CPH:DOX The Newsroom: Off the Record
Screened as part of CPH:DOX 2014
Paper journalism is having a tough time, especially tabloid journalism like Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet. This film, following life at the paper for a year, sees circulation numbers dropping from 60.000 to 50.000 and desperation taking over. It’s recommended to anyone interested in the state of news-media, though the circumstances surrounding Ekstra Bladet are very, very particular.
In the year the film shows, Ekstra Bladet started a campaign to get two Danish sailors, Eddy Lopez and Søren Lyngbjørn, released from their captivity in Somalia. We watch as the reporters dig up information on the luxury houses the Shipping Firm’s bosses are buying, through the critique the paper got, claiming that their excessive focus on the sailors made the prize higher and even prolonged the negotiations. We watch through the nail-biting moments when the hostages are finally released, and the journalists are waiting for the confirming call, competing with tv-news to be the first to break the story of the release. And we watch as everything goes wrong afterwards, as the hostages themselves complains of the undignified way they felt the paper treated them, and the Danish ‘Pressenævn’ gives severe criticism and forces the paper to publish a correction on the front page.
Into this thread is woven a multitude of smaller stories. A young intern – one of only a handful willing to intern at the troubled paper – gets her first front-page story on a mishap in an ambulance, gets to take home the paper and the giant flyer promoting that days paper all over town, but also gets a complaint from the authorities since the headline was sensationalized until it became misleading, and gets told that she was rude. This perfectly encapsulates the paradox at the paper: The excitement from trying to create the hard-hitting story that will drive national discussion, but also the unsatisfactory feeling resulting from the journalistic compromising having to be done to sell the story the Ekstra Bladet way.
It would take a very smart and driven person to resolve this paradox, to make it seem as if the populism is giving voice to the people, rather than just exploiting lowest common denominator to sell more papers. Unfortunately, chief editor Poul Madsen is decisively not that man. A smart man, with a love for paper journalism and an eye for a great story, throughout all the confessionals to the camera as well as the explaining he is forced to due to the public, he can never get rid of a sense of being driven by vanity rather than journalistic idealism. He is constantly tweeting and comparing his amount of other, less popular people. In an early scene, the paper does a real journalistic coup, breaking a story on the wasteful spending being done by former and in-all-probability-unless-something-really-surprising-happens soon to again be Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. At the press conference they force Mr Rasmussen to give, you see in the annoyance of the important politician exactly why a society need brave journalists speaking truth to power. But then, at the end of the film, when Poul Madsen has to hold his own conference answering questions about the critique on the hostage-story, we see much the same annoyance at him. The leader of the paper does not seem that different from the other leaders they are trying to keep in place, and that realization is a sad one.
Ekstra Bladet is probably the most hated newspaper in Denmark, and it’s web-page community, called ‘Nationen’ is famous for it’s harsh tone, bordering on racist. It should not be compared to something like News of the World, however. While the film shows the paper making mistake after mistake in it’s quest for survival, there never seems to be anything illegal going on – that would have happened in the same period at a weekly called Se & Hør, incidentally. Instead, it’s a bunch of people, editors included, doing their best in a situation which seems to be actively hostile to good, quality journalism, and even succeeding at times, in spite of all odds. It is a depressing portrait, but a captivating one as well.