Black & White and Dead All Over? The “Darth Vader of Journalism” Strikes Back

The documentary about the dying newspaper industry that airs tonight is as unimaginative as the industry it eulogizes.




In the fall of 2007, I was asked to interview Norman Mailer at a Free Library book event. At the cocktail reception beforehand, I found myself huddled in conversation with the legendary author. He was, by now, a kindly old man, unsteady on his feet. I peppered Mailer with questions: We talked about the march on the Pentagon in 1967 that was the setting of his greatest book, Armies of The Night, a stinging critique of establishment journalism. He was charming and self-deprecating. There was little of that rebellious, pugnacious spirit that had come to be his calling card. Until, that is, we segued to the subject of newspapers, which were increasingly imperiled. In the Sixties, Mailer had founded the Village Voice because something new was desperately needed. He wanted to know: Where was today’s journalistic disruption?

“They get what they deserve,” he spat out. “When was the last time you read something in a newspaper — even in the vaunted New York Times — that made you think? America is allergic to ideas, and that’s not unrelated to the principal failing of journalism: It’s as if they don’t see it as their mission to publish anything interesting or stimulating or challenging. So I say, let them go. Good riddance.”




I didn’t say it then — what, I want to debate Norman Mailer? – but I didn’t share Mailer’s dark view. On balance, I felt, newspapers still played a vital role, both as watchdog and as shared civic meeting place. A little over three years later, I was offered the editorship of the Philadelphia Daily News, a once-proud city tabloid that had fallen on hard times. “How’d you like to reinvent the major metro daily?” publisher Greg Osberg asked when he offered me the job.

I was instantly reminded of the comments of Mailer, who had passed away shortly after our conversation. Was it possible? Could one do as Mailer counseled: Take an entity that was, in the instantaneous digital age, still married to the stenography of who said what in yesterday’s public fights and, instead, produce something that went beyond the daily drama? Something not only deeply reported, but also entertaining — and full of ideas about how to move our city forward?

Eyes wide-open, I decided to try. I gave it 18 months — the length of my contract — and came away feeling Mailer was closer to right than I’d thought on that 2007 night. In fact, I thought of Mailer’s comments often during my tenure at the helm of the Daily News, as seemingly every innovation we floated was met by a chorus of “but we’ve never done that before” howls from career journalists who would champion change in their own writing but fight it bitterly when it pertained to them in their workplace.

More recently, Mailer’s comments came back to me upon the release of the documentary Black & White And Dead All Over: A Film About the End of American Newspapers. The film aired on WHYY last Sunday and will be rebroadcast tonight, February 24, at 10 p.m. It’s a love letter to a certain type of investigative reporting, and it uses as its case study the newsrooms of both Philadelphia newspapers, the Inquirer and Daily News. Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, the investigative reporting team that won the Pulitzer Prize for the Daily News in 2010, are held up as heroic endangered species — and corporate owners as their nemeses. But there I am, too, lumped in with the nefarious men in suits: with my emphasis on producing covers that readers might actually want to buy and my insistence that we deeply report on things other than the cop scandal of the day, I seem to be singled out as the bogeyman most contributing to the death of substantive journalism. “Who knew?” One friend chided me. “You’re the Darth Vader of journalism!” Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer to be called a reformer, in an industry desperately in need of new ideas. Ah, yes, ideas: As if to illustrate Mailer’s long-ago point, the film quite unwittingly illustrates the dearth of them in journalism, to the industry’s own peril.

***

Black & White and Dead All Over was produced by Lenny Feinberg, a suburban Philadelphia businessman who last produced 2009’s Art Of The Steal, a compelling look at the controversial moving of the legendary Barnes art collection. This time around, however, Feinberg is without his partner, Don Argott, (the two had a falling-out after the success of Art), and it quickly becomes apparent that Argott was the filmmaker and storyteller of the two. In Black & White, Feinberg summarizes why newspapers are facing extinction, and the litany of reasons are by-now all too familiar  — the Internet, Craigslist, an industry-wide rush to offer content for free on the web in the ’90s — and over-simplified. Mailer would say the narrative lacks gravitas. For example, Feinberg gives ample room for foul-mouthed Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky to deride publishers for posting newspaper content for free on the web, a common complaint in newsrooms, and one I myself have made.

But the truth is, the issue is more nuanced than Bykofsky and Feinberg would have us believe — as is the case with so much of what Black & White posits. The rush to publish content for free on the web was not counter to what had come before: The print business model that Feinberg and Bykofsky pine for, which grew the newspaper industry from a $20 billion to a $60 billion business between 1960 and 2000. (It took all of the next 10 years to revert back to a $20 billion industry.) In both that golden age of growth and the Internet-dominated age of contraction that followed, the newspaper industry essentially clung to a one-revenue stream philosophy: advertising. Papers were sold to consumers for next to nothing; nearly all revenue was garnered by relying on advertising dollars. It’s not that publishers deviated from the model that led them to prosperity when, via the Internet, disruption struck. It’s that they were too loyal to an old idea whose time had come and gone. The sin, in other words, was a failure to innovate and change with the times.

Time and again throughout Black & White, Feinberg thinks he’s revealing one thing, when he’s actually modeling industry-wide denial and allergy to change. When times were good, publishers and journalists were stuck in place due to hubris. When things got bad, they were paralyzed due to fear and a type of collective anger. When the economy tanked, advertisers started to realize what would happen if they didn’t advertise (nothing!), and that placing ads on websites was not akin to ads in a paper due to the new medium’s lack of contiguousness. Advertisers also saw that readers were leaving newspapers in droves, something Feinberg doesn’t delve deeply into at all: The market was speaking, and it was telling editors and reporters that it didn’t like what they were producing.

I said as much to the Daily News staff on the day in 2011 that I first addressed them. I told them that 25 years ago, their circulation was 280,000. Eighteen years ago: 195,000. Two years ago: 97,000. Now: 80,000 and plummeting daily. No one had shared with the staff the incontrovertible metrics that spoke to the ongoing rejection of their product. That couldn’t just be about the Internet; clearly, something they were doing wasn’t connecting with their fellow citizens. I asked for them to be “introspective” about what they do, and to join me in remaking the newsroom into “a laboratory of journalistic experimentation.”

In Black & White, Ruderman quite unintentionally advertises herself as the poster child for institutional denial when she voices the type of resistance my calls for change ran up against: “Larry Platt kept saying the problem was the content,” she says. “And we tried things [his] way and it didn’t work.”

Of course, ultimately, not enough new was tried, owing to the type of knee-jerk opposition expressed by Ruderman. There’s a big difference between grudging compliance and real buy-in, after all. Despite my call for introspection, I was struck by how seldom the newsroom conversation centered around the actual product we were producing; it was as if everyone — publisher, editors, reporters — started from the perspective that what we’d been producing was just fine, despite the overwhelmingly clear verdict readers had been rendering for years. To be clear, what I called for in response wasn’t fluff, as Black & White would simplistically have you believe; it was actually more in-depth enterprise reporting, (we broke the newsroom up into enterprise groups charged with unearthing compelling, deeply reported stories), fueled by journalistic activism, a digital-first mindset and point of view, all of it sold through the use of clever, provocative packaging. (One of many manifestos to the staff laying this out can be found here). Feinberg unwittingly illustrates this, showing a series of irreverent covers that he presents in order to convey a lack of seriousness — without noting the content that they sold, which included enterprised pieces about the governor and embattled schools chief: accountability journalism in the proud, muckraking tradition.

But it is true that I didn’t think we needed more crime blotter coverage or cop scandals. Violent crime in Philly was starting to come down; reading the Daily News, however, you’d get the impression that the city was a war zone and that the cops were indistinguishable from the criminals. The best of the work of Ruderman and Laker was laudable; but when all you do is try and unearth scandal, you’re complicit in making the average citizen feel helpless about his or her city. Increasingly, the Daily News was feeling like an anti-cop newspaper. I wanted to turn some of our reporting firepower to other areas, like politics and education. And that was met by reporters like Ruderman complaining, as she does in Black & White, about never having been assigned stories before.

If Black & White had been an intellectually honest attempt to wrestle with the challenge of finding new content strategies for new times, it would have conceded the need to rethink the philosophical underpinnings of journalism itself. After all, the last time the fundamental precepts of journalism underwent significant revision was in the 1800s, when the notion of objectivity took hold, a change that was driven by advertiser wishes rather than any desire to serve the citizen any better.

Most of all, instead of a reflexive championing of “investigative reporting,” the film could have held the term, and the effects of its practice, up to inspection. The most telling moment of Black & White comes when Bob Woodward says, “Every morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘What lies are the bastards going to tell today?’” Feinberg means this to be heroic: Woodward, and a whole endangered generation of journalists, as crusading truth-tellers.

In fact, I think it’s emblematic of what I call the Watergate Over-Correction. A generation of journalists came of age thinking journalism was about unmasking liars and crooks and cheats in our public life. I was one of them. But then I started to wonder if we in the media elite weren’t unwittingly conspiring with the political class to elicit in the average reader a paralyzing sense of cynicism.

In a 1903 magazine article, journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented.” Back then, as now, Philly was a one-party machine town. In the piece, a local ward leader explains to Steffens why our city so rapidly followed each stunning act of public malfeasance with yet more public malfeasance: “We reasoned that if we [did exactly as we wanted] fast enough, one-two-three – one after the other – the papers couldn’t handle them all, and the public would be stunned – and give up… We know that public despair is possible and that that is good politics.”

How things change, huh? In the most recent citywide election in the fifth largest city in America, fully 11 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. That’s not just an indictment of our political leaders and the electorate. It’s also a commentary on the role journalism has played in numbing a citizenry into apathy. The opinion polls that show journalists are held in lower regard than Congress and used car salesmen have led me to a question one wishes Feinberg had considered: What would it take for the press to still be an all-important watchdog and a force for civic good?

Ironically, at the same moment that Feinberg’s film pines for many of the philosophies that helped get journalism into its current state, I’ve been incubating a project that seeks to address that very question. Taking our cue from the success of texastribune.org, a group of Philadelphia disrupters (ranging from philanthropist and attorney Ajay Raju to entrepreneur Maureen Ferguson, and including advisers like Buzz Bissinger, Jeremy Nowak, Richard Vague and Pat Croce, not to mention a handful of dynamic aspiring leaders) have come up with The Philadelphia Citizen, a non-profit, non-partisan media organization that, through public events and deeply reported journalism, will emphasize solutions that can move our region forward. It will identify our innovators, call out those who stand in the way of progress, and shine a light on a next generation of leadership — all while giving Philadelphians the interactive tools they need to become more involved, engaged citizens.

Black & White unintentionally proves that it’s time for some new ideas in journalism. How about rethinking the role of the Gatekeeper in the new media age? The editorial seer that Feinberg and Ruderman mythologize — an all-knowing lecturer from on-high — has already given way. The new Gatekeeper should be more of a tour guide or facilitator, someone who co-curates compelling content with an active, engaged audience. How about a commitment to non-partisan activism? Imagine: an in-house social action team, working hand-in-hand with reporters, providing users with a blueprint for how to exercise their civic voice on any given issue. (Click here to sign an online petition; click here to directly email your elected representative.) Journalism, after all, is like clean air and clean water — a public good; so why not treat it as a means to the end of robust civic engagement?

Look, I don’t know if the still-evolving notion of The Citizen will happen. (To do it right, we need to raise a lot of money.) But our due diligence these last months has only underscored that something new is desperately needed, and I mention it here as stark contrast to the same-old, same-old we get from Feinberg in Black & White, a polemic that, in effect, endorses a failing status quo and perpetuates distracting newsroom finger-pointing.

Newspapers, for all their faults, are still important, and I envision The Citizen as more supplement than replacement. But the fact is I’ve run two major media institutions in the fifth biggest city in America, and — sad to say — I feel like I have yet to consistently do the kind of work I got into journalism to do, the kind of work my city and local democracy needs. That is, no doubt, partly my own fault — perhaps even primarily so. I can think of many missed opportunities where I should have been bolder and braver. But, as Norman Mailer pointed out in 1967 and again on that fall night 40 years later, it’s also because there is something in journalism that resists the type of evolution that is born of introspection. The result is too often run-of-the-mill stenography or the most simplistic type of storytelling. Think of it: When’s the last time you read something in a newspaper and said to yourself, “Hmmm. I’ve never thought of that before”?

Sadly, watching Feinberg’s film mirrored that experience.

Larry Platt is a former editor of Philadelphia magazine.

Watch the film's trailer:

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  • stubykofsky

    I am occasionally foul-mouthed, but I have a more nuanced understanding of WTF happened to print than was shown in the documentary. (It’s called editing, Larry.) I would think my former boss (also former Philly Mag editor, potential congressional candidate, dropper of trousers and sender of foul nutbag pictures) would know that.
    And I could explain it in far fewer words than the 2,621 it took Larry to relieve himself here.

    • Will Bunch

      Since Larry doesn’t mention — in this unending piece — the most damning point from the movie (which I saw happen here in real time), let me try to (briefly) educate people — the “assignment” that he alludes to had nothing to do with “politics and education” but was a massive and ultimately rather pointless investigation of a “porn king,” because in his naivety he believed that combining “Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters” and “porn” would somehow result in his idea of pure gold. In doing so, he pulled Ruderman and Laker away from their life’s work — which is fighting the for the “little guys” (and gals) of Philadelphia, the bodegas owners and street informers abused by crooked cops and an uncaring city, and regular working people who are scammed by a broken system. That is what “the People Paper” (or, heh, “the People’s Paper”) had always been about, and what you didn’t get from Day One — fighting for the city’s least powerful and not fawning over its elites. Since you’ve left and Wendy came back, she and Barbara are back to doing the kind of work they were yanked away from in the Platt era — exposing creeps who abuse Philly’s disabled for money and the bureaucrats who enable them; it would not shock me if they win a 2nd Pulitzer. Quickly, I’ll add that I’m flabbergasted that you’d suggest that journalism is a source of the cynicism in Philadelphia — after decades of a corrupt political machine and a rogue police force, good journalism may not be enough to end our cynicism, but it’s the only weapon we have left.

  • davidcayjohnston

    Platt’s rant, which ends in a self-interested appeal, has elements of truth, but it also strewn with nonsense.

    For example, the staffs of the Inky and DN knew perfectly well that circulation was falling, yet he writes “no one had shared with the staff the
    incontrovertible metrics.” Not true, but if it were that would be a failure of
    Knight-Ridder management.

    In fact, the 1993 Guild negotiators tried to get management to see how unhealthy the business was and offered numerous proposals to make the business more profitable through new strategies and efficiencies. Local management was intrigued, Miami HQ intransigent.

    At one point in negotiations I said that if the Maysles Brothers
    had been filming the negotiations for one of their cinéma vérité
    documentaries the audience would think we were management and the other side
    the union.

    The result was that the Guild got a tremendously improved
    contract and Miami got its ideological fantasies polished at a net loss to the
    enterprise.

    Newspapers face problems beyond their control, which Platt sort of acknowledges.

    Decades of false attacks by dishonest critics have persuaded many people that the papers are, as one expensively suited executive on a plane next to me said years ago, “all opinion” with no facts.

    The price of subscriptions, and ads, has soared far faster than inflation, while tax
    return data show that the 90% on averaged less in 2012 than in 1966. Falling
    incomes do not support subscription spending.

    The creative destruction of the Internet with its near zero-cost and highly
    profitable parasitic aggregators also took a tremendous toll. Google is an
    advertising model enterprise that brings seller and buyer together just as
    newspapers did, but with news it gets free by linking to newspapers that bear the
    tremendous cost of actually reporting the news and shaping it into readable
    articles.

    Platt’s solution to compete against virtual zero cost? Charity. Maybe that is the way it will go, but his critique is unfair since no one donates to a profit-making business willingly (though when taxpayers are forced to give subsidies to business that is in fact
    what they are doing, making forced gifts, as I have been writing about for
    decades.)

    Newspapers hired consultants who told then to go upscale, to abandon the mass audience. That prompted modern papers to look at the world through the eyes of the few, not the many, hence stories on bank mergers that emphasize bigger profits, not higher fees and fewer branches. When I was the Inquirer guy in Atlantic City we reported the monthly losses at the casinos, not the win, on the theory that many readers gambled in the temples of chance, but only a few owned them.

    Empting the newsroom, as the DN used to do now and then, to report on public housing or which judges were actually working is substantial, low-cost and reader
    friendly.

    The well-documented decline in reading skills is also a major factor, including what newspaper editors should know from eye tracking studies. http://bit.ly/1k8U0O4

    That fast food joints put icons on their cash registers instead of numerals is not
    unrelated to the decline in newspaper readership. Nor is the rise of the
    two-income family and that America now ranks at or near the top in hours worked
    per person per year.

    I’ll buy that newspapers were stodgy. Name a business that is not. Can we say Xerox
    graphical user interface? ExxonMobil is never going to become a green company.

    There is a market demand for actual journalism and people hunger for it. But Platt wallows in sleaze, from his despicable cyst gift to wasting the time of talents like Pulitzer duo Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker on low class porn story with an even sleazier cover.

    Porn scandals are cotton candy — not material to people’s lives, more appealing to
    imagine than taste. Platt’s brand of porn as news is a surefire way to drive
    readers away in droves — except the kind of readers that advertisers don’t
    want in their stores.

  • Jennifer

    Honestly, the entire documentary and this response is littered with ridiculous personnel drama that masks the real issues with the industry. They all are children who are defending their opinions and ways of doing things – vehemently resisting change. It’s about collaboration and creativity, that’s they only way any fucking business works.

    • davidcayjohnston

      More please, Jennifer, with useful policy or specifics on the “real issues” you do not identify.

      Surely you do not mean “collaboration and creativity” in a city where the newsrooms worked extraordinarily well as cooperative units and where the DN was known for emptying the newsroom for a day while a bunch of reporters and photographers tackled a specific subject, like public housing conditions. What was more creative than the AIDS around the world project Donald Drake envisioned and Gene Roberts had the staff execute with the requirement that each story, be it watching a man die in rural Africa or what was happening at a gay bathhouse in Philly, make use of that timely and valuable word in daily journalism: yesterday. Surely you appreciate the enormous collaboration and creativity in that, the most inventive, powerful and collaborative project ever on AIDS at a time when it was close to a taboo subject. http://www.philly.com/philly/health/AIDS_A_day_with_a_global_killer.html

      Or one of the most famous ledes in journalism, the Steve Lovelady rewrite of a Barlett & Steele project opener that won the Pulitzer gold medal? Or opening a story about Trump with seven lines straight out of Waiting for Godot? Or, in more recent times, the sustained collaboration needed to expose problems with voting? Or the Vince Fumo investigative project?

      How would you change the newspaper industry and in particular newspapers in Philly? And how would you compete against parasitic operators who fulfill the four century old model of using news to bring buyers and sellers together, but pay nothing to gather, organize and report news because they just link to publications that bore that cost? How to address the economics of Google and Bing, which drain vitality from actual news operations?

      And what to make of Will Bunch’s point — that the DN pays sustained attention to the “little guys” who lack power and has exposed many wrongs, yet is losing support from the very people it stands up for? This is a phenomena first made widely popular by Tom Frank’s book about Kansas about voting against self-interest and most recently on display with the vote by VW workers in Tennessee.

      So please, Jennifer, contribute some useful information to the serious journalists here whom you dismiss as children, but disparage with no more depth of argument and no more constructive criticism than we would expect from, well, a child.

    • judethom

      I love it how journalists in this town are always at each other’s throats in games of one upmanship. it is tiresome. This one thinks he could write a better article, this one calls the article a rant…it never ends. Hopeless egos, all.

  • Sixpack

    Front page of Platt’s Daily News on Aug. 5, 2011, exhibiting “robust civic engagement.”

  • FK46

    I’ve spent 27 years writing and editing in print news and 18 in PR for big public agencies. These are my thoughts:

    Packaging, delivery and the widespread loss of reading skills are big things but there are more fundamental problems. The real biggies are the lack of pride in one’s city, state and nation and a couple of generations being taught there is no absolute truth.

    How do those things relate to a medium trying to do “deep reporting’? If there is no pride — or no hope — for the city, state or nation and there really is no truth, who cares what the newspaper says is wrong among the city’s police or how much we’ve cleaned up the environment?

    Why not just eat, drink and be merry as we slide toward chaos and hell … if those things exist? If your highest value is “tolerance,” why worry? You ought to be able to tolerate it!

  • Hostile Negress

    Brings up some very good points about the role of newspaper journalism in its own demise. I left the industry because of arrogance on the part of management; it was only after I was on the outside looking in that I saw how fully arrogant we ALL were.

    There’s something so troubling about someone implying that the very underpinnings of society will collapse if they don’t write their fancy investigative piece. Like, seriously? that implies that YOU know everything – when you really know only a corner of a corner. You just happen to feel like it’s the most important corner. Many people would disagree!

    Investigative reporters, just like state house reporters, are legendarily full of themselves. Nothing surprising there.

    What I WILL say was surprising – and perhaps most ironic of all – was how poorly this story was told. The organization was OFF, and it was all redundant. I had to force myself through the last half…

  • judethom

    Just look at Philly.com and you can see how low journalism has sunk.

    Weeks and weeks of Swiss cheese pervert stories.