In 1962, a week before graduating from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a young woman named Nora Ephron wandered into an employment agency on West 42nd Street in Manhattan and told the woman behind the desk that she wanted to be a journalist. "How would you like to work at Newsweek magazine?" the woman said, and Ephron said fine. Her interview was the same day, and the editor she met with asked why she wanted to work at Newsweek. She said she wanted to be a writer. The editor said that was impossible; women didn't become writers at Newsweek. Then he hired her as the mail girl.
The anecdote appears in Ephron's essay, Journalism: A Love Story, from her last collection, published shortly before her death last year. I love the way it illustrates the double-edged sword of that bygone era. The sexism is shocking, of course; but imagine a time when a college kid could simply walk in off the street and get hired at a major magazine. Sweet! Having your dreams quashed because of your gender seems a small price to pay for actually being able to get a paying media job right out of school. Ask any 23-year-old today and they'll agree.
Anyway, Ephron's career in news didn't last long – she soon moved on to longer, funnier and far more remunerative forms of writing, such as novels and screenplays, but secretly she always held a candle for the profession of hackdom. Her posthumously staged play, Lucky Guy, opened to rave reviews on Broadway this week. It features the most lovable man in Hollywood, Tom Hanks, as a hard-bitten and deeply flawed New York tabloid columnist, Mike McAlary, who was a crime-writing legend in his time, and who died in 1998.
The advance buzz on the show was a veritable uproar – surprisingly, perhaps, for a play about a relatively obscure dead guy in a supposedly dying industry. One of McAlary's former colleagues (and competitors), Jim Dwyer, whom Ephron had interviewed for the script, wrote a brilliant feature for The New York Times prior to the play's opening night, noting that journalists of his era and younger have "swarmed" to see the play's previews. There is a perception, he observed, that a drama like Lucky Guy is somehow "good for newspapers" and the news industry in general, because it looks back on a bolder, shoutier time before the industry was shrinking and anxious, chewing its cuticles and checking its Twitter feed every five seconds.
I don't entirely I agree with this. The current vogue for nostalgic period pieces about journalism's heyday feels ever so slightly depressing to me. For an industry that is more in flux than dying (in my optimistic opinion), it seems a bit defeatist to be lying back in a hot bath of nostalgia and letting the memories of the good old days flood in. At the same time, it does make for fine theatre.
Take last year's Enquirer, a play about the British newspaper industry produced in partnership with the London Review of Books, which opened at the National Theatre of Scotland in Glasgow and had subsequent packed runs in London and Belfast. Written by novelist Andrew O'Hagan and based on a series of interviews with real-life seasoned journos, Enquirer is not so much a drama as an amusing (and occasionally moving) collection of reflections and anecdotes from the smoky, drinking trenches of 1980s and nineties Fleet Street.
And more recently, there is the The Winslow Boy, the 1946 Terence Rattigan classic about a prewar family caught up in a media hysteria of their own making, which just opened at the London's Old Vic and is shaping up to be the play of the spring season. Like Lucky Guy, the preview, which I attended, was full of journalists (not surprising perhaps, given that it was press night) and the talk at the reception afterward was all parallels to the present day – shades of the Leveson Report; whither the future of journalism; and oh darling, would you get me another complimentary gin at the bar?
It's a curious thing, this sudden vogue for mythologizing a profession viewed, historically, as one of the world's most detested. (Apparently it took Ephron more than 10 years to convince her old friend Hanks to agree to play a journalist, he has such loathing for the breed.)
When I wrote a pilot for a TV drama set in a newsroom a few years ago, I was told over and over again by producers and broadcast executives that journalists weren't sufficiently sympathetic creatures, and I'd have to make my characters "extra likable" – whatever that meant. In the end, I'm not sure I succeeded: Although the pilot did get made, the show was never picked up.
What I was trying to write then was my own love letter to journalism, a profession that, Ephron brilliantly observes in her essay, is full of conspiracy and emotional detachment and cynicism – but in the best possible way. "I didn't know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn't have to," she writes, with all the nostalgia of an ex-lover looking back on an improbable (but lovely) youthful dalliance.
I bridle at the sentiment and disagree with the statement, but I still like the way her words sound. Our new cultural love affair with journalism might be misguided, but as they say in the newsroom, at least it makes for great copy.