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From WBAY y in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan on the alarming decline in local news coverage in the United States. More than 2000 newspapers have shut down in recent years and some regions have become news deserts. In a new book, Sullivan says when local coverage collapses, communities suffer. Politicians and government officials get less scrutiny and democracy is undermined. She also writes about innovative efforts to revive local coverage and the obstacles they face.
Sullivan is a former editor of the Buffalo News and a former public editor of The New York Times. Her book is Ghosting the News. Also, film critic Justin Chang reviews. She Dies Tomorrow, the new independent thriller from director Amy Simons.
Earlier this month, the McClatchy Company publisher of 30 daily newspapers, including the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star and The Charlotte Observer, was sold in a bankruptcy auction to the Chatham Management Group, a New Jersey hedge fund hedge fund. Ownership of other papers has led to sharp budget cuts and reduced local coverage due to competition from the Internet and other pressures. More than 2000 American newspapers have gone out of business since 2004. Financial stresses from the coronavirus pandemic have only made things worse.
Our guest, veteran journalist Margaret Sullivan, believes the decline of local news coverage is a crisis every bit as serious as the spread of disinformation on the Internet. In a new book, Sullivan argues that when local news fails, citizens lack critical information to make good decisions and democracy is weakened. Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post, the former public editor of The New York Times and the former editor of The Buffalo News. I spoke to her about her new book, Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.
Well, Margaret Sullivan, welcome to Fresh Air. Good to have you.
Thank you very much, Dave. It's great to be with you and your listeners. The decline of traditional media organizations, especially daily newspapers, is not a news story. Why did you want to sound the alarm about it now?
Well, it's it is an alarming situation, but one that most members of the public don't seem to be very tuned into. In fact, there's research that's been done that shows that, you know, some 70 percent of Americans think that local news organizations are doing pretty well financially. That's not the case, especially when it comes to newspapers. And after spending most of my career at a regional newspaper in Buffalo, I know how important that is to the community and to sort of as an underpinning of our democracy.
And I thought it would be important to show people the connection between the decline of local news and what's happening in our society at large. And it's it it means less political engagement, less voting across party lines, the possibility of more corruption at the local government level. And I think the weakening of community ties in which we all kind of relate to each other based on a shared, you know, group of facts that we may want to do different things with or interpret in different ways, but we all can sort of agree on what's happening.
So I see it as a real crisis. And I wanted to let people know what the price of it is before it's entirely too late.
One medium sized newspaper that you write about is the Youngstown, Ohio Vindicator. Just tell us briefly its story and what it meant to the community and what happened.
So last summer, there was a surprise announcement that The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, which is a substantial city, was going to close its doors the next month. And the announcement was in July. They would their last day of publication would be in August. And it was a shocker to the community. The paper had been around for over 150 years, mostly family owned during that time and still family owned, and people just couldn't believe it. So I actually went off to Youngstown and spent quite a bit of time chatting with people and trying to spending time in the newsroom there and trying to understand what had happened and what the cost of it would be.
It's a it's a very disturbing story because it would leave a pretty decent sized city without its own newspaper anymore and one that had been a real part of the community. Everybody called it the Vendee. Everybody had, you know, had a story about delivering it or your mom's obit had been in it or they covered my sports event. Whatever it was, this was going to go away. I attended a. Unity meeting and people were in tears about it, but a one of the editors who I spoke with later said, well, that was very poignant, but I wonder if we had had a show of hands about who among the crying audience had actually been seven day a week subscribers.
I wonder what that would have been. And his theory was that not not very many circulation had gone way, way down.
So what was the impact when The Vindicator went under in Youngstown?
Well, since The Vindicator close, of course, there's a loss to the community and there's no doubt about that. And people are feeling it. But there have been some things that have kind of come in to help to fill the gap a little bit. There's a new digital only organization that McClatchy and Google are involved in called Mahoning Matters with the Mahoning Valley is the larger area around Youngstown. I think they have four reporters and a couple of editors. So that's, you know, maybe six people.
That's a far cry from the 44 member Vindicator NEWSROOM, but still a good thing. A neighboring news chain has started to put out an addition in Youngstown that, again, isn't really a folia Youngstown paper, but it it it does something they do still. And they took on the Vindicator name. So there is still something called the Youngstown Vindicator. It just isn't what it once was.
And ProPublica, the great and much esteemed digital only investigative journalism organization, has put a reporter in Youngstown at one of the TV stations to help do some of this enterpriser investigative coverage. So, you know, I think it's a great little laboratory there. There was a big loss and people feel it and the community feels it. And yet there are some bright spots, too.
You cite an example of the impact of the decline of many small newspapers in the case of a congressman from western New York, Chris Collins, who was indicted for fraud as he was running for re-election. And this gave his opponent seemingly a huge advantage, a guy named Nate McMurry. What did McMurry find when he sought to raise this as a campaign issue?
Well, McMurry, who was a Democrat, running in a very red district, in fact, it's New York State's most Republican district and one that spreads across eight counties, found that when he went out to some of the more rural parts of the of the district where there was less local news coverage and where newspapers had gone under, that, you know, he told me that when he would start to talk to people about Chris Collins's indictment on insider trading charges, that some of them said, what are you talking about?
We you know, they did not know about it. And when he tried to inform them about it, they would sort of shout back that this was fake news. And in fact, Chris Collins was fundraising from the reports of his indictment that the Buffalo News, my old paper, had been writing about a lot. So in the parts of the district that had more local news and were more sort of immersed in local news coverage, a lot of people across the aisle to vote for the challenger people who normally would we can say, I think confidently would have voted Republican.
But in the parts of the district that had far less local news, one of which is termed a news desert, that didn't happen nearly as much. And McMurry said that, you know, he was really surprised, but he could understand it because he thought that people were getting a lot of their information from less dependable sources, social media, talk radio and just what he called rumors. So there, you know, it's impossible to say exactly what would have happened if there'd been a great local newspaper in those parts of the district.
But the sort of anecdotal evidence suggests that it really did have an effect. Right.
So McMurry, the challenger, lost the primary. The congressman ultimately resigned, right?
That that's right. McMurry lost by just a whisker, one half of one percent, which was far, far less than what would normally have happened. And, you know, he would say that if there had been great local news coverage in in the further out parts of the district, including this news desert area, he believes he would have won. And then ultimately, Chris Collins, the case went to trial and he was sentenced to a jail term.
You know, another point you make is that the loss of local news coverage isn't just about watchdog reporting and investigations into local government and officials, as important as that is, there was also a way in which they knitted communities together. So what's the impact when the paper closes? Well, I mean, this is something that I feel so strongly about, because part of a big chunk of my time at the Buffalo News was that that was as the features editor.
So the people who I was dealing with every day and supervising and whose work I was lucky enough to edit were, for example, the book critic, the movie critic, the pop music critic, people who wrote feature stories about local people. And, you know, this was in a daily section called Life and Arts. And when that section and when those jobs go away, which they have in Buffalo, I think that we we lose something.
We lose that connection that has nothing to do with corrupt local officials. It has to do with how we relate to each other as members of a community, our arts and our culture. And, you know, sort of our our society as a community, I think becomes less knitted together and and weakened.
You know, as I read this book, I mean, I realize that both you and I have kind of lived this experience. I spent 20 years working for a daily newspaper in Philadelphia. From 1990 to 2010. We saw four owners. We had a bankruptcy. We were bought by a group of hedge funds. And all of it resulted in huge losses in staff and circulation. You were editor of the Buffalo News where you were in the rooms having to make decisions about how to handle this kind of crisis.
You got the top job in 1999. So first of all, what was the paper like at its peak or when you first took the reins?
Well, it was a very vibrant, robust newsroom of 200 newsroom employees, which had been sort of standard at the paper, pretty much what the newsroom population had been for quite a few years. And we were able to you know, we had suburban bureaus, we had a two member or kind of two and a half member Washington bureau, an Albany bureau, and just able to cover all the towns and villages, able to go out into the far flung parts of of the circulation area and do strong coverage and had an art section that, as I mentioned earlier, had all these critics and, you know, experts in different areas.
So it was you know, we were really a powerful news organization, the largest one in New York State outside the metro New York City area. And, you know, a real force in the community in many ways.
And I have to note, you know, the Buffalo News and many newspapers had Washington bureaus, which meant that there was somebody in Washington, this huge bustling city responsible for covering that local communities, representatives in Congress keeping track of what they did. And when they were doing that, people knew who their congressional representatives were and if they got into trouble. It was big news that's really been lost, hasn't it?
Well, it's been weakened. You know, I will say in Buffalo, it was our Washington correspondent who still is on the job. One person instead of kind of two and a half people who works from his home. Great reporter whose name is Jeri's Abramski, who who broke an important part of the insider trading story that got Chris Collins in so much trouble. So, you know, has it been lost entirely? No. Is it at risk of being lost?
Yes, I think it is. And at many papers around the country, those those statehouse bureaus and those Washington bureaus are either weakened or gone altogether. And that's one of the biggest losses that these organizations have sustained. So it's a very difficult kind of thing to see happen.
Right. So in the late 90s, when you took the helm of the Buffalo News, this was when the Internet was really getting traction and it was undermining, you know, the base of a lot of newspapers. Describe some of the financial pressures you faced and the debates within the paper about how to address them. You know, we seem to be fairly solid, even after many papers were starting to really hurt because of the forces of the Internet, but when you sort of 2006 leading into the Great Recession of 2008 came about, that's when things really got tough.
And we saw an immediate effect on the bottom line, because print advertising, which is the lifeblood, has been the lifeblood of many newspapers off of newspapers in general, when print advertising started to migrate or change to digital advertising or for just move away from newspapers to direct marketing and other things. This loss of revenue went immediately to our bottom line.
And while we had been very profitable, very profitable for years, all of a sudden those trend lines were looking pretty scary. And so, you know, how do you fix that while you try to cut expenses and there are certain expenses at a newspaper that you can't really do much about. And those have to do with, you know, running the presses, the trucks and all of that. So. So one of the places people start to look right away is people, personnel, reporters, copy editors, photographers, you know, who can we cut to reduce expenses.
But at the same time, those are the very people who are producing this product, if you will, that that is, we hope, indispensable to people.
So there's a there was a huge tension over how deep can you cut without hurting what we're trying to sell to people.
And, you know, of course, as editor of the paper, I was arguing that that should be one of the last things we should cut. And there were others at the paper who were in more in a business capacity who were sort of saying, but but we must we must reduce expenses. So it was a very difficult time. We never really did layoffs when I was there, but we did do a round after round of buyouts in which we saw experienced and people with great institutional knowledge and people who were the gatekeepers for how the paper appeared to the public, like, you know, terrific, strong copy editors walking out the door, taking these buyouts and also reporters who had been in their places for a long time and really knew the community.
They were some of the some of the ones to leave. So, you know, there's sort of a bitter joke in newspapers about doing more with less, but it doesn't work that way. You actually cannot do more with less. You do less with less. And you could see that happening under our noses.
You know, newspapers lost all this revenue from display ads from local merchants, but also classified ads. You know, everybody used to sell their car or their furniture in the newspaper. And now there's all these online alternatives. But the other thing that was happening was that, you know, people got used to the idea of getting information for free on the Internet, including newspapers, which joined right in. I remember at my newspaper one columnist saying, why are we putting our stuff on the Internet for free?
I'm wondering what what kind of conversation she had at the Buffalo News about whether you should be doing that, whether you should try and use a paywall.
Right. Well, the whole almost the whole industry was had bought this idea that what had been our lifeblood, print advertising, was going to be replaced by digital advertising. So the idea then was to, you know, get it out to people in as broad away as possible. And so the industry in general started putting the newspaper online for free. You know, it it never really made any sense, but it was what it was.
It was what we were doing in a moment when all bets were were off, everything was changing. It was sort of the conventional wisdom about how to act. And, you know, then you'd see different papers trying paywalls and and seeing them fail. The New York Times had something called Times Select in which the opinion people were put behind a paywall and a couple other kinds of things. And that didn't work. People rejected it. So it was a trial and error period.
And I would say that the people who were in charge of newspapers were not particularly tech savvy. They were used to running pretty profitable organisations because you could just sort of take that print advertising money and that classified advertising money. And all of a sudden the entire, you know, the tectonic plates shifted under our feet. And, you know, do I think we reacted particularly nimbly or well or with innovative ideas? Not really, I you know, I mean, looking back on it, I think that was one of the big problems.
Um, how has the coronavirus itself and the, you know, the the economic slowdown affected the viability of local news organizations?
Well, it's been another really, really difficult blow for for local newspapers and for local news organizations, because the economic downturn that's come as a result of it has, you know, taken the legs out from under whatever print advertising was still left, which actually was sustaining a lot of places. So there have been many, many more layoffs and and furloughs of reporters and editors over this time. And there have been a lot more closures of newspapers since the pandemic started.
So an industry that was you know, you could have described it as in freefall before. Now that freefall has accelerated and it's pretty scary to see.
We're going to take a break here. So let me reintroduce you again. Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. Her new book is Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. She'll be back to talk more about local news and some critical issues in American journalism after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air Support for NPR.
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We're speaking with Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, about the decline in local news coverage in the United States, which she argues is weakening communities and undermining democracy. Her new book is Ghosting the News. So let's talk a bit about some of the attempts to do something about this and some new models. You know, news sites have had a tough go at trying to generate enough digital ad revenue to sustain a real newsgathering operation. And one thing they're trying to do is to get voluntary reader revenue, people who will feel strongly enough about their operation to contribute through digital subscriptions, cetera.
How's that going?
Well, it's going slowly for a lot of news organizations. And, you know, of course, we're talking in this in terms of the local news sort of ecosystem. We're not just talking about newspapers. We're talking about some of the newer things like digital startups and non-profits, which depend far less on advertising, if at all, and and depend on membership and philanthropy. And, you know, some of them are doing really well. The Texas Tribune in Austin is doing really well.
Others struggle more. And, you know, it's a really mixed bag across the country.
It's interesting, the Tribune, of course, they had a couple of deep pockets to to give them a good, strong start. They also use events to generate enthusiasm, connection and revenue to write. Right.
So this is the Texas Tribune based in Austin. And, you know, every year this year, it'll be digital, but, you know, remote, but pretty much every year for I think it's 10 or 11 years. Now, they've had an event called Tribune Fast or Trib Fest in which they bring in, you know, very big name speakers from all over the country, political speakers and others, and through mostly through sponsorships. They really generate a lot of revenue.
I mean, we're talking over a million dollars and I think two million last year. But the Texas Tribune, which is probably the prototype of these local nonprofits, one of the first and and certainly I think probably the most successful. It's tough to replicate that in every city. It doesn't really scale across the country where every place has lost a newspaper. Still, it's encouraging to see and it does make you feel like, well, there are some answers out there.
You you write about some alternative voices that have emerged that are kind of interesting. One of them is in East Lansing, Michigan. Tell us about this.
So this is just an unusual one called East Lansing Information started by a woman who not a journalist, Ph.D. and an author, Alice Dragna. And she said that, you know, she lives in East Lansing, Michigan. She felt that Lansing, which is a neighboring city, had pretty, pretty good coverage, but that East Lansing really had very little news coverage. So she started training people who were non journalists to, you know, sort of learn how to cover things and she calls it her news brigade and they are retirees.
They are stay at home moms and dad's they are people who have a little extra time on their hands and want to do this kind of work. They're not well paid at all. They're definitely not making union wages. But she said that, you know, while you might think that nothing was happening in East Lansing, when you start to dig, you find out there are actually a lot of good stories there. And they've turned up some pretty good evidence of local government not doing its job well.
And it's been a real revelation. She also said, and I think this is such an interesting part of it, is that it has increased in the community the appreciation for journalism as people start to know that their neighbors and friends are doing this work and sort of talking to them about it and what they found out, it's kind of, you know, knitted it back into the community. And this is entirely online. They don't have a print publication, but they have done some really good work.
And it's you know, I said to to Alex Dragonair, well, you know, there's not someone like you in every community who can start something up like this. And she said, well, that's true. But people have different kinds of strengths and we need as citizens to start doing some of this kind of work ourselves.
You know, it's interesting, when I read about the East Lansing citizen journalists, I mean, this is just the commitment and effort is inspiring. But, boy, it's tough to do. I mean, do they have libel insurance? You know? You know, do they have any kind of editorial guidance? I mean, I know that when I started in the business, it was so helpful to be in a newsroom and an organization that kind of had your back and could kind of help you learn it.
So in that case, I think that they have relied on some pro bono legal work. But something else that's happening in the country that's heartening is that national organizations are starting to lend a hand to smaller news organizations that don't have legal help. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is based in in Washington, D.C., which is a great organization oriented towards defending press rights cases, has, you know, made their resources available to smaller or struggling news organizations.
And, you know, we're seeing more of this kind of collaboration and sort of coming together that is really important and good to see. Right.
And there's something called Report for America. You want to explain this? This is interesting.
Yep. Report for America is loosely based on the Peace Corps. So it is an effort that has put now hundreds, several hundred reporters, young reporters who may be very early in their careers, subsidizes them to go into communities where there's far less local reporting or when or where newsrooms have been cut very deeply. And it puts them there for a year or two years of service so that they kind of beef up the news organization and at the same time learn something that maybe they'll take into a journalism career.
Or maybe they'll just think of it as people do what the Peace Corps like. That was a great experience. I learned a lot. Now I know more about this thing and I did something valuable at the same time.
You know, you note that Google and Facebook, which have done so much to undermine the financial stability of newspapers, have devoted some resources to support local journalism.
What do you make of their efforts? You know, I'm happy to see them and at the same time, I don't think they really begin to make up the difference. And Google and Facebook are, you know, extremely well funded, extremely profitable. And the efforts that they've put into helping local journalism, I don't find them to be particularly substantial. However, I have talked to editors at newspapers who say that Google has helped them with their sort of technology and their efforts to sell digital subscriptions.
And it has been very helpful. So I don't diminish that they're making these efforts. I just don't think it's enough or really you can't create any kind of a balance between what has been taken away and what's been supplied on the other end. Right.
And it's worth noting that Google has made a lot of money selling its own digital ads next to content generated by traditional news sources. So you mentioned Google is doing things to provide technical assistance, particularly in the area of ad revenue for four local journalists. What is Facebook done? Well, most recently, Facebook has made an effort to or said that it has started to reimburse newspapers for the content that they use within their news algorithm that they push out to people.
So if they're using content from the Philadelphia Inquirer or certain other publications, not everyone by any means, they will send some money to them. And that is welcome. And again, I can't help but feel that they're sort of playing with the pocket change they found in their sofa cushions as opposed to making a real difference.
Hedge funds and private equity groups sometimes buying newspapers. Why do they do this? And can you give us an example of what happens when that occurs?
When when hedge funds buy newspaper chains, which is what's tended to happen, they apply what I guess they would call economies of scale so that they they try to sort of wring the last profits out of these once very profitable newspaper companies who which are arguably on their last legs. So it's a kind of you know, they're called vulture capitalist. They're kind of swooping in for the last profits. And in doing so, they've tended to deeply cut the newsrooms of these news organizations.
And, you know, one example that I'll give you is Denver, where there once were two thriving newspapers not that long ago, The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News, each with some 300 newsroom employees. The Rocky Mountain News was one of the papers that closed.
And The Denver Post is now owned by Aldan Global, which is one of the most profit sucking of the hedge funds. And it has reduced the newsroom staff from whatever it was when they bought it. But once 300 down to well under 100 hundred, probably under 50 at this point.
So you can see you simply can't do anything near the kind of news coverage that you once were able to do as newspapers and newspaper chains are bought and sold in this, you know, this turmoil, or are you seeing more ideological influence on newspapers?
Well, it all depends. You know, in some cases, owners and and I would say that, you know, the Buffalo News was owned the whole time I was there by Warren Buffett. He never interfered at all editorially. Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and he has been hands off the editorial product and leaving it entirely to the editors of the paper, which is great. That isn't always true across the board. But I think that when we see ownership changing at newspapers, it's not so much in order to control ideology.
It's in it's in order to sort of strip mine the last profits that are available from these companies. You know, for example, by selling off their their headquarters in expensive downtown real estate and moving them to another place or just raising rates, laying off reporters and being profitable as long as they can. I think it's more about that than about ideology.
We're going to take one more break here. Let me reintroduce you. Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist for The Washington Post. Her new book is Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. We'll talk more after a short break.
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This is Fresh Air and we're speaking with Margaret Sullivan.
She is a media columnist for The Washington Post. And her new book is Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. I want to talk about a couple of issues that are confronting American newsrooms today.
I mean, you know, the nation is confronting its own legacy of slavery and racism. And a lot of newsrooms are hearing the voices of African-American staffers about about shortcomings and lack of diversity in hiring and issues about content. You had a moment when you were the editor of the Buffalo News in 2010 when you had to deal with a lot of anger from the African-American community in Buffalo. You want to describe what provoked this and how you responded?
I mean, this is something I feel and I wrote a column about it recently, really, I think on an error in judgment on my part, there was a mass shooting in Buffalo. And in reporting about it, we didn't know who the gunman was. We didn't know who the perpetrator was in trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We put emphasis on the people who had been at this event, which was a sort of on a wedding anniversary party in a restaurant.
And, you know, we talked about we reported on the the crimes, the the criminal backgrounds of some of the people who had been at the party, including some of the victims and the African. Everyone at the party was black. The African-American community was justifiably upset about this and saw it as victim blaming. What what we and I would say I saw as important newsworthy information they saw as victim blaming. And I think they were right. I, I ended up having a big community meeting with a couple of hundred people who were pretty angry at the paper.
And it was upsetting and very growth producing for me. We ended up doing a lot of training afterwards, sensitivity training. We ended up changing some of our coverage of some of the African-American communities. And I recently talked to one of the black pastors who had helped convene this meeting, and he said that that that that get together and sort of the aftermath of it was really an important healing moment between the paper and the community. So, you know, live and learn.
Unfortunately, we hurt people as we reported the news. And that's that's a balance that you have to strike. I don't think I struck the right balance at that time, but I learned something from it. And I think a lot of a lot of us did.
So what's your sense of where major media organizations are going here and how will this new awareness affect and what will it lead to?
Well, I think they're all having kind of a moment of truth. It's they are listening to their to their people, the people of color on their staffs. And they're hearing the message come through loud and clear that we don't think we've been well represented. We don't feel like we've had the opportunity. You haven't treated us right and you haven't treated our communities right. And so as a result, we're seeing some real changes.
The The Washington Post very recently appointed a new managing editor for diversity and inclusion. Her name is Chris Thompson. Terrific 41 year old African-American woman and the first African-American woman to be a managing editor at The Washington Post. So that's just one example. But we're seeing some changes so that people can have more representative coverage and smarter coverage, really, of diverse communities. And it's it's really an overdue and a good thing.
I'd also be interested in hearing your opinion on that, the controversy at The New York Times over the op ed section. And, you know, there was this feeling that there's this heavy handed suppression of some points of view, particularly conservative and centrist views. There were, you know, the editor of the editorial page, James Bennet, left after the publication of this op ed by Senator Tom Cotton, which advocated the use of the military in the streets to quell what he called rioters who had plunged many American cities into anarchy.
Wondering, what's your take on that? Should he have lost his job over that?
Well, you know, I I've been asked this question a few times, and I really try not to play public editor of The New York Times in. Exile or in absentia, and if I were there, I would I would do some reporting into it and make my judgment based on that. So I don't feel like I can render a judgment on that. But I would say this, that when The New York Times op ed page publishes something, they are magnifying it beyond almost anything else, any other venue.
And so to simply say, well, we want to represent all points of view, it's not true that all points of view need to be represented.
And this was a piece, the headline of which said, send the troops in.
You know, it was it was something that maybe could have been the subject of a news story that could have brought some questioning to it.
And I don't think that James Bennett resigned because he published that piece. There was a lot of there was a lot of controversy around the practices within the department, including the fact that he defended the piece afterwards and yet hadn't read it before it published. So it's a it's a little bit more complicated than that. But I think my take away from it is that it's not necessary to amplify every controversial opinion. And the times, like every news organization, has to be wise and selective in what it does.
Well, Margaret Sullivan, thank you so much for spending some time with us. Appreciate it. Thank you. It's been a great conversation and I appreciate it.
Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post, the former public editor of The New York Times and the former editor of The Buffalo News. Her new book is Ghosting the News, Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews. She dies. Tomorrow, the new independent thriller from writer director Amy Simons. This is Fresh Air.
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We're only months away from Election Day and every week, or even every few hours, there's a new twist that could affect who will win the White House. To keep up with the latest, tune into the NPR Politics podcast every day to find out what happened and what it means for the election. The new independent thriller, She Dies Tomorrow. Written and directed by Amy Simmons was scheduled to premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival before that event was canceled because of the pandemic.
The film's now playing at some Drive-In theaters and will be available on video on demand platforms on Friday. Our film critic Justin Chang says she dies tomorrow, feels surprisingly in tune with our present moment of unease.
Everything you need to know going into she dies tomorrow is pretty much right there in the title. This moody and mordantly funny psychological horror film opens on a young woman who awakens one morning with a horrifying premonition of doom. She believes that she's going to die tomorrow, and it sends her into an eerily calm, almost zombie like a trance. She wanders the rooms of her recently purchased Los Angeles home. She plays Mozart's Requiem repeatedly on her record player and shops online for an urn to hold her cremated remains.
She never explains why she thinks her death is imminent, but the look on her face is so grave and haunted that we find ourselves believing it to.
The woman played by the excellent actress Caitlin Scheele is named Amy, not coincidentally, that's also the name of the film maker Amy Cement's, who has said that the movie was inspired by her own experiences with anxiety and her recognition of how easily that panic could affect those around her. And she dies tomorrow. The fear of death proves contagious. The mere act of telling someone that you're going to die tomorrow is enough to plant the idea that they are going to die tomorrow and so on and so on.
The first person Amy tells is her friend Jane played with a sharp comic edge by Jane Adams, who thinks she's being ridiculous. But the seed has been planted by the time Jane stops by her brother's house, where a birthday party for her sister in law is in full swing. She, too, has come to believe that she's going to die tomorrow. And once she voices this fear to the other party guests, it's only a matter of time before they also succumb.
In the montage you're about to hear, Smiths uses thunderously loud music written by Mondo Boys and wild strobe lighting effects to achieve startling moments of operatic intensity. Throughout the movie, in these feverishly heightened intervals, cement seems to be expressing a level of horror that the characters themselves cannot. Jane's brother and sister in law, that's Chris Masina and Katie Aselton, do panic a little over what will happen to their daughter when they're both gone. But for the most part, everyone here tends to retreat into their own private moods, showing little concern for others.
Jennifer Kim plays a party guest who abruptly breaks off a relationship, something she'd been meaning to do for months. Her now ex boyfriend, played by Tonday at a blimp, does something much more frighteningly impulsive. Interestingly, no one really tries to ward off the crisis or even figure out what's going on. A sense of futility sets in and stays there. There's something troublingly resonant for me about the character's inertia, speaking as someone who's able to work from home and hasn't suffered, as so many have during the pandemic, I'm not afraid of dying tomorrow, but I recognize something of myself.
Insanities characters, the ones who retreat into a state of false calm, maybe because screaming and expressing how they really feel might be too horrible or flat out exhausting to bear. I don't want to overstate the metaphorical implications of she dies tomorrow, which was made well before the pandemic. But this time it's clearly has her finger on something about how people might respond or not respond to an invisible threat. She's made a fascinating disaster movie of the mind. This is the second feature Simons has written and directed seven years after her debut film, The Lovers on the run drama Sun Don't Shine.
She's worked for more than a decade as an actor, writer, director and producer rooted in the independent film world. But with increasing forays into Hollywood, she's one of the key creative forces behind the TV series The Girlfriend Experience. And you might also have seen her performances in recent studio thrillers like Alien Covenant and Pet Cemetery, a role that helped her finance this much lower budget horror movie. Depending on your persuasion, a film like She Dies tomorrow might not sound like ideal pandemic viewing.
But I think one of the great virtues of the horror genre is that it can put our own fears into perspective. There can be enormous value in confronting our feelings of dread head on and feeling a sense of kinship with characters who are confronting theirs to silence doesn't provide easy answers.
She also doesn't tell us if her character's worries are justified.
She closes the movie on a note pitched between serenity and alarm, leaving us to wonder if the end is as near as it seems or if tomorrow might in fact be another day.
Justin Chang is film critic for the L.A. Times on tomorrow's show, Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson talks about her new book cast. It's about the rigid racial hierarchy created in America and why she says it qualifies as being a caste system. Wilkerson won a National Book Critics Circle award for her previous book about the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the north. I hope you can join us. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering help today from Charlie Kyr.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden. They are Challoner, Seth Kelly and Joel Wolfgramm, our associate producer of digital media is Molly CVN Esper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show for Terry Gross. I'm Dave Davies.