The news about newspapers certainly hasn’t been bright this holiday season. Announcements of more layoffs, cutbacks in service and companies going bankrupt have tarnished the spirit for most of us who care about the institution of journalism.
But if you look beyond the headlines, the heart of journalism is still alive and beating. Many newspapers, in fact, are living that great movie “Deadline U.S.A.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it (and I strongly encourage you to get familiar with it, if you can find a copy), “Deadline U.S.A.” is a 1952 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Ed Hutcheson, the editor of the mythical New York Day newspaper. The film starts with the the newspaper staff finding out … through an alert over the wires … that the Day’s owners are selling to a rival, who will shut the paper down.
While the specter of the Day’s demise hangs overhead, a reporter finds a powerful union chief had a hand in the murder of a young woman. Bogey spends most of the movie working with his staff to seal the expose, while fighting with the owner’s family to keep the Day in business.
The film ends as the paper is ready to print its final edition, The union chief threatens Bogey over the phone if the story runs. Bogey, in the pressroom, speaks to him as the presses begin rolling.
“What? I can’t hear you. What’s that noise?” the union boss asks.
“That’s the press, baby. The press. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!” Bogey responds.
As the Day breathed its last gasp, Bogey and his crew go out with the biggest expose in the city. In essence, “Deadline U.S.A.” is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” for newspaper people.
Fast forward to 2008. In Chicago, the Tribune Company is in bankruptcy, yet the flagship paper continues to churn out investigative stories and, recently, intensely cover the arrest of the governor of Illinois on charges of conspiracy. Its rival, the Sun-Times, which has been in economic intensive care for the past several years, continues to be a dominant player in the Chicago news.
In Detroit, newspapers teetering on bankruptcy are cutting back on staff and eliminating home delivery on several days, yet the reporters and editors there continue to investigate and report on the corruption case surrounding the city’s former mayor.
Similar scenarios are playing out in Denver, Miami, Seattle, San Jose and many other cities across the nation.
In this tenuous time, newsrooms continue to pursue the mission of great journalism. Just like the reporters and editors of the Day, today’s journalists are not losing focus of the core mission Hutcheson espoused: To inform, investigate, expose. To be a watchdog and a servant for the public good.
As Hutcheson said, “it’s not the oldest profession. But it’s the best.”
And as long as we remember why we went into this profession … to be watchdog and servant for the public good … great journalism will survive. The presses may eventually fall silent, but great journalism will continue as long as there are people who are dedicated and loyal to the mission.
Because THAT is the press, baby. And there’s nothing they can do about it.