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April 17, 2009, noon

David Simon: Newspapers could emulate HBO and charge for content

David Simon is the curmudgeon and arch skeptic you’d hope to find in newsrooms everywhere. He took a buyout from The Baltimore Sun in 1995, having grown fed up with his newspaper’s management long before that was the industry standard.

Simon went on to a career in book writing and television, including NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s The Wire, my (and many others’) two favorite shows of all time. On Wednesday, I had the honor of meeting Simon when he spoke at the Nieman Foundation, and he graciously allowed me to whip out a Flip camera over lunch at The Kebab Factory. The footage is very rough, but for a guy whose work has championed truth over image, it seems kind of appropriate.

We talked about how to charge for news, whether news organizations could adopt HBO’s business model, why objectivity doesn’t preclude having a take, and whether The Wire is journalism. Consider this clip an appetizer — of Indian food — before Simon’s appearance tonight on Bill Moyers Journal. (As they say, check your local listings.) In a snippet from the show, he expands on the notion of truth in his work and explains why Dickensian journalism is an insult.

As for our video, if it aired on HBO, we’d have to precede it with a “strong language” warning. However, there is no “graphic nudity.” A full transcript is after the jump.

David Simon: Stuff like reviews, how is that ever coming back, you know? I can’t imagine. If you’re a TV critic at a newspaper now, Jesus.

Zach Seward: As a TV guy, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

David: No, listen. Listen, critics have been very nice to me. I don’t want to see less of them. That’s less churn.

But if you can create a core, core group of writers than can’t be read anywhere else, and their coverage can’t be found anywhere else, and make it generalist enough— But the root of it right now is geographic, which is, who’s covering central Maryland, who’s covering eastern Pennsylvania, who’s covering? Right now, right now it’s a dying newspaper.

Zach: And part of the HBO model is you can’t sell crap. If it’s not the best out there, no one’s gonna put up money for it.

David: Or if it’s not— You can sell porn. It better be porn you can’t get anywhere else. You know what I mean? Not everything HBO does is great. But, you know, real-life sex documentaries are — it’s porn. But networks won’t do it.

Zach: But people will pay for that, so.

David: Somebody does. It’s all about bringing somebody to the tent who’s willing to pay for that which they can’t get anywhere else. You know, newspapers are gonna say, “We already let the horse out of the barn door. How can you charge for content? Information wants to be free.” All that bulls**t. As I remember, there wasn’t an American in America 30 thirty years ago who paid for their television. Television was free 30 years ago. Now everybody’s paying 16 bucks a month, 17 bucks a month, 70 dollars a month.

Zach: And TV got much better. I mean, well, you might not agree.

David: Oh no, it did. It did get much better. [...]

Zach: You said, you said, “journalism has its codes.” Every man has its, has a code.

[Clips from The Wire]

Bunk Moreland: A man must have a code.

Omar Little: A man got to have a code.

[End of clips]

David: I meant a different kind of code, though. It was an equivocation.

Zach: Yeah, yeah. Every — but one of those codes is objectivity. Tends to be, at least. And that can get in the way of the sort of explanatory, detailing a systemic issue that you’re, that you’re, that, you know, you’d hope to see more of.

David: If you’ve done the work, and you know how things work, and you can demonstrate it, you can be objective and still have a take. You’ve earned it. But you gotta earn it.

Zach: Is that reporters pushing back against skittish editors?

David: At some point, it’s reporters staying on a beat long enough so that they’re not acquiring information for the first or second cycle through. They’re seeing — they start to see the culture of the beat. But if everybody just wants to get to the White House and wear the little thing around their neck and be cool, and nobody actually wants to cover a beat like poverty or labor or —

Zach: Cops.

David: — or the port or whatever. [...]

[Title card: "Is 'The Wire' journalism?"]

David: It’s not journalism. It’s drama. It has a journalistic impulse that is its origin, but it’s not journalism. It’s made up.

Zach: Because it’s not true?

David: Right. You’ll never catch me calling The Wire journalism. The closest I’ll say is, it has a journalistic impulse. [...]

Zach: Wolfe calls it — Tom Wolfe called his fiction journalism.

David: I know. I know what he meant, but that was hyperbole.

POSTED     April 17, 2009, noon
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