Same Story, Different Century

TimeLine’s final production for the 2010-2011 season, The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, has taken audiences into the bustling 1920’s press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts building. It is a time and place in which the likes of Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson claw through a world where the next big news story takes precedence, political corruption is rampant and moral obligations are seemingly forgone. Though with any creative work there is often embellishment, Hecht and MacArthur’s observations permeate with historical observations about the world of journalism in an era gone by.

On this past Sunday, July 10, more than 100 people gathered in the Wellington Avenue Church sanctuary next door to the theater as TimeLine presented a special panel discussion with current Chicago reporters, to gain perspective on the transformations that have occurred since the period illustrated in The Front Page. Moderated by Lestor Munson, a senior writer and legal analyst for, the elite panel of journalists included Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-TV, Ch. 11 and PBS NewsHour; Janan Hanna, freelance reporter for Reuters, Chicago News Coop and Huffington Post; Paul Meincke, reporter for WLS-TV, Ch. 7; and Rob Wildeboer, criminal justice reporter for WBEZ-FM, 91.5.

Like the journalists of The Front Page, all these reporters have been covering the most recent example of Windy City political scandal, the Blagojevich trial. Though the reality of corrupt political figures and scandal seems to be an ever-existent parallel between then and now, certain regulations and characteristics in the journalism industry have drastically changed. “Constricted” and “contained” with “severe limitations” were just some of the ways the panel felt their world differs from that seen in The Front Page.  That chaotic freewheeling environment where a journalist could pose as someone else to deviously receive information from a source is clearly in the past. Not as clear nowadays is the practice of paying a source to entice them to release information. For most major news organizations this is a dated and forbidden technique. Where it does exist, the reliability of such information is questionable, and the financial and ethical costs are considerable.

From left: Rob Wildeboer talks about his experiences as a reporter on the Blagojevich trial with Janan Hanna and Elizabeth Brackett.

Such desperate measures to grab the “big” story now take a back seat due to the growth of numerous media platforms beyond the  eight print newspapers depicted in The Front Page. The introduction of radio, television and most recently the internet has flooded the industry with a demand to “fill lots of news time.” Today we consume constant coverage, bulletins and updates on an hourly basis. With so many hours of news to fill, but only a limited number of newsworthy events, journalism is no longer focused purely on “breaking the big story.” Instead panelists emphasized that greater importance is now placed upon maintaining interest and “advancing the story.”

Listen to Paul Meincke speak more about the challenges of “advancing the story”:

Keep reading for more audio excerpts from the panelists.

TimeLine audiences participate in the “The Front Page: Same Story, Different Century” discussion.

To keep advancing the story, today’s journalists must toil to “find a new angle,” while “multi-tasking” to utilize all media forms effectively and efficiently. With the internet enabling instant publishing of news stories, no longer is there any delay in the publishing of information. This, in conjunction with vast circulation and accessibility of content, means that anyone can instantly re-distribute content when a new story is released. Often this undermines a reporter’s ability to be recognized as the first to publish a front-page-worthy news story. In response to this, news organizations have started using social media to take advantage of its ability to instantaneously and continuously communicate with the audience. For instance, during the Blagojevich trial, some journalists were required to use their phones to frequently tweet updates of the trial proceedings.

In this clip Rob Wildeboer speaks about the role and influence of the internet in journalism:

The experiences and knowledge provided by the panel of reporters gave a dynamic insight into the current day workings of the journalism industry. When compared to the period of time represented in The Front Page it is very clear that the world of reporting has evolved and much change has transpired, but journalists then and now love what they do and believe in its importance.

Elizabeth Brackett talks about the emotional side of being a Criminal Court reporter:

Janan Hanna offers insight into competition in today’s court press rooms:

Elizabeth Brackett talking about how the journalism industry has changed for women since the all-boys press room of the 1920s depicted in The Front Page:

Moderator Lester Munson wraps up the panel with a reminder about what makes journalism a noble profession:

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