Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Wire, The Baltimore Sun and Journalism

One of the main story arcs in the fifth and final season of The Wire is about the dysfunction present throughout the management and reporters of The Baltimore Sun, which is regarded as the chief paper of the city. With less revenue coming in, the upper-level management of the paper has laid off experienced reporters in favor of younger kids fresh out of journalism school, and the product has suffered as a result. Since my profession is reporting, I had a couple thoughts on the whole presentation of the paper. You can also read a past entry I did about my experience(s) with journalism here.

- The clueless upper level corporate management is something I've heard horror stories about, and it's completely accurate. On The Wire, they call all of the staff into the room to announce that because revenue projections weren't met, they would have to begin another round of buyouts.

At one of my first journalism stops, I actually saw this happen. It was one of the most painful things I had to sit through, especially since the meeting was held at a swanky yacht club. (Newspapers are wonderfully duplicitous like this.) The meddling nature of executive editor James Whiting (Sam Freed) I have definitely seen firsthand, and I cringed whenever he mentioned the "Dickensian" aspect of a story. I thought to myself, "What the fuck does that even mean?", a sentiment probably shared by the characters of the show. Managing editor Thomas Klebanow is portrayed as a sleazy mouthpiece of management as opposed to being concerned about putting out a good product, which also echoes for me.

There still is an emphasis on stories that elicit an emotion from a reader, as opposed to actually being about anything relevant. The best example is normally stories about animals. I've done plenty of these, and they always get a good reaction from readers, because hey, who doesn't like a story about a cute pet? However, almost any issue involving an animal is normally small fry as compared to what's going on with the budget or tax situation.

Also, with the now constant pressure of a 24-hour news cycle at some places, and as executive editors attempt to run newspapers like television stations, there is less opportunity to just breathe and stop (in the words of Q-Tip). A deep, investigative story should be the bread and butter for newspapers. Now, they're seldom done except around award time, just like the portrayal of the editors of The Baltimore Sun regarding the Pulitzer Prize.

- I've dealt with shifty reporters when I was the editor of The Good Five Cent Cigar, the student newspaper of the University of Rhode Island. As a result, I immediately had my suspicions about the BS reporter Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy) was spewing about the handicapped kid outside of the Baltimore Orioles game. In fact, shortly after I saw that scene, I sent an e-mail to my buddy Tom about it:

As his editor rightly notes, Templeton's stories are too good. Speaking as someone who talks to and quotes people for a living, almost no one is that well-spoken in an interview, unless they talk professionally for a living. While some light clean-up of a person's words is allowed at some shops (i.e. removing excessive "ums" and "uhs"), Templeton was obviously doing wholescale cribbing and plagiarism.

However, I do understand the reluctance of editor Augustus "Gus" Haynes in calling Templeton out on it. It's a serious allegation to make against a reporter, especially when he's the golden boy of the paper as in The Wire. I think people have a desire to want to believe a story - whether it be of a hotshot reporter or the homeless guy who's secretly a classical musician or millionaire - without really questioning it.

- The Baltimore Sun doesn't really come off that well in the show, but I think you could substitute any non-super local paper in its place and see similar problems. At least from the conferences and what not that I've attended, papers like The Providence Journal and The Boston Globe, and even The New York Times and The Washington Post, are all dealing with problems when it comes to market share and revenue.

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, mentions in interviews that the show is really about illustration how corruption taints organizations, whether it is the police force and drug dealers in seasons one through five, the shipping union in season two, politics in seasons three through five or reporting in season five. Or, as one of the characters so eloquently puts it on the show, "Shit rolls downhill."

Likewise, I think you can trace the decline of journalism to the corporate ownership of newspapers. At a certain point, newspapers became a commodity to be owned by a larger company, and expected to produce and expand like any other product. This always struck me as folly. If you're producing a Providence paper, then most editions simply aren't going to resonate with a reader in California.

It also didn't help that many reporters and editors simply refused to accommodate new technology intelligently. Giving away every story for free on the Internet was a stupid decision, however, using the web for photo slideshows and expanded coverage? That's an effective use of resources to me, especially if you're going to actually make the shitty sales people do something smart, like aggressively marketing those photos and making packages and what not that can be marketed.

- In a completely random note, the best pro wrestling blogger in the business writes for The Baltimore Sun. Check out Ring Posts by Kevin Eck here.


  1. One of the problems with big business is that it is usually ran by executives who know nothing about nor have a hand in the day to day operations of what the business actually does. They are suits for hire focused only on the bottom line. While the bottom line does indeed matter, the true purpose of what the business does and why it is in operation should matter equally as well... Just my two cents...

  2. Dear Empress, I agree with you - There is a disconnect many times between CEOs and the companies they "run", especially when you have large conglomerates expanding into really diverse markets. As a result, they try to expand the profit margin in a business that can't really be expanded.

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