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Take Note: Cynthia Simmons' novel 'Wrong Kind of Paper' is part thriller, part romance and part media commentary

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Curt Chandler
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Cynthia Simmons, author of Wrong Kind of Paper. Photo by Curt Chandler © 2021

On this Take Note on WPSU, we talked to Cynthia Simmons. Simmons is an associate teaching professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. Her new novel "Wrong Kind of Paper" is part thriller, part romance and part media commentary.

It's set in 1989 and follows Hallie Linden, an ambitious young reporter who takes the only newspaper job that's offered to her right out of college. She's hired to report on cops, courts and schools at the Green Meadow Daily Observer, a tiny paper in an Indiana town of about 10,000 people.

Here's that conversation:

Emily Reddy

Thanks for talking with me, Cindy.

Cynthia Simmons 

Thanks for having me.

Emily Reddy 

I'll start by saying we've worked together on some journalism projects, both within WPSU and to teach students about radio journalism. You've worked in public and community radio before and at newspapers like your main character, Hallie Linden. You're both journalists, feminists, outspoken. You went to the same college -- Macalester College. How much of this character is based on you?

Cynthia Simmons 

I've never tried to have sex on a trampoline.

Emily Reddy 

(Laughter)

Cynthia Simmons 

She is a complete fictional character. She is not me. She has some of my worst failings. But she is stronger and more committed than am I. And I think in the end, she is able to see things through in a way that I never could.

Emily Reddy 

Hmm. Well, that's interesting. So she's... This is a tiny newsroom that she goes to there are only four people in the entire newsroom. She has three beats: cops, courts and schools. How hard would it be to have a job covering all three of those and do it well?

Cynthia Simmons 

I have had a job covering cops, courts, and schools. I have had a job covering, in Wisconsin, both houses of the legislature, the governor and the state Supreme Court. It is doable, but you're never on time for anything.

Emily Reddy 

It seems like a lot.

Cynthia Simmons 

It is. We... when.... there were chains that started buying up newspapers in the 90s. Actually, in the 80s, they started. And they wasted no kindness on the newsrooms themselves. They never invested in the personnel needed to cover a small town or a legislature. And so you had people doing two and three jobs, and it was tough.

Emily Reddy 

And the editor keeps telling her just rewrite press releases, cover things that the advertisers are gonna like. He wants a lot of stories, not the story she wants to write that have context and show trends that are happening and take longer to write. You know, how common would that be at a small town paper?

Cynthia Simmons 

Well, Sara Ganim, who worked here in State College, she was working on the Jerry Sandusky exposé on her spare time. A lot of reporters have an investigative piece that they're kind of keeping secret from their editors until they're ready to deliver. Because it just takes so much effort, so many hours, to ferret things out to a journalistic standard of truth. And so it's not uncommon to have something you're working on on the side in addition to your full time job. And, you know, your editors will eventually get that story, but they'll never know how much time you put into it.

Emily Reddy 

And her editor keeps saying, "well, no overtime." And the newsroom is tiny. They're constantly trying to cut costs. It said in 1989, but I feel like it could be in present day. You know, why set it in 1989.

Cynthia Simmons 

Cell phones ruin everything. If you're going to have any element of suspense. And I'm not saying this is a thriller. The thrilling part of the end really centers around office supplies. But if you're going to have a character in danger who can call somebody and get help, that's really not very interesting. You know, having to have your character's cell phone die, or they lose their cell phone. Cell phones just make fiction not that much fun.

Emily Reddy 

What about the journalism and the state of newsrooms? You know, where has it gone since 1989?

Cynthia Simmons 

It's worse. There's more pressure to deliver for advertisers. There's more advertorial -- so story assignments that are clearly meant to be something the advertisers want. There's more farming out of whole sections of the paper to people who are not journalists. And I'll give you a for instance. Obituaries now are written by the funeral homes. So the funeral homes consult with family. Here in town, there was a man who killed two people at Harrigan's and then went into a condo development and killed another person there before he shot himself. Well, his obituary made it sound like he was a friend to everyone. A newspaper editor would not have allowed that in the paper. And I think that as the standards are relaxed, because we just don't have the people to do the work, truth is sometimes sacrificed.

Emily Reddy 

Would this town of 10,000 even have a paper at this point?

Cynthia Simmons 

Might, might not. Fresh Air had an interview with an Iowa newspaper editor this week. And it started with just the horrible statistics on the loss, or merging of small town newspapers. And I think it was something in the neighborhood of 18,000. Lots and lots of papers are going out of business, or are switching to online only, or once a week publication.

Emily Reddy 

A hedge fund recently bought the State College paper, The Centre Daily Times. What does that do to a newspaper?

Cynthia Simmons 

Well, probably the same thing that it does when a hedge fund buys a hospital. It's about profit. That's their M.O. And while, you know, we'll have to wait and see, I would be pledging to public radio. I would be supporting podcasts and online news that covers State College because I'm not seeing comprehensive news here.

Emily Reddy 

Is anyone doing... have people found, in other communities, found ways to do newspapers without that demand for profit?

Cynthia Simmons 

We haven't found something that works yet. There are lots of experiments, they tend to be short-lived. It tends to be typically a woman whose children are at school, who gets mad about something, and starts a blog or a podcast and is surprised that so many people want to read it. And everybody's got a platform now. Everybody can post on Facebook or Twitter. But for most of us there is this need to make a living during our day hours. And the kinds of reporting that can ferret out official corruption or that can follow a city budget, you actually need to spend time developing relationships with sources. And that's just not a one off. That takes time. And most amateur journalists, even those who are very talented, don't have the financial wherewithal to stay with it for as long as it takes.

Emily Reddy 

Even those who are getting paid, are getting paid next to nothing. I mean, Hallie in this book she's making we don't get an actual number, but it's not a lot. And, you know, what does that do to journalism when only certain people can afford to be journalists?

Cynthia Simmons 

Well, Noam Chomsky would say it puts a class filter on our information system. I remember interviewing for a job at Dubuque, a newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa. And it seemed like a good job, like I was very interested in it. This would have been in the late 80s. And as it happened, I got to the town early and was reading the local newspaper, and there was something in there about eligibility for food stamps. And I realized that if I took this job at the advertised salary, I would be eligible for food stamps. And while there is no shame in taking food stamps, people who work full time in a job as important as reporting local news should make enough money to be above the poverty line.

Emily Reddy 

[Hallie] and her assistant editor Kim, they work overtime, they work weekends while the guys go play on the boat. So we see some sexism. And but there's also this idea that that's just what it is to be a reporter or it's because it's a "calling," but that leads to a lot of burnout and abuse.

Cynthia Simmons 

When I worked at the Associated Press in Portland, Oregon, I was supposed to get a long weekend for one of those three day holiday weekends. But I was called into work. And my editor was furious that I had written on my timesheet that I had worked on this holiday, and I said but you called me in to work. And he wanted to fire me for writing down the hours that I worked. That was common and not just at little newspapers. All over, people were coerced to work hours for which they were not paid, which is a violation of Federal Labor Law.

Emily Reddy 

Illegal, yeah. There's a lot of information in the book about how a newspaper runs, what reporting is like. We often see Hallie's thought process as she goes out on stories, trying to figure out the who, what, when, where, why. How much do you think the average person knows about all of that? And was it your goal to teach them about that in this book?

Cynthia Simmons 

I call it "occupational realism." Um, I think journalism is like, nursing or police work. It's kind of an occupation that's in the public eye. And people think they know how it works. I think that most people don't know how squalid the lives of small-town reporters are. Just how little money they have. I think that most people don't know how idealistic young reporters are and how much they're really, really trying to make the world a better place through objective reporting. A lot of people are cynical about the media, but the people I know who work in the media, at least on the front end, they're not cynical for the most part.

Emily Reddy 

We do see a lot of turnover in this position, especially because, you know, it doesn't pay. For Hallie, it's a stepping stone. She's trying to get to the next best thing. You talked about building sources, you know, on her cops beat, Hallie, she feels like she has to be friends with this police dispatcher to get information. How real is that? And... you know, this information that is supposed to be public record, she has to sort of be chummy to get it.

Cynthia Simmons 

Sugar Jane Ecclesiastes Johnson. So...

Emily Reddy 

This is the name of the dispatcher. "Sugar." Yes.

Cynthia Simmons 

Fictional dispatcher, who is very lonely. She lives in a small town. She has a crush on one of the police officers, who she's known since Bible School. She's known... they've known each other since they were little kids. And she uses her position as a dispatcher to try to make friends with Hallie and she had done this with the reporter before her. Um, the relationships between dispatchers or any record custodian and reporters are very important. When I covered the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, there was somebody who on her first day of covering the court, went into the clerk's office with a basket of muffins. You often go in and ask about their kids. Or you figure out what their hobbies are and you ask about their hobbies. That might be crocheting. That might be golf, whatever it is. You need them to like you because there are so many records available, you don't have time to filter all that krill. But there's a story in some of them. And I remember I knew at that Wisconsin State Supreme Court clerk's office, I knew that I had the relationship I needed because on a Friday -- the federal courts typically would issue their rulings late on Friday afternoon. On a Friday, I went in frantic to see if there was anything before the court closed. And the clerk looked at me and she said, "This is what the Milwaukee Journal was interested in" and held up the specific ruling that was the news for that weekend. She didn't have to do that.

Emily Reddy 

Another thing we see is a few times Hallie's covering a story, and it's about something something terrible that has happened. On her beat, she covers a lot of car crashes, a lot of fires, she covers a drowning, and we see those affect her. She'll tell herself "keep it together," or she'll run off to the bathroom to compose herself. You've worked with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. How much have you seen reporters affected by the traumatic things that they cover?

Cynthia Simmons 

Dart's statistics show that reporters are prone to suicide because of untreated secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I teach my students about this. Even if you don't know the person who died, going to the scene of a horrible accident again and again and again and again as your daily job wears you down. I think that people try to move on off the cop speed as fast as they can, because it hurts. It hurts to see... most of the time you don't see a dead body. Occasionally you do. But to see those mothers arriving at the scene and to have to interview them. It takes a lot out of you. You do it as a service, but it has its impact.

Emily Reddy 

Has that ever been an issue for you, that you've faced?

Cynthia Simmons 

Oh, sure, yeah. The hardest thing for me wasn't something I covered, but something I edited. So, when I was working for UPI in Wisconsin, Jeffrey Dahmer was on trial. And I would get the stories from the reporter in the courtroom. And I would have to take out those details that were too gross for a family newspaper. And even though the things that were in the paper were horrific, it was much worse. And I had nightmares about that for months and months.

Emily Reddy 

And was there any attempt to you know, to say, "Hey, you know, talk to this counselor," or any No...

Cynthia Simmons 

I worked in... I was in a bureau by myself. And the only way... at that time, you know, the Dart Center didn't exist then. But at that time, you know, bent elbow was the only response. You would go to the Concourse Hotel, and you would drink until drunk.

Emily Reddy 

And I mean, we see the people in the newsroom don't offer any support. But a couple other people do. They say, you know, "that must have been hard." And you see a little humanity from a couple other people.

Cynthia Simmons 

In the book there are... Hallie gets compassion from the people who work as stuffers, so the people who put the advertising inserts into the newspaper before it's mailed out. And, um, something that I've noticed in real life, is journalists tend to have a kind of gallows humor, and they're pretty tough on each other. And outsiders, when they overhear the things we joke about are appalled.

Emily Reddy 

If you're just joining us, this is WPSU's Take Note,. I'm Emily Reddy. We're talking with Cynthia Simmons. Simmons is an associate teaching professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. Her new novel "Wrong Kind of Paper" follows ambitious young reporter Hallie Linden, at her small town newspaper job. You talked about the stuffers. The paper is distributed by a mail to cut costs. Those people most of them used to distribute the paper. I've haven't heard of that -- doing it by mail. I've heard about printing being outsourced. And one of the effects I've seen as a reader of these cost cutting measures seems to be that stories seem like they're less likely to make the deadline to get into the paper for the next day. And so then the news in the paper starts getting older.

Cynthia Simmons 

Feels stale?

Emily Reddy 

Yeah, it gets stale. Which seems like a problem for newspaper journalism.

Cynthia Simmons 

It is. But the Internet has solved it because we can post immediately anything we want to post.

Emily Reddy 

I mean, does that mean the eventual death of the print version?

Cynthia Simmons 

A thousand trees think that's great.

Emily Reddy 

You'd advocate for that?

Cynthia Simmons 

There's nothing.... Newspaper degrades. Newspaper is not for the ages. I like to read on paper. I always have liked to read on paper. But I think younger readers don't have that attachment to paper and it'll be gone soon.

Emily Reddy 

The people at the paper keep saying "nothing ever happens here." And they don't try to find if anything is happening. One of the major roles of journalism is to keep an eye on what local institutions are doing. Talk about that corruption that can happen when there is no oversight.

Cynthia Simmons 

So as we see newspapers disappear or merge or become advertorial all over the country, we are creating a vacuum in which corruption can and does flourish. So if your local newspaper is really just a cheerleader for the Chamber of Commerce, and doesn't cover what's going wrong with your city government, with your police department, where do you turn when you see that something's wrong? We have very significant problems in this country. We saw it in Ferguson. People weren't reporting on these issues, because they didn't have to. There was no competition. Nobody was going to come in and scoop them. We have to build back information infrastructure. And one of the ways we do it is with public radio. Now that public radio has the endless news hole of the internet, there's room for coverage of small towns where bad things are happening.

Emily Reddy 

At the end of the book, we're left thinking that the newspaper is not going to change. Do you have any hope for small town journalism?

Cynthia Simmons 

Well, Pulitzers have gone to tiny, tiny little papers that are doing the right thing. It used to be that a small town newspaper was often owned by some wealthy community member who wanted to sound off on the editorial page. And the rest of the news operation was kind of their charity offerings to the town. We do see with the Washington Post, a mega-billionaire dumping money into news. We see some nonprofit efforts to cover some small towns. I think we're moving out of the for-profit model for news, just because there's there's never been a lot of profit in it. And in the conglomeration that started in the 80s, the profit that there was wasn't sustained over long periods of time in a way that Wall Street investors wanted it to be. I think the hedge fund that bought the Centre Daily Times is going to be disappointed.

Emily Reddy 

So you kind of alluded to it in the first question, there's there is a romance component...

Cynthia Simmons 

There is a romance. I didn't set out to write a romance and yet that is what people like about this book.

Emily Reddy 

But there is a romance -- I've got one question about it -- (laughter) between Hallie and the sexy Native American firefighter, Blue. You do flip the stereotypical script with them. He wants the committed relationship. She wants no strings attached. But the bigger issue seems to be the Blue has decided to tie himself to this town. And the native tribe that he's a part of there. Hallie's trying to get out. That felt intentional, these two different views on on family and on community.

Cynthia Simmons 

So Hallie doesn't fit in anywhere. She's often the smartest person in the room, and she knows it. Which makes her insufferable. Blue probably initially was attracted to her just because she was new and she was cute. But he sees in her someone who can help him in his efforts with his tribe. She just wants to hook up sex because she feels that that's the only thing that she can reasonably engage in, given that she wants to be out of this town in a year. And I think readers may be a little bit relate to that. Probably most people who've had, you know, several romances have been in a situation where one person wants to get married and have a family and the other does not. And, um, Hallie actually learns about herself and how much was missing from her sex life. Because she falls in love with this man, even though it's exactly wrong for her career plans.

Emily Reddy 

And they do have kind of a shared idealism. But, yeah, she acts confident. But when it comes down to it, she's still 22 and naive and thinks drug dealers won't kill a reporter.

Cynthia Simmons 

She is very naive. Her idealism, I think is what makes her a lovable character, but it also puts her life at risk.

Emily Reddy 

Blue is a member of the Riv'nego Indian tribe, there are only nine of them left. I assume this tribe perhaps is not real.

Cynthia Simmons 

This tribe is fictional.

Emily Reddy 

Okay.

Cynthia Simmons 

These are not the Pottawatomie these are not the Ojibwe. This is a fictional tribe.

Emily Reddy 

Their village was flooded. And some of them who resisted were shot. Is that based on something real?

Cynthia Simmons 

So everything that happened in the backstory on the tribe really did happen to somebody somewhere. Margaret Atwood writes this way where you pick up things that happened that you kind of want to talk about, but you put them into a fictional framework.

Emily Reddy 

You usually think of academics doing research and writing papers, not writing novels, like "Wrong Kind of Paper," at least outside of maybe the English or creative writing fields. Why go this fiction route is it about who you're trying to reach, or...

Cynthia Simmons 

I just had to write it. I had gotten fired from a job. And I had thought I thought I'd done a really good job. And I was kind of worrying it in my mind over a period of maybe 20 years. And then the book came out. I was at the Iowa writing workshop, planning to write some fiction about New Mexico. And this came out instead. And I realized... and I didn't know when I sat down to write it, how it would end or even what it was about. I just felt these characters talking. And I had to get it down.

Emily Reddy 

So it's been 20 years in the making?

Cynthia Simmons 

It was from when I first started writing it, I worked on it for two years, put it down. Revised it for two years, and then it was about five years to get a publisher.

Emily Reddy 

The end feels like there could be more like there could be a sequel. You know, are we going to see Hallie and Blue again? Or are you planning novels on other things?

Cynthia Simmons 

I killed off a lot of friendships writing this book. I mean, if you apply yourself to writing, you will not apply yourself to returning phone calls and going to birthday parties. And so I don't want to commit to another project of the length that it took to do this. I've been surprised that people who liked the book are like, "Is there a sequel?" And I've thought about partnering with the Native American man who wanted to write from Blue's perspective. II'm not ready to start another fiction project, but that's one I've thought about. I've also thought about Hallie, you know, at age 40, never having had children kind of deciding to to become a parent on her own and going to a fertility clinic and realizing that she's picking, you know, blue eyed, tall sperm donors, and what does that say about her? But I am loath to commit because these characters lived in my head for a period of years, and I love them -- some of them feel very real to me -- but I don't know if I want to open the door to more spooks.

Emily Reddy 

Cynthia Simmons, thanks for talking with me.

Cynthia Simmons 

Thank you.

Emily Reddy 

Cynthia Simmons is an associate teaching professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. Her new novel is "Wrong Kind of Paper." For this and other episodes of Take Note, go to WPSU.org/takenote. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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