’t. I’m on
C-Span. (Laughter.) I was going there, but I’m on C-Span.
[side remarks]

But in a way, you know, I’ve come to believe and I came to believe as I
was a journalist that I don't write for those people, if they exist. I wanted to write
stories for the people who, if they had intimate knowledge of what I was writing
about, they would say, “Yeah, that guy caught it.” So if it was a detective and I’m
doing-- You know, I wanted a homicide detective, not just in Baltimore but--
And not that he would like everything and he would be mad about stuff, and he
wouldn’t like it when I, you know, ranked on a cop who I thought deserved to be
ranked on, but that-- You know, I didn’t want him to say, “This chump doesn’t
know my job.”

And I figured if I got it right for him, and if he was able to get through the
story and not, you know, be disgusted, then readers would follow. And I’ve sort
of proceeded on that basis since I began writing, like, longer articles. I mean, you

know, at some point, that became what I actually thought newspapers should do.
Again, I’m really against generalists. So the idea that you can cover something
well enough to explain it to the mythical seventh grade educated reader-- That’s
the guy they told us about in journalism school: “Your reader will have a seventh
grade education.” You know, to hell with him then. I don’t want to write for that
guy. No, really. Who does?

But eventually-- I mean, they published a whole newspaper to write for
that guy. It’s called USA Today. And the guys at The Baltimore Sun stood around
and went, “You know, they’re onto something there. No jumps,” you know?
“Twelve inch stories, that’s it,” you know? We went through that phase. I want to
write stories for the people who are living that event. And then I believe other
people will follow it because then you’re writing with interior knowledge that
says, “I’m worth reading. I really know this beat,” you know?

It took years-- You know, I wasn’t a good police reporter for the first two,
three years. I mean, I had all the headlines. I didn’t get beat, you know? But
there’s nothing there that I would save for-- You know, it was only after I’d been
on the beat four, five, six years and eligible for a buyout that the journalism
started getting worthwhile.

I mean, I just believe if you tell a story that people don’t know, you come
to the campfire with the best story, people will follow you and they’ll sit down
and they’ll listen, you know? Trying to anticipate what readers want, that’s what
got us into this mess. Just, you know, go out, get the best story.

MR. HAMRICK: Now I know why our president of USA Today was
kind enough to ask me to host today. I wanted to ask you about that creative

MR. SIMON: Best box scores in the business.

MR. HAMRICK: Sure they appreciate that. That’s a good jumping off
point to go into what you’ve been doing in more recent years. Do you take a
different approach in creating content for your television audience in terms of
trying to please them?

MR. SIMON: No. I’m just as indifferent to them as I’ve always been.
But it’s a different model. I mean, I don’t get my noise out of joint from
journalism and say, oh, The Wire is in any way comparable to journalism. The
Wire is-- and Homicide and Generation Kill and-- I mean, Generation Kill is
based on journalism. And so it’s a little different. But it was drama. And
journalism shouldn’t get its nose out of joint by trying to compete with-- You
know, when you can make it up, you can shape the story and make it as graceful

as you want the arc to be. And you get to make choices. And you don’t get to do
that in journalism, nor should you.

So I wouldn't compare the two. It’s a different skill set. When I left
journalism, the first thing I had to do, I walked into this writing room on
Homicide and everybody was a playwright. They’d all come out of the Yale
Drama School, and they’d had a lot of success on the stage. They said, “Read
Chekov. Read Pirandelli (sic). Read all these guys who”-- you know? At best, I’d
read one or two Chekov plays. You know? Pirandelli, I don’t even think I had the
Cliff notes. You know?

But they basically said, you know, you’re in another realm now. You’re
doing something else different. And so it’s not the same gig. You know? The best
I can say about The Wire is that the impulse behind doing that show was in
journalism, but just the impulse, not-- You know, it was being strained through
something that has a totally different purpose.

MR. HAMRICK: Well, you’ve done remarkably well for someone who
you might suggest is ill prepared for it. How have you done so well in making that

MR. SIMON: I had one good skill set which did come from journalism,
which is, I had a pretty good ear for dialogue, you know? I’m not an Irish or a
German or an African-American cop. And I’m not a drug dealer. But I found I
had two things which could translate, which was-- One is a good ear for dialogue.
And, you know, 60% of writing drama is dialogue. And the other 40% is pacing.
And I had a good teacher teaching me the other part, which is pacing, which, you
know, strip it down, every line justifies itself. You know, it’s really even more
ruthless than journalism in a way.

But the other thing that I had going for me is-- Does anybody know who
Homer Bigart was? I see a few nods around. Okay. When I became a journalist,
Bigart became my hero very quickly. My dad told me about him. He was a New
Yorker and so he remembered Bigart from his time at the Herald Tribune and at
The Times.

Bigart’s great skill set was that he didn’t mind being a jerk or an asshole--
not an asshole, but, like, a goof, you know? I’m serious. Journalism is supposed to
be an innately curious profession. I can’t tell you the number of people I worked
with that didn’t want to be seen asking a stupid question, or didn’t want to be seen
asking any question, or didn’t want to ask a question where it wasn’t clear they
already knew the answer, and they were trying to catch you.

The idea of a journalist asking-- so, walking into a room and saying,
“Gee, I don’t understand any of this. Help me”—(laughter)

There’s a great story about--Bigart had a terrible speech impediment. And they didn’t let him be a reporter until his thirties at The Herald Tribune because they thought, “He’s an idiot. He’s a copy boy.” And finally they let him be a reporter, and he was great. I mean, he was just pulling back things as a metro reporter that nobody else was getting. He
won the first Pulitzer. He went up in the elevator with LaGuardia. He sort of was
like the nebbish who, in the back, they didn’t realize. He went up the elevator at
the Empire State Building when they had a plane hit the building. And he won a
spot news Pulitzer, because, you know, he was the guy they didn’t notice, you
know, going up with the mayor. And he went up to where the plane hit the

But his great skill was defined in this one story where-- I forget who it
was, but it was some captain of industry who was talking to Punch Sulzberger and
said, “I can’t believe the reporter you sent to interview me.” And Sulzberger said,
“Why? What was the matter with him?” He goes, “The guy was a complete idiot.
I had to explain everything to him.” Well, try to imagine a white, 30-something guy standing at Monroe and Fayette Street and saying, “You guys are selling drugs? How does this work exactly?”

Because it was not a lot more sophisticated than that. And ultimately,
years later, the 15 year-old kid who was at the center of the book, De’Andre
McCullough, when he was about 22, 23 and we were sort of reminiscing about the
book when I met him, he said the reason he decided to start talking to me is that--
You know, one day he was selling on Vine Street, selling ground stash(?). And
he’s running back and forth from a corner to where he’s hidden his drugs. And he
sees me up on his grandfather’s steps, watching him. And he said, “Man, David,
you just looked like you didn’t know anything. You looked so pathetic. And I just
decided I had to help you,” you know? “It was a wonder you weren’t getting
robbed every day.”

And, you know, that was my skill set, was, okay, I don't know anything.
And those two things made it really easy to learn. And it also made it real easy
when I walked into that writers room and saying, you know, “How do you do
this?” And to this day, I mean, we have guys who come in and they’re doing spec
work or they’re going to write a spec script. And they’re, like, you know-- They
want to act like, “Well, I know how to do The Wire because I’ve watched the
show and I’ve done this. And I’ve written three-- And I did this. And I did three
Law & Order episodes.” It’s, like, I know they’re going to-- You know, it’s, like,
they don’t come in terrified and with, you know, 20 questions on their sleeve,
they’re doomed. You know? And I think journalists-- You know, it’s amazing
how many people got into this profession are just not curious or are terrified of
being curious.

MR. HAMRICK: A question was, what kind of relationship do you now
have with the rank and file in the Baltimore police department? And how have
they reacted to some of your criticism of the department policy of not releasing
names of police officers involved in shootings?

MR. SIMON: The detectives and patrolmen who are still there-- I mean,
you’ve got to remember, it’s been a lot of years, but-- The ones who are still
there, up to maybe the rank of lieutenant are fine with me. And the ones who are
in middle management, it can kind of go either way, up to the rank of maybe
major. And colonels or above hate my guts. By the way, that’s the way it should
be if you cover a beat. That’s the best way to cover a beat, is that the bosses can’t
stand you, middle management sometimes will talk to you if it’s in their interest,
and, you know, everybody who’s below that is just somebody to buy a beer for
and listen to them rant. You know? That’s always the way it’s been. And that’s
kind of where-- You know, I can’t imagine covering a beat any other way that
would work.

MR. HAMRICK: I know people are anxious to hear about some of the
other projects that you might be working on. Can you talk a little bit about your
project that you’re now working on in Louisiana and how that’s coming along?

MR. SIMON: Well, we’re filming a show called Treme, which is about
New Orleans after the storm. And it’s really not The Wire with a soundtrack. It’s
not a crime show. It’s about people trying to find their way home and reconstitute
their lives in this city that was very ill-treated in the wake of the storm. And I
don’t mean just the immediate wake, but in all the years that have followed. The
national response to what New Orleans has gone through is an embarrassment.
And that’ll probably air-- The first season will air in 2010.


MR. SIMON: Yeah, on HBO. Yeah, potty mouth can’t write for
anything else but HBO. Doesn’t know how to write clean dialogue that his parents
can listen to.

MR. HAMRICK: Somehow I feel like it’s going to be on A&E without
the language in there one way or--

MR. SIMON: Well, it may be. By the way, if you’re on an airline flight
and something comes up and my name is on it, you know, just turn in the
headphones. Don’t-- you know? It won’t make any sense.

MR. HAMRICK: --especially with the children. Did I read that one of
the intentions of you working with that subject matter is you wanted to use
Katrina as a bit of-- making an analogy to the Federal government’s performance
with, let's say, regulating a head of the financial crisis? Is that correct?

MR. SIMON: Man, that sounds so didactic as to be a room-clearer. But--

MR. HAMRICK: I’m still here. Is it true, or no?

MR. SIMON: Well, I mean, I think there is an analogy to be made. But if
any character were to say anything that directly, it would be cut out of the script.
But it is true. You know, New Orleans was hit with a category two, a high
category two, not even a category three hurricane. A hurricane, if you tell people
from New Orleans that their city was drowned by a hurricane, they’ll get very
angry with you, and rightly so. Their city was drowned by the Corps of Engineers
and by shoddy workmanship and stuff that wasn’t built to code and bad decisions
in terms of transportation policy, and the ineffectiveness of Congress in terms of
dealing with Mississippi River issues.

You know, this is our country. And, you know, you compare it to the
Dutch who’ve managed to keep most of their country out of the North Sea for
generations, it’s humiliating. And if you think about those canal walls, how badly
they were built, how much corruption went into the poor maintenance of them,
the poor planning, and you think about the SEC and all of the attendant regulation
that wasn’t there so that you couldn’t sell crap and call it gold on Wall Street, you
know-- Selling crap and calling it gold eventually comes home. And it came
home to New Orleans about four years before it came home to the rest of the
country in a very literal way, not in a metaphorical, financial way.

So in a way, New Orleans, what I really admire about people there is
they’re trying to find their way home. Because it is one of the great places in
America culturally. And they’re trying to find their way back. And they’re doing
it on their own. And there’s been a real loss-- You know, if you look at
everything from the way The Road Home money was administered to the way
FEMA behaved, you know, and not just in the immediate aftermath, but in the
months and years since, and to now, in terms of the state and local government
and what they’re doing in terms of everything from zoning issues to the hospitals,
that city is enduring and trying to find its way home on its own and without
illusion anymore about what the country is, how hollow America actually is when
it comes to certain things.

And I find that to be interesting and admirable. And it’s kind of what I
want to pay attention to now, because I think we’re kind of all in that boat. A lot
of the things that we believed were there to keep certain parameters and certain

standards inherent in everything systemic in our lives really weren’t there. And
they have been eviscerated over the course of decades. And so now, you know,
we’re where we’re at. And, you know, New Orleans is looking at us now, I think
a little bit, like, “Well, what did you expect? We’ve been there,” so.

MR. HAMRICK: Well, if you just allow me for a moment, we’re almost
out of time. But before asking the last question, for those of you who have been
here before, you know the routine. We have a couple of important matters to take
care of. I’ll talk about upcoming speakers first of all.

On June 11th, General James Conway, the commandant of the U.S.
Marine Corps, will be here. On June 25th (this should be interesting) Stan Kasten,
president of The Washington Nationals, will be here. I don't know if they’re going
to put chicken wire in front, but we’ll see what happens. June 26th, Robert Herz,
chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board will address regulatory
reform in the financial markets.

And secondly, if you’ll-- wouldn’t mind just coming up here. As is our
tradition, we’d like to present you with a traditional NPC coffee mug.

MR. SIMON: Thank you.

MR. HAMRICK: There you go. Thank you. And one final question, and
that is a simple one. To what newspapers do you currently subscribe?

MR. SIMON: I subscribe to The New York Times. And again, it’s
delivered in Baltimore for about the same price as The Baltimore Sun. But it still
has some news in it, so. What are you gonna do?

MR. HAMRICK: That’s great. Well, let’s offer a great round of
applause for David Simon. Thank you. (Applause.) I’d like to thank you for all
coming today or for listening at home. I’d also like to thank National Press Club
staff members, Melinda Cooke, Pat Nelson, JoAnn Booz and Howard Rothman
for helping to organize today’s lunch. And thanks to the NPC Library.
The video archive of the luncheon is provided by the Press Club’s
Broadcast Operations Center. Our events are available for free download on
iTunes, as well on the website. Non-members may purchase transcripts, audio and
videotapes by calling 202.662.7598 or
And for more information about the Press Club, you can go to the website,
That’s it for today. Thank you so much. We’re adjourned. (Gavel sounds.)

No comments:

Post a Comment