Times are bad in your industry when your favorite television show decides to pick on your livelihood. On the other hand, it is probably just a case of the truth hurting a little too much.
Since the first episode of the first season about five years ago, I have been a nearly crazed proponent and fan of the HBO series “The Wire.” The show is arguably the most realistic glimpse at life in an urban, American city ever portrayed on the small screen — or maybe even the big screen for that matter.
In a brilliant, nuanced and complicated storyscape, “The Wire” creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon takes a theme each season based upon some aspect of the modern, urban environment and tells the real story of how life in the inner city unfolds each day.
Now, the fifth and final season of “The Wire” takes on the decline of the press through adding the editors and reporters of the Baltimore Sun newsroom.
First, it must be said that while I do not have personal knowledge of the The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom culture, in general, “The Wire” creators have nailed the nuance behind their subject material: newsroom culture. I cringed when I watched the first episode of this season and saw the city editor character barking out orders, admonitions and encouragements the same way I have to young reporters for quite a few years. I also watched from the edge of my seat as a young reporter character roamed the streets in the wee hours looking for the morning edition to see her A1 story.
Anyone who has covered crime or politics as a journalist would know instantly the terribly accurate characters and situations the show’s first four seasons nailed with painful certainty. So too will newspaper journalists in newsrooms across America recognize the fear, disappointment and bitterness the present culture in traditional journalism can breed. Cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts have veteran journalists leaving the profession either by choice or force. And while the mantra of doing “more with less” can be a good business strategy regardless of the industry, it also means that in major American cities, some stories and beats that need to be told and covered will not be.
I realize this column is not the upbeat, rah-rah piece our SPJ members often find in this space, but I strongly believe journalists everywhere need to more directly face the truth about our industry. We all know it is changing. We all know traditional media outlets are being bought, sold, broken up and cut back in terms of their resources.
The only real question left out there is what will journalists do about it. When I say journalists, I do not mean people working as journalists who might want to continue in the profession if they can find the right job — or they might get into something else if the hours and salary are right. I mean people committed to the social mission of being journalists, of telling the stories of their communities that have impact. People who are determined to give voice to the voiceless. People whose conscience gives them little choice but to wake up every day in order to seek truth and report it.
These journalists — the hardcore, true believers — simply need to take some cues from a group of people often unfairly maligned by journalists: bloggers. Through the democracy of publishing created by the Internet, bloggers are not beholden to companies. Many bloggers report, critique and offer a public service in the same way any newspaper does these days.
Do bloggers have the same standards or offer the same quality of work as professional journalists? Not in all cases. The point is that they are able to publish unfettered by the traditional constraints of media companies.
Journalists also need to reach back into the not-too-distant annals of their own profession for inspiration, to the upstart days of products such as alternative newsweeklies and cable TV networks.
The point is NOT that disenfranchised, displaced or disgruntled journalists should quit their jobs and start blogging, hoping Google ads will pay the mortgage. They also do not have to force themselves into alternative media. The point is that journalists are going to have to consider the prospect of no longer depending on the business models of yesterday’s journalism and take the matters of publication into their own hands. The simple truth is that in order for professional journalism to survive and thrive again, the profession and its loyalists need to assume an entrepreneurial spirit, using the democratizing tools of the Internet to create new products to serve their communities.
In order for quality journalism to survive, some journalists are going to have to be able to play on both sides of the ball: the newsroom and the advertising department. I am not suggesting we tear down the traditional wall between these two worlds. I am suggesting, though, that instead of giving up on journalism, some of us in the profession may have to become publishers and business people in addition to journalists. Instead of being a “company man” — or woman — we need to consider the wisdom in this present environment of simply becoming the company.