Airing on WETA tonight is Stop the Presses, Manny Mendoza and Mark Birnbaum’s documentary on the sinking ship that is the newspaper industry. At once informative, gripping, entertaining, and depressing, the film includes commentary from a variety of journalism giants, including Ben Bradlee, Dave Barry, and David Carr, current New York Times media columnist and former City Paper editor in chief. It’s a must-see for journalists, of course, but also for anyone with even a passing interest in the state of media, particularly one dying breed: regular newspaper subscribers.
Mendoza answered a few questions about the doc via email; answers below.
How did you get involved with this project? Do you have a background in film? Journalism?
I’m a career-long newspaper reporter who took a buyout from the Dallas Morning News in 2006. I knew Mark from covering film and television and asked him to make a short doc with me about a local mural artist. He said OK, but would I also work with him on a film about a subject that was right under my nose, the collapsing newspaper biz? I said OK, though I had no filmmaking experience. Mark found a backer in early 2007 and we shot and edited through early 2008.
Is documentary filmmaking something you want to pursue?
On occasion. But it pays even less than freelance writing, my main gig these days. Mark and I finally finished the short on the mural artist, called Dig Deep,” last fall. In fact, it’s screening this week at the Dallas International Film Festival.
Which, if any, newspapers do you read daily? Do you subscribe or read online? ‘Fess up!
You caught me! I don’t subscribe to a print product at the moment. (Mark gets the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News delivered daily.) My daily newspaper is the Huffington Post, which is like a tabloid on steroids. Who says there’s no serendipity online? As I read about health care reform, I often stumble onto the latest Jesse James concubine.
What do you think of the prediction you include from a journalism professor — that the last American newspaper will be recycled in 2040? “Recycled” is an interesting word choice, implying that the last paper will actually be printed earlier than that, no?
To paraphrase Roy Peter Clark, it’s impossible to predict what the media landscape will look like 10 years from now, much less 30. I think some papers will probably still be around, maybe many. The question that Stop the Presses raises is, What will those papers looks like? Will they still be doing investigative reporting, acting as the people’s watchdog, or will they be shells of what we consider newspaper journalism?
Do you believe democracy is truly at risk if the dead-tree press goes down? Wouldn’t there still be information and places to call bullshit online, or would the overwhelming number of citizen journalists, extremists, knee-jerk regurgitators, etc., put a question mark over all reporting?
I’ve actually become more hopeful since we finished the film. There are some interesting experiments online, including Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune, both nonprofits dedicated to objective, in-depth journalism. Will that be enough to replace the investigative work that has become a tradition of the dead-tree press? I hope so, because that’s what would endanger democracy: an uninformed or misinformed public. In that way, fixing the U.S. public education system may be more crucial than newspapers to the future of the republic. Sounds like an idea for a documentary.
You interviewed Ed Asner, who, to reword a tired joke, is not a journalist but has played one on TV. Viewers might equate the validity of his comments with Ellen DeGeneres’s musical critiques on American Idol. (Well, OK, it’s likely these are two worlds with little overlap.) What made you approach him?
Once we decided to use journalism movie and TV clips as punctuation, it seemed to make sense to talk to a TV icon who played a journalist. Mark knew him and I had interviewed him when Nancy Marchand died. He’s an activist with opinions, and we could segue Lou Grant footage with a sound bite from Ed. Like Ellen, he did a great job.
The shots of old-school manual typesetting were fascinating. Was this borrowed footage or did you get access to a machine yourself?
We shot current-day presses at the Washington Post and St. Petersburg Times and the American Revolution-era hand press in Ben Franklin’s newspaper office in Philadelphia. The old black-and-white press footage is stock.
Nobody in the film sugarcoated his or her comments, but I found some of Dave Barry’s to be the most cutting and dead-on regarding many newspapers’ strategies, i.e. shorter stories, bigger photos, lists: “The kinds of things young stupid people like. Morons!….The kids who weren’t reading it to begin with aren’t suddenly going to go, Whoa! Bulleted lists! I’m going to subscribe to the newspaper for the rest of my life!”
Don’t really have a question here, but it must have been fun talking to him — and many of your other commentators shared a wry sense of humor about the collapse of the industry as well.
Dave was great. We put his whole unedited interview, from the moment he walked in, on the DVD as an extra. We wanted Stop the Presses to be entertaining as well as informative so we made sure to reflect the gallows humor of newsrooms.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Petersburg Times are held up in the doc as having potentially sustainable business models. Do you believe private ownership is the way to go?
Not anymore. Philadelphia is in bankruptcy, which we reflect in the updated version you’ll see in Washington. St. Pete is more interesting because the paper is owned by a nonprofit. At least in the short term, philanthropy may be one answer for journalism. But even St. Pete has struggled in the recession. As Marty Baron says, private owners may not have stockholders to answer to but they do have bankers. Philly is in trouble because the new owners took out a loan to buy the papers, and they’ve been missing payments on that loan.
Last, if your and Mark’s aim was to avoid any dryness in the doc, well, that reenactment of a devoted subscriber in the can certainly took care of that. (At least I hope that was a reenactment.) Again, no question here, I was just a bit surprised at the image of the New York Times draped over two naked knees!
Audiences love that scene. It works because it’s true — that’s how a lot of people consume their news! Reenactment? I think not.
Stop the Presses airs on WETA tonight at 10 p.m. and Friday at 3:30 a.m.