David Simon, who wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and created and produced The Wire, never fails to get me thinking. This time, it’s in an interview with Bill Moyers in Guernica.

There’s plenty in there to mull over, but the exchange that caught my attention was that over the decline of journalism and how it contributes to an immanently corruptible political circumstance. Simon summarizes the litany sung by journalists and editors like this:

“We were doing our job, making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us?” I would buy that if I wasn’t in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet.

The gist is that, yes, the internet changed the context, but that the papers themselves had already undermined their position by mismanaging their profits back in the last days when a paper could expect a relatively high return on investment. They did that, in the first place, by directing those profits out to shareholders rather than re-investing it in copy and innovation, and in the second, by consistently mistaking what it was they were selling. Simon again:

I mean, the guys who are running newspapers over the last twenty or thirty years have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It’s even more profound than Detroit in 1973 making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car. Except it’s not analogous, in that a Nissan is a pretty good car and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it’s great for commentary and froth, doesn’t do very much first-generation reporting at all. The economic model can’t sustain that kind of reporting. They had contempt for their own product, these people.
Bill Moyers: The publishers. The owners.
David Simon: You know, for twenty years, they looked upon the copy as being the stuff that went around the ads. The ads were God. And then all of a sudden the ads were not there, and the copy they had contempt for. They had actually marginalized themselves.

I’m not one to scoff at the economic model that pays for the dissemination of valuable information by selling ad space. (Note to self: put an ad on the site.) But there’s a logic to that model. The logic illuminates a path, and slight shifts of perspective can lead a person (or an entire industry) into parts unknown. The ads demand a certain amount of respect because they pay for everything (writers, paper, distribution) that makes it possible to offer the information in the first place. But you can never forget that the ad space is only worth as much as the demand for that information.

Media outlets have traditionally dealt with the tension between ads and copy by maintaining a strict, yet largely invisible boundary between their advertising and editorial departments. In the 80s and 90s, that division was eroded by shifts in the management style of print newspapers, particularly as more and more of them became subsidiaries of conglomerates that deemed it in the shareholders’ best interests to pilot the entire fleet the way one would any other corporation. That bred a less vital product, but it took the opening of the information channels on the internet to expose that weakness.

The common wisdom these days tells us that there’s no way to stuff that particular genie back into the bottle. And maybe that’s so. But at the same time, we see the process that undercut the value of newspaper journalism repeating itself on the internet. That could present an opportunity for traditional news outlets to correct the mistakes of the 90s.

Blogs undercut news outlets at a time when investors were still scrambling to find a way to make money with online journalism. Without that incentive to deify advertising, blogs could afford to focus on copy, such as it was, even if their authors could barely afford rent. There was a mobility and responsiveness to blogs that print journalism had mostly lost. Bloggers hewed close to the concerns they heard being expressed in their communities. They reflected those concerns, amplified them. In some cases, they even managed to answer them.

When the internet did finally manage to find a way to monetize online journalism, it was by way of a familiar model: advertising. There were differences, of course, like the emergence of the click-through as a metric. But reliance on advertising to pay for online journalism opened the blogs to the same logical cul-de-sacs that had undermined print journalism. A corporate blogging break-through like The Huffington Post wouldn’t really be feasible without that economic logic. But then again, neither would content farming.

There were times, of course, when ads literally threatened to take over the experience of reading online, but innovations like AdBlock and AdBlock-friendly browsers helped stem the tide of the pop-up and pop-under scourge. The demand for good design has helped pare back the abuses, and it’s now rare, at least in the well-lit thoroughfare of the Web, that we see pages entirely taken over by ads.

The real threat these days seems to be via the monetization of social media, where, we’re told, the product is you. Which adds another layer to the progressive abstraction of the purported content of journalism. It’s no longer simply that there’s an illusory incentive to think that you’re selling ads rather than communication; now the real product is data about the people who click on ads that happen to be on the same page as copy. The content farm represents the current epitome of the trend whereby communication is reduced to a fungible quality. The content provider doesn’t care about what form the content takes, as long as it can be cashed in at the end of the day. There’s no guarantee that someone won’t find a way to make copy even less essential, at least in theory.

The more that editors and investors are inclined to look at communication on the internet, and particularly communication built on the traditional relationship of journalist to reader, as a fungible quality, valuable not for its meaning but simply as an conduit to data revenue, the more we can expect digital media to fall prey to the same wayward impulse that weakened print journalism. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate way of curbing that inclination. Which opens a significant opportunity for the traditional journalism outlets. The critical step is realize that they are, after all, selling communication, that the value of their publications is directly proportional to how essential the copy is to their readers.

That is to say, they’re in the business of selling copy. They really, really are. It just happens that ads are the mechanism by which they translate that relationship into a sustainable economic relationship. If traditional journalism is to survive, it must first acknowledge that ads only mediate the real economic exchange. The result of that recognition probably won’t be a return to the glory days, but it might enable some outlets to survive where the might otherwise fail. And it could mean a revival of journalism as the art of enriching society.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.