Filmmaker David Layton isn’t a stranger to the newsroom. Before he produced and directed documentaries, he was a newspaper reporter, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his next project, “The Newspaperman,” is a film about one of the 20th century’s most important, if often overlooked, editors: Gene Roberts of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“One of the things we said was that we were going to build the best newsroom we were capable of building, so we just set out from there. We set about doing the best we could and having our fun doing it.”
But it’s a much earlier memory of a newsroom that stuck with Layton for years and seeded the idea for “The Newspaperman.”
“My father worked for Gene at The Inquirer,” Layton wrote me via email, “so I knew about him when I was young. I could tell that my father loved his job and that something special was going on in that newsroom. Whenever I would visit him there, I would watch all these people talking animatedly about stories, taking phone calls, typing furiously, joking around together. It is still the most congenial workplace I have ever seen. Much later, I learned that it was Gene who had almost singlehandedly created the conditions under which that paper flourished.”
Roberts arrived at the Inquirer in 1972, at a time when the paper was, by all accounts, in a freefall toward failure. He wasn’t exactly hard up for work; he arrived in Philadelphia via The New York Times, where he had been the national editor. But the challenge of taking the faltering paper and turning it around was too good to pass up, and he did exactly that.
There were many measures of his success, including leading it to profitability and earning what appears to be universal admiration of his reporters and peers. (Everyone seems to speak about Roberts with reverence.) But one particularly impressive achievement for this former Nieman Fellow was the fact that the Inquirer, which had never been awarded any Pulitzers, won them almost yearly throughout his tenure – and in some years won two.
So how has Roberts managed to remain largely unknown outside journalism? Layton’s co-producer and co-director, Mike Nicholson, thinks he knows.
“Roberts is often compared to Ben Bradlee at The Washington Post and Abe Rosenthal at The New York Times, two editors who became pretty well known, especially Bradlee after the film ‘All the President’s Men’ came out. [But] Roberts wasn’t really the public face of the Inquirer,” Nicholson says. “He let the editor of the editorial page be the one to attend functions with city leaders and luminaries. Roberts stayed in the newsroom and plotted ways to make the paper better. He just preferred talking to reporters, photographers and editors to hobnobbing.”
Though he was profoundly respected by industry peers, Nicholson says, and is viewed by some of them as “the best editor this country has ever seen,” his preference for staying in the newsroom meant he wasn’t well-known even in Philadelphia.
Nicholson and Layton want to spread the gospel about Roberts by sharing the story of his life and work in “The Newspaperman.” The filmmakers, who have been raising funds for the film on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, believe Roberts’ story has more relevance and resonance now than ever, what with shrinking newsrooms and shouts of “fake news” coming from the White House.
“We also feel like if we don’t tell it now, it will probably never get told to a wide audience,” Nicholson says. At least two book projects about Roberts never came to fruition, he says. The time felt right for a documentary treatment.
Although the Kickstarter campaign was fully funded Tuesday, the fundraiser is still accepting donations for the next few hours. Learn more or donate here.
I spoke by phone with Roberts, who is now 84, retired and lives in his home state, North Carolina. My own questions were supplemented by those from Storyboard editor Kari Howard, as well as the memories of Jeffrey Fleishman, who worked at the Inquirer under Roberts. What struck me most in the course of our hour-long conversation was the manner in which he spoke about his own work, never referring to “I,” but always to “we.”
My editor at Storyboard, Kari Howard, one of the biggest literary journalism fans around, has always said if there were a journalism time machine, she’d take it back to the Gene Roberts era at The Inquirer. She’s heard such great stories of the freedom you gave writers to find the story no one else was doing, or find a different way of telling a story we all know. Why do you think your newsroom was this Emerald City for storytelling journalists?
One of the theories I had was if you were gonna be an editor and run a newspaper, it was better to run one that had lots of problems and was broken rather than go to one that was successful where you had everyone afraid to make change because it might reduce the paper’s profitability or impair its success. When I got to the Inquirer it was unprofitable and had no way to go but up. One of the things we said was that we were going to build the best newsroom we were capable of building, so we just set out from there. We set about doing the best we could and having our fun doing it.
“He let the editor of the editorial page be the one to attend functions with city leaders and luminaries. Roberts stayed in the newsroom and plotted ways to make the paper better. He just preferred talking to reporters, photographers and editors to hobnobbing.”
One of the problems, which turned out to be a good thing, is that Philadelphia was not considered a place then that you went to looking for good journalism. Because the paper wasn’t making money when I first got there and for at least six or eight years thereafter — it was marginal — what we offered was a place to practice the best journalism you knew how to practice. Interestingly, that attracted a first-rate staff.
I think that strategy is so simple and smart and compelling, that idea that you can’t go anywhere but up. But there’s a lot more that goes into fostering that culture and reputation once it’s established, right? Once you had come into The Inquirer and established this vision for what it could become alongside your colleagues, how did you continue to grow in that way?
One of the most important things, one of the key reasons why I took the job, is that the Knight management structure with its larger papers was that the editor reported directly to Miami and no businessman locally was over the editor. And when you reported to Miami, the businessman had his own avenue of reporting and the newsroom had its own avenue. When it came to budget matters, both the newsroom and the business side generally came to an understanding before you went to Miami to get final budget approval. You weren’t in complete control of the finances, but you had more leverage than you would normally have as an editor because the business side of the newspaper couldn’t simply hand you a number and make you live with it without discussion. That was very important in building the paper. While we had a very good chief of the business side of the paper who had once been a reporter, having complete freedom without having to report to anyone locally was an important thing to have in trying to build a newspaper. I’m not aware of any place that exists now. It should, but it doesn’t: having a newsroom in charge of its own destiny without having to automatically salute to someone whose only real goal is getting the profits up.
Did you feel by the end of your time at the Inquirer that that model was about to shift?
It had shifted. I was the last editor at Knight Ridder who did not have to report to a publisher. And the last three or four years, I had to report, but it was with a dotted line to Miami. The whole budget process disappeared. Previously, you had gone to Miami, you and the businessman, and laid out what you intended to do in the coming year and what kind of budget you would need to accomplish it. Two or three years before I left, we were assigned a budget rather than negotiating it, and that is an important distinction. Previously, if you had made a good case, you stood a chance of getting some financial understanding. But if you were just assigned some number on what your budget was going to be—which, by the way, was usually dollars below the previous year—there was no way you could outline a program for improving the paper, and that became a real problem. And when they assigned you that number, it was usually with fewer people than the year before, too.
A reporter who worked under you said this of your leadership: “I never was in newsroom before or since that was so dedicated to storytelling. To stripping it all down to the human. It was a place to take chances, to swing big, to succeed and, sometimes to fail, but to look at what we did through the lens of a novel. To bring it to life.” Do you see that happening in a newsroom again, given all the changed priorities and economic constraints?
The difference between today and when I was an editor is that today, newspapers have a scary fundamental financial problem. When we turned the Inquirer around, and for Knight Ridder in general, we were financially stable and the company was somewhere around the 20% profit range – of every dollar that came in, they were holding onto 20%. It wasn’t life or death, which in some cases it may be today. If you were being cut, you were being cut to make a short-term profit goal.
One of the reasons why newspapers are in the fix they’re in today is because they never really had a research-and-development budget in which they worried about the future. And if we had figured out – and the basic technology was there – how to deliver the paper in the home, we might be facing a totally different future. The newsrooms accounted for only about 5 to 10% of the total expenditures of a newspaper, and there weren’t that many that approached the 10% level, and some were like 4 or 5%. Basically, the industry has had a kind of collapse, and the collapse was due to most of the newspapers becoming publicly held and the owners and management of the newspapers feeling they had to make Wall Street’s short-term profit goals, forgetting about the future. Most successful businesses and industries invest in the future through research and product development.
What advice would you offer other editors who may not feel they can dream as large as you did? What advice would you offer reporters who want to take chances with their storytelling?
“I am, by nature, an optimist, but it’s hard to be optimistic about journalism right now. We have got to come up with some solutions that provide more bodies to cover the news.”
In the very first year of Nieman, there was a guy named Eddie Leahy who was a rough-and-tumble reporter from Chicago who had never finished high school, if I remember correctly, but became a very able reporter and, in a way, helped shape the future of the Nieman program. He said, later in life, that as long as there was one little hole in a newspaper that you could fill up with a good story, a story that needed to be told, that life was worth living as a newspaperperson. And I agree with that. And even though editors today are grappling with tough economic times, the best of them are managing to do some really good journalism—but not enough of it. The current tragedy of journalism is that we’re probably operating below a third of the journalistic staff and maybe even a quarter of what we were operating with 20 or 30 years ago. Even then, you didn’t feel like you were doing all you could do, so the problem today is more acute.
Electronic journalism has not filled the void as far as bodies are concerned. We have immensely fewer reporters out there trying to cover a society that keeps getting more complex, not simpler, to cover. If we don’t find some solution, you wonder whether our basic democratic values are going to be eroded because the public is not being properly informed.
I’m also worried by the fact that Fox Broadcasting has you focus on the top two news stories of the day and now other networks are following the same procedure. You just wonder how much we are not addressing because it’s not being brought to our attention. The Inquirer was one of the first papers to break the worldwide dimensions of AIDS. You wonder what would happen today. At the time, you could follow your nose and not worry about the big story of the day, but the big story two weeks from now or one month from now.
I’m told this is the language that was written on cards when you left The Inquirer. How does it make you feel now, several decades later? “The Eugene L. Roberts Prize is meant to encourage and is dedicated to the story of the untold event that oozes instead of breaks, to the story that reveals, not repeats, to the reporter who zigs instead of zags, to the truth, as opposed to the facts, to the forest, not just the trees, to the story they’ll be talking about in the coffee shop on Main Street, to the story that answers not just who, what, where, when, and why, but also, ‘So what?’; to efforts at portraying real life itself; to journalism that ‘wakes me up and makes me see’; to the revival of the disappearing storyteller.”
I would say that the Raleigh [North Carolina] paper, while not doing as much as they would want or I would want, considering how much their staff has been reduced—I hear from 250 to about 85—manages to do some of that, and they do an occasional ooze story. They do try to practice some storytelling, basically with two or three reporters. But people are still trying even with very serious odds against them, stretched painfully thin; somehow, someway, they manage to break through on a story that needs to be told. I just wish there were more of them.
I am, by nature, an optimist, but it’s hard to be optimistic about journalism right now. We have got to come up with some solutions that provide more bodies to cover the news. The scary thing is that society as a whole does not realize it has a problem. If you just interviewed the person in the street, that person would say he or she is being bombarded with news.