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Laid Off But Not Lying Down
The
Daily Planet‘s veteran crime reporter discovers a new scene.

In 1978, one week before Christmas, Clark Kent was hired as the Daily Planet‘s newest reporter on the metro crime beat. Last October he was laid off, another casualty of the newspaper industry’s current downsizing, as profits from print advertising continue to dry up and a workable business model for online ads remains elusive.

“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to work for a newspaper,” Kent said one recent afternoon at Grounded, a trendy new coffee shop on Lester Street that some residents of Metropolis view as a symbol of the surrounding neighborhood’s increasing gentrification. “It was hard not to feel like a big part of my identity had suddenly vanished.”

For the Planet and its readers, the loss of Kent is significant. Always at the scene of the crime before other reporters, he seemed able to predict when bank robberies, muggings, and acts of arson were about to occur, not to mention major attacks by criminals from foreign galaxies. “I just have a nose for news, that’s all,” Kent explained in an aw-shucks manner that betrays his small-town roots.

He doesn’t blame Planet publisher and editor Perry White for the loss of his job. The paper’s owners, however, are another matter. “Wayne Enterprises had no strategy for digging the Planet out of this mess. They’re just letting it die. We’d get these e-mails that said, ‘If you want this paper to continue being a first-rate source of news, you need to stand up and fight for it.’ Great. One more thing to do when I’m not writing copy and keeping a crime blog up to date. Next thing you know, they’ll be asking editorial to sell ads.”

Kent says he’s never met Wayne Enterprises CEO and Planet owner Bruce Wayne. “He might as well be a ghost. I don’t think Mr. White’s even met him. Everybody wishes a crazy rich guy would buy their paper these days, but you don’t want him to be so crazy he won’t even bother to send a mass e-mail when the paper’s going down the drain. I guess he’s too busy flying around in his jets.”

Still, it’s better than when Lex Luthor was in charge. “Wayne may be a military-industrial nut, but he’s not a megalomaniac, and he doesn’t tell Mr. White what he can or can’t publish. He would never buy the paper just to shut it down like Luthor did a few years back.” Kent doesn’t have nice things to say about the tycoon’s newest venture into journalism, the Luthor Log (luthorlog.com), a news website with an ultraconservative bent. Luthor doesn’t pay his contributors, and recently he’s been linked to the disappearance of political columnist Bonnie Barker, who allegedly demanded payment from him last summer, then moved to Canada in disgust. None of her family or colleagues has heard from her since.

Kent admits he became jaded during his last few years at the Planet. “I think it’s impossible not to. The job wears on you, for one thing. And then when you see a good paper like the Planet whittled down because people don’t want to pay for news or classifieds anymore … I can’t say I blame them, but I don’t have any answers either. The business model worked for so long, nobody thought it would ever change.”

When asked if Superman, his main source for leads on the crime beat, had any answers, Kent became agitated. “He’s not a miracle worker, for Christ’s sake. People expect him to save the day all the time, but whenever he turns out to be fallible, or ‘human,’ everybody’s angry. People forget he’s doing this job for free. I know I wouldn’t want it.”

The Smallville native says the cultural climate change has impacted Superman as well. In a world where phone booths are now as rare as afternoon papers, Superman must be strong enough to not only defeat the most diabolical supervillains but also the power of public indifference — the results of a recent Gallup poll show that Batman has an approval rating of 81 percent compared to Superman’s 53 percent. “People used to be amazed that he could fly around the world in a matter of minutes. Now you can go around the world in a couple of seconds on the Internet,” said Kent. “And TiVos can literally stop time. It’s hard to believe.” He took a sip of coffee, then added, “He’s still the only guy I know who can fly.”

Superman’s supporters, who regularly defend him from his critics at the I Still Believe fan site (istillbelieveinsuperman.org), argue that his approval rating would be much higher if he hadn’t been fighting extraterrestrial villains on faraway planets the past five years. A fan on the I Still Believe message boards who identifies himself as Supes2daResQ wrote last September, “people loose [sic] track of where he’s at. if he wins a war against mongul nobody cares. if batman could fly into space people would be the same way.” Though the Daily Planet‘s international coverage has dwindled as its budget has done likewise, it’s never had a reporter who could follow Superman into space, thereby limiting its coverage of his intergalactic activities. The Planet offered to host a blog on which Superman could write about his cosmic struggles, but he declined, saying he was too busy.

“I know he struggles with the goody-two-shoes image,” Kent said. “He’s frustrated seeing guys like Batman become so popular, guys who fight crime but are vigilantes to a certain extent, taking the law into their own hands. Superman doesn’t break any rules, he doesn’t say, ‘I won’t do an interview with Lois [Lane, the Planet‘s star reporter] because I want to maintain an air of mystery.’ He has nothing to hide. But these days you have to be a little bit ‘bad’ for people to embrace you. He’s had trouble adapting to that.”

Though he’s still boyishly handsome in middle age, the bags under Kent’s eyes are heavy the day we meet at Grounded, the result of “trying to put out too many fires the last couple nights.” But he’s eager to talk about his new job as the editor of Street Smart, the weekly paper whose sales benefit Metropolis’s homeless population. He’s the first to admit it’s a big step down from the Daily Planet, but says he wasn’t ready to abandon journalism for a new career. “I’d love to keep fighting crime, or covering it, or whatever you want to call it, but it can’t be done without the right resources, which cost money. The people who want their news for free might not understand that or care, but there you have it. So when this job opened up I went for it.”

At Street Smart he’s dealing with crime from a different angle. “Some of our vendors on the street are ex-cons, or they’ve been victims of domestic abuse. I didn’t cover these people at the Planet, but their stories are just as compelling as the serial arsonists’ or evildoers like Brainiac, if not more so. The homeless problem in this city isn’t going away anytime soon — in fact it’s going to get worse in this economy — so we’d better address it now.” He points behind the counter. “That’s Frank. He used to be one of our vendors. With that on his resumé, he got a job at Winky’s mopping the floors, then he moved to the cash register. Now he’s the assistant manager here. He lives in a studio apartment down the block. And he just wrote his first book review for the paper.”

Kent insists it’s not the caffeine talking when he says, “I believe in the written word. I’ve seen how it can transform people. No one is powerless. We all have hidden strengths, and these guys are no different. You can’t count them out.”

You can’t count out Kent’s former crime beat source either. In December Superman took the Daily Planet up on its offer to start a blog (blogs.dailyplanet.com/superman), with a weekly column also thrown into the mix. “He’s a little green as a writer,” laughs Kent, “but he makes up for it with his enthusiasm. We joke about it. He said, ‘I can’t believe all these comments I’m getting, good or bad.’ I said, ‘You’re Superman! What’d you expect?’ He didn’t think people still cared.”

The blog and his column for the Planet reveal sides of Superman that readers haven’t seen before: a keen observer of world politics, a tireless advocate for global-warming research, a baseball fanatic with plenty of advice for the Meteors. And he’s self-deprecating — in his December 15 post he reminisced that Justice League meetings in the ’80s often boiled down to “a bunch of do-gooders in too-tight pants taking themselves much too seriously.” The blog has been a big hit, but the Planet‘s financial woes continue, with rumors that the impish billionaire known only as Zull is interested in buying the paper from Wayne Enterprises.

Kent says Superman is excited about the new opportunities his friend has at Street Smart. “He reminded me that in some ways he’s homeless. The planet he came from no longer exists.” Kent has even entertained the possibility of them collaborating again. “I’d love for him to write something for us. It all depends on his schedule.”

The sun begins to fall behind the Daily Planet building in the distance as we stand up to put on our coats. Kent says he’d offer me a ride, but he sold his car last month. (“I’ve always gotten around faster on foot anyway.”) When I mention the coincidence of his new job and Superman’s blog popping up around the same time, he smiles. “We talked about that — how both of us had felt pretty static. He was ready for some changes and so was I, so we were happy we could find some new ways to express ourselves, so to speak.” He opens the door and gestures me forward. “I can’t speak for Superman, of course, but it was a relief to know I still had a few surprises up my sleeve.”

… Apologies to Rob Tornoe, Matt Manochio, and David Willis, who were faster than a speeding bullet, or at least much faster than me, getting their versions of this story online. For the record, the idea originally hit me on Friday, December 5, 2008, at approximately 10:03 AM CST, give or take a minute.