A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part IV

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…

Click for Part I, Part II and Part III.


splash 1 no text

If you squint, or have a higher-definition version of Back to the Future Part II than I do, you can see a framed newspaper on the wall of Café ’80s, because this film was certainly right about one thing: restaurants will not easily give up the Crazy Crap On The Walls strategy. It appears to be referencing Ronald Reagan’s second Presidential victory, which by 2015 in this world is a fun, nostalgic thing to think about.

vlcsnap-2015-03-25-23h44m48s119

It appears to be from the Los Angeles Times. For some reason, Café ’80s appear to have gone with a national newspaper rather than a local one to invoke nostalgia. It could easily be that Café ’80s is a chain of restaurants so no local thought was applied. I scoured the Internet for proof that this was a genuine LA Times front page – it’s a real event in our universe, so it stands a good chance – and while I couldn’t find a picture of the page in question, the LA Times’ online archive lists a headline that matches the one from the film.

I could've paid $10.95 to access the archive properly but I have no money

But newspapers aren’t just for decoration in Back to the Future Part II’s vision of 2015. They’re still useful for what they are always useful for: explaining the plot so characters don’t have to.

Doc hands Marty a copy of a paper to expand on his fraught “something’s gotta be done about your kids!” line from the first film’s cliffhanger. But…

BY Basil Exposition, Plot Correspondent

What’s this? It’s not the Hill Valley Telegraph, it’s USA Today!

And on the cover we see that Marty’s son – a dead ringer for his old man, who’d have thought it? – gets arrested for a theft. The event has not yet happened from the point that Doc and Marty (and poor Jennifer) arrive, indeed Doc has already been forward in time and retrieved this newspaper. Anyway, once Marty has been to Café ’80s, rejecting Griff’s offer and made every viewer wish that hoverboards were real, we see that the newspaper changes.

Basil Exposition reporting not live

While the headline and subheadlines change when Marty meddles with the timeline, USA Today’s subeditors have favoured blunt headlines (“Youth Jailed” and “Gang Jailed”) before offering a bit more detail. You’ll notice, however, that the body text of the article looks identical and doesn’t change at all, even though the story now focuses on multiple people. It’s not just substituting “Griff” for “Marty” each time, significant portions would have to be different.

More frustrating still is the bizarre change in line spacing, as you can see:

Guess you could call it a... RULE OF THUMB B')

The changed page has a bigger gap between the two lines of the smallest header, bigger than looks professional for a newspaper. There’s no diegetic reason for it that I can see, it just works better with Marty’s thumb.

But what about Back to the Future Part II’s vision for USA Today?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that USA Today is still published daily on paper, which may not have seemed like a remarkable suggestion in 1989 but seems like the work of a dinosaur in 2015. However, even though the Internet has dented newspaper sales globally, it has actually returned USA Today to where it was in the eighties.

According to USA Today’s own figures in a press release for its 30th anniversary in 2011, the paper hit a circulation of 1,500,000 copies a day by 1987 and these days (according to Wikipedia) it sells 1,674,306 copies a day, as of March 2013.

The paper seems to have hit its peak in 2004 with an average daily circulation of 2,339,919 copies. (Although 2004 was an election year, so that may have caused a general lift overall.) But it has been steadily downhill from there and it is no longer “No 1 in the USA” as its tagline used to claim – having ceded that ground to The Wall Street Journal, with The New York Times in second, pushing USA Today into third.

Not only does Back to the Future’s 2015 USA Today vision still proudly say it’s “No 1 in the USA”, it also claims to have “3 billion readers every day”. This is a bold claim, putting it mildly. There are roughly seven billion people alive in 2015, and USA Today’s readership is not any sizeable proportion of that. Rather than every three in seven people as readers, it’s more like one in every 4,375 people.

In fact, there aren’t even three billion English-speakers in the world who might understand USA Today, much less that number interested in the domestic affairs of the United States on a daily basis. The only language with over a billion speakers – I couldn’t find figures for reading – is Chinese, with most of them living in China. So while a Chinese paper may have hope of reaching a billion people every day, USA Today probably doesn’t.

Unless, of course, it publishes editions in English, Chinese, Spanish, French, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Japanese and maybe a handful of other languages. Perhaps then USA Today would have the reach to grab three billion readers.

That seems excessive and prohibitively expensive for a print newspaper with its printing, distribution and staff costs. We could generously claim that there is an Internet in Back to the Future’s 2015, we just didn’t get time to see it in the film because we’d rather watch Michael J Fox being three members of the same family like a white Eddie Murphy. Even in that case, the biggest online newspaper is MailOnline (somewhat regrettably for humanity). According to ABC circulation figures, MailOnline makes reaches 119,089,705 unique Internet browsers in one month, and 7,833,182 on an average day. Even including the printed Daily Mail’s circulation figures (1,787,558)  we’re not even touching a tenth of a billion per day.

So how is USA Today reaching three billion readers every single day?

“Is there a review of Jaws 19 in here?”
The clue might be in the top-right corner. There’s a yellow diagonal that says this is the “Hill Valley Edition” of the paper. Hill Valley is not a large place, and although it may have become a sprawling metropolitan city by 2015 it seems very much like the large town and surrounding suburbs that we see in both 1955 and 1985. It is not, in short, the sort of place where you would expect a paper to produce a localised version. Not in our reality, anyway.

So perhaps USA Today produces hyperlocal newspaper content blended in with its national, and international, articles and features. Then it has an army of subeditors arrange the local material around the rest, giving local stories prominence and shifting any bigger, national news to the inside pages. If they had enough money to pay journalists, photographers and subeditors then this operation could produce local news across the globe and each localised edition could add its circulation to a total that may, if USA Today expanded large enough, eventually reach the magic three-billion figure.

This all seems, again, prohibitively expensive, although it’s worth bearing in mind that USA Today would be raking in $3,000,000,000 every single day if they charged a modest $1 for each newspaper. So are there any hints as to how they can afford such a huge operation?

Notably, they didn’t bother spending a fortune on a redesign. Our USA Today changed its logo into a hipper (and notably more Internet- and app-friendly) design in 2012, which also included some work on changing the look of the front page. By contrast, Hill Valley’s USA Today logo looks very similar to the pre-2012 version but with the eighties idea of a futuristic font stuck on there. I have no idea how much the redesign of USA Today cost, but some advertising firm probably charged them millions for their “blue-sky thinking”.

Essentially it’s wrong on every conceivable level

In fact, it seems highly improbable that if USA Today were cracking into local markets in different languages it would keep its current name. There are questions of branding, of course, but we might expect to see variations such as “China Today” (or something like “今天中国”, anyway) on display internationally.

But the real money-saver is dispensing with human photographers and journalists who go out into the world, as evidenced by the USA Today-branded floating camera that appears in Hill Valley.

Hate the watermark? Then give me ALL YOUR MONEY

Not only is this a remarkably prescient prediction of remotely controlled airborne vehicles capturing footage for newsgathering operations (oh, OK, “drone journalism”), but it could also very well provide an insight into the way USA Today can be so hyperlocal.

If they have an army of drones ready to capture newsworthy events, these can all be relayed into a central journalistic office which then, not unlike The Huffington Post, could churn out local content at an astonishing rate, supplying USA Today’s many editions with important snippets of news, as well as the rest of the news from around the globe.

And in this constantly churning newsroom, pumping out editions for towns and cities across the world, will mistakes not creep in somewhere along the line? Such a massive operation is bound, one would think, to have occasional slip-ups.

And in this constantly churning newsroom, pumping out editions for towns and cities across the world, will mistakes not creep in somewhere along the line? Such a massive operation is bound, one would think, to have occasional slip-ups.

But it’s also bound to provide loads of news. Including the most optimistic sentence on the newspaper’s front page: “Washington Prepares For Queen Diana’s Visit”.

All of Back to the Future Part II’s predictions for the future are supposed to be nonsense. According to the Blu-ray commentary quoted on Wikipedia, Zemeckis said that “rather than trying to make a scientifically sound prediction that we were probably going to get wrong anyway, we figured, let’s just make it funny”. And while it works most of the time, it’s worth pointing out how spectacularly wrong that top-right USA Today headline is.

In Marty McFly’s world, Prince Charles is King by October 2015 (not likey), he is still married to Diana Spencer (they split up three years after the film was made) and Queen Elizabeth II has died while Diana lives on (certainly not the case).

That’s not the only reason the story is notable. Look at the USA Today sidebar, next to the story about Marty/Griff’s gang. The seventh story down the “Newsline” for Thursday, October 22 2015 (a correct date): “Queen Diana will Visit Washington”. Even if these are separate stories, one a feature on the prep and the other straight news about the visit, it’s a very sloppy piece of design work that seemingly duplicates story trails, especially when both are above the fold.

How come such a mistake can be made? Simple: USA Today’s gargantuan newsgathering team overwhelms its subeditors to the point where you’d be happy they just got a paper out, never mind if an item gets two mentions. Getting the paper out also appears to involve “compu-fax satellite”, though the nature of this technology isn’t really made clear.

The rest of the Newsline is a fun little glimpse into more of the crazy future imagined by Zemeckis and co, including:

  • “Thumb bandits strike” – Presumably this has something to do with the future’s security systems. We see the McFly home operates by pressing thumbs on pads, presumably registering finger prints. So it’s safe to assume that “thumb bandits” go around chopping off thumbs and then steal from their victims. The future isn’t always pretty, but will make for some excellent fan-fiction.
  • “Man killed by falling litter” – it’s blurry, but it looks like this is blamed on a “hovering vehicle”, which is an oddly clunky phrase. From that we could assume that flying cars are a relatively new invention, and nobody has developed a short, slang term for them. Or USA Today’s reporters are hedging their bets because they don’t know what sort of vehicle it was. There seems to be no cross-reference to another page, which makes the latter more likely – it’s just eight words of news and maybe there’s more to come the following day.
  • “Swiss terrorist threat” – again, it’s blurry, but I think this is followed up by “may be real say CIA officials”. In which case, Switzerland has finally got interesting.
  • “President says she’s tired” – Back to the Future strikes a victory for feminism, saying there will certainly be a female President. Just as soon as we get dust-proof paper and over a dozen more Jaws films.
  • An item about a pitcher with a bionic arm, which presumably opens up all sorts of questions about athletes competing with technological enhancements and/or replacements for organic body parts. There was some debate on this issue when Oscar Pistorious competed in the Olympics (rather than the Paralympics). Not the last time he was controversial.
  • Above the Newsline section there’s also a Sports box, which hints at a fun-sounding game called Slamball, and a headline about a “3 minute mile” – which research suggests would be impossible. Then again, with bionic body parts, who knows?

Considering these headlines, it suddenly becomes obvious why USA Today’s localised edition has supplanted the Hill Valley Telegraph. It remains Back to the Future Part II’s most satirical, biting and relevant joke about 2015.

We are presented with a vision of a world run by corporations so large and monopolistic that they can reach 3,000,000,000 every day. It’s like the bastard child of Rupert Murdoch and Disney. It has produced a sprawling company of a sickening magnitude that it has forgotten what people want from their local newspaper. The legacy of the Hill Valley Telegraph has been forsaken and what has it been replaced with?

A torrential flood of the factually impossible and complete bullshit. It is not a pretty sight, it is a warning. The Hill Valley Telegraph last over a hundred years before it collapsed, absorbed into part of USA Today and it struggled to hold on to its relevancy. Its unchanging story text? That makes sense, the thing is probably written by machines anyway.

That is the story of Back to the Future, the story of an invaluable newspaper – not always the best, but always informative – and how it ended up rotten. Swallowed up by the inexorable rise of monopolistic capitalism and reduced to nothing.

Long live the Hill Valley Telegraph.

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