These are brutal times for the newspaper industry. Widespread buyouts, shuttered bureaus, diminished ambitions—in many cases, not even the physical size of the paper has been spared. May I suggest a balm for newsprint devotees? Watch some old episodes of Lou Grant, the late-seventies TV series about life at a newspaper, which has never been released on DVD but is now available on the streaming video site Hulu.com.
The show, which stars Ed Asner as an irascible city editor at the Los Angeles Tribune, a fictional version of the Los Angeles Times, is a time capsule of an era when circulation was up and anxieties about the industry’s future were down. In Lou Grant’s newsroom, the phones are always ringing, the typewriters clacking, the reporters free to spend days or weeks working a story, without fretting over ballooning expenses or the next round of layoffs. The Internet, of course, is a nonfactor; the most advanced technology is a Telex machine. In short, Lou Grant revels in the old-fashioned milieu of shoe leather and black ink.
In the current climate, a TV series based on a newspaper is almost inconceivable. Imagine if the show were filmed today—the dialogue would focus on declining ad dollars, not Pulitzers, and cynicism about the media is so prevalent that even the Lifetime channel would have difficulty creating sympathetic characters. Case in point: the final season of HBO’s The Wire, created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, depicts a dysfunctional newspaper beleaguered by cutbacks, its management callously using inexperienced reporters, one of whom becomes a Jayson Blair-like fabulist. A more likely series, given the popularity of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, would be an Onion-esque show about a fake newspaper.
But Lou Grant, which debuted in 1977, capitalized on the esteem that flowed to the profession in the post-Watergate years. One character, Rossi, is a hard-charging reporter in the Woodward-Bernstein mold, his corduroy blazer flapping as he chases down crooked officials. Sure it’s a cliché, but a lot of the details feel right. The paper’s veteran staffers have bounced around smaller markets for years before landing at a big-city daily; the plots revolve around meat-and-potatoes issues like school violence and immigration. The show even captures the blend of righteous pride and self-deprecating humor common to newsmen (the opening credits follow a paper from felled tree to printing press to morning delivery to, finally, a bird cage). The Society of Professional Journalists praised the show in 1978 for “portraying us realistically, but not too realistically.”
And yet, if you watch closely, you can catch glimpses of some of the issues facing newspapers today. In the pilot, Lou grabs a copy of the Tribune from a street receptacle without paying, then sheepishly doubles back and coughs up a quarter—a miniature encapsulation of the debate over free Web content playing out in so many newsrooms. And the Tribune’s publisher, Mrs. Pynchon (a pre-Sopranos Nancy Marchand), is a wealthy, intimidating figure with a reputation for meddling on the editorial side—a proto Rupert Murdoch, if you will. I watched an episode about a reporter who has an affair with a city official she is covering and was mildly shocked to read days later about an actual scandal involving a former Miami Herald reporter and a local school chief.
So does this mean the problems facing newspapers today aren’t particular to our time? Perhaps. But one element in Lou Grant feels very different from today: whatever troubles may exist, the reporters themselves seem blissfully unaware of them. They pursue their jobs with vigor, and it is pure joy to watch journalists work so unencumbered—even if it’s only on an old TV show.