March 24th, 2008 12:00 EST
The Wire: A Bleak Picture
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 40, Del Marbrook`s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)
Sometimes it`s hard to say just when the heyday of a great institution was. I had the great privilege of working briefly for The Baltimore Sun in the mid-1960s. It might not have been The Sun`s noblest moment, but it was certainly still shining brightly and Maryland was still revolving around it. I worked on The Sun`s copy desk under the best copy chief I ever encountered, John Plunkett. I say I worked there briefly, because I soon accepted an offer I couldn`t refuse, to become Sunday editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel.
When I was at The Sun I had already learned a great deal about makeup and layout at The Elmira Star-Gazette in New York`s southern tier. By the time I got to Winston-Salem I had a free hand to experiment, and I think I managed to produce some lively and engaging feature pages. But there were many things I couldn`t do, not because my superiors wouldn`t let me "they warmly encouraged innovation "but because what I wanted to do was simply too expensive and time-consuming.
This was the late 1960s. We were still using typewriters. There were no computers. We were setting type in hot lead, not photo offset. But even when the transition to photo-offset publishing of newspapers was complete, there were still many things a layout editor couldn`t do, and many last-minute changes a makeup editor couldn`t do to respond to breaking news. On the web corrections and updates can be made at any time. Stories and headlines can be improved at will. Images can be changed, added or deleted. In other words, technology more nearly reflects the workings of the human mind itself.
It wasn`t just a case of not being able to emulate what magazines were doing, it was rather that a certain vision of how to gather and present news was taking shape, appearing in the corner of our eyes, so to speak, that the available technology would not allow us to pursue.
None of us envisioned anything like the Internet, but today`s Internet is a vehicle that allows us to do those things we could only fantasize about back in the 1960s.
For example, we all knew that we didn`t have the space, the news hole as it was called, to completely background stories. It would simply use up too much valuable lineage. So we did our best to summarize the back story, the information a reader needs to put a news story in its fuller context. But now, using hot links embedded in a story, we can refer the reader to literally dozens of related stories about the subject in all its aspects. In other words, an Internet story, using hot links, can actually be dozens of stories, a complete archive. The value of this kind of hyper-texting can hardly be overestimated.
And that`s just one example of what an online newspaper can do that its ancestors could not do. Photographs "they`re called images now "can be replaced, enlarged, reduced and moved around with relative ease, something that is prohibitively expensive for paper-and-ink newspapers to do. I have a vivid memory of actually cutting my fingers on old photo engravings.
Then there is the news hole itself. An online newspaper is far less restricted in how much news it can offer, and it can offer this news around the clock, because it doesn`t depend on presses to print it or trucks to deliver it. It`s not nearly as labor-intensive as a paper-and-ink newspaper, and it doesn`t have to contend with traffic congestion.
Most of us back in the 1960s sensed that great changes were ahead. But we couldn`t have foreseen how fast they would come. When cumbersome word processors replaced typewriters, we couldn`t foresee that within a few short years the processors would be replaced by computers capable of Internet access. When desktop computers came we didn`t envision powerful laptops. And we certainly didn`t envision using two or three screens at the same time. We didn`t foresee essentially carrying a newspaper plant around in a briefcase. And we certainly didn`t foresee telephones capable of taking pictures and sending them to newsrooms around the world.
I wasn`t just reminiscing when I started out by talking about the great Baltimore Sun. The Sun is a key element in the plot of a highly acclaimed HBO police procedural called The Wire "its fifth and final season ended March 9. There has never been anything quite like The Wire for its hard eye, grittiness and courage. This season`s episodes are about a cash-strapped police department and a newspaper determined to cut costs by laying off people and sprucing up the news to distract readers from the loss of broad and deep coverage. The underlying story, amply clear without ever being spelled out, is that when profitability is the sole motive for publishing, and when tax-cutting is the central thrust of politics, the quality of life is everywhere diminished, because a just and generous society is not a selfish society.
I`m not going to deal with the reasons Baltimore, like many another city, is poor and unable to improve the condition of its poor. There are reasons both local and national. Suffice it to say the public continues to be bamboozled by politicians who promise to reduce taxes and at the same time give the public the services it says it wants. Or should I say the public continues to prefer being bamboozled? As for newspapers like The Sun, they are increasingly owned by absentees whose sole concern is their bottom line, not their responsibilities to their communities or to the role envisioned for them by the Founding Fathers, which gives them special privileges and duties. But if you want to see the way in which newsrooms have been stripped of their ability to report what needs to be reported you shouldn`t fail to watch The Wire. I am sure Baltimore`s politicians, business boosters and the brass at The Sun breathed a sigh of relief when the last episode of The Wire was aired recently.
What you see watching The Wire is what has happened to the American press.
The transition from hot lead to offset was relatively smooth. True, there was a romantic attachment to hot lead, but everyone in the 1960s could see the flexibility and speed that offset offered and everyone hoped it would give newspapers a new lease on life. And it did for a while. But the transition from paper and ink to the Internet has been ugly.
Evening newspapers were already in decline because it was too hard to deliver them in evening traffic bottlenecks. There were other reasons, too. Advertising lineage was sinking throughout the industry, and readership was declining because of television. The general literacy of the population was similarly in decline, which didn`t bode well for paper and ink. It doesn`t seem to be simply that people don`t read as much as they used to read, it seems also that people have new ways to get the news on laptops, hand-held devices and even cell phones.
What you see in the last episodes of The Wire is a great national newspaper trying to recover circulation and advertising lineage and boost profitability by buying out and laying off staff, making do with fewer beats, closing foreign bureaus and casting about for ways to hype the news. David Simon, creator, producer and writer of The Wire and a former Sunpapers reporter, has an ax to grind, as I do. He witnessed firsthand the Sunpapers` owners and their editors wield the ax before investing time and money in ways to generate new money streams. His view is dark and prejudiced, but it`s also informed and uncompromising. The picture isn`t pretty. It`s compatible with my own experience and that of hundreds of other journalists. When you study the web sites of major dailies across the country it`s very clear few of them have embraced the full potential of the Internet. Most of these web sites are adjuncts, shadows of what they could be if their owners were truly willing to venture into the electronic future.
But there are exceptions. Take a look at SignOnSanDiego.com, the busy web site of The San Diego Union-Tribune. Here is how their daytime news editor, Bob Hawkins, describes his job:
My current job is daytime news editor for SignOnSanDiego.com. I show up at 6 a.m. with a small crew and we begin making over the news pages of the site. And we keep making it over until about 3-4 p.m. in the afternoon.
We take a very aggressive approach to getting the freshest and most interesting news out there. When the site director first arrived he wanted fresh news on the home page every ten minutes. We do far better than that now. The newspaper has a crew of about eight staffers who write local news exclusively for our web site. I`m still trying to get them to understand that our real competition is news radio and television. Breaking news is still a foreign concept to journalists who once enjoyed leisurely deadlines and a near monopoly on news in town.
I`d love to see the old rewrite desk revived for the web.
The day includes tracking and publishing state, national and foreign news as well as a host of specialized indexes (science, health, military, Iraq War, education, politics, etc.) The result is that I know very little about an awful lot. I love it, though. I love cruising the wires, finding a hot story and watching the page views climb once it is published.
We get more than a million page views a day. During the wildfires last year, we were getting more than 10 million. That is readership validation. The Wall Street Journal had us tied for third place among the "best-read online newspapers`--naturally The Washington Post was first. We`re a very small group and I like that aspect, too. We travel fast and light and make decisions on the fly. If it is the wrong decision, we fix it instantly.
It may sound strange but there is a very old-fashioned newspaper feel to what we do. We compete against other media, we have multiple deadlines and speed with accuracy is highly prized. Oh, yeah, and we make money, lots of it since 2001. "
Bob has graciously agreed to field questions from SOP readers and listeners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You should take him up on this generous offer.
The Union-Tribune`s online news operation is not the most technically advanced by any means, but what distinguishes it is that it operates very much as newspapers did when they were the dominant news medium, hand-picking stories, weighing them for their value and interest to readers, exercising local editorial judgment.
My correspondence with Bob, which actually began when I spoke to you in a previous edition of Hot Copy about the late Wilbur Doctor, a renowned rewrite man for The Providence Journal, later the chairman of the University of Rhode Island`s journalism department and a letterpress printer and pamphleteer. Through Bob I have learned a great deal about online journalism. I`ve learned, for example, that content management systems and databases from which stories can be generated across a web site, are now de rigeur in the industry.
Bob told me he recently attended a Mediabistro mixer and was amazed by the some of the things young Internet whizzes are doing on web sites, innovations they`ll probably be selling for a great deal of money.
Bob urged journalism students and everyone interested in journalism to regularly visit the Poynter Institute online (http://www.poynter.org/). He told me Poynter sends out a daily blog burst that often tackles issues way ahead of the curve. I urge you to read everything Poynter publishes. The institute is a bastion of progressive journalism in a bleak landscape.
The static paper-and-ink newspaper simply can`t compete with the online newspaper`s ability to hyper-text, which means linking the reader to nodes of information that do not appear in the report at hand. For example, if a story refers to Islamic history but is not actually about that history, the words Islamic history " can be turned into a hot link. When the reader hits this link he lands at a scholarly web site in England devoted entirely to Muslim history. If a story quotes a few lines from a poem by, say, William Butler Yeats, a link embedded in the story can take the reader to a web site that reproduces and discusses the entire poem. This kind of hyper-texting is almost limitless. The reader can learn as much as he chooses, limited only by the ingenuity of the editor in selecting and installing the links. But the interactivity doesn`t stop there. The reader can delve further into subject matter by e-mailing the sites to which he has been referred or by using their links to penetrate the subject even more deeply. The reader can, in effect, start out by being a casual visitor and end up by becoming a scholar, and he can engage in dialogue with people who are interested in the same matters.
The static newspaper can`t be updated once it hits the streets until the next day and the next newspaper. What most newspapers that operate news sites are doing is updating stories online, but this is different from initiating an online story and then following it hour by hour. For example, when a construction crane fell in Manhattan on March 15, killing seven people and making more than 300 people temporarily homeless, online news operations in the city were often ahead of television in reporting the unfolding disaster. How could this be so? Well, for one thing, television news must defer to advertising breaks, but online news appears side by side with advertising. I followed the story on one local online news operation that was updating its story every ten minutes and using images sent in by onlookers with cell phones. When I watched the regular evening news the reports were far behind the online news reports.
It`s true that The Wire is a disheartening view both of government and journalism, but technology holds out hope. The paper-and-ink newspaper has a long history of evolution behind it, but online news operations are the very dawn of a fast-evolving period of innovation and technical advance. We can`t thoughtfully compare them, because the former has run out of steam and is floundering around for new ideas, while the latter is hurrying to implement ideas and studying new ones at the same time.
Technology is running ahead of business models. We can see the technological future much more clearly than we can see the market, and that is true, as well, of the book publishing industry. We need as much marketing genius as we already have technological genius. Beyond that, we need as much marketing daring.
The United States, where the Internet was born as a defense project, is not always in the forefront of developments. For example, the cities are San Francisco and Philadelphia are fuming because an Internet provider who committed to creating hot spots in the city to provide the public, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, with wi-fi connections has backed out of the commitment. On the other hand such cities as Vienna have forged ahead in this area. New York City recently created a popular wi-fi area in its Madison Square Park. It has something of the ambience of a wi-fi bistro. It`s the look of the future.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.