Rod Mickleburgh remembers the day his bosses wheeled into the Vancouver Sun newsroom an electronic cyclops called a video display terminal. This was the mid-1970s and the VDT was a bulky precursor to computers. Back then the beasts were so expensive and exotic that every time young reporter Mickleburgh and his colleagues were done putting the Sun to bed, their terminals were trundled on wheels out of the newsroom and over to The Province where they were used to produce that paper's next edition.
A tale of progress? Maybe. But something left every newsroom where VDTs arrived -- a lot of the kibitzing and camaraderie that Mickleburgh loved. "As soon as those terminals came in, you became engulfed by the machine. The noise, the clatter, the yelling for copy runners to come over, it all got silenced," says Mickleburgh, still a reporter after nearly four decades at the Penticton Herald, Sun, The Province, and for the past 22 years The Globe and Mail.
Get Mickleburgh going on the good old, bad old days of newspaper journalism and you have to type fast on your laptop to keep up -- too fast even to interrupt and ask: What the hell were copy runners?
Fortunately, you can find out by attending Stop the Presses: 10 Great Newspaper Movies, a film festival that begins this Friday at the VanCity Theatre with a showing of Tabloid, the latest from genius documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Ink on celluloid
Stop the Presses was the brainchild of Mickleburgh, Sunny Dhillon of The Globe, James Keller of the Canadian Press, and a few others.
Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, the acclaimed documentary that shows the Old Gray Lady grappling with the new digital landscape, shows on Saturday, Jan. 28, followed by panel discussion including freelance reporter Frances Bula, CBC radio host Stephen Quinn, Province editor-in-chief Wayne Moriarty and a certain editor of The Tyee who happens to be writing this.
Among other films shown during the festival will be Why Rock the Boat, an obscure Canadian production based on Willian Weintraub's book about a tyrannical editor at the now defunct Montreal Star in the 1940s. Ace in the Hole is famed director Billy Wilder's darkly cynical portrait of a washed up reporter trying to claw his way back by exploiting the tragedy of a kid caught in a mineshaft. And of course, one of the greatest films every made, Citizen Kane.
When it came time to choose films, what made the cut and what didn't? "There are lots of movies where journalists feature," says Mickleburgh. "But those aren't necessarily about their newspaper or newsroom or even their actual stories. We tried to make the films in our festival about the actual putting out of newspaper."
They will include Sam Fuller's Park Row, a rollicking tale of a man trying to start a tabloid at the turn of the 20th century. His Girl Friday is a masterpiece of wise cracking banter between newshounds played by Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. All the President's Men is the classic telling of how digging by Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon. What the diverse collection reminds is that for over a century newsrooms have provided perfect cinematic settings given their colourful -- and volatile -- mixture of ambition, bold personalities, and the relentless pursuit of a good yarn.
Elegy for newsprint
If now it seems that every day someone tweets a new death knell for newspapers, what does it matter if that is true? Says Mickleburgh, "I think we really lose something if we lose our newspapers. It's like that Bruce Springsteen song lyric, '55 channels and nothing on.'" In the digital news era, "everything is being broadened and widened, but there's less and less depth and no one is interpreting the news for you. At their best, newspapers employ smart people whose job it is to decide what is important for you to know. So a good newspaper isn't just speaking to the converted. On the web you don't always get that."
"Also, there's the pleasure of reading the actual newspaper. I love reading newspapers because you don't know what you are going to read until you turn the page. When we read on the Web, we call up stories that catch our immediate interest, and don't experiment much."
The digital fragmentation of news sources into myriad choices online means, says Mickleburgh, "you lose a sense of community. For better or for worse, with everyone reading same thing in some ways that's a benefit to the community. It means everyone is on the same wave length in discussing issues. Newspapers did serve that function. Although less and less as the number of reporters go down."
Hollywood's representations of journalists over the years reflect a shift from times when they tended to be working class and valued more for their street smarts than university degrees. But as newsrooms came to resemble more and more factories producing information they became less exciting not just from a the point of view of a film audience, but also for some of their inhabitants.
Mickleburgh is clear that he loves his job and enjoys working out of The Globe's Vancouver bureau. But like a lot of journos his age, he mourns the general rise of the manager class inside newsrooms. "Planning took over. You had to submit story lists days in advance. Planning can be good. But I think newspapers lost something when you had to have story lists, meetings, people guiding the coverage instead of the approach: no holds barred give me what you've got and we'll put it in the paper." The more managed the newsroom, it seemed, the more the daily drama and excitement drained out. Mickleburgh still remembers fondly a typewriter he was given to pound out his stories for the Sun. There was a noticeable dent in it that had been caused when its previous user threw it as a natural way to express outrage.
"I don't mean to suggest newspapers were better then than they are today, just that they are different," says Mickleburgh. "Lots of things are better, but not everything. And they are not as colourful or as much fun. The characters have gone missing from the business.
"Some would argue that's a good thing. Many reporters had unhappy personal lives, and many died early, from poor living, poor food, excessive drinking, stress and lack of exercise. Wives and kids often bore the brunt of dad being away from home. So one wouldn't want to romanticize the era completely. There was a dark side, too."
Mickleburgh is hoping Stop the Presses will attract a lot of audience members born long after the dawn of the video display terminal. "Young journalists should know history of media and the history of newspapers," he says.
Then, as if leading a museum tour, he adds, "There was a time when newspapers dominated the business of information."
He laughs. And marvels at where we've arrived. "I'm so old I used to be a labour reporter. It's like being a blacksmith."
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