Reporter Manny Mendoza is faced with evidence that he is a member of a dying breed of journalists. Mark Birnbaum is a filmmaker specializing in probing documentaries about people and their plights.
When the two paired up on a project, it was a match made in media purgatory. Their movie, “Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril”, which examines the condition of the American newspaper business, garnered accolades and nationwide buzz after screening at the 2009 AFI Film Festival.
Loss of newspaper advertising dollars to the Internet might be a threat not only to the newspaper industry, but also to Americans’ quality of life, Mendoza says.
“‘Stop the Presses’ is about what is happening to print journalism. So much advertising has gone to the Internet that it has become difficult for newspapers to perform the kind of in-depth watchdog function, that protective function, that it has provided in the past,” explains Mendoza, a White Rock area resident. “The question that comes up in the movie is, ‘If newspapers are in trouble, is democracy in trouble?’”
Through interviews with reporters, editors, media critics, professors and readers, “Stop the Presses” documents the historic role of newspaper journalists as public watchdogs. The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Anne Hull, the New York Times’ David Carr, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Ed Asner, TV’s Lou Grant and former mayor Laura Miller, who once worked for the Morning News, are a few of those interviewed. Dallas Morning News execs don’t appear in the movie, which lays out the industry’s problems and explores possible solutions without ever drawing any real conclusions (“If we had the answers, we could retire,” Mendoza quips.)
Mendoza has worked at newspapers since 1979 when he was a copy boy at the Miami News. He first met Birmbaum, a North Lake Highlands resident, while covering arts and entertainment for the Dallas Morning News. Along with many other Morning News staffers, Mendoza in 2007 accepted a voluntary severance offer from the paper, after working there for 14 years. Birnbaum had several friends in similar positions.
“I was drawn to their struggle. I thought it would make an interesting film,” Birnbaum says.
The movie made its American television debut on KERA last October, and American Public Television will distribute it nationally beginning in early 2010.
Mendoza and Birnbaum have made a few changes to the film since its inception, including changing the subtitle.
“We originally subtitled the film ‘Death of the American Newspaper’,” says Birnbaum. “That seemed like hyperbole at the time, and we changed it. We could have stayed with the original title because, sadly, that’s what appears to be taking place.”
To back up his point, he reminds us that the Chicago Sun Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News all filed for bankruptcy protection this year, and that TheTribune Co. media group filed for bankruptcy in December 2008.
The filmmakers also have updated numbers since the original screening, effectively hammering home their point.
“New data by the Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that 10,000 journalists have been laid-off or bought-out since we concluded production of this project in 2008,” Birnbaum says. “That means some 14,000 journalists have lost their jobs nationally since 2001.”
As Birnbaum knew well and Mendoza learned quickly, making a documentary is no easy feat.
“It’s definitely a hard way to go. It’s a labor of love,” says Birnbaum, who has another film, “Champ: The Steve Mitchell Story” in release, as well as other projects in the works.
The sweet success of “Stop the Presses”, for Mendoza, is tempered with the film’s bitter foundation. After all, the newspaper biz is in his blood.
“I pick up and read the Dallas Morning News and the New York Times every day, but I realize that the price will continue to rise and it will become a luxury item.
“I love newspapers,” says Mendoza, who still freelances for the Morning News. “If there was one out there who would hire me, I’d go in a minute.”