Scotch and a Shoebox

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Scotch and a Shoebox

“I can’t publish this crap, Noaks.”
“It’s one of my better pieces.”
“I’m talking content. Not form.”
“Me too.” Noaks shifted his phone to the other ear to fish for a broken piece of chalk in the Crayola box.
“Look Noaks, you can’t thumb your nose at newspapers in a newspaper any more than you can publicly ridicule the president when you work in his cabinet.”
“We’re in the news and opinion business. Not politics.”
“Thank the gods. But honestly, Noaks, what got into you? You’re pulling the lever on your own trap door.”
“Lose the metaphor.”
“I live in metaphor.”
“Me too. But I do it with tact.”
“I would fire you in a heartbeat, Noaks, if you weren’t such a—”
“This I know.” Noaks interrupted. “You’ve said. Hey, it’s my job to give you a hard time, remember?” He took a breath and leaned back against his apartment’s small dining room table. “I’m trying to tell the story of the newspaper industry’s declining fortunes from the perspective of those in the industry itself. It’s not scandalous. It’s the truth. The industry is teetering on a knife’s edge between two chasms, and I honestly don’t know to which side it’ll fall. To one side, the industry peters out asymptotically as Internetainment fosters a screen-obsessed culture where most Americans could care less about flipping a page. It’s either that or the industry succumbs to the—”
A knock at the door cut him short.
“Hey, can I put you hold for a sec?” He said, muting the phone and swinging around the half-wall. His apartment door was already open by the time he got to it, and Marilyn was in the process of stepping out of her pink flamingo slippers. She held a shoebox in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other. Noaks un-muted his phone.
“Sorry about that. Someone just showed up at my apartment. They can wait.” He threw a glare at Marilyn and mouthed “my editor,” pointing to his phone. She shrugged and waddled into his kitchen.
“So the industry either wastes away to the point where even the hotels stop leaving USA Today outside your door or the industry succumbs to the short-attention-span century and somehow becomes as experiential as the next piece of pop culture fluff.
“Fallacy.” Marilyn spurted from the kitchen, trying to reach a pair of juice glasses on the shelf above his stove.
“It’s too early to make these sort of judgements, Noaks.”
Marilyn turned around. “Put him on speakerphone.”
“No.” Noaks shouted at her silently. “The public knows this stuff,” he said into the phone, “but they need a bit of transparency from their resources on the problem we at the paper don’t want to talk about.”
“Transparency.” Marilyn echoed.
“Don’t think I don’t know the problem, Noaks.” His editor said. “I sit through a half hour of meetings every day with bleary-eyed execs from the Tribune who take one look at that downward-trending line graph and go all ‘prophet of doom’ on us. But we don’t show those line graphs to the public, Noaks, and we sure don’t need you to be spilling the ‘prophet of doom beans’ for us.
“You should sell a coffee called that.” Said Noaks.
“Care for any?” Marilyn asked, pouring a glass of the scotch and sliding it at him. He shook his head, more in puzzlement than in refusal, mouthing “I don’t drink.”
“Keep the reader happy and oblivious.” Said the voice on the other end of the line. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot Noaks.”
“I’m not shooting myself or the Tribune in the foot. I’m being a journalist. I’m telling things as they are.” Marilyn nodded her approval and sat down at the table.
“You know what,” said his editor, “sometimes you just can’t tell things as they are, Noaks. I’ll be blunt. I’m not sending this story to press as it is. Get me a silver lining by nine tomorrow, and we’ll reassess.”
“I’m not going to sugar-coat this.” Noaks shot back. But the other end of the line was already dead.
“You sure you wouldn’t like any?” Marilyn asked. She had poured two glasses.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Noaks said dryly. “It’s one in the afternoon.”
She shrugged. “More for me then.”
“What do you mean, ‘fallacy’?” He asked, dropping into a chair.
“You’re setting up a false dilemma. You say: ‘liberty or death.’ I say: ‘liberty, death, or cake.’ Oh. And the thing about having your cake and eating it too? I solved it: two cakes. But that’s beside the point. Or is it? Or is that very question a false dilemma too?”
“Are these questions rhetorical?”
“Entirely. My point is, you’re not leaving yourself the space for a third fate to the newspaper industry.”
“You see an alternative to the deterioration/accommodation thing?
She opened up the shoebox she brought. “These are photographs.”
“I can see that.”
“But these are not photographs. These are stories.” She was being grandmotherly now.
“Did you take these?”
“No. I told these.” She held up a Leica III that was tucked into the shoebox between reams of black-and-white prints.
“These are incredible.”
“I ripped a page from Cartier-Bresson’s playbook.”
“The father of photojournalism. Indeed! And here I though you only painted pictures with your brain.”
“I’m leaving these with you. You’ll learn far more about my story through the stories I’ve told than you will if I bore you with it myself.”
“Well thank you! These are really quite something. But, um, how does this relate to the fate of the newspaper industry?”
“There’s another option to your deterioration/accommodation silliness. There’s such a glut of easily-accessible stupid entertainment and shallow personality out there that at some point, the Internet phenomenon will backfire. People crave stories, Noaks. Real stories.” She held up one of her photographs and flapped it noisily. “They’ll come looking for real stories in real places where they don’t have to disconnect from reality under fake presences of real connection. People are going to start realizing how hollow their lives are. It might take a decade. It might take a century. But your industry needs to be ready for when that long term thing actually happens.”
“How?”
“‘Why’, Noaks. ‘Why.’ Not ‘how.'”
“Fine. Why?”
“Good question, Noaks. Because when social media takes a face plant, people are going to flock back to the black-and-white classics. They’ll come for the stories in newspapers and film photographs. They’ll come for truth, and if the newspapers can’t give it to them, they’ll find it elsewhere.”
“So you really think that it’s pop culture that crashes and burns, not the classic industries?”
“Pop culture won’t crash and burn. But people will eventually wake up and smell the coffee.”
“And you’re saying it doesn’t have to be ‘doom bean’ coffee.”
“Sure.”
“I’m not sold, Marilyn. I’m really not. But my editor will probably be fine with it.” He pulled out another photograph from the shoebox. It was a candid shot of a muddied boy brandishing a garden rake. “I’m honestly far more interested in these pictures. Do you still shoot?”
“When there are stories to be told.” She answered, downing the second class of whisky.
“How do you feel about shooting a courtesy photo for my column this week?” He asked.
“They let you do that?”
“I’ve got enough clout now to argue a picture into my layout, yeah.”
She fiddled with the Leica. “I don’t see why not. It’d be good to get back on the streets.”
“I like it. Go tell me a story. And let’s save this confounded newspaper.”