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Does the News Matter To Anyone Anymore?

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I did not encounter a sustained period in which anyone endeavored to spend what it would actually cost to make the Baltimore Sun the most essential and deep-thinking and well-written account of life in central Maryland. The people you needed to gather for that kind of storytelling were ushered out the door, buyout after buyout.

So in a city where half the adult black males are unemployed, where the unions have been busted, and crime and poverty have overwhelmed one neighborhood after the next, the daily newspaper no longer maintains a poverty beat or a labor beat. The city courthouse went uncovered for almost a year at one point. The last time a reporter was assigned to monitor a burgeoning prison system, I was a kid working the night desk.

Soon enough, when technology arrived to test the loyalty of longtime readers and the interest of new ones, the newspaper would be offering to cover not more of the world and its issues, but less of both -- and to do so with younger, cheaper employees, many of them newspaper-chain transplants with no organic sense of the city's history.

In place of comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage, readers of even the most serious newspapers were offered celebrity and scandal, humor and light provocation -- the very currency of the Internet itself.

Charge for that kind of product? Who would dare?

Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn't take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics -- a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.

And so here we are.

In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn't willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.

And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what's left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.

Perhaps it was all inevitable. Perhaps the Internet is so profound a change in the delivery model that every newspaper -- even the best of the best -- is destined to face retrenchment and loss. Perhaps all of this was written in stone long before I was ever wandering around a student newspaper office with a pica ruler sticking out my back pocket. Perhaps everything written above is merely Talmudic commentary.

Well, what do I know? I have a general studies degree, I didn't even meet the J-school requirements, and this HBO gig I've got now doesn't exactly qualify me for a grad program at the Wharton School of Business.

But one thing I do know:

A great newspaper is a great newspaper. And a good newspaper isn't great. And a Chevy Vega by any other name is, well, a Chevy Vega.

David Simon, a Baltimore Sun reporter from 1983-95, is executive producer of HBO's "The Wire." The final season of the drama depicts the struggles of a present-day newspaper.


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