Friday, November 20, 2009
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The narrative of the crumbling newspaper industry has been well documented in, well, newspapers, not to mention this show, but now the story of a shredding is playing onstage.
MALE ACTOR: Want to know what my basic skill set is? We can go into a room full of powerful people and start asking questions, annoying questions, follow-up questions to the annoying questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s a scene from a new play about the life and death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, called It’s Not in The P-I: A Living Newspaper about a Dying Newspaper. The paper, founded in 1863, printed its final edition in March. Shuttered by the Hearst Corporation, it left Seattle a one-newspaper town and many journalists jobless. Tom Paulson is one of them. A former science writer, he was with the P-I for 22 years, and he says the genesis of the play was born the same way P-I reporters hatched many of their best ideas.
TOM PAULSON: Beer.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Yes, it was - the genesis came from beer, like most great ideas in the world. Paul Mullin, who is one of Seattle’s top playwrights, is a friend of mine, and we were having beer. I was complaining about losing my job and the demise of print journalism, and so forth. Paul basically said that he’s a playwright and the fact that I'm complaining about this is ridiculous ‘cause he’s so much more unappreciated. And we argued about who was more unappreciated, journalists or playwrights, [BROOKE LAUGHS] and then, with a few more beers, decided that, you know, this, this actually would make a good play. Paul wanted to make the construction of the play like putting together a newspaper. He contacted other playwrights in Seattle, five others, and I told him to go out and talk to some of my colleagues. I mean, they talked to a police reporter, they talked to business people. People who work in the building and aren't reporters are part of the P-I. And so they got this great collage of different scenes from the newspaper and views of the newspaper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why produce the play? Was it some sort of catharsis?
TOM PAULSON: When the P-I stopped printing last spring there were a lot of very serious articles and woe-is-me kind of stuff and celebrations of our history and, you know, kind of the typical thing you see when an institution goes away. And what was missing was this irreverent description of the reality there and the ignoble aspects of journalism and the goofiness of the P-I. And I just thought I really would like to see that somewhere represented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the sections takes place in the newsroom. It’s a pretty hilarious argument over the interns and who’s going to prey on them.
MALE ACTOR: [SINGING] It’s the most glorious time of the year.
MALE ACTOR: What is she talking about?
MALE ACTOR: Interns!
MALE ACTOR: Ohh!
MALE ACTOR: That's right, a fresh, young, nubile crop of innocent, eager interns come skipping into our office today. Today! I wore my blue shirt. It brings out my eyes.
FEMALE ACTOR: Absolutely.
FEMALE ACTOR: Stay the [BLEEP] away from my interns. I'm not joking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you take a little license there?
TOM PAULSON: The whole idea was all of these scenes are going to be based on reality, and so I think there’s some fact there, there’s some license there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of my favorite scenes is this reporter calling a politician and they are narrating their subtext.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Indirect question.
ACTOR AS COUNCILMAN: Insincere confusion about the point of the question.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Restatement of question.
ACTOR AS COUNCILMAN: Off-topic comment.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Same question.
ACTOR AS COUNCILMAN: Deep rumination and troubled contemplation.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Same question.
ACTOR COUNCILMAN: Mmm, complicated reasons why the question itself can't be addressed as posed.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Carefully rephrased question.
ACTOR AS COUNCILMAN: Counter-question about the future of the P-I, with the suggestion that the Pacific Northwest would be better off without so many questions.
TOM PAULSON: I laugh out loud every time I watch them do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the public gets out of a scene like that?
TOM PAULSON: Well, I think that they understand the tug-of-war between the media and people in power, in this case, a city councilman, and also what’s both fun and painful about it, because the scene starts with the reporter – I'm identifying with her, of course – and she’s having fun with this guy squirming and trying to convince her not to do the story. But as the scene progresses, I actually become more uncomfortable, because it’s clear that she is continuing to do this story even after he’s been booted out of office, and she’s going to do something based on a personal problem that he’s having, and he’s arguing, why am I even news, why don't you just leave me alone?
ACTOR AS COUNCILMAN: In a friendly way I'd like to suggest you move on to something else. Certainly, you have more important - stories to pursue.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: Well Tim, I'd like the pitch of my voice to rise slightly, in order to indicate that you've not only not put me off the story, you've actually increased my interest.
ACTOR AS OUNCILMAN: Then I'd like my voice to register disappointment that you are being so unreasonable.
ACTOR AS FEMALE REPORTER: I hear that. And can you hear the barely disguised pleasure with which I register your change in tone?
TOM PAULSON: So it kind of cuts both ways, and I think both the public, who sometimes thinks the media digs too deep or is too invasive, are going to identify with maybe the end of the scene.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which leads us to a point that you've made, which is that reporters aren't necessarily noble people, they're often not likeable people. In fact, you say that reporters often don't like each other. But it doesn't matter.
TOM PAULSON: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it’s probably an occupational hazard. I loved working at the P-I. I really enjoyed being around most of my colleagues. But we're pushy, nosy, all those kind of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was it like watching the rehearsal, seeing the P-I newsroom be resurrected, at least for a few weeks?
TOM PAULSON: There are scenes in there that are going to make people upset, and then the scenes portraying myself made me very uncomfortable. It’s very weird watching somebody else pretend to be you.
FEMALE ACTOR: How long did you work there prior to being laid off?
MALE ACTOR: Twenty-six years.
FEMALE ACTOR: Wow, impressive! So during that time, how did you contribute to the P-I’s bottom line?
MALE ACTOR: [SIGHS] I have no clue how I contributed to the bottom line. None of us did. We never knew squat about the financials.
FEMALE ACTOR: Well, be that as it may, you still contributed to making the paper a profitable entity.
MALE ACTOR: That’s a hell of an accusation. Can you back it up?
FEMALE ACTOR: Hey man, I’m not the enemy. I’m just trying to help you build your resume.
MALE ACTOR: [SIGHS] Why?
FEMALE ACTOR: Why?
MALE ACTOR: I mean, it’s not like we're gonna just get jobs at a similar company. I mean, no one’s hiring reporters.
TOM PAULSON: I didn't tell them a thing about how to write this. I wanted to just let them depict things as they saw it, after they talked to a lot of my colleagues. So, it’s imperfect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the playwrights got most wrong about reporters?
TOM PAULSON: The play makes it look like we're always very excited and, you know, a lot of it’s boring.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] The tedium of journalism, the serious digging, digging, digging - there’s really not much in there. It does kind of look like a big party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s generally two ways that journalists are depicted. They're either crusaders who go about uncovering wrongdoing everywhere, sometimes at personal risk, or else they're venal, ambitious climbers that don't care who they destroy on their way to a bigger story, a bigger name and a bigger paycheck. This play doesn't seem to fall in either of those camps.
TOM PAULSON: No, and certainly there are reporters who fit into those camps, but -
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - and you and I both know who they are. But some of the playwrights did sort of want to head towards the dramatic, heroic stuff. And I kept telling Paul that I didn't want this to be, you know, Russell Crowe, whatever that movie is -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: State of Play.
TOM PAULSON: Yeah, destroying everything around him to get to the story - hardly anybody does that. Most of us are not willing to sacrifice our health insurance benefits for a story. And I also didn't want it to be the reverse, which I really get tired of, with Hollywood constantly portraying the press as a bunch of jackals baying at people as they walk down the street. Most of us are just like any collection of people. We're governed by our own insecurities and our desires to do something good and important, but very imperfect. And so, I really wanted this to be how something very imperfect, like a newspaper, can still provide a big social benefit to a community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM PAULSON: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Paulson is a former science reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and co-producer of It’s Not in The P-I: A Living Newspaper about a Dying Newspaper. The play ends its initial run this weekend, but the producers are planning a second staging sometime soon.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hey, Bob, why don't you just stay home next week and nurse that cold?
BOB GARFIELD: [NASALLY]: What cold? [LAUGHS]