Internet Killed the Newspaper Star
Filmmaker Lenny Feinberg discusses his documentary Black & White and Dead All Over about the decline of the daily newspaper.
by Jay S. Jacobs
As the Internet increasingly becomes the go-to destination for people to get their news, traditional newspapers have been scrambling to stay relevant.
Newspapers are at a severe disadvantage, though, because it is impossible for them to print the news as quickly as the internet sites can. As a younger generation increasingly gets their news on the web, traditional newspapers are feeling the crunch. In 2012, Pew Research reported that only 23% of people read their daily newspaper. That is a huge drop from just ten years before, where it had been 41%.
In recent years, many venerable papers have folded, including The Chicago Sun-Times, The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post Intelligencer and many more. Multiple others have been downsized.
The other papers are trying desperately to figure out how to make a profit in the new world of journalism. The traditional newspaper profit plan, making money through advertising, does not work in the odd new world of web ads. Is it still possible to do all the good that newspapers do and still make money at it?
Philadelphia documentarian Lenny Feinberg (The Art of the Steal) had a front row seat to the changes in the industry, as his acclaimed local newspapers The Inquirer and Daily News have been on a roller coaster for years now, surviving a series of ownership changes and money problems. The changing face of the news fascinated Feinberg, inspiring him and Chris Foster to do a film on the situation, called Black & White and Dead All Over.
We recently spoke with Feinberg about the film and the slow, steady fall of the newspaper.
How did the subject of the slow death of newspapers come to intrigue you as a filmmaker?
It’s a pretty obvious the changes taking place in Philadelphia. One thing led to another. The unfortunate demise of the Philadelphia papers made one aware that it was a national problem.
The Inquirer and Daily News, which are our local papers, have had particularly dramatic rocky roads in recent years with the multiple ownership changes. You spoke with people through a few different regimes in the papers. Was it difficult getting access with all that going on?
It wasn’t easy. The people you saw on camera were the ones who got involved. (laughs) Who gave us access. Most of them wouldn’t. None of the publishers would give us access. We had to talk to people who were just writers or editors.
You spoke with a lot of very celebrated, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists like Bob Woodward and David Carr. How open were reporters and editors to discussing the changes in the industry?
Some of them were very open. Some of them were somewhat in denial. Nobody wants to hear that the industry that they dedicated their lives to is… at best… going through a difficult transition. At worst, something is happening that is foreign to what they are accustomed to.
As a Philadelphian, I wasn’t too surprised, but Stu Bykofsky had some of the best lines in the film. Who were some of your favorite interviews, whether because they were particularly informative or just entertaining?
Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman (an investigative team who wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News for years – Ruderman has since moved to The New York Times). It was a privilege to be around them. I watched hard work. People who are the prototypes of what you think people should be in finding out what is wrong and doing something about it. They had enormous obstacles and they are unstoppable. If I had to do it all over again, I’d spend even more time with them.
Were there any journalists you would have liked to speak with, but couldn’t?
I’m sure, but I can’t remember.
Things changes so quickly. Tragically, there was another major shift in the Inquirer story after the film was finished with Lewis Katz being killed in a plane crash right after buying the paper.
That was certainly tragic. What happened before that (the latest resale) unfortunately happened post-final cut.
Were you tempted to delay things and add that into the finished film?
I would like to go back and do that.
On the Internet, pretty much anyone can be a writer. What do you feel are the pros and cons of this fact?
The pros are the ability for anyone to get on, like you say, and get news immediately. The cons are that there are no filters. There is no degree of editorial oversight in a lot of it. You have to be careful with what you’re looking at.
Newspapers are now working at a distinct disadvantage – the Internet gets news almost immediately while it takes until the next day for a paper. Do you think there is any way for them to overcome this most basic problem?
No, I don’t. (laughs) It’s a transition that will eventually feel itself out, but everything is there right now.
You honed in specifically on investigative reporters, which is obviously a huge, huge advantage for a newspaper that almost no website can really match. Did you consider speaking more with straight news reporters, features writers, sportswriters, columnists, etc.?
Bob Woodward said it, I’m not going to take credit for it, but all reporting is investigative reporting. Trying to find something out.
The film focused on the importance of professional writers and their skill at getting to a story, but there are also other aspects to the newspaper business that have been completely glossed over on the internet – fact checking, editing, etc. Did you consider discussing these lost arts too, or do you feel that’s all another film?
It could be another film. I’m happy to discuss that. I think the model, the paradigm for what worked for 100 years or more in this country for newspapers is changing dramatically.
It seems like in the period of a single generation it has become widely accepted that most types of art – whether it is journalism or music or film or whatever – should be extremely cheap or free. How do you think this huge societal change in attitude came to be?
In the newspaper world, they made the mistake of putting their content online for free. They thought that they could charge advertisers by the hits they get. That was a big mistake that they’re all regretting. The ones that are getting some success now are the ones that are charging for their online content. The New York Times has been wrestling for years and years with trying to build a firewall so that people have to pay for their content. I have to believe that eventually they’ll figure it out and it will be a profit maker.
Do you think there is a business model which could save the newspaper? And do you feel future generations will ever experience the actual laying out and reading of a paper in front of them?
[People] in their twenties or thirties, they don’t read newspapers. They don’t go down and buy them. They don’t go down to the end of the driveway and pick it up every morning. When you were a kid, you did. They just go online. They go online for specifics. They don’t go online and open up the paper and look at the front page. They go on there when they see something they have a specific interest in. That’s the model I believe. It’s going to have to be honored to eventually end up as what is going to be popular. I think eventually they will figure out a way to make money from the online newspaper… online entity. It’s in transition.