×

Jim Kenyon: Journalism Theatrics

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I’m not much of a moviegoer. But last week I went to the Nugget in Hanover twice — both times to see The Post. For members of the Fourth Estate, it’s pretty much a religious experience.

The Post brings two other outstanding newspaper movies to mind. All the President’s Men served as a primer on how Watergate — and its cover-up — came to light. Spotlight told the story of the Boston Globe taking the lid off the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal.

The Post captures a time in the early 1970s pivotal in the history of the paper and the country.

Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, was wrestling with whether to print the Pentagon Papers, which exposed a massive government cover-up of what had really been going in Vietnam for three decades. It didn’t help that the Post was “cash poor” and “barely solvent.”

The Nixon administration had just secured a court injunction forbidding The New York Times, which was the first to get a copy of the top-secret report, from continuing to publish its details.

But spurred on by her legendary editor, Ben Bradlee, Graham bucked her lawyers and business advisers who feared — with good reason — that Nixon would scheme to put the Post out of business.

All the President’s Men and Spotlight both won Oscars. I’m no Rex Reed, but I bet The Post also will fare well. The movie, which debuted on Jan. 12, is showing signs of a box office hit, nationally and locally. Last weekend’s initial showings at the Nugget were sellouts.

The movie’s popularity caught me by surprise, even factoring in the star power of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Pentagon Papers made headlines, and the newspaper industry’s obituary was written a while ago.

An analysis by the Washington think tank Pew Research Center released last June noted that circulation for U.S. daily newspapers, including digital, fell 8 percent in 2016, the 28th consecutive year of declines. The analysis also reported that newspapers had suffered a double-digit decline in advertising revenue.

What to make of The Post’s popularity? I guess nostalgia still sells. A friend who is a retired newspaper editor puts it best: “People love newspaper movies, they just don’t love newspapers — at least not enough to read them.”

There is some evidence that the tension between the executive branch and the national press — captured so well in The Post and on display again every time President Trump tries to undermine the free press’ watchdog role by referring to media as “the enemy of the people” — has boosted the fortunes of the industry. The Times and Post have both seen big bumps in subscriptions, particularly digital, since his election.

But as the quarterly magazine American Prospect, points out in its December issue, they are the exception:

“A few national newspapers with unique franchises — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post — have begun to figure out the digital transition, using paywalls, new digital content, and complementary business strategies to realize income from other sources. They will survive, even thrive.”

That’s the good news.

“But the real tragedy for the civic commons is occurring at the level of regional papers,” American Prospect wrote. “Local dailies and weeklies are in a slow death spiral.

“Robust civic life depends on good local newspapers. Without the informed dialogue that a newspaper enables, the public business is the private province of the local commercial elite, voters are uninformed, and elected officials are unaccountable.”

Which brings me to the Valley News.

I’d hate to think what the Upper Valley would be like without it. Although I suspect a few elected officials, government administrators and members of the area’s constabulary wouldn’t mind less public scrutiny.

Some of the people who run Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College probably wouldn’t shed any tears if the Valley News closed up shop, or no longer had the financial resources and commitment to serve as a community watchdog. Their well-oiled public relations and marketing machines would enjoy carte blanche.

What are the chances the public would have learned last month about DHMC quietly settling a $2 million medical malpractice lawsuit brought by the parents of a Bradford, Vt., teenager who died in 2014, if staff writer Jordan Cuddemi hadn’t sought out the court records?

How much would the public know about Dartmouth College’s environmental contamination debacle — now approaching $30 million in cleanup costs — at Rennie Farm, if not for staff writer Rob Wolfe’s reporting?

“The Valley News has fared well compared to a lot of newspapers across the country and in New England, but we are not immune to industry trends,” Dan McClory, the paper’s publisher, told me. “The last two years we have experienced large declines in print advertising revenue.”

The Pew Research Center’s analysis cited federal labor statistics that showed 41,400 people worked as reporters and editors in the newspaper industry in 2015 — down 37 percent from 2004.

At the Valley News, the reduction in newsroom staff hasn’t been nearly as severe. But in a newsroom that once numbered more than 30 reporters, editors, and photographers, I’ve watched a few desks stay empty after someone retires or moves on.

Sure, I like a good newspaper movie. But I like a real newspaper performing its vital mission even more.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.