“Buy a Newspaper”

When I was a kid I saw a David Niven comedy called “Best of Enemies.” Due the the modern miracle of the Internet I was just able to confirm my memory with the link in the preceding sentence. It was about the odd duck friendship between warring enemies on the North African front in WW II. I suspect I’ve always tried to keep the same sort of approach in any adversarial relationship I’ve developed with school board members, union presidents, political opponents and certainly the press.

In the fight, one fellow called it a “scorched earth” campaign, for my right to vote on the Red Plan I’ve had such a relationship with Sarah Horner who recently lost her reporting job at the Trib. I hinted in an earlier post that she may have been yet another casualty of the Red Plan although in what way I couldn’t be sure. Certainly my friendly rivalry had gotten pretty testy and even contemptuous towards the end. Still, Sarah was good humored despite an alarming increase in the barbs I directed her way for what I regarded as an uneven journalistic skepticism directed at the folks on my side of the argument.

To my surprise I stumbled upon a webpage this morning, the Current, which the Trib apparently set up for its reporters to write reviews of local restaurants. (The Trib had already dispensed with the services of another old Education Reporter, Tom Wilkowske, who had taken over this job before the hard times hit them full force.) When I saw that Sarah had made some entries I had to check them out. Her reviews were frothy but fun and reminded me why I enjoyed fencing with her for the first year and a half of the battle.

Those few of you out in WWW land who have been slaves to my blog know I’ve hinted at a boycott of the DNT for its handling (still disgraceful in my opinion) of the Red Plan. I could never bring myself to do it because I’ve always thought of myself as something of a reporter myself. Until about four or five years ago when I began to get more news content on the web I could just about count on spending an hour a day pouring through the Trib. Over the course of 30 years I had more intimate face-to-face time with the Trib than my wife. I believe in democracy but I also believe that its not possible wit out a free press and more specifically a free press that is committed searching out the truth despite the need to sustain commercial success.

That has not been easy of late and most major US papers are now owned by stockholders looking for impossible profit margins which requires them to canibalize the very product they are trying to sell. Eat (fire) a reporter to avoid the attendant costs of salary, insurance, pension and you have less to offer your loyal subscribers.

I presume that the timing of Sarah’s departure simply reflects her seniority. Another reporter told me a year ago that it was the young blood that has being shed first and I guess it was Sarah’s time to go. After some ill feelings of late I’m back to thinking like David Niven in that old movie. Sarah was doing a job that had once been handled by two when the biggest, messiest and longest lasting controversy in the education beat’s history blew up.

One of Sarah’s reviews prompted this bit of reflection. this one is about a movie I’ve never seen. Now I plan to put it on my Netflix queue. Perhaps her review reveals a bit of the pressure she was under. I wish her well.

State of Play review
I don’t think State of Play is going to grab any Oscars, but the relatively new movie starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams does have one important redeeming quality. It’s the first film I’ve seen that attempts to get at the struggle facing newspapers today and the potential impact that will befall society if newspapers end up losing the fight.

The movie starts out by introducing two reporters at a Washington paper, Cal McAffrey (Crowe) and Della Fry (McAdams). Fry is a blogger, the new age journalist who posts unsubstantiated but attention grabbing stories online. McAffrey is the old school veteran that has been working his beat hard for years. Both are now important to the fiber of today’s papers but without McAffrey’s kind, a major story about the murder of U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins’ (Ben Affleck) mistress would have likely gone untold.

With a little help from Fry, McAffrey nudges bits and pieces of what happened out of his sources from across the city. His work is delicate and time intensive, something his editor is reluctant to give as pressure from the web demands more news now, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. That reality is compounded by the shrinking news staff many papers are coping with that doesn’t allow reporters to take as much time on stories as they could in the past.

In this particular instance McAffrey wins the fight and gets the time he needs to tell this hugely important story correctly. As papers continue down this road, that might not always be the case. If anyone cares about preventing it, I’d offer the same advice my date yelled at the end of the movie, ‘buy a newspaper.’