Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The days of "Lady Journalists"

Oh, to live in the time when women wore white gloves and hats and men drank scotch in dark, cigar-smoke-filled rooms.  Back when reporters were seen as romantic muckrakers who would do anything to get a story.

What's that you say?  Those days never really existed?  Well they do in my mind and in the mind of many others thanks to Hollywood.

Through the wonder of Netflix, I have been watching a lot of movies that I wouldn't otherwise have known about, including several that fall under the category "classic."  For some reason, in this one-woman sample, I'm finding a lot of movies about reporters and newspapers back in the heyday of local news.

In the last week, I have watched "The Philadelphia Story," "His Girl Friday," and a modern take on the reporter story, "Morning Glory."

One thing all of these movies have in common is a strong female journalist character.  I was surprised to find these women in movies from the '40s and '50s.

In "His Girl Friday," the hard hitting reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is the only woman in a room full of classic male City Hall reporters.  She's leaving the profession to get married until she gets sucked in to one last story.

For those of you who haven't seen the classic 1940 story "His Girl Friday," you can actually watch the whole thing here on Hulu.

In "The Philadelphia Story," also from 1940, Liz Imbrie, a staff photographer for Spy Magazine is forced to pretend to be married to a reporter, played by Jimmy Stewart, in order to get the story.  In the end, her independence and feisty spirit almost cost her her happiness (seen here as getting the guy).

It's interesting (and possibly a reflection of the fact that every movie needs conflict and romance) that in each of these movies the women are forced to choose between work as a journalist and happy home lives.  This is something you expect to see in movies made in the 1940s, but is it something we still need to see in 2010?

In "Morning Glory," Rachel McAdams plays a morning television show producer who is chained to her desk (or blackberry), at the expense of her social life.  Ultimately, the movie is about finding balance and a sense of humor in your work and life, but it is interesting to me that she finds her strength at work while leaving her love life largely up to the man.

These three portrayals of journalism show the romanticism that many people still hold for the profession today, even though polls show journalists to be only slightly more popular than lawyers and politicians. Journalism has always been a fast-paced, conflict-ridden profession. And that makes for good entertainment, then and now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

And now for something completely different...

I just finished reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols and that, plus the fact that I'm getting a master's degree in journalism has me thinking about the future of the journalism industry on a grander scale.

McChesney and Nichols propose a government-funded industry based on existing non-profit business structures or on a new business structure to be created by legislation.  Even when the book was written, they understood the bile that a specific subset of conservatives hold for public broadcasting, but with the current budget negotiations, along with the release of tapes that showed the now former NPR fundraiser slamming conservatives, which led to the resignation of NPR's CEO, it seems that the United States Congress may have even less taste for government funding of journalism than ever.

Aside from the small subsection of conservatives, governments from coast-to-coast are looking to cut budgets, not add to their long-term costs.  It seems unlikely that a government-funded system would be a popular choice for Democrats or Republicans, at least at this point.  And news organizations are slowly, but surely, losing staff and money.

So, just a year on from the publication of McChesney and Nichols' book, what can be done about the state of the media.

I don't buy the idea that online-only publications, as they stand today, are the answer.  Their newsrooms are too small, they don't have the international bureau structure of the major news organizations, and they also don't have budgets that allow for the kind of investigative journalism that democracy calls for.

I also think the idea of online-only publications is indicative of a decidedly old-school way of looking at the media.  The media brand is far more important to today's news consumers than the platform. 

I do think a non-profit news organization structure is going to be one of the answers for the future of news, but I agree with McChesney and Nichols that there may need to be a legislative restructuring of the not-for-profit business rules to allow newspapers to continue to publish editorials and endorsements of local candidates, an essential function of many papers.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it's easy to look only as far as the next big story.  It is important to look for short-term and long-term solutions to what is a growing problem in the news industry.  If the current system isn't working (and it's not), what next?