Vanished world: The immortal journalism of Joseph Mitchell

Life comes at you fast. Somehow, I’ve been a working, paid journalist for 30 years now, and the industry is almost an entirely different animal than it was back in 1992 when I started getting my first bylines in the college newspaper. 

I came in just as the digital world started to change everything. The town newspaper I first worked at professionally in small-town Mississippi still had dusty trays of hot type slugs tucked under the composing table. While chunky early Macs were being used to lay out the pages by then, the final layouts were still painstakingly pasted up from print-outs before being walked over to the press room. These days, much of my journalism work is in mediums I wouldn’t have even quite comprehended in 1992. 

The appeal of journalism for many newcomers is a fundamentally romantic one. The big scoop! The breaking news! It’s never exactly as you imagined it, of course, and there’s plenty of dull moments, like there are in any job. In recent months, I’ve been revisiting the work of one of the patron saints of long-form journalism to spark inspiration and to remember that at its heart, before counting clicks and hot takes and fighting misinformation, it’s all about telling a story.

Few people told a story better than Joseph Mitchell, who walked the streets of New York for a variety of long-gone papers nearly a century ago, before going on to become one of the best-loved New Yorker writers of all time.  

Mitchell was the bard of cheap dives and eccentrics, finding stories to tell far away from the ivory towers. “I believe the most interesting human beings, as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender,” he’d write.

His most famous work, Joe Gould’s Secret, memorably explored a bohemian “blithe and emaciated man” who claimed to be writing the longest book in history – or maybe he wasn’t. 

But Mitchell wasn’t just about the oddballs – his “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is a gorgeous, sensitive look at an elderly Black man at the end of his days, while “Up In The Old Hotel” is a captivating read about mysteries hidden in Manhattan’s old buildings. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” evokes every beer stain and cigar stub at the oldest Irish bar in New York and its impossibly stern manager, who served only one kind of ale and would close up if the bar got too crowded with “too much confounded trade.” 

Mitchell is all meat, no fat in his writing, and many of us journalists today could learn from his economic, indelible descriptions – a man whose “profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth,” or former President Herbert Hoover, who had “the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains.” But clarity is the guiding light – he’d note, “A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

“The best talk is artless,” Mitchell would write. “The talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

Decades after his death, it’s worth mentioning there is some controversy over how Mitchell may have blurred the line between fact and fiction in some of his later work. It’s a fuzzy line that probably shouldn’t have been crossed, although times were different then, and the essential core of his storytelling remains based on fact. 

Leaving the desk and hitting the streets to find your story has gotten less and less common as journalism has changed, as stories are put together via scraping social media posts or quick emails to the same talking heads over and over. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this tactic, but have to admit that over my 30 years now in the industry the stories I remember most are the ones where I went out and talked to another human being face to face, listening to their ‘artless talk’ and their stories. Mitchell’s world is long gone, but his writing remains a touchstone for me. 

Joe Mitchell’s best is collected in the essential collections Up In The Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. Decades after he scribbled his bylines, it’s all still mandatory reading for anyone who wonders what journalism and telling people’s stories should be about. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time for an update for some of my paying writing! I have been writing some book reviews recently for the great New Zealand Listener magazine, including in this week’s issue, a look at Anthony Horowitz‘s new James Bond novel With A Mind To Kill, the latest in the never-ending series of authorised 007 adventures and a pretty cracking read.

Plus, I also recently reviewed a nifty new revisionist biography of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, Straits: Beyond The Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in the June 18 issue!

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t online, but hey, if you’re in New Zealand do pick up a nice shiny print copy of the latest issue if you like!

I’m also continuing to help debunk the never-ending flow of misinformation out here on the internets (I mean, seriously. It never, ever ends) through my writing for AAP FactCheck. It’s not all Covid misinfo these days, and some recent factchecks I’ve worked on include:

For the answers to these and other exciting questions, do check out AAP FactCheck‘s home page and help us fight back against the plague of falsehoods!

Breaking News: My Top 10 Journalism Movies

It’s been a week for movies and the media. I was part of the team live-blogging the Oscars over at RNZ this week which, um, took an interesting turn about 2/3 of the way into the show, you might have heard. 

I love it when one of my favourite things, the movies, intersects with my profession for many years now, journalism. And after the Oscars live-blogging marathon Monday night, I had to unwind with one of my favourite movies about journalism (which one? scroll to the end*, my friend). 

The art and craft of journalism has long fascinated filmmakers and resulted in some terrific movies – including that one many people regard as the best of all time, Citizen Kane. I sat down to write about 10 or so of my favourite journalism movies and ended with a sprawling list. I narrowed it down, and from the start I eliminated any documentaries (which are a form of journalism itself). Ever since I was a kid, the idea of journalism has appealed to me, even if in real life it’s not all glam and scoops. 

This list of my Top 10 Journalism Movies includes ones that idealise the profession like crazy, ones that just use it as a prop for a comedy or a romance, and a few that really delve into the gritty hard yards that make a truly great story. Some of them really capture what it’s like to be a journo, and some of them really capture what we all wish it was like to be a journo. 

In alphabetical order: 

Ace In The Hole (1951) – The late great Kirk Douglas in his finest role, as a cartoonishly conniving tabloid journalist exiled to the rural sticks who stumbles on the “story of the century” when a local man gets trapped in a cave. Billy Wilder’s cynical noir takes us deep inside the media circus that ensues, and we watch in real time as Kirk’s Chuck Tatum slowly loses what’s left of his soul. We’ve had countless “boy stuck in a well” type media sensations in the decades since, but nothing has ever captured the dark side of journalism better. 

All The President’s Men (1976) – There’s no way any list of journalism movies could ignore this one. Oh, for the days when Watergate was the biggest scandal a White House could imagine. There’s no movie that shows the painstaking, frustrating detective side of journalism better than this masterpiece, with Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations portrayed with stark realism despite glossy Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing their parts. The click of typewriters and hours on the landline phone, the endless cigarettes, the newsroom almost entirely run by white men wearing ties – this is a vanished world now, and journalism is probably better for leaving a lot of that behind, but nothing quite captures what it was like “back in the day” better than this film. 

Almost Famous (2000) – The life that William Miller leads in Cameron Crowe’s gentle and bittersweet coming-of-age comedy is pretty much exactly the life I imagined I might have when I started scribbling as an entertainment journalist in the mid 1990s. Spoiler: I didn’t go on tour with Stillwater or fall in love with Penny Lane. Crowe’s movie is warmly sentimental, but in the best possible way. With the acerbic interjections of the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs to balance things out, Almost Famous shows us a fairy-tale fantasy of journalism that I can’t help falling in love with every time I watch it. 

Anchorman (2004) – Absurdly goofy? Sure! The gem in Will Ferrell’s run of wacky comedies is a spoof of journalism, but it’s also subtly a very accurate satire of the alpha-male mentality that existed in newsrooms for decades, one that was still quite rampant just as I was entering the industry. It’s only in the last few decades that newsrooms have become a bit more diverse, and in between all the gags Anchorman accurately captures what it’s like when journalists start to believe their own hype and let their ego take over. (See also: Any number of the ‘outrage merchants’ who chatter and moan daily on American news networks today.)

Broadcast News (1987) – The great journalism romantic comedy, even beating out Cary Grant’s His Girl Friday. The late William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are a perfect trio of striving TV journalists in the 1980s, capturing the mix of solid professionalism, glossy vapid good looks and gender battles that defined the era. James L. Brooks carefully keeps all his characters human despite their foibles, and it’s a movie that’s as much in love with journalism and it gently mocks it. And for my money, the “Albert Brooks sweating” scene is one of the funniest journalism fails ever portrayed on screen. 

Citizen Kane (1941) – The grandfather of all journalism movies, even if it’s perhaps more about the corruption of power than anything else. But Orson Welles captures the era when news publishers were almost kings in his very lightly fictionalised take on William Randolph Hearst, and how Kane uses the immense power of the press to build himself a perfect world – without ever really knowing what to do once he gets it. 

The French Dispatch (2021) – The newest movie on this list, Wes Anderson’s kaleidoscopic anthology imagines a series of articles in a New Yorker-type magazine in its final issue. Anderson’s unique aesthetic has never been more pronounced than it is in this incredibly dense, ornate movie, which I immediately wanted to see a second time so I could go back and catch all the jokes and references I missed the first time around.

Shattered Glass (2003) – For a while there in the pre-social media world, scandals about plagiarist journalists were all the rage. This tense and darkly funny under-seen gem looks at the curious Stephen Glass, who made up magazine scoops left and right until he was caught. Featuring a never-better performance by Hayden Christensen, who will wipe your memories entirely of his hammy Anakin Skywalker, and terrific work by Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who exposes him.

Spotlight (2015) – A solid companion to All The President’s Men, set at the twilight of a certain kind of journalism, before job cuts gutted newsrooms worldwide. This deserving Oscar winner showcases a Boston investigative journalists team and their stunning work uncovering sex abuse cover-ups within the Catholic Church. With an absolutely top-notch cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, it’s another movie that patiently shows the hard, hard work that goes into breaking a massive story, and yet makes it exciting as any thriller. 

Zodiac (2007) – When journalism turns into obsession. David Fincher’s sprawling, sinister epic about the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer avoids tidy serial murder movie cliches or easy closure, and somehow that makes it even more disturbing than any blood-soaked horror might. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo are terrific as journalists who slowly lose their minds trying to find a killer, and Fincher masterfully escalates a sense of dread, which is inextricably tied to the one single question that drives almost every journalist’s career: I want to know

Clustered together at #11: His Girl Friday, The Sweet Smell of Success, Fletch, The Paper, Good Night And Good Luck, The Philadelphia Story, Adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

(*So what did I watch after Oscars live-blogging? Well, after a night that hit the peaks of drama and absurdity, what else could I watch but Anchorman for the 458th time? What can I say … sometimes journalism really is like being trapped in a glass case of emotion.)

RIP to Entertainment Weekly, my pop-culture guide to the 1990s and beyond

I knew the patient was in critical condition for some time, but it’s still hard to say goodbye. The patient wasn’t a person, but a cultural moment, a blip of journalistic history – a magazine that has finally breathed its last.

Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that I read from its very first issue 32 years ago, is folding its print edition, it was announced this week in another one of those ice-cold corporate downsizing memos so familiar to journalism.

The world is too big and fractured now for a general-interest entertainment magazine now I guess, but I’ll still miss it. (It will continue as digital only, but honestly, that’s not the same at all.)

It’s a death among many in the media world and one I knew was coming ever since a couple of years ago when the magazine switched from weekly to monthly publication (and yet bizarrely, kept the name Entertainment Weekly). In a world of digital bits and unending social media outrages and whines, I miss the fading humble magazine. I still subscribe to some of the best – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NZ’s Listener and North & South – but it’s a battle for eyeballs in a world filled with scrolling distractions.

I guess I’m a bit sad about Entertainment Weekly because I was there from the very, very start in 1990, and carried on my subscription for a good 20 years or so until moving to New Zealand made the cost unfeasible. I was a “charter subscriber” because I saw an advert somewhere and got the first few issues free. I bought my final issue on my trip back to the US just a few weeks ago of the now “Monthly Weekly,” their year-end issue with a seemingly immortal Keanu Reeves on the cover flogging the latest Matrix movie. 

In between, I read thousands of the damn things. Back in the 1990s, as a twenty-something in the pre-internet world, magazines like EW were my guide to the wider shared universe. It was never too fringe or counter-cultural, but for much of its time EW was still pretty egalitarian in its coverage. I learned about movies, books, music and more I’d never heard of, some I came to love. In a pre-Google world, magazines like EW, Spin, Rolling Stone and Premiere were my pop culture tutors. I held on to many of the 1990s issues forever – Brad and Jen forever! – but eventually, they went off to the recycler.  

But I’ve still got a decent pile of old ones in our musty basement decades on – I kept pretty much every “Year In Review” issue with its top ten lists of bests and worsts from 1990 through the mid-2010s or so. I’ve still got their encyclopaedic issues devoted to “Seinfeld” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and they’re still pretty cool. As glossy time capsules do, you could do worse.

I’ve still got the somewhat battered very first issue of Entertainment Weekly, somehow, decades on – dated almost exactly 32 years ago, February 16, 1990, with k.d. lang and Neneh Cherry on the cover (hello, 1990s!). It’s a marvellous little time capsule of that vanished world, with cigarette advertisements galore and an offer to get the ENTIRE James Bond series on shiny VHS tapes from Time-Life Video. (Pay a mere $1 for the first tape and others will follow about one every month.) 

In his opening-issue editorial, Jeff Jarvis sets out a manifesto – entertaining, but honest, no “long, pompous articles,” but also “a voice for quality in a business that needs one.” I wouldn’t argue that EW was high culture, but it introduced me to an awful lot of it along the way.

That first issue touches all the early 1990s icons – Murphy Brown, Fox’s Married With Children, how to install a newfangled car CD changer, or the latest album by some colourful rapper named M.C. Hammer (which gets an “A-,” and “tells important truths,” according to the review).

But it’s also got a lot of strong, in-depth coverage – several pages devoted to thoughtful book reviews, or a look at how the then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall was helped along by repressed artists. EW always balanced on the wire between fluff and substance, but it was a hell of a smarter read than things like People or Us magazine were. There were frequent long, deep reads into pop culture history that made up for the gossipy stuff. 

Like many things, it declined, though, pivoting an awful lot to try and figure out how to beat the internet. In 1990, a weekly magazine was fresh and current. In 2022, a now-monthly magazine was endlessly behind the pop culture beat. 

Yet even in that final January 2022 issue I picked up, there was still plenty worth reading in Entertainment ‘Weekly.’ A solid oral history of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders sits next to an interview with a Booker Prize-winning author and lists of the year’s best movies (Licorice Pizza and Power of The Dog, yes please). It was struggling, but there were still glimpses of its glory days. 

We’re in a world now where a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, with a name that no longer even fit, couldn’t help but seem dated within days of its release. I find that kind of sad, and while I’m still a nut for pop culture and always looking for good books to read, movies to see and music to hear, I tip my cap to the magazine that guided me through so much of the 1990s. We won’t see anything like it again. 

The life and times of a newspaper columnist (plus a free e-book!)

Once upon a time, I was a columnist. 

I’ve written thousands and thousands of words for work and pleasure, and drawn hundred and hundreds of pages of comics. I’ve written music reviews, breaking news, feature profiles, police reports, posted tweets and edited more stories and wrote more headlines than I can bear to count in my 25+ years in the industry across several countries.

But I have to admit, my columnist days are still close to my heart. I was a newspaper columnist in the fading days of when such things mattered, in the glittering early days of the internet and long before social media was a gleam in pre-pubescent Zuckerberg’s eye. I admired the great columnists who were big in the 1990s – Leonard Pitts, Lewis Grizzard, Jon Carroll, Molly Ivins – or the ancients like Herb Caen, Mike Royko or H.L. Mencken

I wrote a newspaper column under various dire titles in various sometimes dire places for more than 10 years across several states, starting in my university newspaper in Mississippi and carrying on across California and Oregon newspapers too, until one day around 2005, I just kind of stopped. I sometimes wrote about the issues of the day, but more often, I just kind of wrote about me.

Back in 2006 I put together a little book of what I thought was the best of my column years for friends and family. I’m glad it exists, as a kind of hefty memorial to one part of my life. And hey, you can view and download the PDF of said book for free right here:

Spatula Forum Greatest Hits 1994-2004

Some of these pieces are among the best writing I’ve ever done, I think, and some of these pieces are kind of embarrassing to read now – but also, I’m glad they’re there. They are a time capsule of friends and feelings I had, of people I’ve lost touch with and people I’m still very good friends with. Your twenties are like no other time in your life, and boy, they go by fast. They’re artifacts of a time when every moment in my life seemed filled with drama and I sure wouldn’t have imagined what the world of 2021 turned out like. 

I wrote with my heart on my sleeve a lot more than I’d ever do these days – the struggles and egos of a twenty-something trying to figure out the world, slowly morphing into a thirty-something married and with a kid on the way. I admit, sadly, I think I was less angry and the world less angry then. 

Young idealistic journalist, pasting up actual pages for actual newspapers on an actual composing desk that must’ve been 200 years old.

There aren’t lot of real columnists left now. There’s a lot of what I call “outrage merchants,” who spout off political opinions aimed to get the clicks or terrible pieces complaining about sausage rolls, but the art of crafting a kind of gentle, thoughtful essay printed on an actual newspaper or its website is kind of vanished. 

The great writing has migrated online to other places, magazines and websites, and unlike when I started scribbling thoughts about old friends and familiar places almost 30 years ago, there are plenty of outlets for it. There is still a lot of wonderful writing out there, but the column as it once was is pretty much a dying art form. Hey, things change. It’s the never-ending story.

I started blogging regularly in like 2004, stopped that in 2010 or so and then picked it up again a few years back. I never stopped writing, but I started writing about different things, some for money, some for pleasure. 

Writing columns also is a finite thing for most. In previous lives, I’d hire columnists myself for various newspapers, and often people would come in with one great idea, maybe two. “And what will you write for the third column?” I’d say. I wrote a few hundred columns myself over a decade and then I knew that the well was kind of dry. 

I gave it up when I realised I didn’t have much more to say in that candid columnist’s fashion about my life and times, and I had little new to add to the debates of the day, and went on to write other things in other ways. These days, everyone shares their feelings all the time in a never-ending fashion on the internet and social media in real time, and I have to admit, like many people, I’ve kind of gone from being eager and excited by social media to loathing a great deal of it and its effect on the world. 

I’d write a column about that, but honestly, do we really need another outraged column these days, at all? 

Still, I’ll be back with more bloggery in 2022. Have yourself an excellent holidays.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!

I’ve been stretching my mouth / to let those big words come on out

…In a nifty little coda to the piece on Peter Gabriel I wrote late last year, I was invited on Radio New Zealand yesterday for their Afternoons Music Feature to talk all things Gabriel with host Jesse Mulligan and play a selection of his grooviest tunes. Listen to my occasionally coherent babbling! Hear some good songs!

You can listen to the full audio right here!

And here’s the playlist of the songs I selected if you’re interested:

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:

First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:

Opinion: The one word that really matters for US Election Day

But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:

Amy Coney Barrett: It’s all about the politics

Enjoy! More pop culture content after Election Day, assuming we’re all still here…