About a year ago, I was forwarded a memo regarding my previous employer, Lowcountry Newspapers of the mammoth McClatchy Co., formerly one of the nation’s finer newspaper organizations. (Now, I’m not even sure if there is such a thing as a “fine newspaper organization.”) I left my job and moved to Atlanta in September 2008 amid several editor resignations as the specter of layoffs and cutbacks loomed over the company. An employee was nice enough to keep me updated on the paper’s progress.
By February, it seemed as though the hammer had finally fallen, and the newspaper I worked for now exists, essentially, in name only. A skeleton crew of three reporters or so work in another paper’s office, covering Beaufort from a distance that takes 30 to 40 minutes to drive. I imagine it struggles, even on its best days, to have a clear sense of Beaufort’s pulse, quiet as it may be.
The memo reads as follows:
To: All Employees
From: Sara Johnson Borton
Subject: McClatchy Announcement
Date: Feb. 5, 2009
This morning, McClatchy announced that it is freezing its pension plans and temporarily suspending the company match to its 401(k) plans, effective March 31. McClatchy also announced that it will cut an additional $100 million to $110 million in expenses over the next 12 months. The press release is available at www.mcclatchy.com. McClatchy will send more detail on the retirement changes to you directly, both by e-mail and information mailed to your home.
Here at the Packet and Gazette, we are still developing our plan to address these expense cuts. Unfortunately, these cuts will include position eliminations. However, we also are exploring several other alternatives to limit the number of layoffs. We will share these details with you just as soon as they are final.
The e-mail greatly tempered the outlook I had for the two papers, which did a commendable job covering their chosen regions when I joined The Beaufort Gazette in February 2006. You could have even called some of their work ambitious then — rare for two newspapers with fewer than 30,000 readers a piece. My boss was a former editor at The Sacramento Bee and had talked with me about moving me up the ladder within a year or two. I was living in a resort area with several good friends from college. (I’d recommended one of them for his job.) I made enough money to fly back to Maryland on the holidays, and my medical was covered. Plus, I got to write shit and get paid to do it.
Things were looking up and had been for nearly a decade. In my junior year of high school (1999) I told myself, “I’m going to be a newspaper reporter.” Why, I don’t know, but roughly seven years and one practically useless English degree later, I was, at the very least, that. I saw myself gradually ascending until I arrived at The Washington Post or The St. Petersburg Times where I’d settle into a decent-paying, laid-back feature writing job. I’d cover pop culture. Maybe spend a few years overseas. It didn’t seem implausible in 2006. There were news reports about print’s shrinking readership, about the shriveling profit margins, about the industry’s aging, bloated girth that would soon snap it at the knees. But the bottom hadn’t dropped out yet.
When I was knee-deep in ill-fated investigations into voters registration issues or test score manipulation or whatever, and you asked me what my favorite journalism movie was, I would have answered quickly, “All the President’s Men.” It’s certainly the most well-crafted, high-minded journalism movie ever made, and it represents the hopes and aspirations of anyone who ever decided in earnest to enter this whole newspapering racket. And, not coincidentally, it’s about the biggest moment in journalism history: Watergate, the watershed that both emboldened and ruined American journalism. “All the President’s Men” is directed by Alan J. Pakula, one of the great ’70s thriller filmmakers and written by William Goldman, one of the finest screenwriters in film history. Goldman had one of the greatest stories ever on his hands, and he still managed to take very big, ballsy chances with the script. Remember how it ends? With Woodward and Bernstein screwing up that detail about the grand jury testimony and having to print a correction? And then it cuts to the Associated Press wire ticker, weeks later, reporting President Nixon’s resignation, the product of their reporting? Then it just… FADES TO FREAKING BLACK?!?
The first time I saw the movie in high school, I hated the ending. Hated it. “This is ‘All the President’s Men?’” I thought. “This… this amputated thing?”
I’d never seen a movie end like that. It felt abrupt, unsettling.
I watched it again sophomore year of college. I’d recently caught the newspaper bug working and editing my college daily, The Diamondback, and I realized I was an idiot in high school. I loved the movie.
“That’s what I want to do,” I thought. “Chase stuff like that for days, weeks at a time.”
“All the President’s Men”: Its place in film — and journalism film — history is unassailable.
But last year, somehow, I saw “The Paper,” Ron Howard’s 1994 movie about two days inside a New York City tabloid. The movie moves at a clip, and it’s early Ron Howard, so there aren’t any special effects or that hazy, rich, ornamental stylization that soaks his frames now. It’s hand-held, balls-to-the-wall shooting with great actors. Michael Keaton plays the news-addicted city editor. Glenn Close plays a ladder-climbing managing editor. Robert Duvall plays the grizzled executive editor struggling with colon cancer begat from too many years of smoking and boozing.
At the beginning, two black teenagers are seen at the scene of a double murder they didn’t commit. The murders blossom into the biggest story citywide within hours, and the cops eventually arrest the two kids. Keaton’s Henry Hackett (great reporter byline) lists several reasons he doesn’t think it’s a legit bust, and the second half of the movie is about his 20-hour quest to prove it in the paper for the next day’s issue. Consider the rest of the cast:
- Randy Quaid as a grizzled newspaper columnist who recently embarrassed the city’s parking director with several critical columns
- Marisa Tomei as Hackett’s pregnant wife who took a leave of absence from their newspaper to be a mom but can’t resist calling the newsroom to see what’s going on
- Spaulding Grey as a snotty editor at The New York Sentinel — a New York Times equivalent — who wants to hire Henry so he can “cover the world”
The movie freakin’ crackles, alright.
Example: During a job interview with Grey’s character, Paul Bladden, Henry realizes the Sentinel is also working the murder story and sees a scoop written down on the editor’s desk, so he steals it — during his job interview! Later, Grey finds out what Henry did and calls him at his paper.
Henry: I realize this doesn’t exactly get us off on the right foot.
Bladden: The right foot? Are you out of your mind! The offer is rescinded! How stupid do you think we are! What do you think I get when I put two and two together! Three! Three and a half!
Henry: Look, I’m trying to be reasonable here, and just let me–
Bladden: Why don’t you just take my wallet as well?
Henry: Let me talk. Let me say something, wait, um–
Bladden: Well, I hope you’re satisfied, asshole! You just blew your chance to cover the world!
Henry: Really? Well guess fucking what? I don’t really care. You wanna know fucking why? Because I don’t fucking live in the fucking world! I LIVE IN FUCKING NEW YORK CITY! SO GO FUCK YOURSELF!
Tremendously great moment. Imagine Michael Keaton, one of the great shouters in movie history, spewing that into a telephone. Hold on. Don’t even waste your time trying to imagine it. Here…
“The Paper” is about one reporter’s manic rush to get one story right. Just right. Not Pulitzer-worthy. Not award-worthy. Just right. And there aren’t too many movies about that. Is “The Paper” a better movie than “All the President’s Men?” Certainly not. Is it more accurate about the journalism? Probably not. There are a few things that didn’t particularly ring true to me, including but not limited to the moment where Quaid’s character discharges his pistol into a stack of newspapers to quiet down a gaggle of reporters in Keaton’s office. The newspaper also bases its entire story on information and a quote from one questionable police source (but not enough information is given about the source to definitively judge the situation). But “The Paper” knows what it’s like to be a reporter when it’s going good. Or when it was going good.
When I think back to the moments I was most happy working in this industry, I invariably return to the years between 2002 and 2005. My college newspaper. I remember the times when it felt like “The Paper.” When the snipers attacked people at random across D.C., I covered that.
Or the time a university student shot his ex-girlfriend and committed suicide in an on-campus parking garage.
Or the time I covered a post-game riot, and a student named Stephen Lippenholz spit blood all over me, telling me how police needlessly shot him in the face with a pepper pellet gun. I was the editor then, and our staff covered the story from a whole pantload of angles for more than a month. It was pure, unbridled journalism (however imperfect), and it was pretty glorious. I mean, “glorious” isn’t really an overstatement. There was just the story. Nothing else.
“The Paper” uses a number of little story elements to show that. There’s the deadline of course. Henry has to have the paper to the press down in the basement by 8 p.m. — a deadline he completely ignores because he knows the story’s not right. He’s also supposed to meet his in-laws for dinner with his wife (Tomei), and while he makes the dinner date, he only manages to stay for five minutes before Quaid shows up in his car with a police siren on top demanding that he hop in so he can go get the story before it’s too late. I could recount a similar moment where I broke up with my girlfriend at about 9 p.m. only to leap into a fellow newspaper reporter’s car so I could get to the newsroom about something. Not the same but similar. There was just the story. Nothing else.
“The Paper” shows how daily journalism affects your life. How it becomes your life. How everything else comes secondary (when it’s going well, of course). And it does all this without the immense weight of “All the President’s Men.” I graduated college just in time to snag a front row seat to the industry’s spectacularly depressing implosion. I’ve long since given up on the idea of being an exceptional journalist. In fact, I’m not even sure I ever wanted that. I like telling stories, which is something I hold in common with an uncountable number of reporters I’ve befriended along the way — many of whom have left journalism for greener (and by “greener” I mean… cash) pastures.
And when those dudes and I sit down and talk about our briefly wonderful newspapering days, we don’t talk about the time we helped bring down the president. We talk about the time we published a cartoon about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that caused a hoard of students to rush into our office and protest for several hours.
We talk about the time Stefanie Shaffer went to the home of a wealthy murder suspect to interview his parents and began stuffing her notes down her shirt because she thought the suspect’s father was going to steal them.
We talk about the time Chris Wilcox told Jeff Barnes, “Don’t ask me shit, dog,” when he asked him if he was moving out of his dorm so he could leave college and join the NBA.
We talk about the time Justin Ahn was so fucking eager to work for our newspaper that he took an $84 cab ride to the Prince George’s County courthouse to cover some basic procedural hearing in a murder case — a 12-inch story that landed on page 3 if I recall correctly.
I’ve got hundreds of stories like that. And that’s just in my truncated journalism career. This stuff is everywhere, I’m sure, in newsrooms all over the world.
“The Paper” understands that. Probably more than any journalism movie I’ve ever seen. That’s probably less relevant to the general public. But if you’re a journalism teacher or instructor, and you’ve got a lot of kids interested in getting into newspapers — which I don’t understand how you could — you can show them “All the President’s Men” if you want. My high school journalism teacher did. And you might even inspire a few of them. But when it’s all said and done, that’s not likely the sort of stuff they’re going to remember or value. I don’t know one reporter who committed an act of journalism so significant it justified it’s own movie. And that’s fine. We’re not all at The Washington Post.
Alicia (Close): We’re not exactly The Washington Post, OK?
Michael McDougal (Quaid): No, we’re not. We run stupid headlines because we think they’re funny. We run maimings on the front page because we got good art. And I spend three weeks bitching about my car because it sells papers. But at least it’s the truth. As far as I can remember, we never ever, ever knowingly got a story wrong — until tonight.
Shit makes me want to cry.
“The Paper” is where it’s at.