"Ha ha! Your medium is dying!" -- Nelson, The Simpsons.
When an animated character on a broadcast network show mocks your medium, you know you're really in trouble. The departure of film critics from print outlets, including most recently Nathan Lee from The Village Voice and David Ansen from Newsweek, has inspired many observers to ponder the future of film criticism. The bigger story is that the newspaper industry as a whole has been plagued by declining profits since the turn of the century, with hundreds of workers accepting buy-outs or being laid off in the last few years.
Manny Mendoza, a newspaperman since 1979, saw the writing on the wall and accepted a buy-out offer from the Dallas Morning News a couple of years ago. Bitten by the moviemaking bug, he wanted to make a documentary about local muralists, but when he enlisted the assistance of veteran filmmaker Mark Birnbaum, Birnbaum convinced him that they should instead make a film about what was happening to the print medium. The result of their efforts, Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril, had its world premiere at AFI Dallas this week, and it's an absorbing account that should appeal to anyone concerned about the future of democracy.
Are newspapers really that important? One interviewee reminds everyone that "the press" is the only profession named in the Constitution, and others assert that without the free flow of information and "truth" disseminated by newspapers, the future of democracy would be threatened. (I put truth in quotation marks only because the objectivity of newspapers has been questioned at times.) Another newspaperman, a victim of the recent industry downsizing, says he doesn't feel that his loss of employment should equate to the downfall of democracy. Of course, he's currently working as the manager of a "gentleman's club," so his view is more pragmatic.
Historically, according to another interviewee, the first newspaper in America only managed to publish one edition before getting shut down; evidently what prompted the action was the shocking claim that the King of France was having sex with his son's wife. It would be 14 years before another newspaper was printed. Eventually, freedom of the press was credited with cutting short the Revolutionary War.
Stop the Presses is laid out like a newspaper feature story, with timely excursions into the past to provide historical context for a developing story. The film may have begun as an examination of what happened to the Dallas Morning News, which was once upon a time widely-respected but is now a hollow shell of its former self, yet it quickly broadens its view to show what is happening nationwide, with special emphasis given to newspapers in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Florida.
The film asks, What happens when newspapers fold their overseas news bureaus in the interest of cutting costs? Fewer reporters on the ground to cover stories means the coverage becomes more limited; more stories will be missed and our view of the world may contract as a result.
Will the Internet replace print outlets? To some degree, of course, it already has, but a relatively small number of online-only outlets can afford to hire a staff of reporters and editors, and the Internet involves an additional set of tools in order to take full advantage of its potential. Some newspaper reporters are finding that they must learn how to operate a video camera in the field, in addition to their well-worn notebooks and pens.
Are publicly-held corporations the real culprits? After all, it was their purchase of newspaper chains that made it imperative that newspapers increase their profits year by year. As one interview subject points out, though, the corporations may collectively be called the devil, but by their infusion of capital, they also made possible some of the long, complex, detailed investigative reporting that is so highly prized by observers and valued by readers. What about other types of ownership? The purchase of a small chain of Philadelphia print outlets by a wealthy businessman is examined, as well as a non-profit experiment in publishing by the Poynter Institute in Florida.
While not covering every possible aspect of the issue, Stop the Presses does a good job of laying out the problems and considering solutions that have been offered, without drawing very positive conclusions. The pace is brisk without overwhelming the viewer, and the filmmakers have judiciously chosen a plethora of film and television clips, from the familiar (Ed Asner in Lou Grant , Ace in the Hole, Deadline USA, His Girl Friday) to the obscure (Thirty Dash Thirty), to further illustrate the challenges facing the industry.
I've been a newspaper junkie / advocate my entire life. I'll never forget the Los Angeles Times employee who took the time to type a kindly response to the horrid cartoon I submitted for publication when I was seven years old, or my sorrow when the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner folded many years ago, or the joy of reading the print edition of the New York Times every day in the quiet of my old office, or my bewilderment at the first copy of USA Today, or the shock when a travel columnist published an excerpt from my letter in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
As several people testify in the film, there's nothing quite like the tactile feeling of turning the pages of a newspaper, or being able to scan the headlines and choose what to read in depth. On the other hand, I can't imagine doing without the convenience and speed of the Internet, which allows me to quickly scan dozens of news outlets from around the world every hour, if I so choose. Even in truncated, reduced form, newspapers still offer benefits that cannot be easily reproduced elsewhere, and Stop the Presses presents a convincing case for their continuing existence in some form or another.
More information is available at the film's expansive official site.