Business

12.17.13

How the Newspaper Business Became a ‘F**king Disgrace’

A new documentary chronicles the long, slow death of the American newspaper. It all begins with a testicle.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Wendy Ruderman, the apocalypse descended in January 2011, when a group of hedge funds acquired The Philadelphia Daily News and installed as top editor a man who had been fired from his previous job for giving a framed photo of his surgically removed testicle to a female assistant.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” Ruderman recounts in Black and White and Dead All Over, a documentary that will receive its television premiere at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WNET, New York’s PBS station, and is also viewable on WNET’s Web site. “I refused to believe that. No, this can’t be…The fact that my new boss had actually sent his testicle on the Internet—like, no! Come on! Really?”

The downward trajectory of the 88-year-old tabloid, a feisty populist counterpart to The Philadelphia Inquirer that calls itself “The People Paper,” serves as the documentary’s central narrative, representing a financially battered industry that is struggling to endure in a brave new world of free content and shrinking ad revenue.

The Daily News, along with its broadsheet sister The Inquirer, was already undergoing a bankruptcy proceeding when Ruderman and her colleague Barbara Laker shared the 2010 investigative reporting Pulitzer for “Tainted Justice,” their series exposing the misdeeds of a rogue police narcotics squad, which prompted an FBI investigation as well as an official review of dozens of contaminated drug convictions. It was a brief respite from bad news. The two papers were sold twice more—for ever-dwindling fire-sale prices—in the two years that followed. The surviving staff was relocated to the third floor of a defunct department store after the hedge funds unloaded the iconic headquarters building for undisclosed tens of millions.

In the meantime, dozens of local and regional dailies—virtually the only source of public accountability journalism in their respective metropolitan areas—were shuttered, reduced in frequency, or converted to online-only enterprises as the brutal logic of hard cash inevitably triumphed over corporate altruism.

Directed by Chris Foster and produced by Philadelphia real estate investor Lenny Feinberg (whose previous self-financed documentary, The Art of the Steal, made waves with its jaundiced take on how Pennsylvania’s political and business establishment subverted the last will and testament of an eccentric world-class art collector), the new movie, as its title suggests, is decidedly pessimistic about the future of newspapers, and argues that their distress is largely self-inflicted.

With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, supposedly savvy owners and media executives collectively arrived at a fatally flawed decision to make available, free of charge on the Web, the same content that their declining dead-tree customer base was paying good money for. Making matters worse, classified advertising, the once-reliable backbone of newspaper revenue, was increasingly being sucked away by free online services, especially the popular Craigslist.com.

Describing the economic catastrophe for director Foster’s camera, longtime Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky offers probably the most incisive—and certainly the most obscene—analysis/epitaph: “The publishers turned their backs on a business model that had sustained them for 300 years. And, like lemmings, they all went over the cliff. They didn’t want to be left behind. ‘We don’t want to look old-fashioned,’” the grizzled Bykofsky says sourly. “The stupidest hooker knows you get paid upfront. ‘Put it on the dresser, honey.’ These fucking idiots, these titans of industry, didn’t think about getting paid. They allowed themselves to get fucked and there was no money at the end.”

The film—which makes clever use of clips from Deadline-U.S.A., a 1952 Humphrey Bogart melodrama set at a failing newspaper—is punctuated by expert testimony on the news biz’s troubles from various Columbia J-School professors and journalism magazine editors, along with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, the New York Times’s David Carr, and Paul Steiger and Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica, the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism non-profit. They say many of the same things we’ve heard in previous documentaries about the media business, chiefly Andrew Rossi’s 2011 film Page One: Inside the New York Times.

At its most original, Black and White and Dead All Over presents a compelling psychological study of investigative reporters as embodied in the dynamic duo of Ruderman and Laker, who serve as hugely appealing ambassadors for an under-appreciated line of work. Laker, who was the victim of a beating in a rough part of town in the course of winning her Pulitzer, convincingly sums up her motivation as “try[ing] to make the world a better place.” Ruderman says, “We really do give a damn—and we care.” On the other hand, she adds: “We’re very driven and a little bit crazy.” Laker elaborates: “I think we are a little sick in the head. There’s something wrong with us.” Another Pulitzer-winning investigator, the Washington Post’s Debbie Cenziper, explains: “We are a paranoid, obsessive, insecure, passionate group of people.”

Ruderman, who comes across as bubbly and irrepressible, and Laker, a slightly subdued but no less indomitable version, manage to focus on their work despite the terrible distractions of a newspaper perpetually a hair’s breadth from going under. Among the outrages they and their colleagues cope with: Owners who exact pay-raise concessions from unions while treating themselves to generous bonuses and, in one case, a Maserati; new owners who hire the aforementioned testicle-sharer, former Philadelphia Magazine editor Larry Platt, and insist that the reason the Daily News is hurting, never mind the Pulitzer, is that reporters and editors are producing a boring paper.

“The personality of the Daily News…will be loud, irreverent and fun, and we think we have just the right personality to take us down the road with that,” publisher Gregory J. Osberg, an executive with no previous newspaper experience, declares at a press conference heralding Platt’s arrival. The bullet-headed Platt, meanwhile, takes boundless pride in the announcement of his first revolutionary innovation: adding an apostrophe “s” to the Daily News motto. “I changed it to ‘The People’s Paper’ because I want to do crusades,” he explains. “It’s gonna be much louder, bolder, more tabloidy. The way a tabloid says to a city that something matters is to hammer the shit out of it. What used to be a shout is now a whisper, so we have to scream, because the worst thing in media is to be ignored.”

In due course Laker and Ruderman find themselves writing about the so-called “Philadelphia Porn King”—a salacious story illustrated by a woman’s upskirt photo splashed on the cover. “For the first time in my entire journalistic career, I did not want to come to work,” Ruderman confesses, adding that the “Porn King” exclusive made her feel “icky,” more like a pimp than a reporter.

Ruderman yearns for the good old days when publisher Brian Tierney, the millionaire advertising mogul who was greeted with extreme skepticism by the city’s journalists when he and a group of investors wildly overpaid for the two papers, used to tell her how much he’d liked something she’d written. The new publisher, by contrast, seemed to have no idea what she did. “I got the distinct feeling that Greg Osberg didn’t read either paper,” Ruderman says. When Osberg met with some of the Daily News’s high-profile columnists, whose photos ran alongside their work, “he was a little vague on who they were.” When Osberg & Co. sold the historic headquarters, Laker adds, it was the corporate equivalent of “searching for coins in the couch cushion.”

In due course Ruderman fled to the New York Times, leaving her partner behind, and the Daily News and Inquirer were sold once again—this time to a consortium of Philadelphia power brokers (with Osberg actively interfering with the papers’ coverage of the sale)—for $55 million, around one-ninth of what Tierney’s group had paid only a few years earlier. (Ruderman, citing family reasons, eventually returned, and Osberg, Larry Platt and his apostrophe were unceremoniously removed.)

The moral of the story? It’s left to the profanely epigrammatic Stu Bykofsky, who laments that the Daily News clip library was trashed in the move to the department store space. “The owners have basically given us a lobotomy; they have removed our memory,” he says. “They would sell their mothers for cash as far as I’m concerned. Just a fucking disgrace.”