David Simon, the mad genius behind HBO’s “The Wire,” is a former daily newspaper reporter with a lot to say about the state of the industry. Not long ago, he penned the essay for The Washington Post, in which he said that online citizen journalism won’t hold a candle to the kind of aggressive reporting he and others were able to do back in the heyday of newspapers.
This week, he echos those ideas in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, saying that the death of newspapers will usher in a new era of government corruption, with bad actors energized by the lack of oversight from a crippled Fourth Estate. “The internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don’t meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse,” Simon says.
So what’s the only hope for newspapers?
The only hope, Simon insists, is for major news outlets to find a way to collaboratively impose charges for reading online, and to demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “If you don’t have a product that you’re charging for, you don’t have a product,” he says. “If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism – because it costs money to do good journalism – you’re out of your mind.”
The number of readers willing to pay a small fee each month might never rival the heyday of newspaper circulation, but it would attract enough “people who care what’s going on in the world” to fund crucial reporting, he maintains.
Of course, Jeff Jarvis, the go-to “new media” guru, is called upon to rebut Simon’s argument:
“The traditionalists are trying to transplant elements of the old business model into a new business reality … when you put your content behind a wall, you lose more than you gain. You lose a lot of readers and the advertising revenue associated with them, you lose the ability to be discovered by new readers, you lose out to free competitors, of whom there’ll be an unlimited supply, and you lose influence, because you’re taken out of the conversation.”