The Paper, a Ron Howard film about a day in the life of a New York City tabloid starring Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei, Jason Alexander, and lots of other really good actors, came out in March of 1994. I know this because I saw it on opening weekend. I was 16, a sophomore in high school, and already working as a columnist for my local daily newspaper, along with being an editor at my school paper. If this movie had a core demographic, it was little ole dorky me.
The Paper to me was like what Top Gun was to wannabe military pilots, or what Ocean’s 11 was to would-be casino thieves. A fantasy that played like a recruitment film. A veritable pep rally for a profession. I had decided several years earlier that I was going to be a journalist when I grew up, so I was predisposed to love The Paper, which, of course, I inevitably did.
Before The Paper, I had seen only one newspaper movie, the newspaper movie, All The Presidents Men. But that movie is about two supermen, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who changed the course of American history. The Paper is just about regular journalists covering a story — about two kids mistakenly arrested for murder — which just happens to be big on that day. It wasn’t a documentary, obviously, because it starred Batman. But it felt more real, like something I could be a part of. (The film’s co-writer, Stephen Koepp, was a former editor at Time. He also attended the same no-name midwestern journalism school I eventually attended. Shout out, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire!)
This week, I watched The Paper again for the first time in years, ahead of the film’s 25th anniversary. It’s a movie that’s fitfully remembered, mostly by journalists who saw it at an impressionable age (like me). I still really like it, but for completely different reasons. In ’94, The Paper made me excited about hanging out in a newsroom with cranky and neurotic but ultimately lovable and whipsmart eccentrics who were out to change the world for the better. Oh, to work in a place so full of action, where the pace is so relentlessly quick and exciting!
I most wanted to be like McDougal, the weathered but principled columnist played by Randy Quaid — the only time Randy Quaid has ever been cool in a movie — who sleeps on his editor’s couch and walks around the office with a pistol in his belt. But, honestly, I just wanted to be in that mix all day long, with all those admirable lunatics. And then, after a long day of journalism-ing, we would all hit up the office watering hole, a smoky din where reporters drink whiskey neat and brawl with beleaguered city employees. What a life!
Watching The Paper now, the world it depicts still seems distant, even though I’ve now been a certified media professional for the better part of two decades. The sad part is that I can no longer aspire to join the world of The Paper, because it’s long gone, a fantasy of an entirely different, and wistful, sort. A period piece about a moment right before journalism — particularly the sort of daily newspaper shoe-leather reporting depicted in the film — changed forever.
And let me tell you, the change was quick. I got my first daily newspaper job in 2000, right after I graduated from college. I loved it — I was the younger person there by several years, but there truly were lots of older, hard-drinking weirdos with hearts of gold for me to look up to. (Sadly, nobody packed heat.) But within my first six months, a hiring freeze was implemented that lasted years. A feeling that the industry was in decline suddenly seemed omnipresent. The internet was already an existential threat that played against the strengths of the print-first veterans on staff. Though the belief that “online was the future,” rather than the very real present, should have been dispelled by the pernicious rise of Craigslist, which swiftly gutted the classifieds section and cut so deeply into the paper’s bottom line that it drew blood. Oh, and then Gannett bought the paper and things got really bad.
But in The Paper, there is no Craiglist and no internet. There is also no social media, and no taunts of “fake news” from trolls (or the president). Reporters aren’t on Twitter staring at photos from the latest Vanity Fair cover story, trying in vain to think of sick burns for Beto O’Rourke for the sake of their brands and dopamine-triggering likes and retweets. There is no Googling for background information, or texting sources for hot scoops. At a pivotal point in the film, Keaton and Quaid corner a police officer in a locked bathroom, and persuade him to give the crucial quote that will either make or break their exclusive story. (Later, back at the paper, Keaton literally says, “stop the presses!”) Meanwhile, computers are just these off-white boxes stuffed in various corners of the office, next to piles of paper and discarded cans of Coca Cola. It’s like watching a movie about the stone-cutting industry right before the printing press was invented.
While the technology in The Paper is anachronistic, the movie’s premise is downright quaint. Basically, Michael Keaton is the over-caffeinated, extremely Michael Keaton-like metro editor who is at war with the uptight, WASP-ish, impeccably Glenn Close-esque managing editor, played by Glenn Close. The issue concerns breaking the news about those two young men allegedly involved in a murder. Close wants to push a front-page article that will implicate the boys, while Keaton frantically pursues a lead that the murder in question was actually perpetrated by the mob. In the end [SPOILER ALERT], the issue is whether Keaton’s article will run today or tomorrow.
And that’s it! The film’s entire moral premise hinges on reporting the news correctly at the one time per day when news is set down in print and distributed to readers. Reporting the truth eventually is regarded as a sin. Imagine that! Information isn’t like a hose that’s always on at full blast, 24/7, for the rest of eternity. It’s like a craft beer, served in a collectible growler, and delivered to your door every morning.
I’m not saying the world of The Paper is better. (It should be noted that this film, like journalism then and now, is extremely white.) But, holy smokes, is it different, in a way that borders on science-fiction. When I was 16, I was seduced by the rapid, rat-a-tat rhythms of the newsroom in The Paper. People talked fast, they thought fast — basically, everything seemed to move at warp speed.
But watching the movie now, I’m soothed by how slooow everything seems. These people have one story to report on, with one big deadline, for an entire day, in a world in which the noise of social media isn’t constantly shoved into their brain. What a life, indeed.