The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition is likely to be gone by mid-March, courtesy of desperate cost cutting by the Hearst Corporation. The Seattle Times could soon be in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Around the country, more than 2,300 newspaper employees have been laid off or given buyouts this year, according to Paper Cuts, a website that tracks the hemorrhaging. Last year, more than 15,600 newspaper employees disappeared in similar fashion. A broken business model is to blame—a combination of the internet changing everything and newspapers being slow to realize this—and this business model is currently so broken down that even the venerable New York Times is among the death-watched, with Michael Hirschorn of the Atlantic recently predicting the paper of record could be insolvent by May.
Each news cycle, it now seems, brings even more stories about this sad decline of the modern newspaper—and, with them, a ritual gnashing of teeth over the implications of the trend. A way of life is ending. A culture of hard-bitten truth tellers is being replaced by bloggers and other new-media entrepreneurs, who succeed precisely because they don't play by the old "objective journalism" rules. Democracy may be suffering as a result.
There are other viewpoints, naturally, and this month SIFF Cinema offers a number of opportunities to forget about the angst and loudly cheer the demise of the modern newspaper—or, at least, lament the demise a little less—with Noir City, a series of dark films about newspaper life, most of them from the 1940s and '50s.
Perhaps the darkest of these is Ace in the Hole, a 1951 indictment of mass storytelling starring Kirk Douglas, who plays Chuck Tatum, an unforgivably dishonest newspaperman who knows what the people want. The people, mindless cattle that they are portrayed as in this film, do not necessarily want journalists to "tell the truth," as the quaint needlepoints hanging in Tatum's Albuquerque newspaper office instruct. They want, above all, a classic tale—preferably unspooled over many days, with heroes and villains and dramatic suspense and a thrilling ending. If that requires Tatum to keep a man trapped inside a mine shaft for six days so that he can spin a serial, proto–Baby Jessica yarn about a mountain that is cursed by ancient Indian spirits, a devoted wife who is praying for the man's rescue, and a desperate multiday bid to drill a hole through the top of this cursed mountain (Tatum's idea, the trapped man could have been pulled out in a day if other methods were used)—if that's what is required to hook the people, boost subscriptions, and revive Tatum's career, then so be it.
This being noir, everything ends badly for everyone involved, including the mindless cattle-people who, having read Tatum's dispatches in papers all over the country, descend upon the dusty plain in front of the cursed mountain and while away their days of suspense with the help of speedily arrived circus entertainers and carnival rides. In one of the final scenes, Tatum stands on the mountaintop—a disheveled, alcoholic anti-Moses—and speaks his commandments to the people through a microphone. It will not spoil anything to say that these commandments are simple, grim, and ultimately not very likely to drive up newspaper circulation. There is no mass story, this film teaches, and therefore no credible mass media—only human frailty and mass manipulation.
Just as depressing, but far more entertaining, is The Big Clock, which features a rotund, time-obsessed media mogul named Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), who presides with ruthless efficiency over a Hearst-like media empire. His building's lobby boasts—in addition to the big clock itself—many smaller clocks telling the time in Janoth's 43 foreign bureaus (bureaus that stretch "from Reykjavik to Cairo, Moscow to Buenos Aires") as well as a statue of Atlas, weight of the world on his shoulders, muscles straining at the difficult task of carrying around reality as humans know it. But, oh, what a profitable task this carrying of reality to its proper destination can be! Style Ways, News Ways, Crime Ways—these and other popular titles have brought Mr. Janoth a considerable fortune, although a new "recession" in circulation is worrying him. "Dynamic angles!" he barks during a meeting early on in the film. "We live in a dynamic age, gentlemen, with dynamic competitors—radio, newspapers, newsreels. We must anticipate trends before they are trends. We are, in effect, clairvoyants."
Murder and mystery ensue, and both are well worth the time it takes to resolve, but the most delightful part of the movie has already passed. It is, quite simply, the sad absurdity of the proposition that any lumbering, giant, Hearst-like institution, then or now, could ever be dynamic enough for a truly dynamic age.