In a new book by Nudo (The Millionaire’s Cross, 2014, etc.), a man investigates a local publication run by staffers who may be more dangerous than they seem.
Seth Kesler, who works in advertising, is “the last of a dying breed” of people who still love reading high-quality print journalism. So he’s intrigued when he meets Cedrick, an eccentric yet friendly old-fashioned newspaper hawker, outside his office building one morning. The C-U Journal, a long-defunct daily serving the Champagne-Urbana region of Illinois, has recently been purchased by Richard W. Fields, a media mogul who’s buying up local papers across the country. Seth, disenchanted by the fact that shallow internet click-bait is replacing quality journalism across the United States, is initially pleased to read a real newspaper. But the publication’s standards decline rapidly, resulting in sensationalized, poorly written, and likely inaccurate stories that seem aimed to titillate rather than tell the truth. Just as disturbingly, Cedrick proves himself to be quite capable of violence when crossed; in broad daylight, he brutally attacks some disrespectful teens who later mysteriously disappear—and Seth worries that they may have met a worse fate. Aided by his wife, his co-worker, and a local journalism professor, Seth investigates Cedrick, Fields, and the shady group of characters who churn out the C-U Journal, which he begins to see as a destructive force in the community. As Seth becomes increasingly passionate about defending his cause, however, he realizes that the C-U Journal staff may be a threat to his life. This quick, readable novella’s enthusiastic advocacy of good journalism feels very relevant in today’s era of “fake news.” Seth’s alarm at his friends’ and family’s reliance on unreliable sources (such as trending Twitter terms) rings true, as does the fact that the C-U Journal becomes widely read for its calculated, salacious content rather than for quality reporting. The C-U Journal staffers are more like horror-movie characters than denizens of realistic fiction—they talk and act bizarrely, enact frequent violence with theatrical élan, and experience either delayed consequences for their actions or none at all; for instance, no one beside Seth seems to notice Cedrick’s aggressive public behavior toward the teens. Seth is so calm and reasonable that it’s hard to determine what kind of reality he shares with the C-U Journal people. Indeed, the text leaves some major questions unanswered: Why are the local police so incompetent at investigating crimes when the culprits seem obvious to a casual observer? Why would Seth, after suspecting murder and witnessing terrible violence by C-U Journal staffers, accept an invitation to enter their building unaccompanied? If Fields is meant to serve as a symbol of the evils of modern journalism, why does he refuse to publish online, where some of the worst journalism trends of the past few years have festered? Although this work is certainly an entertaining read, these plot uncertainties make its message a murky one.
A unique novella that offers a passionate, if somewhat incoherent, defense of quality journalism.