Ask anyone in the business: These are dark times for the newspaper industry. Dwindling readership and shrinking profits; journalists quaking in their cubicles, wondering if their jobs will exist when the next quarter’s profits are announced. Readers who once looked to the morning paper (not to mention the dimly remembered but extinct evening editions) are distracted by other media that feed them entertainment in news drag.
“I don’t really like the trend of the media right now,” said Cassia Laham, a Florida-based editor. “I feel like we’re becoming too tangled in things unimportant. Like spending four weeks on Anna Nicole Smith or any petty news when there are bigger things happening.”
Her colleague Amanda Lorber worries about the future of their industry as well. “We’re all heading to the Internet and to virtual whatnot. … We really wanna keep print alive.”
Cassia and Amanda aren’t the usual newsroom Cassandras, posting memos to Romenesko or gathering to commiserate about layoffs over a stiff one at the local reporter bar. They’re teenagers (18 and 17, respectively) on the staff of Cypress Bay High School’s student paper, The Circuit.
They’re also stars of MTV’s newest docu-series—that duck-billed platypus of documentary and soap opera—The Paper, which premieres April 14 after The Hills. In many ways, The Paper is perfect counterpoint to the network’s phenomenally—some might say inexplicably—popular ‘reality’ series about young adulthood in Los Angeles. If The Hills is a magic-hour fantasy of life as a glossy shampoo commercial, The Paper exists in a fluorescent-lit world closer to Frederick Wiseman’s High School, with a little bit of The Office thrown in for comic relief.
Set in the newspaper class of Cypress Bay High, a massive school in Weston, Fla., The Paper offers a Muppet Babies version of life in a newsroom. Despite their youth, the editorial and production team of The Circuit faces the sort of problems anyone in the news business can relate to: That friend promoted to your boss; the ad sales guy flipping out when the advertising-editorial ratio is off; the scheming sub-editor intent on seizing control; a colleague surreptitiously crying at her desk; that damn blinking cursor at deadline. Each episode is a window into the prolonged collective and individual breakdown that is a newspaper close. The last season of HBO’s The Wire found tragedy in this world; on The Paper, the life and death of a newspaper is presented as kid’s stuff.
A RECENT VISIT to MTV’s mothership at 1515 Broadway found the network taking over all of Times Square. Teams of kids participated in an open-air competition of Rock Band, an MTV game for Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 3, to promote the premiere of Rock the Cradle, a new MTV series that asks the age-old question, “Does amazing talent possessed by the likes of Olivia Newton-John or Eddie Money skip a generation?” The faces of The Hills’ demi-stars are on the cover of interchangeable glossies at every newsstand. As a few teenagers ascend the escalator into 1515’s lobby and point past the guard station, one says, “Dude, there’s MTV.” It’s almost possible to believe that the network is still as much at the center of youth culture as it was during the Paleo-Loder era, when a question about his choice of underwear helped Bill Clinton become president. Where, if anywhere, does a show about a high-school newspaper fit in the network’s multiplatform scheme to dominate the free time—and free dollars—of its barely-legal demographic?
In his office on the 29th floor, Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president of multiplatform, production, news and music for MTV, explained how the network came to unapologetically set a series amid the world of high-school newspaper geeks. (Full disclosure: This reporter was never a geek despite being a columnist for Great Neck South High School’s The Southerner as well as an editor of the literary magazine and a member of the political awareness club. Fuller disclosure: And a member of the theater club.)
“We’ve had great success covering pivotal moments for high-school students, college students, people who are out of school, as one-offs,” he said, the requisite cool executive surfboard propped up behind his desk and a flock of Emmys on a windowsill. “One of the thoughts was, ‘Let’s look into high-school newspapers.’ We thought there would be a different mind-set to the students. We wanted to find an absolutely passionate group of kids who were as interested in their journalism and in their newspaper as they were anything else.”
Adam Brock, a member of The Circuit’s staff, nominated his school’s paper for the show. After rounds of test footage and permission slips, what MTV found was a group of juniors, each vying to become editor in chief of The Circuit, a competition as cutthroat as any big league editorial bake-off.
What they also found was a group of students—led by their adviser, Mrs. Weiss—who were completely comfortable being themselves in front of the camera, even if that meant being caught stomping out of an editorial meeting in tears (Mr. Brock) or showing the puffy eyes and bandaged face of a summer-before-senior-year nose job (Ms. Lorber).
“They’re so open about their feelings, about their thoughts. And they’re so smart,” Mr. Sirulnick marveled. “They’ve grown up in an entirely different world than anybody over the age of, say, 26. They’ve grown up in a world and era of sharing their lives. … Facebook, MySpace, blogs,” he said, chopping the air for emphasis. Marshall Eisen, one of the show’s executive producers, agreed. “They weren’t there to please us. … They’re stars.”
Viewers may think the same when Ms. Lorber, who calls to mind the perky but steely Tracy Flick from Election, bursts into a spontaneous song about Page One proofs. Or when Alex Angert, another editor, gets tossed around by the Cypress Bay High football team in a bit of George Plimpton-esque participatory journalism. Then there’s the time Mr. Brock, in a startling lapse of professionalism, attends High School Musical: The Ice Tour the night of the big close.
The conflicts in the office over who gets to be editor in chief are so intense that the staff of The Circuit nearly revolts, prompting one staffer, Charesse James, to declare “This is the Vietnam of newspapers!” (Mr. Brock, who was voted “Most Dramatic” in the yearbook, felt it was more like West Side Story.) When the dust settles, Ms. Lorber, who sees herself as a “mama bear helping her cub reporters collect their berries” must do all she can to keep the team together, including hosting a moderately successful ice cream social and marking up proofs in optimistic purple ink with a smiley face and “Nice Job!” scrawled at the bottom. (Why can’t more editors be so thoughtful?)
MS. LORBER CAME to journalism the long way. “At first I wanted to do theater,” she said on the phone from Florida, after moving the interview time so she could do some homework. “I wanted to be on Broadway. … I didn’t know there was so much to journalism until I was in ninth grade.”
Asked who her role models are, the 17-year-old Ms. Lorber fairly squealed. “Well, Woodward and Bernstein, obviously!”
“letter-spacing: -0.15pt”>When pressed for more contemporary writers she admires, she said, “I like most of the columnists at The New York Times. I forgot her name… Ooph. I read her all the time. Uhhh…”
“Yes! She rocks. She’s so witty. She could be talking about something so serious but there’s humor to it usually.”
Her colleague Ms. Laham has her own heroes: “I love Keith Olbermann from MSNBC and I watch Countdown every night. I love Seymour Hersh: That’s who I would love to be. If I could be anybody, I’d be Seymour Hersh. A serious investigative reporter who knows where to dig and how to uncover these startling truths.” (When Mr. Hersh uncovered the My Lai massacre in 1969, Ms. Laham was minus-21 years old.)
Both Ms. Lorber and Ms. Laham intend to study journalism in college. (MTV’s Marshall Eisen says internships will be available to them when they’re the right age.) In the meantime, they hope the series has an impact on their field.
“We thought about what a great opportunity it could be for all of us and for the future of journalism—if I’m not being too far-reaching in my belief that this could end up helping young journalists all over the country,” Ms. Lorber said. “I know it sounds so juvenile because it’s a television show that’s going on a kid’s network, but they have a lot of people watching that network. And a lot of those people are teenagers. I hope that teenagers can see the show and think, ‘Gee, that looks like fun’ or ‘That looks interesting. … Why not join my school newspaper?’”
Bravo! However bleak the field might be, journalism’s got to be a better dream than moving to The Hills.
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