A young filmmaker who stumbled into a job at the New York Times spent the last three years making a documentary about what he saw there: a corporate newspaper industry trying to rescue sinking profits by cutting labor-intensive journalism, particularly investigative reporting.
Now he needs less than $8,000 for stock-footage licensing fee and costs for final post-production. He has less than a month to raise it through donations on the Passer.by site, and he’s asking his fellow Occupiers for help.
Adam Chadwick decided to make ”Fit to Print” when he started working as a Times copy editor in 2007.
“I had a front-row seat for what was going wrong in those years — 2007, 2008, 2009,” he says. “I saw empty desks, more empty desks, and then more empty desks.”
For more than two decades, the newspaper industry tried and failed to meet shareholders’ expectations by laying off reporters, editors and photographers. The faster subscriptions and advertising dropped, the more editorial employees the newspapers laid off — and the more newspapers were shut down altogether. According to Chadwick’s tally, more than 15,000 newspaper staffers lost their jobs in the last three years alone. There are half as many newspaper reporters working today as there were eight years ago.
In “Fit to Print,” Chadwick focuses on the loss of investigative reporting through the personal stories of three star investigative reporters, all industry casualties whose work was cut short when their papers closed: Stephen Janis, Baltimore Examiner; Laura Frank, Rocky Mountain News; and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Schneider, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
When his paper closed in 2009, award-winner Stephen Janis was covering shady behavior in the Baltimore, Maryland, police department, including tactics that led to tens of thousands of false arrests. Laura Frank was investigating some 3,000 workers’ exposure to lethal radiation at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility in Colorado and the strategies the federal government used to avoid paying workers’ compensation benefits to them and 175,000 other federal employees when her paper closed, also in 2009. Andrew Schneider, a specialist in food safety and public health, was investigating extensive corporate cover-ups in Libby, Montana, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped print publication and went internet-only in 2009.
Chadwick follows their fight to continue their investigative work without their former papers’ money, resources, or reach.
“Essentially this is a labor film about the erosion of an industry due to greed, mainly Wall Street greed,” says Chadwick, a New York occupier. “There is no greater victim of corporatism than the newspaper industry. You can’t tie journalism to capitalism.” He plans to screen “Fit to Print” at Occupies across the country when it’s finished, a reminder of the importance of a free press and respect for labor.
The film includes frightening and violent footage from the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike, which was forced on workers at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News by the union-busting Detroit Newspaper Agency — a joint business operation of two corporate journalism giants, the Gannett Company and Knight Ridder. Knight Ridder, then the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country, disintegrated in 2006.
Chadwick, 29, studied film-making at the University of Colorado, tramped around southeast Asia, worked on projects for NFL Films, and landed in New York in 2006 with a duffel bag and $1,500. Unable to find video work, he took temp jobs including a two-week stint entering data at Goldman Sachs. “That was so eye-opening. I could see how miserable people were.”
He spotted a mediabistro ad for a copy-editor at the New York Times and answered it. After three rounds of interviews, he got the job. He was laid off in 2009 when his work — translating print copy for online publication — was outsourced to Florida.
To pay his bills, Chadwick’s doing contract work preparing the news feed for an online medical journal. “I went to a major university. I’m drowning in debt. I went to get a degree. I got it. Is it necessary? Nope.” In addition to student loans he can’t pay, he hasn’t had health insurance for three years. Like so many others of his generation, he has no idea what the future holds.
His own surreal experience made him wonder what the decimation of newspaper jobs means to the reporters who lost them and how quality journalism is finding a new home in the digital universe.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the American newspaper industry consisted of thousands of local, often family-owned papers that were vital to their towns and cities. Their staffs watched, reported on, and shaped the behavior of politicians and business owners, police and judges, school boards and sports clubs. And they made money doing it.
Together, Chadwick says, newspapers were the constitutionally guaranteed free press, the watchdogs and protectors of our democracy and civil rights.
As the nation prospered and grew in the post-World War II boom, so did the newspaper industry.
“It was pure growth, the golden era of journalism,” Chadwick says. By the late 1970s, local, regional, and national newspaper chains were consolidating into a handful of publicly traded corporations, including Gannett, which launched USA Today in 1982. The corporations also bought up TV and radio stations; cross-ownership became common.
And then, like the auto industry and others of the era, the newspaper industry sat back and let technology move forward without it.
“It was all about quarter-to-quarter profits. They would not invest in the future of the industry,” says Chadwick, referring to digital technology. “They had every opportunity to be all over online classifieds.” Instead, they let Craigslist move in and build a nationwide service. They ignored the potential of the developing Internet. The Washington Post turned down an offer to buy a quarter of Google Inc. for $10 million before the now-$186 billion tech giant incorporated in 1998. “They said Yahoo’s already out there.” (See additional promo trailer)
Unlike other industries, the newspaper industry hasn’t recovered, no matter how many employees or papers it shed. “It all came crashing down because the owners got greedy.”
Chadwick and producer Nancy Wolfe spent three years researching “Fit to Print,” filming interviews of people involved with papers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and San Diego Union Tribune.
Chadwick and Wolfe interviewed current and former newspaper staffers, media executives, and journalism watchers, including linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, documentary-maker and former newspaperman Michael Moore, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, Craigslist found Craig Newmark, USA Today founder and Gannett executive Al Neuharth, and Washington Post associate editor and senior correspondent Robert Kaiser.
– Janet Braunstein