It’s 9:35 a.m. in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Art Cullen steps out for a cigarette. Its reporters still do this thing. Not delivering their copy on time, taking too long to polish sentences, and more or less not sufficiently grasping the kind of existential realities that befall the editor of one. of the last living dinosaurs in journalism. Which is another way of putting it, Cullen’s is a bi-weekly family print newspaper that has been around since the Paleozoic era of the industry. A dinosaur which, until now, has defied the asteroid of the Internet, despite the danger of extinction it carries.
The first sound you hear in Storm Lake – a new documentary on the Storm Lake Times, a newspaper with a circulation of around 3,000 readers – is the snap of computer keyboards. But that morning, their musicality seemingly belies a lack of proper speed. “I’m really worried about the deadlines,” Cullen said, after stepping out for a smoke break.
He takes a puff of his cigarette, his back to the camera. Then turns around.
“Every hour we’re late costs us $ 100. “
“You know …” and here, he throws a blissful smile at the camera of the documentary filmmaker who has become essential in his writing. “Jesus, you’ve been doing this for 40 years, and people still don’t know what time it is.”
On one level, this was a joke to anonymous reporters whose deadlines were disputed. But it also talks about everything that goes on outside the family newsroom and littered with papers from Storm Lake Times. Exactly what time is it in journalism today, when the old rules that brought us here can sometimes seem ill-equipped to prevent walls from closing and putting endless journalists out of work? “My brother founded the newspaper in 1990,” Cullen said at one point in this documentary, one of the best 2021 movies and TV shows about the profession. “With the belief that honest reporting would attract a crowd. He has.” But it won’t be forever.
At this point, we enter what has become a depressing old story. And this story only ends in two ways. Either the venerable press institutions continue to die. Or, like Blanche DuBois, they keep hanging on. By relying on the kindness of strangers.
As a result, 2021 has produced several TV shows and films, such as Storm Lake, which each in their own way clearly shows how necessary a strong journalistic enterprise is for the civic life of a place. Also, how vital the profession is in the world – and the price journalists pay for doing this work. Here are some of my favorites from last year, in no particular order:
Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump
These six-part HBO docuseries about a TV news station in a small market, based about an hour from Las Vegas, it’s kind of like Office meets … well, a TV newsroom. A day where the days are bounded by regular news broadcasts, live news segments, and recording of announcements for clients to maintain ad money.
People are the heart and soul of this story about a certain type of journalism – local TV news that is too easily overlooked when everything is just a click away on a smartphone. There is the gregarious Vern Van Winkle, the owner of the station, with his more balanced wife Ronda. “I always wanted people to have a visual concept of what was going on in their community,” Vern told me. “So they could see and relate to it firsthand. Instead of a printed version, of what someone noted pass.”
The heart of the station is Deanna, a sardonic jack-of-all-trades who fulfills a triple function as presenter, news director and on-site reporter. Eunette, an anchor with a megawatt smile, radiates positivity. And then there’s another husband and wife team – Missey and John, from transplants from Alaska. Missey helps behind the anchor desk. And John steps in to be the meteorologist, because … well, he can read a teleprompter, so why not? From start to finish, this series is as much a joy as it is a love letter to journalism.
Make this season of the show all the more interesting: it coincided with the 2020 presidential election, as well as the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
I don’t understand how Italian TV journalist Pino Maniaci is still alive. Come to think of it, the fact seems to confuse him as well. “Every time I start my car I close my eyes,” Maniaci says in the Netflix series trailer Vendetta: truth, lies and the Mafia.
At first glance, Maniaci – who runs a TV station in Sicily called Telejato – looks like what you might get if the Pixar hosts produced a sketch of a journalist. He’s not physically imposing, but everything else is, from the almost comical mustache to the brash personality he brings to his anti-Mafia cover. The series ends up merging around how he bonds with an attorney. She accuses Maniaci of being in cahoots with the mafia. He accuses her with the same force: no, you are the corrupt one. You are the one on the spot.
In an email, filmmakers Davide Gambino and Ruggero DiMaggio explained to me that the genesis of this project dates back 15 years – when Ruggero was watching one of Maniaci’s TV shows in which he called mafia bosses of “pieces of (expletive)” on the air. Needless to say, “it was a unique and dangerous way to deal with them.” They continued in their note to me:
“For us Sicilians and Italians, Pino is one of the most interesting characters of all time. He has in him truth and lies, lights and shadows. More than saints or heroes, we are interested in three-dimensional characters who stimulate a captivating (story). “
Succession (Season 3)
Ah, Twitter media favorite HBO series. That of a media conglomerate similar to News Corp., led by a surly, virulent, Murdoch-like founder and CEO. And which, with the arrival of the long-awaited third season in mid-October, has once again given us a deliciously ugly glimpse into how the quirky whims and predilections of a rich and dirty family can determine fate. of a large media company. Yes, it’s fiction, but this is where it’s probably worth inserting something about life-imitating art.
Sometimes it’s industry trends that shake up otherwise valiant journalistic ventures. Other times? These are the rapacious businessmen more at home in boardrooms than newsrooms – and who, like Kendall Roy, say things like, “On a stupid level, I wish my Twitter was off the hook ”- who bear some responsibility for the ills of this industry. .
One thing worth repeating Storm Lake is that it is broadcast until mid-December at pbs.org. After that, the movie will be available through VOD platforms like Amazon and iTunes.
Journalists from all walks of life rave about this documentary reminiscent of the 2011 one Front page: in the New York Times. And where the late NYT media columnist David Carr was the most memorable figure in that previous document, Cullen is the Carr-like figure at the center of this new one. Local journalism is often talked about in dark, apocalyptic tones – so much so that it’s easy to forget that there are still newspapers like this one, made up of people without a TV contract and big, sophisticated newsrooms. . Who always make calls, knock on doors, cover meetings, and tell the story of a place – one signature at a time.
Jill Lawrence, USA Today columnist took to twitter with his verdict on the film: “You will laugh, you will cry, you will remember the 2020 Iowa caucus debacle and the stealthy spread of COVID in rural meat factories before it explodes in sight. . And you will pray for local journalism.
The French dispatch
Director Wes Anderson’s latest film is an early-loving valentine to journalism, much like something like HBO’s Small town news is – while also offering, of course, a completely different finished product to viewing.
I’m adding this one to the list because, while, yes, it’s fiction, there’s also something timeless, substantial, and incredibly meaningful to be found here. The gist of the story is that Bill Murray is / was the editor of an American magazine in the most picturesque, Instagram-designed French town you can see. His team is meeting to prepare a final issue of the magazine, which is supposed to cease publication upon his death. Indeed, Murray’s avuncular editor states this fact in his will.
The magazine’s adorably eccentric journalists are preparing a few feature articles, as well as a travel column and an obituary for the latest issue. It’s so whimsical, weird, and fascinating to watch the stories of these writers unfold – the real thing is much more prosaic and unromantic – and it’s easy to leave a movie like this and feel like we don’t. were not looking for enough beauty for its own good. in journalism. The French dispatch, and more or less all of the movies and shows listed here, might even make you appreciate, if you haven’t already, the men and women capturing narrative Polaroids from their little corners of the world.
There are worse ways to make a living. After all, it’s as if the character of Jeffrey Wright – a food writer named Roebuck Wright – is gloating towards the end of The French dispatch:
“Maybe with luck we will find what escaped us in the places we once called our home.”