The news no longer matters

That's the lament of David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and now executive director of HBO's "The Wire," whose Washington Post essay on the death of Watergate-era newspapering reads like it was co-written by ousted LAT Editor Jim O'Shea. The eulogy doesn't cover new ground, but it's heartfelt and true (if a little na´ve).

Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of "All the President's Men" and "The Powers That Be" atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree -- we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.

What the hell happened? I mean, I understand the economic pressures on newspapers. At this point, along with the rest of the wood-pulp Luddites, I've grasped that what was on the Internet wasn't merely advertising for journalism, but the journalism itself. And though I fled the profession a decade ago for the fleshpots of television, I've heard tell of the horrors of department-store consolidation and the decline in advertising, of Craigslist and Google and Yahoo. I understand the vagaries of Wall Street, the fealty to the media-chain stockholders, the primacy of the price-per-share. What I don't understand is this: Isn't the news itself still valuable to anyone?

At the Sun, Simon traces the beginning of the end to the early 1990s, when the newspaper junked its community tabloids and merged the evening and morning staffs. "The prevailing wisdom became that the newsroom of the remaining morning edition was now too large, that attrition was the order of the day. And so it began -- a buyout of newsroom veterans, then a second buyout of older editors, then a third buyout of more veterans," he writes. Many other papers played out similar scenarios, where newsrooms were beefed up in the 1980s and then slimmed down a few years later. It will sound familiar to those who experienced it at other newspapers.

Here were the veterans -- the labor reporter, the courthouse maven, the poverty-beat specialist, the second medical beat guy and the prisons and corrections aficionado -- damned if they weren't walking out the door forever. There would be fresh hires, and some serious players would remain, of course. But no longer would it be practical to argue that newspapers were going to become more comprehensive, and better written -- the product of experienced and committed people for whom print journalism was a life's calling.

At the moment when the Internet was about to arrive, most big-city newspapers -- having survived the arrival of television and confident in their advertising base -- were neither hungry, nor worried, nor ambitious. They were merely assets to their newspaper chains. Profits were taken, and coverage did not expand in scope and complexity. In my newsroom, I lived through the trend of zoning (give the people what's happening in their neighborhood), the trend of brevity (never mind the details, people don't read past the jump) and ultimately, the trend of organized, clinical prize-groveling (we don't know what people want, but if we can win something, that's validation enough), not to mention several graphic redesigns of the newspaper.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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