Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fit To Print

With the invention of movable type in China sometime around 1040 A.D., mankind took a giant step forward in the publishing world. No longer did manuscripts have to be painstakingly copied by hand. Nor would the publishing process be limited to scrolls made from rice paper and papyrus.

Sometime around 1230 A.D., the first printing system using metal movable type was developed in Korea.  The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg sometime around 1440 A.D. signaled the dawn of a new era in communication.

During the 1970s, the development of word processing programs that had graphics capabilities and featured on-screen editing meant that printed communication was no longer dependent on typewriters. Floppy disks, email, and the Internet soon opened up a new frontier of electronic publishing which eliminated many of the previous costs associated with ink, paper, and distribution.

Physical changes in the publishing process, however, are not the same as the question of what content gets disseminated to the masses. Often considered the newspaper of record, the motto of The New York Times has always been "All The News That's Fit To Print."

In the early days of the gay rights movement, it became obvious that the mainstream media had no intention of publishing any positive news about homosexuals. In many ways, the birth of the gay press was due to a radical shift in philosophy.

Infuriated by the lack of coverage in The New York Times, gay activists adopted a new slogan: "If you don't like the news you're reading, make your own." In today's celebrity-obsessed culture, things that would never have received serious consideration by the Gray Lady (photos of a celebrity's exposed crotch as she exited a limousine, digital snapshots of a Congressman's genitals, proud announcements that a female celebrity is showing a "baby bump") have become standard fare.

In a tight economy, any opportunity to boost web traffic or increase advertising revenues may take precedence over journalistic integrity. That is, of course, assuming that such a thing as journalistic integrity still exists.

Two new documentaries deal quite specifically with the question of what constitutes news, whether or not a story deserves publication and, if so, when and how it should be published.  Each touches on issues of privacy and practicality, examining editorial and economic decisions that could have severe consequences. Each offers a fascinating look at how history is made.

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Ever since 1996, when Craigslist moved to a web-based platform that offered free classified ads, newspapers and magazines have watched their advertising revenue evaporate into thin air. Classified ads that were once a reliable source of income for print media quickly migrated to websites that delivered faster and more efficient results with greater cost efficiency.  The rise of the blogosphere led to new outlets for frustrated citizen journalists, many of whom were willing to write for free.

Traditional business models for news organizations quickly became obsolete as display ads started to vanish from print publications. A shining example? Ads for new cars. Twenty years go those ads would have been a staple of any magazine or newspaper. Now, automobile manufacturers have built extensive websites that can offer consumers much more detailed information enhanced by streaming video at a substantial savings in price.

In addition to the cost savings, new media allows corporations to track visitors to their websites and interact with them through email, Facebook, and a host of other options. The battle between "old media" and "new media" has become a constant source of infotainment.

In the past year Arianna Huffington (co-founder of The Huffington Post) and Bill Keller (then Executive Editor of The New York Times) have locked horns over the differences in their respective business models. On February 7, 2011 (when AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million) the battle between old and new media intensified.

With distribution costs rising, some of its top writers (Frank Rich, Bob Herbert) leaving, and print circulation falling, The New York Times had never seemed so vulnerable. A spoof of the newspaper's final edition (written by the same people responsible for the creation of Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian) included the following send-up of Page One: Inside the New York Times (a new documentary by Andrew Rossi that was a big hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival).

Rossi's documentary doesn't pull any punches as it shows the tough decisions made to lay off employees as The New York Times battles the WikiLeaks phenomenon, decreasing ad revenues, and the decision to start charging a monthly online subscription fee to people who read the electronic edition of The New York Times.

Breaking news is a tough industry where reporters must be able to work their sources, meet deadlines, verify facts, and try to remain profitable. In the time since its January 2011 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the new AOL-Huffington Post has reported more web traffic than The New York Times, Bill Keller has relinquished his position as Executive Editor to his successor, Jill Abramson, and, as it aims to rival The Onion, The Final Edition has morphed into The New Fox Times.

New York Times media columnist David Carr with his editor, Bruce Headlam

While some might think the star of the film is media columnist David Carr, whose abrasive personality and huge ego offer the film's greatest entertainment value, the true star of Page One: Inside The New York Times is the rapidly evolving power of new media to diminish and threaten the very existence of a once stable and ethically unchallenged news institution. Rossi's documentary is alternately riveting, depressing, arrogant, and alarming. Here's the trailer:

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Last fall, when the Berkeley Rep staged the West Coast premiere of Rinne Groff's drama, Compulsion, audiences were drawn into a psychodrama involving Meyer Levin's attempts to dramatize the diary left behind by Anne Frank. While Levin had received written permission from Anne's father to proceed with the project, the character of Otto Frank did not appear onstage in Groff's drama.

One gets a much deeper understanding of the man's personal agonies in Otto Frank, Father of Anne, a touching documentary by David de Jongh that will be screened at the upcoming 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In his director’s statement, de Jongh writes:
"Otto Frank, Father of Anne, paints the portrait of a benign, broken yet resilient man. After losing his two daughters and his wife he finds comfort in making his daughter’s diary famous. The film shows his tireless efforts in managing this success, and the dilemmas and criticism Otto Frank has to face because of his efforts. The story is told by carefully combining interviews, documents, stock footage, beautifully shot images of, amongst others, Poland, and a selection from the ten thousands of letters Frank wrote and received. Ultimately, the film takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the depths of Otto Frank’s soul."

Otto Frank in later years

This documentary helps to educate viewers about many facts that faded into the background once the stage and film adaptations of Anne Frank's diary captured the hearts of millions. Otto Frank came from a wealth family of assimilated German Jews. He even served as an officer in the Imperial German army during World War I.  De Jongh's film examines charges that Otto tried to edit some of Anne's writings (especially those relating to sexuality) and how some of the events that took place in the family's hiding place along with the characterizations of the Van Daan family were altered to make the property more commercially appealing to audiences.

When Anne's diary was found and returned to Otto Frank, he wrestled with the choice of keeping its contents to himself or publishing it so that his daughter's words could live on. De Jongh's documentary depicts Otto as a man deeply wounded by the guilt of surviving his wife and children. Even after he remarried, Frank and his second wife lived a spartan lifestyle.

Otto Frank, Father of Anne gives audiences fascinating insights into life in the Frank family both before and after World War II. The following clip contains the only known film footage of Anne Frank as she looks down from her apartment window in Amsterdam on July 22, 1941, at a young bride and groom on their way to get married.

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