It’s six a.m. in an abandoned office building in White Plains, and my colleagues and I have traveled back in time. Haze fills the air, diffusing the light into a slightly faded landscape. Outside it is the summer of 2017, our political landscape fraught and our country on edge. But in this room it is 1971, and we are recording history, albeit one already made.
When the New York Times and Washington Post decided to go to press with the Pentagon Papers, despite significant legal and financial pressure from the federal government, they coalesced decades of journalism into a core message—newspapers function to tell an independent truth, and those truth-tellers serve a critical role in our society. Recreating this story in 2017, our reality has shifted. Ben Bradlee is now played by Tom Hanks, although Hanks does retain the characteristic alpha-male swagger that was part of the former Post editor’s fame. The people in the newsroom are smoking herbal prop cigarettes, which would have horrified those ’70s-era reporters. And the internet age has taken a sledgehammer to many ideas about how we get our news and who is responsible for delivering it.
While many newspapers continue to hang on, dwindling subscriber bases and increased competition from other outlets have greatly diluted their reach and power. Excellent reporting still exists through a variety of constantly evolving outlets, but it must compete against an onslaught of clickbait headlines, partisan pressure, and the uncertain financial landscape of modern media. The powerful notion of newspapers as courageous, independent truth-telling entities sometimes feels like a bad joke. It’s hard to be a truth-teller when no one can hear you telling the truth.
In a box under my bed, there are several notebooks from the early ’70s. The handwriting is rough, the language rushed, but the stories shine through and the writer is on every page. If you asked anyone else about my dad, the author of those pages, they might say that he was a writer, a mentor, a father. If you asked him, he would simply say he was a newspaperman.
My dad stumbled into journalism in a golden era. He was twenty when the Times and Post went to war against Nixon for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, twenty-two when Watergate broke. At the University of Missouri, he wrapped up his psychology degree to start again in the school’s respected journalism program. I can’t say whether he ever imagined himself as the next Ben Bradlee or Bob Woodward; he was far too humble to admit it if he did. It’s more likely he had his eye on scoring press seats to Royals baseball games. Yet he found a home in the newsroom—one that would endure for the next thirty years, and rival the one he shared with our family.
At age seven or eight, I would sometimes visit his office, sitting at an ugly electronic typewriter while his cub reporters pretended to deliver me stories. My father was a desk editor by then, and to me that meant he held great power. He assigned stories, fixed problems, and wielded the mighty red pen (which would also haunt my own school assignments over the years). He became something else in that room, something more than just Dad.
In contrast to his quiet intellectualism, I was an overdramatic ball of attention-seeking energy and reveled in the spectacle of it all. I remember the noise of the newsroom, the endless ringing of phones and asking of questions. I remember paper absolutely everywhere, great drifts of it strewn across desks, shelves, and even the floor: Photos, notes, scraps, scribbles, and red-lined stories piled up in an intricate chaos that somehow transformed magically into a newspaper.
For me as a young kid, visiting my dad at work was like visiting history. Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney had once worked there. The Kansas City Star had chronicled the fall of Jesse James, the rise of Harry Truman, and the reign of Count Basie. It was a paper born of a city that, in so many ways, sat on the border between states, between east and west, between north and south, between civilization and the wilderness. Kansas City was, and in some ways still is, an outlaw town at heart, the gateway to the Wild West, and those reporters, editors, and tradesmen who tracked and recorded its stories over the decades did so with a great appreciation for the unexplored.
Of course, that chaotic swirl of a newsroom and that grand institution of a paper don’t really exist anymore; at least, not as they once were. Now the Star is a barebones operation that relies on wire stories and an overworked, downsized staff to fill its pages. And as it slipped away, so did my father.
When Dad died last year, I was almost thirty-five. I’d spent my adult life skipping across career paths, attempting to exercise many of the virtues he taught me—hard work, patience, creativity—but never really landing. By that age, my dad had a solid profession, three children, and a Pulitzer.
I felt so different from him back then too, in that newsroom. I was the chaos, and he was the one putting things in order. I didn’t know that eventually I’d wake up every day to find myself just a little bit more like him in thought, manner, and speech, until after his death when I would read those college notebooks of his and almost forget they weren’t my words. The familiarity of them was so terrifying, I still haven’t finished reading. We were echoes, embodied.
Working in film for the last six years, I’ve found a balance of technical craft and artistic expression that resonates more with my memory of my father’s work than anything I’ve ever done. Hundreds of people come together under ridiculously tight timelines, each doing their distinct part to collectively tell a story. Sometimes the projects I work on seem trivial, but at least they pay the bills. Sometimes my dad’s stories were unavoidable, bureaucratic page-fillers.
But every so often comes a story that matters.
I found out I was going to be working on Steven Spielberg’s film The Post exactly one year and one day after Dad died. I was in a cheap Airbnb in Mexico, where I’d shacked up for a week alone, a little drunk on Modelo Negras, deeply sunburnt, and actively avoiding the anniversary of his death. I was excited because it was a job and I needed one, badly, and this particular project came with great people attached on both sides of the camera. When I really understood, though, that this was a newspaper movie, it felt too fitting, too perfect, to be chance. It also nudged my still-broken heart, and I knew that beyond the long hours and inevitable chaos of film production, this was going to hurt.
Three days later I was in the office with my team, piles of books about Bradlee, Graham, the Washington Post, and the New York Times at our side, while we began to make a movie.
The last film I’d watched with my dad was Mad Max (he thought it was interesting, but bizarre). But the one right before that was Spotlight. I’d gotten my hands on an awards screener for the express purpose of watching it with my dad, one of those flashy industry gestures I knew would impress and please him. While his health had been in decline for awhile, I didn’t know at the time that these were our lasts— last visits, last movies, last stories together. I just knew that my dad was a newspaperman, and Spotlight was a newspaper story, so of course we must watch it together.
About eight years ago, before moving to New York City and starting in film, I helped produce a weekly live show in Chicago on which clever, funny people would read essays about culture and world events. The host and creator urged me to ask my dad if he would write something for his next visit. I laughed it off, promising I would ask, confident Dad would never do it. I was the show-off; Dad was the one waiting patiently in the wings, supportive but shy.
I was wrong. He told me he felt like he had something to say and if he didn’t, he’d regret it later. He spent a couple of weeks polishing his piece and then got up in front of that crowd of strangers to perform it aloud. Watching, listening, and trying not to cry, my heart exploded, overwhelmed by pride. He was charming, witty, and said what he had to say.
That day in Chicago, Dad expressed no illusions that the downward spiral of print media was going to magically reverse itself. Shortly before his guest turn, he had finally been laid off after a decade of continual downsizing at the Star. “This isn’t meant as a lamentation,” he read. “I might just as well be a Neanderthal griping about how people don’t pay attention to the cave painting ‘classics’ anymore. Or an Egyptian complaining that this new-fangled papyrus stuff won’t stand up to hard use: ‘Give me a good old clay tablet and a sharp stylus if you want literature that will last.’”
He still missed the thrum of that newsroom and the energy of getting the paper out each day. He missed newspaper people, especially: “Not just the reporters and photographers who are on the front lines of news coverage and garner most of the recognition and glory. But the assigning editors and clerks and the copy editors. The copy editors especially, because to me they are the unsung heroes of the newspaper business.”
Watching Spotlight together years later , this was still what my father responded to most—the hard-working, smart, curious, sometimes crude, always stubborn people who made that newsroom come alive with electricity, just as his colleagues used to. When he died a month later, reporters, editors, and photographers came from across the country to attend his service and share stories, laughter, and memories.
I wish I could have told Dad that only one year later after his death, I would be helping to recreate the Washington Post newsroom; that people like Spielberg still think newspaper stories—and stories about newspapers—are worth telling.
I spent months researching exactly how things looked and operated in those newsrooms. I scoured the internet trying to find photos of how the Metro desks would have compared to the National ones, what type of carbon paper reporters might have used, how the pneumatic tube systems worked. Not a single goddamned day went by when I didn’t want to just pick up the phone and ask my father what he remembered, or share with him something I’d learned. I’d stand on set, watching actors as they balanced paper cups of lukewarm coffee while pretending to redline some fake piece of copy, and I’d wonder if that was what he looked like back then in the ’70s.
When this movie comes out, if you look closely, you might be able to see a sweet tribute from my department—a building sign that reads, “The Kirk Weber Institute for Social Justice.” Well, it almost says that. His name is spelled wrong, with two Bs, but that’s often how we work in the film world—we move very fast, we focus on what matters most, and sometimes the edges of the truth get blurred a little.
Six months after my father died, his first grandchild was born. He is both perfect and perfectly named: Kirk Weber, just like his grandpa. As he gets older, we’ll tell him stories about his namesake, about how he only lost his temper in the traffic after football games, about how he loved a good road trip and made the absolute best tuna noodle casserole. We’ll tell him his grandfather was kind, smart, and wickedly funny; that he loved us and made sure we always knew it. And, naturally, we’ll tell him that Kirk Weber was a newspaperman, and that he knew how to tell a damn fine story.