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Hollywood Doesn't Understand New Media

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty

Within the first few minutes of David Fincher’s anxious new political drama “House of Cards,” we meet Zoe Barnes, an enterprising young journalist working at the fictional Washington Herald. She’s in a face-off with a seasoned editor, begging him: “Move me online.” She wears a hoodie and jeans; he’s sporting a suit. "I’ll go underground. Back rooms. The urinals. I’ll win over staff members on the Hill.” 

“A gossip column?” he asks. “This is the Washington Herald, Zoe. It’s not TMZ.”

“Do you know how many people watch TMZ?” she counters.

“I could care less.”

“Which is why print journalism is dying,” she says.

“Then it’ll die with dignity, at least at this paper.”

Newsrooms and magazine headquarters have made for striking settings for decades, but now there's an extra layer of drama: the shift from print to online media.1 And more often than not, the transition has been fumbled. Hollywood has shown little creativity when it comes to online media, presenting a contemporary news landscape that reinforces outmoded stereotypes and reductive oppositions: ethically misguided young writers against morally upright old writers, online against print, rapid-fire against steadily paced, blog posts against stories, personal glory-seekers against team players, bold innovators against stalwarts. Clumsiness aside, these shows miss a fundamental ingredient in the new-old media dichotomy: It’s often the youngest who are the most nostalgic.

Perhaps the earliest example of the old/new media divide occurs in Season 5 of David Simon’s “The Wire.” The show never really addresses the digital shift—it only goes so far as lamenting the “shrinking news hole” and downsized newspaper staffs—but it presents a prototype for the fictional young blogger we see today: A young hotshot named Scott Templeton willing to discard journalistic ethics for a byline atop a juicy story. For Simon, a former newspaper man who’s deeply cynical about the future of media, this was a way of presenting a cautionary tale.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes

Recently, the divide has been made more explicit—and more blunt. In 2009, the political thriller State of Play featured Rachel McAdams as a young blogger at odds with the old-media establishment at the fictional Washington Globe. While State of Play did right by allowing its young blogger and its experienced reporter (the crotchety Russell Crowe) to find a middle ground, it still presented the same befuddling vision of the internet as a foreign, fleeting entity. Big signs in the Washington Globe office divide the staff into “INTERNET” and “EDITORIAL”; an editor explains that McAdams’ character is “hungry, cheap, and churns out copy every hour.” And the thread that united the many twists and turns of "Gossip Girl"—which began in 2007—was the vicious, all-knowing, anonymous blogger.

Things seem to have become even less nuanced since then. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller Contagion, in which a snaggle-toothed Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a rogue blogger intent on exposing the story behind a globe-threatening epidemic. He tries pitching his scoop to a skeptical editor at The San Francisco Chronicle, explaining that in a few days, “This will be tweeted and YouTubed all over the planet ... Print media is dying, Lorraine. It’s dying.” Later, Law’s character takes his digital recorder and ambushes a scientist, who protests him by yelling: “Blogging is NOT writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.” Then there was “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 HBO drama about a present-day news broadcast show, which discarded potentially fertile material for a chance to bloviate about bygone journalistic ethics, zooming in on a grumpy anchorman obsessed with “speaking truth to stupid.” There’s no satire or nuance from Sorkin there—recall the time he famously told a reporter, “Listen here, Internet girl. It wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.” The new media journalists in these shows and films are all making their way through broad-stroke fictional worlds where the words blog and online still—in 2012, 2013—roll off the tongue with a curmudgeonly dose of spit and bile.

Television and film occasionally hit a note that rings true—if painfully obvious—but they’ve yet to nail the young journalist character.2 While a blog might have been the romantic dream destination five or six years ago, the pendulum now feels like it’s swinging back the other way. Most of the young writers I know view blogging as a trial to be endured before they can make the leap to bigger, slower, meatier pieces. There’s nothing glamorous about the realities of meeting a quota for posts, dashing off 300-word snippets that’ll be forgotten before the end of the day. Dramatic portrayals of new media in television or film conveniently brush aside a deeply mundane reality: Bloggers are often simply aspiring longform reporters, reverently drumming up pageviews until they’ve earned their shot at the big leagues. Lena Dunham—one of the only contemporary directors likely to have friends in young media circles—gets it right on season two of "Girls" by presenting the e-book as a somewhat scorned medium; her excitement over her “book deal” is repeatedly dampened by the follow-up clarification that it’s an e-book. Dunham acknowledges what others can’t: that online publishing may be the future, but ink and pen still carry the prestige that most writers, including the young ones, seek.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede

It’s not hard to see why this is the case. The explosion of new sites has cheapened the feel of online spaces, figuratively and literally—fees for elusive printed work are still significantly higher than fees for online work.3 Old media, where the barriers to entry are possibly higher than they were in previous eras, has a seductive and exclusive aura. (Has anyone ever thrown a book party for an e-book?) Even new, digital platforms like Longreads, Longform, Atavist, and Byliner fetishize lengthy reported pieces. And why shouldn't young people idealize classic media models, when new media remains the subject of so much scorn and confusion?

Maybe some of these contemporary movies and shows intend to express Hollywood’s genuine concern over what might happen in a world where traditional reporting is lost. But it’s more likely a combination of fear and willful ignorance that propels these fictional dynamics. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for Hollywood if digital communication really was just a fad and screenwriters never had to face the inevitable storytelling challenge of inter-office IM conversations or Twitter feuds?

Luckily Fincher—who successfully took on the challenge of translating the Facebook story to the big screen in The Social Network (2010)—seems to know he can’t take the easy way out forever. His decision to take part in the first-ever drama series distributed by Netflix (“House of Cards”) is an implicit nod toward the future of digital media. It’s maybe no coincidence, then, that the final episodes of “House of Cards” include a harmonious triumph in the battle between Zoe Barnes’s online-media vision and her print counterparts. She’s pictured in her dark apartment alongside the editor from the show’s opening episode and a veteran White House reporter. They’re hunched over a laptop and a pile of juicy documents, bouncing theories off one another without laboring over how they’ll eventually be published. Perhaps, as he looks to season two, Fincher, in spite of his misfires, understands that the collaboration between the two worlds makes for better media and better television.

  1. Some newsroom classics: Network, Absence of Malice, Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, The September Issue, and Page One.

  2. A "30 Rock" episode that poked fun at Jezebel with a fictional blog called "Joan of Snark" was nicely apt.

  3. The best source for this is probably a new crowd-sourced blog called Who Pays, where freelancers anonymously submit their fees.