Friday, July 10, 2009

Life imitates art

Maybe I'm a few years late here, but count me in as the newest fan of HBO's discontinued television series, "The Wire." The hit show details the life of gangs, drugs and police in Baltimore, but added a twist for it's fifth and final season last year. And depending on how frequently you watched the show, that might be a bad thing.

In the final season (a friend let me borrow his DVDs this week) the writers of the show tossed in their perspective of the Baltimore Sun newsroom. And it shouldn't be a surprise, considering the creator of the show, David Simon, is a former reporter from that very newspaper. One scene depicts the economic struggles of the newspaper and the effect the impending layoffs and buyouts have on the staff. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

"The fact of the matter is it's more profitable these days to run a worse paper for less money," one editor says to another. "Cutback people and pages, you increase revenue."

Then a 20-year veteran reporter walks back to the group and says he’s been offered two options: Copy desk or buyout. He apparently chooses the buyout and tells his co-workers he’s ready to finally get started on writing a novel.

Then the phone rings and the city editor is called back to the corner office. The other co-workers glance at each other with uneasy looks. The editor trots into the boss’ office and sees both the managing editor and publisher waiting for him. The grin slides off his face as he takes a seat. But the publisher tells him to relax and they need him to transition into a leaner team of reporters. “Doing more with less,” the publisher says.

That sounds like a script stolen from quite a few newspapers I know, but let's snap back to "reality." While there aren't a lot of shows or movies about life in the newsroom, I found this one to be quite accurate and interesting. Brian Lowry, a columnist from Variety, agrees with me about the depiction of newspapers. But not everyone is happy, especially the entertainment writer from ... you guessed it ... the Baltimore Sun. is featured.

What I like most about the show is that I could relate to some of the characters. I loved the city editor and he reminded me of some of my former bosses. He was the kinda guy you'd gladly make that one extra phone call if asked. That character, Gus, also woke up in the middle of the night to call the evening editors to make sure he didn't screw up any of the copy. Brant Newman, the previous night editor at the O-R, can attest that he received plenty of late calls from me begging to tweak my stories. And I could see myself in the young cops reporter, who couldn't wait to see her first front page story, only to see it bumped to B1. Of course, I had to chuckle at the one journalist who manufactured quotes and sources to produce better stories.

But the most important message that Simon leaves us is what can happen to a community if it's left with a neutered newspaper, especially one with less reporters that are not able to uproot corruption by authorities. Without someone checking the daily police reports or snooping around City Hall, one can only imagine what great stories get swept under the rug.


  1. You are doing a great job with this blog. Thanks again for the news tip tonight.

  2. "The fact of the matter is it's more profitable these days to run a worse paper for less money," one editor says to another. "Cutback people and pages, you increase revenue."


    Almost any service or product can be substituted in this statement, and be found in all kinds of business environments. Those responsible for keeping a company financially afloat, whether it be a manager, or the owner himself/herself, must make hard decisions. Remember, a business exists for one purpose: Make a profit. All the great ideas for doing good, helping others, providing a necessary/unnecessary product or service, all go down the drain in a business setting without a profit. Non-profit entities exist for this purpose.

    One of the highest profile entities in the local scene that fits the quote from the movie: Pittsburgh Pirates. The owners are making good money on their investment by cutting costs. They have learned the balance between providing a good enough product to get customers, yet curtailing costs enough to make good profits. Winning a championship is not part of their plan (despite the press conferences). They are in the business to make a profit. For that, I have to tip my hat to them. Nutting, and his folks, have done well to manage the balance. My criticism of the Pirates management and ownership is their false front about playing "winning baseball."

    As a small business owner, I do the same every day. I always keeping asking myself the question: Should I spend $XXXX, to make more $XXXX at the other end? Or, do I curtail expenses, offer a lesser service than I could, but make reasonable gross revenues, and a better profit? Of course, long-term goals play an important role in these decisions as well.

  3. The only problem with the newspaper industry is that there is not a non-profit ready to assume their role. In a single-newspaper town, if that lone newspaper goes under, the community will never have anything comparable. Certainly, some sort of community journalism might crop up in some areas in an attempt to fill the gap, but the area most likely would never see a "full-service" newspaper again. We've seen the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News, two venerable newspapers, close their doors. The Philly papers are in trouble. The Pittsburgh papers are bleeding cash. It's going on all over the country, and sadly, the answer to survival seems to be a massive downsizing of the papers' work forces through early retirement incentives and dismissals, and in that process, you lose highly talented people like Mike, and you unavoidably have a lesser product. But first, as you say Roger, you must survive and try to turn a profit. Otherwise, the entire operation is doomed. And I agree wholeheartedly with you about the Pirates. The Nuttings, who seem to be applying the same business model as they use at their newspapers, keep the payroll low and their profits high. That's their prerogative, but it's disingenuous for them to claim that they're all about putting together a contending team. When they start signing quality players to significant extensions and then actually keep them around, I'll start to believe them.

  4. I completely agreed with both of your assessments with the Pirates relating to that quote. The pirates rake in huge profits, but they choose to be cheap because they can make EVEN MORE money rather than be competitive. That was the point the editors of "The Wire" were making. Their point was that the newspaper was still profitable, so why make any cuts to cheapen the quality? Well, they came to the conclusion that it's to make even more money. The difference with the O-R, you could argue, is that this was strictly a survival decision. And hopefully that newspaper will ride out the storm to improve its product in the future.

  5. And you're welcome, Scott. I hope you survived the Great Donora Ammonia Leak of 2009! Actually, it sounds like TV news was overblowing the whole thing. Go figure.

  6. TV blowing something out of proportion just because it has video? Say it ain't so. ;-)