A Former Dallas News'er Takes on the Entire Newspaper Business

Photo by John Hibey
Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza interviewed Walter Cronkite for their doc-in-progress.
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Yesterday we mentioned Craig Flournoy and Tracy Everbach's bad-News piece in the latest Columbia Journalism Review, for which they claim to have interviewed about 100 former newsroomies. But one former Dallas Morning News'er with whom they didn't touch base was TV critic Manny Mendoza, among those who took last fall's buyout -- so he could head to Vegas for a year's worth of poker playing, Manny would occasionally threaten back then. Turns out, he decided to become a filmmaker instead. That's called a large re-raise.

Yup, for the last several months, he's been working with well-respected local doc-maker Mark Birnbaum on a film about the future of the newspaper business. Titled, at the moment, Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril, it took as its jumping-off point the layoffs and buyouts at the News -- among those interviewed were TV critic Ed Bark, architecture critic David Dillon and sports editor Dwayne Bray -- but quickly became a Big Picture kind of endeavor. Mendoza says he and Birnbaum have interviewed "exactly 102 people" -- among them Walter Cronkite, former Washington Post bossman Ben Bradlee, ex-Spy editor and novelist Kurt Anderson and Len Downie, executive editor at The Washington Post -- and ended up with 109 hours of tape, which they're in the process of whittling down to a rough cut they hope to have finished in the fall.

"Our whole premise going in and our only assumption was we thought newspapers were very integral to democracy in America, and they seem to be in peril," Mendoza tells Unfair Park. "And if they're in peril, that puts democracy in peril. We also wanted to find out why Wall Street on the one hand thinks newspapers are bad investments, when the Los Angeles Times is sending a quarter of a billion to Chicago every year in profit. It's complicated."

Initially, Mendoza approached Birnbaum last year about making a documentary about local artist Frank Campagna, who owns and operate the Kettle Art gallery in Deep Ellum. Mendoza wanted to "make an art film" with his buyout money and then spend time with the family in Florida before figuring out his next move. But Birnbaum says he had other ideas: There had been plenty written in the last few years about The Death of the Newspaper, but no one had made a film on the subject. And since Mendoza knew plenty about it, well, yeah, he was in.

And it was personal for Birnbaum as well; he says he knew plenty of people at Dallas' Only Daily who were "struggling with whether they should remain journalists or take the buyout and go somewhere else." When Mendoza informed Birnbaum -- about who Mendoza had written a story years ago, when Birnbaum was finishing his documentary Larry v. Lockney with co-director Jim Schermbeck -- he was making the jump, Birnbaum told him, "Let's do this film."

"So we started shooting interviews with people in Dallas immediately -- we did 17 interviews," Mendoza says. "We even talked to Laura Miller, who was really good. But we didn't have any funding at that point. Mark's usually made his personal films in between paid jobs, and I couldn't spend two or three years on this for nothing. So I went to Florida to hang out with family, I got home in December, and by the first of the year Andy Streitfeld of AMS production Group, a big commercial house, put up enough money for us to travel and a little for us. But I am working well below my normal rate -- change per hour, I think it works out to. But we were off and running."

Make no mistake: Mendoza and Birnbaum are still looking for financing to finish the movie. And only a little of what they've come up with is available on their Web site -- the only video clip is an interview with Downie and Bob Kaiser, associate editor at The Washington Post. They hope to have a 10-minute clip ready to show at the Dallas Video Festival early next month, then perhaps get it screened on PBS' P.O.V. series some time next year. But there are still interviews to be done: Both men say they'd like to get more newspaper owners on record, but they've been reluctant to sit for the cameras thus far.

And in case you're wondering, no one in management from The Dallas Morning News has agreed to an interview for the movie. Not so far, anyway. "I think they will before this is over," Mendoza insists. --Robert Wilonsky

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