Journalism films: Press play

April 20, 2009


Much has been made of the fact that, within two weeks, we have two movies that deal – if only indirectly – with the crisis in newspapers that is threatening contemporary journalism as we know it.


In last week’s “State of Play,” Helen Mirren, as the editor of the Washington, D.C., newspaper where Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams work, admonishes them about the fact that the paper has new owners – and they want stories that sell copies. The message is that the bottom-line-oriented business people who have taken over the nation’s print media are more interested in profits than truth, in making money than serving the public trust. Shocking.


In this week’s “The Soloist,” Robert Downey Jr., as real-life L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, watches as one colleague after another packs his belongings into boxes and is escorted from the building by security guards after being downsized. Lopez himself – and his ex-wife/editor, played by Catherine Keener – never seem in danger of a similar fate, but it’s still disconcerting to see it happen to friends.


Still, as canary-in-the-coalmine moments go, these movies are pretty tepid, because movies have such a long lead time. It’s one thing for “Law & Order” to pull plots from the news and rewrite them as crime drama – and even then, there’s a lag time of months. With movies, however, the lag is measured in years.


Which means that whatever these movies are showing about what’s happening to newspapers, it’s much, much worse at the moment. Indeed, if you read the headlines, print media are pretty much on life support.


This seeming death spiral has been in the works, in fact, since before the turn of the century. I remember hearing, when I still worked for a daily paper – and it’s been five years since I left – that newspapers were losing 10 percent of their circulation per year. In fact, that figure has snowballed.



What these movies don’t show – what they don’t seem to get – is how much of this has been brought on by newspapers themselves. Yes, part of it is the Internet and newspapers’ blindness to what it represented, both as competition and as a business opportunity. Newspapers shot themselves in the foot by ignoring the web until it had all but swallowed print media’s business model whole and spit out the pieces.


Another part, of course, is that newspapers – once considered a public trust, the way network TV news once was – have fallen into the Wall Street trap. Live by the profit margin, die by the profit margin. TV news is no longer about news; it’s about ratings. So are newspapers, at this point, the ratings system being the daily Dow Jones figure.


But even before I left newspapers (for magazines, then for free-lancing), it was apparent that they had lost their sense of who the audience was, why it read a newspaper and how to continue to attract it.


And they’re still making the same mistake. Somehow, newspapers believe that they can magically begin to attract the 15-to-30-year-old audience – a readership that has never – repeat, never – been its primary target but which somehow will be persuaded to seek its news about music, fashion, entertainment and celebrities from the dead-trees media that its parents subscribe to.


The efforts generally are laughable; these days, they invariably include an Internet component. But this is an audience that has no interest – repeat, NO interest – in newspapers, or most magazines, for that matter.


In the process of trying to capture this imaginary audience – in trying to turn the newspaper into a TV show or a website – newspapers are alienating their core audience. Which is bad news, since that audience is already dying off. It skews old to begin with; between turning older readers off by ignoring them and losing readers to the obituary column, there’ll be no one left.


Who reads newspapers? Not teen-agers or 20-somethings. You start to read your community newspaper when you marry and settle down. Where else are you going to get the news about the schools and local government – things that matter to you now but didn’t matter to you before?


Movies have yet to address this and probably won’t because it’s not sexy enough. The only place I’ve seen it really captured well was in the final season of “The Wire.” David Simon, the show’s creator and executive producer, took a lot of grief from the Baltimore Sun, which claimed he was using the show to settle scores. But anyone who has worked at a newspaper in the past 10 years knew how true the show was.



Essentially, it depicted a struggling urban newspaper – again, before the vortex-like crisis that has afflicted newspapers (in particular, the Tribune Co., of which the Sun, unfortunately, is a part). The paper’s rising star was an ambitious and unscrupulous reporter (played by filmmaker-actor Tom McCarthy) who was obviously concocting his stories out of whole cloth – obviously, at least, to his editor (played by the terrific Clark Johnson).


But the big bosses loved the stories because they sold newspapers – unlike, say, longer, more thoughtful series on poverty or the school system, which the editors back-burnered to run this guy’s sensational tales. The final irony: for his efforts attempting to expose the reporter’s fabrications, the editor wound up banished to the copy desk, while the reporter won a Pulitzer.


So “The Soloist” and “State of Play” both make valid and valuable points – as far as they go. By the time a movie tells the whole story of what’s happened to newspapers, however, it will probably be too late. 


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