For good or ill, the New York Times is one of the world’s most powerful labels. Early In the new documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, we see media reporter David Carr pay a visit to a hip new-media company where he keeps being introduced as the New York Times. Carr, a wise-cracking, old-school truth-teller right out of The Front Page, says: “Don’t keep saying I’m from the New York Times. It sucks.”
What Carr is getting at is that he wants to be just a reporter, just a guy in pursuit of the truth, and that to invest him with the weight of the Times is to make too much of his visit and of the Times itself. But much of the subtext of this compelling documentary is that if you work for the Times, you are always the New York Times. You can never escape the symbolism of being “the paper of record.”
In Page One director Andrew Rossi has made a highly entertaining and also substantive effort to probe what it means to be the New York Times in an age when newspapers see themselves as fighting for survival. As Clay Shirky, one of many heavyweight new-media theorists quoted in the film, says early on, the Times faces a double paradigm shift – the collapse of newspapers’ ad-business model in the face of Internet competition from the likes of craigslist and the questioning of authoritative journalism in a world of bloggers and aggregator news sites.
Rossi’s method is collage. He threads big stories onto this central theme as they arise in the course of filming. First, there’s the fascinating ongoing story of the Times’s media staff reporting on the crisis in their industry (which is the crisis of the Times itself and, of course, of their own jobs); then, the Times’s collaboration with Wikileaks on publishing secret U.S. documents detailing the Iraq War; next, the famous public humiliations of the Times for the fabricated stories of Jason Blair and Judith Miller’s reporting of false justifications for launching the Iraq War; and finally, the climax of the film – David Carr’s investigative reporting on the Tribune newspaper company and its new owner, Sam Zell. In the end this last story turns into a compelling tale of the good guys of journalism (Carr et al.) vs. the businessmen who see newspapers as cash cows to be drained and who place no value whatsoever on the sacred trust of the journalistic calling.
Page One was one of four films I saw this year at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs festival, always the highlight of my film-going year. Each documentary – the others were The Price of Sex, Scenes of a Crime, and Donor Unknown - was pretty wonderful in its own way, but Page One taps into my own obsessions. The title comes from the daily “Page One” meeting at the Times, where the top editors meet to discuss what stories will make the front page that day. It offers the surefire fascination of seeing journalists up close at work – discussing stories, debating length and placement, interviewing sources and cajoling them into talking.
I love the Silverdocs custom of offering the audience a Q&A with the filmmaker, or sometimes characters in the film, after each viewing. For the Page One postscript we saw Times media reporter Brian Stelter and media editor Bruce Headlam, both frank and articulate fellows. They said that the Times had no editorial control of over the film, even though in the end the Times staff comes off looking pretty heroic. (The Times did ask Rossi to depart the building during a period of layoffs for the editorial staff in 2009; the layoffs and emotional responses from longtime Times staffers who were let go do make it into the film.)
The editor and reporter agreed that Rossi and his small camera were such a constant presence that over time they forgot that he was there. When asked to summarize the effect of the new-media revolution and the staff cuts on the quality of Times reporting, Headlam said:
The Times has probably been less affected than anybody else in the newspaper business. There’s less print, so the articles get shorter – which nobody likes to see. But as an editor I see that reporters are now working much, much harder than 20 years ago. I see these old clips from the 1950s of reporters sitting around at work, and I think, ‘What were they doing with all their time?’ I have to worry all the time about people getting pretty burned out.
What I noticed in the film, perhaps the telling detail that sums up a good deal, is that the gentlemanly pipe-smoking, suit-wearing reporters and editors of the Times in those 1950s clips are all gone. There are women on staff at the Times now, though few, we learned in the Q&A, opted to appear in this film, and Timesmen don ties these days only on the most formal occasions (e.g., serving as a panelist on a future-of-media panel). The reporters we see in Page One are working too hard to think too much about that suit and tie.
End Notes: Interestingly, the Times itself ran a negative review of the film by Michael Kinsley, a writer who doesn’t work for the Times. What Kinsley sees as a weakness, the filmmakers’ tendency to jump around among stories, I see as its virtue. For me the film raises provocative questions and offers the viewer many a lead for more research.
Also worth checking out is Bruce Headlam’s interview with Jon Stewart on the “Daily Show.”