Newspapers must charge for web content says writer of 'The Wire'

David Simon believes newspapers must start charging for web content if they are to survive. Ian Burrell talks to the former crime reporter.

David Simon has long-ago shorn the heavy goatee beard he had in the photo on the old Baltimore Sun staff card that carries his type-written name, his spindly signature and the red masthead of a once-great newspaper. He no longer has the right to carry that pass, with its rectangular box marked "Press".

Yet Simon's sense of loyalty to newspaper journalism burns as strong as ever, in spite of the fame he has earned as writer of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed television series of all time. Viewers of The Wire will recall how the fifth series opens in a replicated Baltimore Sun newsroom, where staff are called together to be told: "It's a bad time for newspapers." Announcing a fresh round of redundancies and the closure of the paper's foreign bureaux, executive editor James Whiting (played by Sam Freed) concludes: "We are simply going to have to find ways to do more with less."

Fourteen years have passed since Simon, who will be 50 next year, took one of those redundancy packages (the third round of such cuts at the paper) and he clearly remembers listening to the real-life version of the "more with less" newsroom address. His continued indignation at the demise of the American newspaper industry has placed him at the centre of the debate on the future of journalism. He recently produced a long piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, headlined "Build the Wall", imploring the owners of The New York Times and The Washington Post to simultaneously begin charging for their online content. Such views have invoked the wrath of new media evangelists, who believe free content is the essence of the internet. Articles published on the influential website Gawker have condemned him as a "dead-wrong dinosaur" encouraging newspapers to "commit federal crimes" by breaking anti-trust laws.

As he sits in a lounge at London's Soho Hotel, Simon is not about to withdraw from this argument, despite the fact that his fame and fortune is already assured. "Someone wrote a piece on Gawker and his last line is 'David Simon should just shut the fuck up'," he says, claiming that such language "shows how thin and intellectually disappointing the internet is".

Simon believes his critics are threatened by his argument that citizen journalism is no substitute for "the breadth and depth of a healthy regional newspaper" in covering life in a major city. "It hurts their feelings and wounds them psychically, because they want to believe that you begin to become a journalist when you put your arse in front of a computer and start typing what you feel."

In an era when public cynicism towards the methods of the news media is at an all-time high, Simon defends the craft of journalism and draws parallels with the police veterans he studied close up as crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun. "Everyone has seen so many cop shows they think they understand what police work is," he says. "[But] good police work is so nuanced, and at times ornate and complex, it has nothing remotely to do with what you think you know about. I had to cover the beat for years to understand that. Good reporting is nuanced and subtle and careful and relies on people who have covered the same beat for years, and have developed sources. My first years on the police beat I was carried by guys who were older than I was and had better sources, who explained to me when I was being lied to and how."

That many of the owners of so many media organisations neither understood nor valued such skills is a key reason for the demise of newspapers, he believes. "We were in thrall of these Silicon Valley mavens and our own leaders had not been chosen from the newsroom. The people running our industry had contempt for the product, they saw the news and the production of news as a cost, and they saw the advertising as the purpose, anything that interposed between revenue from advertising and more revenue from advertising was an affront," he says.

"When the internet was being prototyped, people in our industry should have been hurling money into research and development to figure out what to do about this new dynamic and create a product so essential for readers that they would be willing to pay online for it. Instead we took all the profits – and there were huge profits in the Eighties – and gave them to Wall Street and to CEO salaries. All those guys are on the golf course now. All the reporters are out of work. That's pretty much what happened."

And yet it's not too late, he says, if a pay curtain is introduced imminently. "The last decade is the first in the history of newspapers that circulation has been free. The question you have to ask is, 'Are newspapers weaker or stronger for having given it away for free?' They are in danger for God's sakes! And yet there are still people that will tell you, new media prophets, 'You don't understand the internet'. My response is: 'You don't understand journalism,'" he says. "What you are doing is destroying an elemental civic good in the name of technology, rather than hinging the technology to an elemental civic good. There's nothing free about sending reporters to Fallujah or to cover the congress in Washington."

He is at pains to say – and perhaps some of his critics don't quite understand this – that he is not anti-internet. It is undoubtedly "the model for the future" and he is "not nostalgic for newsprint", acknowledging that "cutting down trees is anachronistic". Rather, he is worried for journalism and for the concept of a newsroom. "It's not just one guy at a terminal typing what he feels, the stuff had to pass muster, had to go past editors who were veterans," he says, referring to his times at the Baltimore Sun.

By erecting a pay wall and charging a small price for online subscription, newspapers will be introducing a new revenue stream. Each newspaper site could be a platform to taking content from other specialist news providers, with consumers buying bespoke packages similar to pay television models. It should have happened years ago, he says. "These idiots couldn't see it. Their dreams were all about department store display advertising and fat classified sections. They couldn't see what the internet was providing, which was a delivery system of pure profit."

The introduction of cable television had shown the public was prepared to pay a premium for extra content in a medium that had previously been free. Instead, newspaper businesses "butchered themselves" as they mirrored the thoughtlessness of a Detroit auto industry that "never for one moment thought Americans would buy a Japanese or German car".

Simon is not concerned by public antipathy towards journalists, saying it has been forever thus. "They will only miss the water when the well runs dry, to quote Otis Redding," he says. "The public [attitude] towards professional journalism is resentment, bitterness, partisan alienation and overall irritation. That's natural. I was a reporter for 13 years and did not run into a whole lot of people who loved their hometown newspaper. The vast majority were mad because we were too conservative, too liberal, too Democratic, too Republican, we spelt their names wrong when they did good things and right when they did bad things."

Aside from The Wire, Simon is the author of Homicide, an intimately observed analysis of the working lives of murder detectives, and The Corner, his painstaking deconstruction of the street-level drugs trade. Both books were journalistic in style and translated successfully to television. His next project will focus on the lives and culture of musicians living in the New Orleans neighbourhood of Treme.

Simon misses the "glorious scavenger hunt" of chasing down a story but rejects the idea that such a task can be adequately done by an amateur. "I was not going to cover an urban police department out of some civic minded duty or out of curiosity. No, I went down to the police station every day, ran the districts and got to know people and covered the city because the Baltimore Sun paid me to do it every day. I wouldn't have done it otherwise. There's a reason they call it a profession."

He references journalistic greats such as Damon Runyon and Izzy Stone (who set up his personal newsletter in the Sixties with a 70,000 circulation). If big newspaper groups fail to establish a pay model, small groups of specialist reporters may follow Stone's example and find a way to charge for top quality content.

But he fears for what will happen in the hiatus before the future of journalism is established. "After the collapse of newspapers you are going to have a period of time where corruption is robust and uninhibited," he warns. "What a glorious time to be a lying bureaucrat or a dirty politician!"

David Simon will deliver a masterclass at this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival, August 28-30. For information and tickets: www.mgeitf.co.uk/home/mgeitf.aspx

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