07
Oct
14

The End of Print: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Back in 2009, I interned in a national newsroom. I was there for maybe two months, long enough to get a couple bylines and to realize I wasn’t cut out for that business. In that short time, I met people like this: the underappreciated copyeditors, the boisterous reporters, the overworked editor with no patience for fools. It’s funny how often I kept thinking how one reminded me of another – especially of my small role there.

Told in 11 self-contained chapters (I’m temped to call them related short stories: they’re told in a series, but several could easily work on their own), follow a specific character, each a specific part of the newspaper. There’s the pedantic (and hilarious) corrections editor Herman Cohen, the ancient, fading Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko, lonely, overworked copy editor Ruby Zaga, overwhelmed publisher Oliver Ott and an out of his league rookie reporter named Winston Cheung.

Rachman’s novel is full of sly humour – the guy who hides a bottle of booze inside a copy of Ulysses; a droopy dog named Schopenhauer; a massive, seldom-consulted style guide – but it’s also a slightly bitter read. Each of these people are flawed in some minor, yet defining way. They’re insecure, they’re driven and they’re willfully blind of themselves. Each seem to enjoy working at a minor backwater of a newspaper, one that didn’t even have a website in 2004, but each seem to know there’s a reason why they’re working there and not back home. It just seems like they’re choosing not to face it, too.

My favourite chapter of the bunch follows news editor Craig Menzies. Earlier in the book, he’s established as the stabilizing force at the paper; he’s the first to arrive, the last to leave and the person who sets the slightly irreverent, hardworking tone of the newsroom. He’s happy outside the newsroom too: he lives with a woman he loves, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. But once there’s a slight crack, and his authority seemed undermined, he rips everything he’s worked for, at home and in the paper, in a blunt statement of the insecurity that drives this business.

Each chapter ends with a capsule history of the paper: its founding, its struggle to find an identity and the forces that shaped it into being. But it also chronicles its downfall, especially it’s inability to adapt to a changing media landscape. It’s a similar fate to many papers, large and small; my paperback copy has a nice quote from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a paper that ceased publishing a print edition a few years ago under similar circumstances.

And to me, that inability to change is the main thing here: each of these people faces a similar problem as the newspaper does. And each can’t face the reality: that their paper and their lifestyles are a relic of a long-departed time. Menzies sees his happy relationship crumble, another sees a long-term friendship for what it was really was and another sees they just can’t keep up anymore.

Even since this novel’s 2010 publication, things have changed again and again for newspapers. Now they hide their content behind paywalls and homepages are shunned for curation services like Twitter. Some places are trying the print-only thing; Pitchfork recently published its first print edition. Other papers continue to shed staff, quickly getting snapped up by media conglomerates who stuff them with centrally produced, politically reactionary content that both applies everywhere, but is specific to nobody. It can run as easily in rural Manitoba as it can in downtown Toronto. Maybe, in a way, this Rome paper closed just in time.

Rating: 8/10. Late in the novel, a wire-service reporter named Zeina sums it all up succinctly, if a tad cynically: “journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Recommended, especially if you’ve spent time in a newsroom.

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