Working in modern media inevitably means being inured to a steady stream of depressing news about cutbacks. It feels like every other week, another talented writer is suddenly out of a job, or worse, a publication has been shuttered completely. According to a recent report, 2018 marked the worst year of media layoffs since 2009, and things aren’t looking much better for 2019: Over 2,100 media employees have already lost, or will lose, their jobs since the beginning of February. (Most notably, BuzzFeed laid off 220 employees, which accounts for 15 percent of its staff, including all seven members of its national desk.)
Digital-media companies are under constant threat by a variety of forces — Facebook and Google’s duopoly on web advertising, venture/vulture capitalists who punish their investments for failing to meet unrealistic expectations, a culture indifferent to paying for news that doesn’t come from a legacy outlet — and it doesn’t look like there will be substantial change on that front anytime soon. But maybe the future of journalism has always been grim in one form or another — just on a smaller, more regional scale that predates the internet era.
Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 film Between the Lines, whose new 2K restoration will have its New York premiere run at Quad Cinema starting this Friday, presents a milieu familiar to any journalist or writer working today: a renowned publication faces an impending sale to a wealthy businessman and the staff struggles to adjust to new material realities. The film follows a week in the life of the Back Bay Mainline, a fictional Boston alt-weekly modeled after real alt-weeklies the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper, where screenwriter Fred Barron previously worked. Founded in the late ’60s, the Mainline was once a radical underground rag whose coverage of events like the covert bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre helped “sow the seeds of dissent.” Since then, however, the paper has become a little too comfortable with its assumed countercultural status, publishing stale copy from its half-interested staff. Despite their internal identity crisis, the Mainline’s success has caught the fancy of potential buyers who want nothing more than to sand the edges off their new investment, much to the staff’s rancor.
Silver and Barron filter this professional backdrop through the lives of its large ensemble cast, made up by young talent in some of their earliest roles. Harry (John Heard), the Mainline’s star journalist, has turned his back on the investigative pieces that won him awards in favor of insipid culture journalism, primarily because his hard-hitting work didn’t actually change much of anything. His on-again-off-again photographer girlfriend Abbie (Lindsay Crouse) still takes pride in her work at the paper and maintains enough ambition to know that the Mainline will be just one stop in her career. The arrogant careerist Michael (Stephen Collins) has sold a book about the death of the counterculture, clearly exploiting the movement of his youth for financial gain, and itches to leave the Mainline, believing it to be below him. When he’s not boasting about sizable advances and possible film rights, he browbeats his reporter girlfriend Laura (Gwen Welles), who has lost her journalistic drive since the ’60s and bemoans the compromises of adulthood.
In sharp contrast to the cynicism of the elder statesmen, the young, intrepid David (Bruno Kirby) investigates a corruption scandal involving a local record promoter, hoping to finally graduate from the classifieds desk. Silver highlights David’s determination while also capturing the staff’s general disinterest in his story. He only gains their respect when he’s confronted by actual physical violence. Even the film’s comic relief, the Mainline’s gregarious rock critic Max (Jeff Goldblum), experiences tangible stress: His $75-a-week salary forces him to sell promo records for extra cash and to constantly beg for raises he’ll never receive. “It’s not that I’m unhappy here. I’m fucking broke!” he screams at the Mainline’s publisher, who could not care less about his plight.
Between the Lines takes places during the height of alt-weeklies, long before the omnipresence of the web and its subsequent demands. Yet, the film remains prophetic about the anxieties that writers and publications share in the face of financial pressures. The Mainline’s editor Frank (Jon Korkes) struggles to herd his writers while fighting administrative battles he’s bound to lose, like ceding more and more space to advertising. At one point, he threatens to punch Stanley (Lewis J. Stadlen), the head of advertising, on his way out the door if he doesn’t ensure that copy won’t suffer because of printing expenses. The middle-management enemy of the entire staff, Stanley despises the bohemian atmosphere of the Mainline and longs for a more draconian publisher to keep the staff in line. He’ll eventually get his wish.
With Between the Lines, Silver and Barron depict the duplicitous nature of the sort of publisher more interested in profit than quality. When “rich asshole” Roy Walsh (Lane Smith) eventually buys the paper, he holds an all-staff meeting where he preaches pragmatism (“We need a broader based readership in order to get a larger number of advertisers.”) and calm (“We bought the Mainline not for what it can be but for what it is,” “It’s a good staff and we want to keep it together to the greatest degree possible,” etc.). But behind closed doors, he demands a writer be fired for the crime of questioning his authority in front of everyone. When Frank tells him that the whole staff will quit in protest, he remains deeply unconcerned. “I run several newspapers. I can have a staff in here tomorrow as far as that goes,” he says calmly.
Between the Lines also illustrates how the lack of a strong union forces people into selfish corners that belie their shared interests. The Mainline writers talk a good game about running the paper as a collective or quitting en masse if Walsh buys the paper, but when the time actually comes, most everyone falls in line and keeps their grievances private. Only the paper’s idealistic receptionist, Lynn (Jill Eikenberry), publicly quits when Walsh takes over, saying that she doesn’t want to work for “some communications empire.” Everyone else watches her leave, silent and ashamed, preferring to keep what’s left of their jobs instead of standing in solidarity.
While the advertising hurdles, administrative hang-ups, and management drama in Between the Lines resonates with the new media landscape, the film’s hyper-regional alt-weekly culture sadly feels like a specter from the past. Local journalism has severely contracted in the 40 years since Between the Lines’ release; over 1,800 newspapers have ceased publication since 2004, a third of them in rural communities. Alt-weeklies in particular have suffered since the advent of the internet: Politico’s Jack Shafer points to the migration of low-cost advertising to the web, the shuttering of local retailers (record stores, bookstores, etc.), which used to reliably stock and advertise in alt-weeklies, and the cultural ubiquity of the smartphone as contributing factors to their demise. The Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Philadelphia City Paper, and the Baltimore City Paper all closed between 2013 and 2017. In August of 2018, the famed Village Voice ceased all new editorial content and laid off half its staff a mere 11 months after they ceased print publication. Still, there are some alt-weeklies that continue to fight the good fight: Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story on Los Angeles’s new local publication The LAnd, created by former L.A. Weekly contributors after that paper was taken over by new ownership.
Between the Lines’ digressive structure and amiably comedic tone keeps the various professional dilemmas from devolving into self-serious screeds about the State of Journalism Today. At the same time, Barron’s own alt-weekly credentials (by his own admission, he was “basically the Jeff Goldblum character”) provides Between the Lines with enough verisimilitudinous detail that it becomes something of a living document in 2019. I laughed and cringed in equal measure when the Mainline’s film critic requests funding, for what’s presumably the umpteenth time, to attend the Cannes Film Festival and he’s essentially laughed into silence. Similarly, a character’s optimistic choice to become a freelancer takes on a depressing edge in light of the current economy.
Between the Lines chronicles the various compromises and heartbreaks a writer must accept (or reject) in order to stay afloat in a cutthroat media landscape. Replace the typewriter with a Wi-Fi connection and the concerns are almost exactly same. The future of journalism may seem grim, but perhaps it’s the same as it ever was.