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by Colin McGuire

10 Apr 2009

One of my editors at the Sun-Times once asked me, “Roger, is it true that they used to let reporters smoke at their desks?” This wasn’t asked yesterday; it must have been ten years ago. I realized then, although I’m only writing about it now, that a lifestyle had disappeared. When I entered the business in the autumn of my 16th year, newspapering seemed the most romantic and exciting thing I could possibly do with my life. “But honey,” my mom said, “they don’t pay them anything.” Who cared? It involved knowing what was going on before anyone else did, and putting my byline on top of a story telling it to the world. “Roger Ebert” is only a name. “By Roger Ebert” are the three most magical words in the language, drawing my eye the same way a bulls-eye attracts an arrow.
In the way some kids might be awed by a youth gang, I was awed by admission to the fraternity of newspapers. I adopted the idealism and cynicism of the reporters I met there, spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged. On Saturday nights about midnight at The News-Gazette, when we put the Sunday paper to bed, we gathered around the city desk, tired, released, and waited for the first papers to be brought upstairs. Ed Borman, the news editor was in the slot; Bill Schmelzle, the city editor, had Saturday nights off. Borman would crack open a six-pack. I tasted beer for the first time. I was a man. My parents, my family, my friends at school, nobody, would ever really understand the fellowship into which I entered. Borman didn’t care that I was drinking at 16. We had all put out the paper together. Now we would have a beer.

That particular passage comes from Robert Ebert’s journal he keeps on the Chicago Sun-Times’ Web site. The aforementioned entry these previous two paragraphs appear in is titled “The Best Damn Job in the Whole Damn World”. There is plenty more where that came from, and should you have an extra 10 minutes, the piece is certainly worth looking at. 

Why? Because everything he touches on is right. Correct. True-to-form. It’s realistic. It’s passionate. It’s honest. And, more than anything, it’s exactly what working for a newspaper is all about. In fact, it’s exactly what drew me to that very medium and it’s also why I find myself, at the ripe old age of 24, in an interesting predicament.

You see, wanting to become a newspaper man promised me three things: One, I wasn’t going to make any money at all. Two: If I were ever to be lucky enough to find a woman to fall in love with, she, along with any family we may want to have, would have to be the absolute most understanding people in the world considering how little I would be home and how much I would never be able to give her both emotionally and monetarily. And three: I could finally consider myself “cool” on some unwarranted and undefined level that defies any sort of logic.

Recently, though, it has promised me a fourth thing that I never entirely considered until lately, as I consistently see major, historical, metropolitan daily newspapers go under quicker and harder than any mess the Titanic could have found itself in. Just as I have begun to finally get my feet wet in a business that can take years to finally break a person in, I am beginning to wonder how this business is going to survive.

I am not of the thought process that suggests newspapers will one day be obsolete. But I am also not naïve enough to think that newspapers will be fine whenever the “storm is over”. I mean, come on. It was no more than a week ago that the New York Times threatened to shut the Boston Globe down if unions were unable or unwilling to accept a total amount of $20 million in concessions. To think that someday the clouds will recede and the sun will shine enough light on newspapers to make sure everything ends up OK is absurd at this point. But to think that they will fade into obscurity altogether is a notion I refuse to either believe or accept.

So here we are. With this blog, we plan to bring you the most up-to-date information on the world of newspapers and newsgathering as it continues to evolve in ways no one could ever predict. Is there a solution to this ever-growing “newspaper problem?” How many newspapers will shut down within the next month? The next year? Are there any newspapers in the world that happen to be somehow thriving? And how are they doing it? Does a pay-to-read service really matter? And if so, does it actually tend to have an adverse affect on what newspapers in general are trying to accomplish? And, of course, how about the Internet? How does that play in? And will that transition—should it be called upon—work?

Admittedly, we don’t know any of the answers to these questions. Not even close, actually. But this is a historical time for print media as we know it and this place in time warrants being monitored and dissected to a degree that is both informational and suggestive. With this blog, we plan on being around to relay the information to you as best we can, hopefully opening the doors for discussions and ideas that very well just may be of help to an industry that was once so romantic, so pure. An industry defined by people that have an insurmountable level of passion for what they do for a living. It’s an industry that is simply too proud to let conditional factors ruin what was once the most important form of media this world had to offer.

And besides. You have to know by now that the mark print media can leave on a single person reaches so far deeper than any simple amount of ink left on one’s hand after holding a newspaper in your palm for a couple minutes.

by C.L. Chafin

10 Apr 2009

Live and in person, Brooklyn’s the Naked Hearts are explosive, charming, and [something] exciting. With Amy Cooper on hollow-body electric guitar and Noah Wheeler on drums, the impeccably turned-out pair (Noah was in a suit jacket, Amy in leopard-print leggings and a headband when I saw them) ooze a fuzzy rock sincerity; every song is a stripped-down challenge to cut loose. Their debut EP, These Knees doesn’t quite do them justice. The recording gives their notes just a bit too much space, and makes their vocals just a bit too echoey and melancholy. Live, this guitar and drums duo is something like Williamsburg’s 2009 answer to Local H. On record, they’re somewhere between Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth. Both versions of the band are fantastic, but I’m partial to the hollow-bodied messiness of their live show. Call me old fashioned. Their EP’s first two tracks, “Cat & Mouse” and “Call Me” are below.

Naked Hearts
“Cat & Mouse” [MP3]
     

“Call Me” [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

9 Apr 2009

It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report, many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. By the end of April, it will be listed as one of the Spring’s bigger disappointments.

And that’s too bad. Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to everyone…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

And yet, when placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Jason Gross

9 Apr 2009

Sad to see that Associated Press now wants to blame Google for all the problems in the newspaper industry.  Luckily, a number of articles have pointed out that their anger is either stupidly misplaced or a distraction from their real problems (or why not just blame Craigslist for taking away their ad dollars, aka their life blood?).

Google and YouTube (which it owns) are both doing fine by striking deals and innovating, something that the news industry should be doing itself. 

Of course, some in the music industry also think YouTube is evil for not striking deals with labels and publishers who demand more money- i.e. Billy Bragg in this recent interview.

As this Paid Content article points out, there’s a lot that the news biz can learn from the music biz’s mistakes.  Whether they will or not remains to be seen.  If they don’t, they could turn into prima donna’s faster than the major labels have become, thanks to their own ignorance. Let’s hope that’s not the case with the news biz.  We need ‘em and you’re dreamin’ if you think online-only content is gonna fill all the gaps if they’re gone.

by Rob Horning

9 Apr 2009

This is obvious and probably has been commented on many times, but the Jim Carrey movie The Yes Man is a pretty good encapsulation of the pre-economic-depression mentality in America. In the film—which, admittedly, I saw in a semi-delusional state on a flight yesterday—Carrey plays a low-level loan officer in a California bank. The opening scenes set up the idea that his character is too guarded, too careful, too risk-averse and is therefore missing out on the opportunities life presents us with. One of his friends—played I think by the actor who played the cop at the car pound in The Big Lebowski (“Leads? Yeah I’ll just check with the boys down at the crime lab.”)—takes him to see a motivational speaker who persuades him to say yes to everything. As part of that program, we see Carrey dutifully okaying all sorts of absurd small-business loans without so much as an inspection of the paperwork. Now, obviously, that sounds a bit like what they were doing at Countrywide and Washington Mutual, not to mention the fly-by-night brokers who brought us Ninja and liar loans—extend credit to anybody and everybody and let the chips fall where they may. The difference, though, is that most would-be borrowers are not entrepreneurs; they are somewhat instinctively risk-averse, and it required massive targeted marketing efforts to encourage ordinary people to borrow more, to ignore the common-sense skepticism of free money and say yes to the opportunity that perpetually rising home equity was said to provide.

So the opportunity is there for the film to play as a satire to the easy credit of the bubble years, but viewers must read it against the grain. The film itself isn’t satirical at all and has nothing to say in favor of prudent risk management. Its big message is that when we say yes to everything, it’s hard to know when we really mean it, or rather, it’s hard for others to judge our sincerity and know which of our desires are “real”. It verges initially on the somewhat subversive message that we have no real desires at all, only circumstances and opportunities. During the film’s build-up, when the rate at which Carrey is agreeing to do things is building momentum, his character becomes pointedly schizophrenic, and other characters comment on how unpredictable he is. He starts to have no fixed identity at all and slips toward the post-structural ideal of moving beyond subjectivity to some existence of unbounded free play. But then, of course, the film’s main lesson kicks in: that this identity-free state is utterly unacceptable. His love interest—a sort of phony free spirit played by Zooey Deschanel; she is in a Flight of the Conchords-type band, rides a scooter, and isn’t hung up, as she says at one point, with being “mainstream”—shuns him because she can’t know if his love is real. Love, of course, is always the primary bait for the identity trap, but in films like these, it always seems like a punishment, defined by upholding dreary, rote responsibilities defined by social expectations that often reflect the consumer-society prerogatives of buying the right gifts or experiences to prove love. This is the quintessential set-up for comedies—it’s fun to vacation from responsibility, but ultimately we should crave the return to stability, typically figured and symbolized as heterosexual love, with the strong implication that raising a family will be next. We have to reproduce the status quo, after all.

That traditional theme of reaffirming the reality principle is now overshadowed by the light the financial crisis now sheds on the film’s historicity. The peculiar delusions of the decade—that no one ever really defaults, that all loans can be made good, that a lack of optimism is a kind of character defect—now show up in sharp relief, because paradoxically enough, the films’ producers seem to have taken them so much for granted. In the movie, the idea of “Getting to yes” gets supplanted by a much more convenient negotiation strategy (just say yes) that is blithely presented as sound. No one has to compromise or put forth any effort, and everybody wins! Carrey’s character is even praised by one of his bank’s higher-ups, who interprets the lack of risk management as the introduction of a profitable microlending program. These touches are now local color from a tour through the zeitgeist of 2006.

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