'Letter to the Editor' Review: A Mosaic of American News Told in a Refreshing Format

Alan Berliner ('The Family Album') shares a personal journey through 40 years of history viewed through printed images in the New York Times.

Letter to the Editor

At the end of this year, the beloved Newseum, a museum collection of news-related history in Washington, D.C., will shutter its doors. With the loss of the Newseum comes the loss of a beloved archive of American journalism, a loss of an institution that dedicated its short 11 years to examining the news culture of this country. The museum’s funders cited unsustainable operating costs as their main reason for the shutdown, which seems to be an overall recurring trend in journalism.

Alan Berliner explores these themes in his documentary Letter to the Editor, a fusion of reflective narrative and photo essay that maps out 40 years of history through scanned photo clips from the New York Times. Berliner came up with the idea when he was a much younger filmmaker. He claims he wanted a bigger project to work on, something that would span over a large portion of his career and amount to something huge.

He began clipping and scanning photos from his favorite newspaper, the New York Times. Berliner worked hard to keep an organized catalog, taking time to tag each image. He uses a man completing a crossword as an example: this image would be tagged with the words man, pen, desk, inside, and most importantly, crossword puzzle. With this level of coordination, Berliner is able to establish a cohesive narrative out of a broad range of photographs.

The format of Letter to the Editor is what makes it so much fun to watch: photos are presented together in a montage as the main source of visual aspect, with Berliner’s personal voiceover and occasional sound effect attached. It fosters the same emotions as perusing old family photographs would — an irresistible form of historical intake. Berliner strategically arranges this 85-minute montage. Some photos last longer while others just whisk by. Some are paired by their emotions, others by their related content.

By creating Letter to the Editor out of this cataloged collection, Berliner can share a great number of histories with his audience. He establishes that this film serves as a personal history. He shares his ideas for the project, filmmaking process, and family history through the voiceover he layers on top of the photos. Since the New York Times covers global news, it’s also a broad iteration of worldwide history from the 1980s through the 2010s. But most importantly, Letter to the Editor is an examination of journalism as it’s evolved over these years. Berliner exquisitely meshes these three forms of narrative into one line of thought through the narration, connecting his personal life to the state of times and reflecting on his relationship with print journalism.

Berliner’s narration highlights the transience of the entire project. He talks of recurring themes in the photos. Most of the time, they are what he calls “bad news.” By this, he means news that will evoke negative emotions. But this is a good thing, Berliner argues; bad news can remind us that life is fragile. Every life, he claims, is a window that makes us see the world differently. In compiling these photos of many different lives, Berliner is able to open a number of new perspectives for his audience.

At the same time, we cannot use Berliner’s documentation of these photos as a single source of information. By removing the caption and photo credit, he is inherently removing all context and accountability. Though Berliner is respectful of the journalistic process in his voiceover, he manipulates the meanings of images to fit his narrative. In a film about the history of journalism, he erases a lot of meaning from these images by revoking those details. In the credits, Berliner cites that there are too many images to credit each one of the photographers but that you can find them all with their captions and credits at his website.

When he began the project, newsstand owners told Berliner they sold over 6,000 copies of the Times on the daily. Now, with the digital landscape, they’re lucky to sell just 15. Berliner’s ideas of “bad news” and the fragility of life parallel the current state of print journalism. Luckily, his montage of photojournalism history exists. By watching Letter to the Editor, we can properly mourn the dying trend of print journalism. Though we may have lost the Newseum as a primary source of journalistic history, Berliner steps in to fill a bit of the gap with his film.

Letter to the Editor will debut on HBO later this year.