“The Wire” and the Future of Reporting

I have today two different pieces  essentially covering the same ground from slightly different angles. I was too attached to each to delete it and unable to figure out a way and to combine them, so you’re getting two for the price of one this 15th. The companion to this is “An Overwrought Historical Analogy about the Future of Writing“. I won’t be offended if you don’t read both.

Having just finished the fifth season of the The Wire, in which the show’s creator’s dissatisfaction with the present state of newspapers shines through, their future has been on my mind. And while David Simon appears to think that the medium’s primary problem is soulless corporations strangling their ability to chase a story while they desperately try to be profitable, his case if hardly convincing.

His Baltimore Sun newsroom has an ever-present crowd of people who don’t appear to be doing, well, much of anything. The fact that all these people are drawing a paycheck without pounding the pavement in any capacity seems as good an argument against the medium as it could be for it. One of the greatest contribution that this crowd of non-reporters seems to make is when they memorably inform a young reporter that unless 500 people have just emptied their bowels, they can’t really be said to have been evacuated. A funny bit, perhaps, but a meaningful contribution to Baltimore’s understanding of itself? Not so much.

The primary sin of former newspaperman like Simon is to know the way news and opinion have been gathered for the last 150 years and confuse that with the best way to gather it. Surely there are virtues of the method he shows; one of the men sitting in the Sun‘s newsroom not reporting much of anything notices a reporter’s blatant and harmful dishonesty. There is undeniably a sort of rigorous peer-review that grows out of close working and competition in a newsroom. But, in Simon’s telling, the lying reporter is never publicly revealed. He wins a Pulitzer instead.

Do you remember pamphlets? The primary method of political debate and reporting for the 150 years before newspapers took over that role? Just the same, we shouldn’t be shocked if people in 150 years no newspapers as nothing more than a historical curiosity.

To protest the fall of newspapers (and magazines) as a hazard for comprehension of the world and its foibles is to conflate the medium with the message and the method with the result. The fact that we’ve grown used to the medium of newspapers (or magazines, or books) doesn’t mean that those media were the best for delivering the content they contain. And it certainly doesn’t mean that all their odd characteristic are integral to their job.

Consider Wikileaks, which has, by publishing bare documents leaked to it by dissidents around the world, broken nearly as many stories per year as a newspaper staffed with 30 times the people. Previously it may have been the case that such dissidents had to hunt down a newspaper reporter and hand off their controversial evidence; today, with a scanner and an email the whole world can see what you wanted to make public.

I’m not saying that Wikileaks is purely commendable or the future of reporting, but it is a distinct model that has a real potential to be different, and in certain ways better, than the media that people are so loudly worrying about the decline of. One of it’s biggest advantages is efficiency: Wikileaks only “publishes” when it has new news, and then only in the quantity of copies requested. Compared to massive inefficiency inherent in the newspaper model, this is definitely a more future-friendly way of working.

One can easily imagine newspapers being replaced by reporting collectives. Rather than existing in a framework of publishers and editors and subscription servicers, reporters wanting to discover and share the reality of their city could simply get together, uncover the details, and their publish peer-reviewed articles on the internet. I’m not the first person to envision such a thing (I think I got it from Jesse Darland), but I don’t think that means anything about it’s potential transformative power.

Lone-wolf self-publishing, essentially what I do here, is equivalent, only a reporter/writer need only worry about covering their own costs. Surly some would worry about the lack of someone looking over the writer’s shoulder, but the internet’s shown itself to be  the best medium ever invented for calling people on bullshit.

Surely there are problems with each of the three models I’ve suggested. And surely someone at some newspaper has already come up with laundry list of issues they foresee. But their model has never been perfect, and in an era of constantly falling advertising revenues and a wealth of new available publishing paradigms, the inefficiencies that have always been a part of their model are simply unsustainable.

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