Sugar Water: Print, Profits, and “The Paper”

Written by Current Events, Sugar Water

On November 5, the morning after Senator Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States of America, Oprah Winfrey appeared on her talk show with an American flag in one hand and a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times in the other. In May of last year Winfrey endorsed Obama’s candidacy, disappointing many of her viewers who expected her to endorse Hillary Clinton instead (i.e. gender before race), but by some estimates her thumbs-up gave the Illinois senator a million votes he otherwise wouldn’t have had. (An endorsement from Oprah is pretty much an endorsement from God, which is appropriate since a lot of voters expect Jesus-like miracles from the president-elect.) On November 6’s Oprah Winfrey Show, the talk-show queen said that the Sun-Times‘s postelection edition, featuring a black-and-white picture of Obama and the words “Mr. President,” was “the best paper of all the papers in the world.” When Oprah endorses, people listen — though an additional 85,000 copies of the November 5 paper were printed the night before in anticipation of extra demand, raising the total to 335,000, an eventual 700,000 copies were printed in order to stay ahead of requests. Other daily papers like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times also saw increased demand, and there was a similar frenzy for commemorative sections included in the Sun-Times and Tribune‘s Sunday, November 9, editions.

When I got on the bus to go to work on November 5, I was carrying my copy of the Sun-Times, which I started subscribing to early last month. I noticed more eyes looking at what was in my hands than usual as I made my way to the back of the bus (in case you’re curious, I’m usually holding baby chickens), and as soon as I sat down a woman to my right asked me where I’d gotten my copy of the paper. I told her I subscribe. She said all the newspaper boxes she’d passed were empty, so I gave her my sales pitch for subscribing to the Sun-Times: “It’s only five dollars a month.” But before I could shout “That’s an average of 18 cents a day!” in my best TV-pitchman voice, it finally dawned on me why people were so interested in the newspaper I was carrying: it was an instant collector’s item. If only every issue was considered a must-have keepsake these days.

I don’t usually encourage strangers on public transportation to subscribe to newspapers, and I don’t work for the Sun-Times, but these are troubled times for the newspaper industry, when more often than not people under 35 are getting their news from online sources. If you’re over 35 you may have read about the industry’s problems in your local paper, which is bleeding money along with all the rest in the nation, but even now the maxim holds: if it bleeds, it leads. (No matter the medium, reporters have a lock on doom and gloom.) It’s just bleeding on fewer pages these days.

The publisher of the century-old Christian Science Monitor announced on October 28 that it will no longer be available in print as of next April, when it becomes an online-only publication. John Yemma, the paper’s editor, told the New York Times that it has “the luxury — the opportunity — of making a leap that most newspapers will have to make in the next five years.” He recognizes that the Monitor‘s faithful readers “love coffee and a newspaper. So do I. There’s nothing like it. But everyone, sooner or later, is going to have to make the transition, and that’s recognized.” Heed the crossword of the Lord!

The Monitor is the first nationally distributed newspaper to ditch its print edition, but unlike, say, the New York Times, it doesn’t publish on the weekend, it’s a nonprofit that gets its money from the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and issues are delivered through the mail. Still, it’s another big sign that the times are a-changin’ for the newspaper industry, which hasn’t had a good century so far, and it’s unlikely that Oprah, no matter how much she liked the Sun-Times‘s front page on November 5, will erase the industry’s mounting debt with a blank check anytime soon.

I started working as a proofreader at the Chicago Reader, an alternative-weekly newspaper, in the summer of 2003, which may have been the last good year for the industry in terms of financial health. In 2004 we were told by our publisher that revenue from classified and personal ads had begun to drop as more and more readers discovered they could post their apartment-sublet notices and “SWM seeks legless SWF dom” requests for free on Craigslist.com, which originated in San Francisco in 1995, then expanded into other cities starting in 2000.

Revenue from classifieds and personals has continued to fall since ’04 — it once accounted for 40 percent of revenues and 50 percent of profits at most papers — which is one of the reasons why the Reader was sold in July of last year to Creative Loafing, a southern alt-weekly “chain” of four papers that also bought the Reader‘s sister paper, the Washington City Paper, at the same time. But the current economy hasn’t helped matters — high gas prices, downsizing, and the disastrous housing market have translated into even fewer classifieds being placed for cars, jobs, and real estate. Revenue from classifieds fell 25 percent in the first half of this year alone. (For an enlightening but depressing article about the industry’s woes by Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, click here.) In late September we found out at work that Creative Loafing had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which prevents its lenders from taking over the company and gives it 120 days to reorganize its finances.

Despite publishing executives agreeing recently at a City University of New York journalism school conference that it’d be wise from an economic standpoint, not to mention an environmental one, to discard print in favor of Web-only editions of their papers, there’s a huge snag — print editions account for 92 percent of overall revenue at most newspapers, and so far no one’s figured out a viable business model for Internet advertising, which accounts for only 4 percent of revenue. But even online ad sales were down by 2.4 percent in the second quarter of this year. The Internet as a salvation for newspapers is, for now, nothing more than a mirage. As for environmental concerns, it’s frustrating to watch readers throw their daily paper in the trash instead of waiting till they get home to put it in a recycling bin (if they recycle at all, that is), but just once, for our parents’ sake instead of our children’s, I’d like to offer the following: screw the environment. Because they will remain steadfastly loyal to the print product till the bitter end.

I’d never worked at a newspaper before I got my proofreading job, which required taking a test instead of pretending I’m someone I’m not in an interview. I hated the hours at first — 10 on Monday, 14 on Tuesday, 10 between the end of the Tuesday shift and the beginning of Wednesday’s, and yet I never reached a total of 40 hours in a single week because we had Thursdays off for recovery — and last month I found a journal entry from July 7, 2003, that I’d written for a class I was taking at the time, in which I complained about my schedule: “Too bad I don’t love the newspaper business or the alternative-weekly newspaper business or whatever you want to call it. At least I don’t have to work weekends. I’m sure it would be worse at the Tribune. But I bet they pay more. At least I have benefits. Pro, con, pro, con, whine, bitch, moan, complain!!!! … With any luck, I won’t have to stick around for too long.”

Wasn’t I precious at the tender age of 27? Five years later I’m still at the Reader. (I never came up with an exit strategy.) But in that time I’ve come to love newspapers and the personalities behind them, quirks and all. I’m 33, so I grew up with newspapers, of course, but like other things in life, I took them for granted. After I started college I subscribed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a while, but I’m a slow reader, so they began to pile up quickly. It’s a lot harder to throw an entire paper in the recycling bin at the end of the day when you know you’re paying for it. And even after you’ve moved your pile of papers from beside your bed to underneath your dining room table so you can put your shame out of sight, it’s still not out of mind. Late at night you can hear the pile whispering, “Just because parts of me are five months old at this point doesn’t mean those parts aren’t full of useful information.” I know, pile, I know! Once I moved to Chicago in ’03, I started subscribing to the Chicago Tribune, but the pile started to form once again, and even after I cut back from daily delivery to Sundays only, I still felt overwhelmed.

But I’m done letting my slow reading get the better of me. It’s time to get my hands dirty — literally, thanks to all that ink — and start skimming. As I said earlier, last month I began subscribing to the Sun-Times, the Tribune‘s rival, for an average of 18 cents a day. (You’re welcome again for the plug, Sun-Times.) Part of it had to do with wanting to be informed for the upcoming election and part of it had to do with wanting to support an institution that’s in danger of disappearing, though I have a feeling that, like vinyl, newspapers will always be around in some nondigital capacity. After all, movies didn’t kill off live theater, TV didn’t kill off radio, cable didn’t kill off the networks, and a bad economy drives more people to libraries than a good one. The question is, will newspapers not located in major markets be able to survive?

An early scene in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report shows the Washington Post still being printed on paper and delivered to houses in 2054, and USA Today has a hybrid format, with a front page that updates itself with breaking news much like websites already do. Spielberg consulted with a think tank of “futurists” during preproduction in order to present a realistic projection of modern life in the mid-21st century, so relax, coffee-and-newspaper lovers — if the most successful director in Hollywood says it shall be so, it shall. (Unless Oprah says otherwise.) But getting back to what I was saying, my decision to subscribe to the Sun-Times was certainly influenced by the election and rooting for the home team, so to speak, but a lot of it had to do with a favorite movie of mine from high school that I watched again recently for the first time in 14 years: Ron Howard’s The Paper.

I haven’t seen every movie Howard’s directed over the past 31 years, but of the ones I have seen, Parenthood and The Paper are easily the best. He won an Oscar for Best Director for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, and since then he hasn’t made any comedies, but I hope that’s not because he’s a “serious” filmmaker now, because Parenthood and The Paper are both terrific comedies. But while Parenthood was a big hit, earning almost $100 million in 1989 (it was rereleased by Universal Pictures for a few weeks in the summer of ’94 to push it over that mark, reportedly as a favor to keep Howard happy so he’d continue making movies for them), The Paper made only $38 million in theaters in the spring of ’94. And despite a top-shelf cast (Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, and Randy Quaid, plus Jason Alexander, Spalding Gray, Catherine O’Hara, and Jason Robards in smaller roles), pacing that never flags, and plenty of hard laughs, it rarely shows up on cable. Maybe it made a killing on video in the latter half of the ’90s, but I doubt it.

It does have its admirers, though. In the fall of ’99 and winter of 2000 I worked as an editorial assistant in CNN’s Atlanta newsroom, and one night I heard some of the veteran newsmen quote one of The Paper‘s most memorable lines: after a hypochondriac reporter complains to longtime smoker Bernie White (Duvall), the editor of the New York Sun, that his doctor recently found nicotine in his urine, Bernie sarcastically replies, “Then keep your dick out of my ashtray.” I also vaguely remember them quoting metro editor Henry Hackett’s (Keaton) response to rumpled columnist “Mac” McDougal (Quaid) when he complains about being roped into tracking down a lead at the last minute: “You’re not a columnist. You’re a reporter who writes long.” I even read a life-imitates-art story on the news wires back then about a reporter who followed some of Henry’s advice — “A clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in the world” — and discovered for himself that it worked. (The New York Sun, incidentally, is the name of an actual newspaper that published from 1833 to 1950 and used the same masthead logo as the fictional one — “It shines for all” — as did a paper that revived the Sun‘s name in 2002 and published until September 30, 2008, one day after Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy protection.)

Howard deserves much of the credit for keeping up the energy as the viewer follows various story lines over the course of a blistering summer day: Henry’s up for a job at the New York Sentinel, the film’s pompous version of the New York Times, where all the men wear bowties (as the editor played by the late, great Spalding Gray says, “We cover the world“); Martha (Tomei), his wife and a Sun reporter who’s on paid leave, is nine months pregnant and misses the daily news grind; Bernie has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and wants to reconnect with his daughter, who he barely knows; and Alicia Clark (Close), the Sun‘s managing editor, wants a raise and a Tina Brown-like status upgrade in the New York social scene. The thread that ties all these stories together involves two black teenagers who’ve been arrested under suspicion of murdering two white out-of-town businessmen a week after a young black man was killed in a white neighborhood. The Sun, with its sensationalistic headlines and tabloid format (it’s modeled after actual New York tabloids like the Post and the Daily News), missed the story when the bodies were discovered late the previous night, and Henry doesn’t want to get scooped by every other paper again. Once McDougal hears police-scanner chatter indicating that the arrests were strictly cosmetic, Henry chases the story and tries to beat the deadline for the next morning’s paper, putting his job and his marriage at risk in the process.

The Paper is a fantasy in many ways, but the details (the writer who’s always asking his coworkers for synonyms, the gallows humor at editorial meetings, the fact that no one can keep their personal business a secret in a newsroom) and lingo (“Williamsburg’s turning into our lead, we could actually wood on this”) feel dead-on even if, like me, you’ve never worked at a daily newspaper in Manhattan. By focusing on a single day in the lives of its characters, Howard and screenwriters David and Stephen Koepp (David is the writer of blockbusters like Spider-Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Stephen, his brother, became executive editor at Fortune magazine last year after 25 years at Time) can be forgiven for amping up the drama, especially toward the end as Henry races against the clock, Martha issues an ultimatum about their future, Alicia reconnects with her conscience (and is finally allowed some humanity by the filmmakers — the movie tends to side with its boys-will-be-boys male characters more than Alicia and Martha), and McDougal is confronted by one of the targets of his column. The whiplash pacing and overlapping dialogue also help draw attention away from the bleeding-heart subtext of two black teens’ futures being saved by middle-aged white men seeking “the truth.”

Just as Top Gun became a free PR tool for the air force in the mid-’80s, I can imagine The Paper influencing high school and college students in the mid-’90s to study journalism, but I don’t think any of them would be fooled into thinking that every day at a newspaper is this exciting or filled with moral battles waged in the name of journalistic truth. But as Roger Ebert said in his March 18, 1994, review of the film in the Sun-Times, “Watching ‘The Paper’ got me in touch all over again with how good it feels to work at the top of your form, on a story you believe in, on deadline. Here on the movie beat everything is pretty neatly scheduled and we don’t cover a lot of crimes (‘Ace Ventura’ excepted). But I used to write real news on deadline, and those were some of the happiest days of my life. This movie knows how that feels.” He added, “Last week the new owner of The Sun-Times, Conrad Black, was quoted as criticizing journalists: They get too involved in the story, they all want to be stars, they’re cynical, they’re disillusioned, and a lot of them drink too much. Everybody seemed scandalized that he would say such things. I think the problem was that he couched them as criticisms. A lot of the people I’ve worked with would use them as boasts. ‘The Paper’ knows all about that, too.” (In July of last year Black was found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars from Hollinger International, the newspaper company that bought the Sun-Times in ’94. He’s currently serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence.)

Ebert’s reviews are another reason why I started subscribing to the Sun-Times, which, like the fictional Sun, uses a “commuter paper” tabloid format. It’s also the underdog in a city with two daily newspapers. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, or that the New York Sun would be a better read than the New York Sentinel in a world where they actually existed, but I have a weakness for underdogs and that’s that.

Even though The Paper didn’t encourage me to become a reporter, it did encourage my Coca-Cola habit to a small degree. In the film Henry Hackett drinks one Coke after another, even starting the morning with one. (When Martha asks, “Why don’t you just pour battery acid down your throat?,” he answers, “No caffeine.”) Yeah, it’s blatant product placement, especially whenever the camera lingers on the Coke machine in the Sun‘s newsroom kitchen, but when I first saw the film I thought, “What a great excuse to drink Coke all day!” (I wonder how many people of my parents’ generation thought being a nightclub owner in Morocco was a good excuse for smoking after seeing Casablanca.) Of course now when I watch The Paper I’m concerned about the health of a fictional character’s teeth and I question why no one in the newsroom is seen drinking coffee, which would seem like the more realistic all-day beverage stimulant of choice for journalists.

The Paper was Howard and Keaton’s third collaboration, following Night Shift (1982), which was Keaton’s big break, and Gung Ho (1986). The onetime Batman’s star has dimmed considerably since the mid-’90s, but he seems to have made a conscious effort to appear in fewer films and stay out of the public eye. The Paper reminded me how impressive he can be in comedies, especially when his characters are bordering on mania; it’s great fun to watch Henry’s mind race as he follows his hunch that the two suspects are innocent. Keaton’s most memorable moment, however, may be the F-bomb-laced speech he gives to Gray’s Sentinel editor after Henry burns all possible bridges between the two.

I guess it’s appropriate that videocassette, not DVD or Internet download, was the “delivery method” by which I watched The Paper again recently. Yes, I still own a VCR, and I haven’t bought a DVR yet, but once this VCR starts eating tapes, I know I’ll probably have to make the switch. I don’t want to make a permanent switch from newspapers, though, and judging by how many newspapers had to print extra copies of their November 5 edition to meet customer demand, I’m not the only one. Rima Calderon, vice president of communications for the Washington Post, told Editor & Publisher, “There are moments like this that take place where people want a tangible print product. They really want to keep it in hand.” E-mailed links from newspaper websites or Yahoo! News don’t really compare. And I don’t think the under-35 crowd would say that Internet printouts are a comparable substitute either. (Sure, I’m part of that crowd, but I ain’t fer it, I’m agin it! Well, some of the time anyway.) But it’s odd to think of a future in which newspapers aren’t much more than tchotchkes sold on eBay.

Let me ask you this, younger generation: what’s more exciting to receive, an e-mail or an actual letter? Okay, so the content matters — it’s better to receive a love letter than a death threat — but what about receiving a link to an online Associated Press story or an actual newspaper clipping? Maybe I’m talking to the wrong generation here: if you’ve always known e-mail and websites, you’re not going to miss letters, or scrapbooks filled with newspaper articles and movie ads like the ones I used to make. And if you think of information overload as a normal part of everyday life, then waiting until the next morning to find out what happened the day before will seem like living in the dark ages, when no one had cell phones. But if newspapers disappear, how will you be able to look your children in the eye when they ask, “Mommy and/or daddy, what did Marmaduke do today?”

Here’s an idea for those who want to make a difference: get the coolest person you know to read a local newspaper in plain sight of lots of people under 35. (Sorry, New Yorkers, but the New York Times doesn’t count. Try again.) Even in this day and age we’re all slaves to who and what’s considered cool, right? Just make sure the cool person you recruit can actually read, because the coolest people aren’t always the smartest. If they’re seen reading a newspaper upside down, that won’t help the cause.

I know I can sound like a broken record (even though I don’t own a record player), whether it’s my wish to hold on to my cassettes and CDs in the age of MP3s and iPods or how I like my legless SWF doms to be real, not virtual, but I’m tired tired tired of how everything tangible seems to be going away in the digital age. I realize you wouldn’t even be reading this endless piece of text if it weren’t for the digital age, which “has essentially handed a free printing press and a distribution network to anyone with a computer,” as Paul Farhi says in the American Journalism Review. But you know what? That’s okay. I think the democracy of the Internet is wonderful in many ways, allowing unsigned musicians a chance to hook new listeners and giving amateur writers like myself a place to express our thoughts and, with any luck, find empathetic readers. But at the expense of the morning paper or weekly newspapers like the kind I work for? Hell no. And though TV news can be informative and insightful, it’ll never trump the written word. Not even when it uses holograms that can give exit-poll analysis to Wolf Blitzer. The Paper makes that vividly clear for me; it just happens to do it with moving pictures.

I’m looking forward to Barack Obama being the first president my preschool-age nieces are conscious of, just as my mom probably looked forward to her niece’s generation being the first to not live through legal segregation. But I still want them to get their news from a source they can hold, in a format that’s too big to fit on the screen of their cell phone or in a Twitter “microblog.” Yes, young America, I have a dream. And didn’t November 4, 2008, prove that anything is possible?