Friday, December 07, 2012

Death of Newspapers Documentary: 'Black & White and Dead All Over'

Well, if the trailer is any indication, Black & White and Dead All Over should be an interesting documentary.

Two things seem to be apparent from the trailer
  • There's going to be a serious amount of "feel good" here for traditional journalists (hey, I wanted to get up and salute).
  • It appears to center on the Philly Newspapers upheaval (though Bob Woodward, for instance, makes the obligatory Watergate reference).
It also appears the bogeymen in this are those greedy or clueless "owners" -- you know, the "hedge funds." As one person sniffs in the trailer: "We're dealing with people who are not necessarily newspaper people, whereas we are newspaper people."

Some other pithy quotes:
"When you're dealing with hedge funds, you never know what's gonna happen next." (So true - just ask the tens of thousands of other people who face the same thing in businesses all across the country. Let's grow up, shall we?)

"They sold our iconic building." Yes, that's what you often do when you transform from an industrial business to a service one, which is what journalism is becoming. You try to get rid of as many fixed costs as possible. You work out of a storefront or your living room, if necessary. What does it matter where you work if your journalism is outstanding, accessible and worth it? This is the sort of edifice complex (including the still-lingering idea that the only true journalism has to, somehow, come out on dead trees) that has plagued us for years.

Here's the problem if this is all the film is.
  1. "Journalists" (me included) are not innocent lambs in all this. Yes, 99.44% of them I've ever known stand for truth, justice, and ... well, you know. But they also have, to whatever extent (we can debate how much - I don't think it's as much as some critics would contend), been resistant to change until the Great Recession forced the issue. It's easy to get religion when you are staring death in the eye.
  2. The big bad owners aren't necessarily the bogeymen either. That's too simplistic. It's a business, not a charity (notwithstanding some of the outstanding nonprofits that have sprung up). The comment about those folks not being from newspapers shows an enormous naivete on the part of those making it and a tremendous tribal instinct that has been part of the problem.
  3. Whether journalists want to acknowledge it or not, they never really had the great trust of their audience. There were a few small windows when the polls looked good, but those were fleeting on the grand time scale. By and large, we are a nuisance to be tolerated -- on all sides -- and as soon as people could vote with their feet, they did. Trust, credibility, whatever you want to call it is no longer institutional but transactional. Put another way, it's earned, what have you done for me today, what have you done that's actually worth paying for? And that still hasn't penetrated significant segments of this business.
The "death" of newspapers (apparently defined here as major metros) is a complicated sociological and economic phenomenon. Complaining, as some do in the trailer, that people don't realize what they're losing reminds me of the guy in the cellphone commercial who complains about not being a winner (his screen's too small to play the game), and the old woman sitting next to him at bus stop looks up and says, no, "you're a whiner."

As Paul Gillin at Newspaper Death Watch notes, the filmmakers, Lenny Feinberg and Chris Foster, haven't put out much information beyond the trailer.

Let's hope the necessary shallowness of the trailer doesn't reflect the shallowness of the documentary. If it does, "Black & White and Dead All Over" will be more chest-thumping heat than providing light - ironic given newspapers' love of that and similar mottoes.

On the other hand, if you want a short video to try to inspire your students and reaffirm your ideals in journalism, definitely play them this.

Best line from the trailer: "I live in a game preserve of corruption."

Go team!

Update 1/12 
The site now has an explanation up:
Black and White and Dead All Over is an in-depth look at the newspaper industry as it struggles to remain financially viable and to keep the presses rolling. Through the voices of prominent journalists including Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and David Carr of the New York Times, we reveal an industry in the midst of a financial death spiral, as readers abandon print for online news sources. We see publishers and editors desperately trying to create a sustainable business model for their dying papers. Our film examines the importance journalism has on our society by following two fearless investigators into the badlands of North Philadelphia. With the economic crisis in the newsroom threatening to shutter their struggling tabloid, these courageous women bring down a dangerous and corrupt narcotics squad. If the American newspaper dies, who will conduct investigative journalism, who will hold public officials accountable?
And a new trailer that's a little more low-key

TRAILER: Black & White and Dead All Over TAINTED JUSTICE from Lenny Feinberg on Vimeo.

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At 12/7/12, 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I have to be honest: I left AP because I was cornered into a desk gig.Two years later, I work dayside as an SEO professional and on my own time, I build modest websites and provide them with keyword-rich content.

Before now, I was like one of the people on the trailer - very much going on and on about how amazing and miraculous newspapers were and how my job was so awesome, blah blah blah.

Now from the outside looking in, it seems like so much bull. I'm more challenged now than I've ever been. I don't mean to discredit anything; my writing skills are extremely valued in web marketing.

But sometimes I think this journo ego is what keeps people remaining in a business that doesn't love them.

Move. On.

At 12/7/12, 6:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just major metro dailies. Small-town newspapers are wildernesses of empty desks. At my last job before I left the business, I was the only worker in a room with eight desks, doing the job that eight people did in 1980, six in 1995, four in 2000.

In the contest with advertising on status content, the static content is going to win.


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