Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Page One: Inside The New York Times

Making a documentary about The New York Times can't be easy. Where to start? Would you make it about the history of this famous publication, or would you make it about it's current impact? Do you look at it's successes, like the Pentagon Papers, or it's failures, like Judith Miller? Do you examine the process of news gathering and reporting, or why it's necessary to have newspapers? Do you look at where it is today, or do you look to it's future?

I can't imagine assembling this documentary was an easy job, despite the fact that director Andrew Rossi had fairly extensive access to the paper, and some of it's staff, for most of a year. Page One is an intriguing account of the paper, but while it touches on The New York Times history and it's many problems, this documentary is really a homage to traditional newspaper reporting. It rasies the question; 'will The New York Times survive?' but it becomes clear that The New York Times is really a proxy for the traditional newspaper industry. For surely, if The New York Times can't survive, then no newspaper can.

That this institution is scorned by the right for a liberal bias, and by the left for cheerleading the Iraq War, just adds to the complexity.

With some irony, Page One tells it's story of the paper by following the Media and Marketing section of The Times. It spends a large amount of time following reporter David Carr, though several others make strong appearances. A reformed cocaine addict, Carr is nothing if not colorful. You could probably make a two hour documentary about the man and still have enough left over for a mini-series.

David Carr and Bruce Headlam in PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES,
 a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a conference panel discussing old media vs. new media, David Carr holds up an index page to the news aggregation site Newser, with all the pieces sourced from traditional media cut out. The large number of cutouts highlighted how dependent "new" media is on "old" media.

On another occasion, Carr tears apart a reporter from Vice who, during an interview, talks as though he discovered the idea of genocide. Stopping him short, Carr points out that The New York Times has been covering genocide all over the world for decades.

We see examples of reporters following stories, calling sources for confirmation, doing traditional "reporting." In one segment they are trying to figure out what was happening when NBC announced that the last convey of combat troops was leaving Iraq. When one reporter tells media editor Bruce Headlam that "NBC says they are declaring the end of combat troops," Headlam wryly notes that "last I checked, NBC isn't at war in Iraq."

The filmmakers had the good fortune to be there during several notable events, including the Wikileaks revelations and a round of downsizing at the paper. Yet for me, it was another event that underlined why the newspaper industry needs to survive. Carr spent over a month investigating how the Tribune company was virtually run into the ground, and just before going to press he went to the Tribune for comments. That was when the lawyers got involved, and the Tribune threatened to sue. Now it's possible that citizen reporters and bloggers might have done the same kind of research for a story, but what would they do if the industry lawyers came calling? Would they risk losing their house? Would they be able to prevent their content being taken down by their ISP?

Page One tells many stories and gives you an inkling of what is happening in the newspaper industry. What is the future for newspapers? Will The New York Times survive? There were no clear answers here. The Times is experimenting with new media itself - there was some coverage of it's now charging for access to their website after a certain number of visits - yet there was a suggestion that this was little more than a bandaid rather than a solution. The strength of this documentary is not that it provided any answers, but that it raises the question, and makes the case that we still need reporting of the kind The New York Times does.

Take Part: PAGE ONE: Inside The New York Times
C-Span: Q&A With Andrew Rossi (Director)

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