The other kind of newspaper war

John Doyle wrote a great column about the reality of newsrooms today, focusing on MTV’s surprisingly not-vapid reality series The Paper, about an award-winning, ego-driven high school newspaper. You can read it here, if you’re one of the poor suckers that actually bought a Globe Insider subscription. (I’ve attached it behind the cut for the rest of us. Thanks, company-owned Factiva!)

My own experience with my high school’s newspaper was limited — we didn’t have one. The closest facsimile was still a long shot: one self-alienating Gr. 12 weirdo started a photocopied and folded A3-sized arts-and-lit mag called Phantasmagoria, which was later renamed The Lemon because nobody could remember the former, much less pronounce or spell it. I always thought running a school paper might have been my bag, but I was far too anguished with my own teenaged misery to cover epic school events such as the Richmond Hill H.S. Raiders’ junior football matches in rural Ontario or the jazz band.

My closest experience was with yearbook, an operation more akin to one person (in our year, Richard) running the show, and other people just hanging out in the office because that was the cool place to be. Which, I guess, is pretty close to the experience at The Paper. Except nobody looked 22 years old or had clear skin. In short, it was all pretty non-threatening.

In university, I both incurred and inflicted some war wounds, but I managed to come out on top. When the Ryerson Review of Journalism was all said and done this spring, I had a coffee with Tim, my professor, and reflected with perhaps a little too much honesty that I’m only a team player if I get to be the leader. So in that way I relate with The Paper’s editor Amanda.

Anyway, I don’t know if Doyle’s saying that the Globe’s newsroom is also incestuously addled with love affairs and catty women (or just that it’s cutthroat), but I have heard enough things about it from Ryerson professors to know that the few bitches there (Wong, Blatchford, Wente) got all alpha male on each other because they thought that’s what women were supposed to do in an almost entirely male environment.

Journalism 101: Feuds, cliques and bizarre eruptions of egotism
By John Doyle

So it’s Monday morning and I’m all “oh-my-God-what-have-I-done-with-my-life?”

I have devoted my life to writing, specifically in the newspaper racket. How pathetic is that? Newspapers, as you may have heard, are dead or dying. Nobody cares what it says in the paper. If you’re not blogging, you’re nothing.

Yeah right. This newspaper is just dandy, thanks. It’s thriving, and striving as ever to be the best. And as for this blogging thing, well, a lot of bloggers read blogs.

Newspapers are rarely portrayed accurately on TV or in movies. And when they are used as a setting, newspaper writers and editors complain and sneer. The recent and final season of The Wire was partly set in the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun and written by a former Sun journalist. Yet journalists across the United States heaped abuse on it for not being an accurate depiction of working life at a big-city daily.

The truth is that it’s well-nigh impossible to capture life at a newspaper. The non-journalist audience would not accept the rendering of authentic newspaper life as credible. They simply wouldn’t believe it.

The Paper (MTV Canada, 9:30 p.m.) is a fly-on-the-wall series that documents a few months of life among the student staff of The Circuit, the award-winning newspaper at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. It’s very good, compelling TV. It actually captures a good deal of the weirdness, the good the bad and the ugly of newspaper life. And that’s because it’s set at a high school.

The working life at any newspaper is rather like high school. There’s the good stuff – the thrill of learning things, the camaraderie, the optimism and the celebration of achievement. And there’s the rest of it – feuds, cliques, juvenile aggression, pointless character assassination, bullying and bizarre eruptions of egotism. Or so I’m told, anyway. Here in the TV Cranny, it’s heads-down, get-it-done, be cheerful and polite. Rumours of what is actually going on only reach me months or years later, when I meet people from other newspapers.

The Paper started airing a few weeks ago and the first thing viewers saw and heard was a young woman named Amanda declaring, “Journalists are the most important part of the world. They really are.” It was a good beginning. Then it became clear that Amanda was one of four candidates vying to be the next editor-in-chief of The Circuit. And, because the paper has a tradition of excellence and has won many awards, the top job is important. It could be the first step in a long career in journalism.

Amanda has indeed become editor-in-chief. It was fascinating to watch the scenes immediately following the announcement. Most of her competitors for the job began plotting to undermine her. They talked about her being bossy and on a power trip. They failed to mention that while they were having a wild party, Amanda was at home polishing her application for the job. And yes, she is bossy and confident, but one of her strengths is that she’s a good editor, able to spot grammatical errors and other flaws in the stories about school life that the staff write. As the series has progressed, Amanda’s grip on the paper and the staff has become a drama unto itself. Unnerved at first by the hostility, she tried to be gentle and then realized that her actions only fuelled more resentment. She’s begun to assert herself again.

Most of Amanda’s problems have to do with Giana, an attractive young woman who wanted the editor’s job but failed to put much effort into getting it. Giana is dating Trevor, another member of the staff, and flaunts her relationship constantly. As well, she’ll tell anyone who will listen that Amanda is just horrible. And then there are people who will suck up to Amanda relentlessly, using their connection with her to undermine others. The situations are uncannily akin to the power struggles at many papers. Or so I’m told.

One of the great things about The Paper – apart from its insight into the allure of journalism – is that it acts as a counterpoint to many other reality-TV series about teenagers. These kids are nothing like the self-absorbed twinkies you see on The Hills. They’re engaged by issues other than dating, shopping and partying. And they get their biggest kick from actually getting their newspaper finished, printed and distributed. The Paper makes it clear that newspaper journalism matters. Which it does. The office politics don’t matter. It’s something worth doing with your life.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted May 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Yeah… I tried to get people more involved, but the ones that I wanted to rely on were doing their own things and the ones that did want me to rely on them (i.e., Cherie Liu) just sucked. Oh well, fun times, though I won’t be able to relate to the Paper since I refuse to watch anything MTV puts out.

  2. Posted June 5, 2008 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Would we have qualified as a team?

  3. Posted June 6, 2008 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    oh definitely. we were the “git ‘r done” team.

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