“Hey Doc, this date… wait, this is tomorrow’s newspaper!”

An update and addendum to “A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph”, examining newspapers in the Back to the Future trilogy.

When Marty McFly travelled to 2015 in Back to the Future Part II he did not find an issue of the Hill Valley Telegraph, a local newspaper whose legacy stretches back far. So where was it? It had been swallowed by a huge corporation, in the form of USA Today.

“Is there a review of Jaws 19 in here?”

The depiction of October 21, 2015 in the film was — as we know, it now being firmly The Past — largely inaccurate. But USA Today’s capitalistic zeal to squeeze every penny out of its audience was right on the money. And, for once, it’s hard to ignore. Because USA Today published a wraparound cover for their October 22, 2015 paper, and it looks like this:

CR822JPWEAAXPl_

It’s a pretty neat trick, and as a devoted fan of Back to the Future I find it incredibly cool. (And if you want it yourself, USA Today is selling them at $4.95 a go.)

But it’s not an exact replica for a few reasons. Firstly, Back to the Future Part II leaves proceedings with the front page changed to “GANG JAILED” about Griff and his cohorts get themselves arrested. Still, I’m sure it won’t be half as recognisable to have Thomas F Wilson on your celebratory cover wrap than Michael J Fox. (Sorry, Mr Wilson, but it’s true.)

The text of the main story matches up with the original prop, delightfully, and is now far more readable than it ever was on screen.

And while almost everything else on the page matches up with what we see in the film, there’s a notable exception in “Queen Diana”. Having died in a car accident in 1997, and with Elizabeth II still on the throne, it’s deemed a bit tasteless to have a gag about Diana being the British monarch on a very light-hearted PR exercise.

In the Newsline column it’s simply omitted, with the “KELP PRICE INCREASE” moved up to accommodate. In the top-right corner, under the yellow banner for Hill Valley, “Washington prepares for Queen Diana’s visit” has been replaced by “3D billboards: Free speech or traffic hazards?”

It’s a nice little joke, certainly one less likely to date badly, and like much of the rest of this souvenir edition’s inventions — because there were parts of the page we didn’t see on screen — it references some other bits of the future as seen in the movie: a review of Jaws 19, self-adjusting jackets, rehydrated pizza slices, Cafe ’80s, and so on. It’s an impressive cobbling together of Back to the Future jokes that shows how affectionate people feel towards Robert Zemeckis’s greatest accomplishment.

And in celebrating the trilogy, guess what turned out to be most important all over again? Newspapers.

There's even an ad for Jaws 19...
There’s even an ad for Jaws 19…
...and the USA Today drone makes a reappearance!
…and the USA Today drone makes a reappearance!

(Both pictures from @alexgriendling.)

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.


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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.

A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part III

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 and Part II.


splash 1 no text

One film later and a whole universe to the side, Marty finds himself in what Doc calls “1985A”, an alternate reality caused by Biff’s stealing of a sports almanac in 2015 and giving it his 1955 self. As Marty, and the audience, stumble around a hellish eighties dystopia, we have to wonder how Biff knowing sports scores before they happened gave rise to this nightmare.

As ever, there’s only one trusted source. Only this time, it’s relayed on TV screens outside Biff’s Pleasure Palace. Yes, Biff’s awful behaviour has even tainted the reliable newspaper, showing just how necrotic Biff’s Hill Valley has become.

Spinning newspaper agogo!

Kicking things off, we have Biff’s first win. The Telegraph seems to have switched to Capitalise Each Word policy for their headlines which I like far less than the all-caps approach they have employed up to this point. Then again, perhaps it’s because CLOCK TOWER STRUCK isn’t as big news as Man Wins Big and they’re reflecting that in the emphasis. There’s other news there, too, including some state highway funds – the sort of local construction project news that often makes headlines – and, strangely, international news about “Khruschev”, the new Soviet Premier. This would place it in March 1958, two and a half years after Biff first got the almanac.

Or it would, if the subs had got their spelling right. Perhaps they were violently ill and nobody in the office knew it’s “Khrushchev”, with three Hs. There’s also mention of Eisenhower at the bottom of the screen, too, to further hint at the day of the big win, and at least they got his name correct.

What about Chip and Kipper?

Following previous news stories, Biff Tannen is back and known only as Biff. When the newspapers treat you mononymically, it can only be a sign that you’re in them far too often. The misspelt Khruschev returns, so I’m forced to consider that this was either the accepted spelling back then and it isn’t any more or the Hill Valley Telegraph has an abstract style guide for Russian names. That’s not the only quirk of their style guide, and it’s about time I brought it up.

Indentation! Every paragraph is indented, which initially seems fine until you realise that also applies to the first paragraph of articles. As indents only denote the start of a new paragraph you don’t need them if the paragraph is obviously beginning. When it’s under, say, a headline. It’s not like this is a weird trick in journalism, it’s pretty standard practice basically anywhere paragraphs are used with a Latin alphabet. Scroll back up through this post, look at the indents. Clearly, the Telegraph is something of a stylistic maverick newspaper.

More like Yuckiest

We’re back to calling him by his full name now as Biff becomes “Luckiest Man On Earth”. You’ll notice the Telegraph has gone back to capitalised words after a brief flirtation of all-caps last time. The indents are still maddeningly present. There’s a colossal amount of white space caused by include the name “Biff Tannen” above the headline and it’s pretty ugly as page design goes. Nasser has replaced “Khruschev” as the go-to international news figure of choice in this increasingly twisted version of the Hill Valley Telegraph.

In fact, it has got so bad that one might be convinced that Biff had decided to buy the Telegraph with his mountain of winnings and is just getting it to print stories about him. In the logic of the Back to the Future world this would be further damnation upon his character – remember his ancestor’s trigger-happy approach to journalism? – and thus a greater demonstration that he is the villain of the piece.

RAMBLING, NOT SO MUCH

We’re back with all-caps! This would be time to rejoice, but it only accentuates the problem with the swathe of white space to the right of “Hill Valley” which, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. I suppose it’s to point out that the gambling has only been legalised in Hill Valley, and not nationwide? Even so, it’s an abhorrent piece of design. And given that smarmy photo of Biff on the front page let’s just go with the theory that Biff owns the paper. We know he builds a casino, perhaps he was trying to get the town onboard with the idea first?

Even if Biff doesn’t own the paper, then the spelling mistakes and design SNAFUs are another indication of just how badly Hill Valley is doing. Its once noble paper has been slowly eroded into a former shadow of itself. Still, it’s widely-read. Marty picks up a copy to establish the date, on Mr Strickland’s doorstep.

BTTF2 (9)
BTTF2 (10)

The desiccated husk that bears the Hill Valley Telegraph logo is running a story about Ronald Reagan going for surgery, it appears. No clock towers, no Biff, just Reagan news. If he’s getting surgery in Hill Valley, that would just about make sense.

When the Telegraph does focus on local issues, though, it’s even more of a horror-show. As if the world wasn’t in dire straits already, Doc shows Marty the full extent of the carnage wrought by 2015-Biff’s time meddling.

This blog would be shorter if Crispin Glover had just participated. Cheers, Crispin!

First up is the news that George McFly has been shot, with the Telegraph using a formula of all-caps headline, capitalised first letters subheadline. And a big headshot of George McFly. The use of his full name would indicate that he is reasonably well-known locally (“Local author shot dead” would be appropriate if he was unheard of), with the subheadline just clarifying matters for those unaware. We’ve also got other news creeping in with the Wounded Knee Incident, setting this piece of news in 1973. You’ll notice, for old time’s sake, that all the paragraphs are indented.

COMMITTED (to inventing time travel)

The Telegraph, some years later going by the “Nixon to Seek Fifth Term” headline, is still using the same arrangement for capital letters in headlines as when George McFly was shot. Except now they’re using a serif font for everything but the headline. Previously it was a lovely sans-serif number, and this frankly looks like a cheap use of Times New Roman. That this is also front page news suggests that by the eighties, Doc Brown was pretty famous around Hill Valley. And then they rather go and spoil it all by calling him a “crackpot” when he’s been “declared legally insane”, which is not an especially sensitive move.

By the movie’s end, though, the paper’s insensitivity doesn’t matter at all as the universe changes once more. Burning the almanac means Biff’s ascent never happens and, consequently, neither George nor Doc have their bad experiences. Instead, the papers end up weirdly familiar.

Yes, that is a newspaper with "More rain predicted" as a front page story

It is commendably plausible that the Telegraph would run a story on George McFly being killed as well as receiving and award – although the D of “award” is so close to the photograph as to look like sloppy layout work.

Surely it should be "Mayor's Office", with an apostrophe?

The strange and fluid approach to typefaces continues, but in this nicer timeline of less Biff the Telegraph doesn’t use the word “crackpot” even though they really need something to fill up some space round the edges. It’s just a classier newspaper without the influence of Tannen riches. We could also deduce the world is better because Nixon is long gone and it’s only Reagan seeking a second term.

Speaking of which…

Onwards to Part IV.