Friday, July 22, 2011
Movie review: Page One: Inside the New York Times
The king of newspapers isn't dead yet. (Long live the king!)
Director Andrew Rossi and the other filmmakers behind Page One: Inside the New York Times chose one heck of an interesting year to spend documenting behind-the-scenes goings-on at the most famous and respected newspaper in the world. While they and their cameras roamed the newsroom and traveled with reporters on interview assignments, WikiLeaker Julian Assange was busy posting classified documents to the web, and pundits of some repute were holding a death watch for the Times' seemingly inevitable demise.
The film's central theme could be stated as "hard times for hard copy," within which scenario the Times' management and publishers are striving to nail down a strategy to remain both relevant and profitable. Those with an interest in journalism as a profession will already be lining up to see this fascinating and insightful film; those who think that in-depth, objective coverage of the news is a thing worth having ought to be.
The Times has not been immune to the shakeup in the print journalism industry that has been going on for several years now. Advertising revenue at the Times dropped 50% in 2009. It's obvious to all involved in the operation that changes will have to be made. One change that's made very quickly is to bring more online publishing expertise onto the news staff, in the form of young whipper-snappers like Brian Stelter (who previously blogged at TVNewser.com). Meanwhile, savvy news veterans such as David Carr bring a seasoned perspective to the changing equations of news reportage.
Carr visits the offices of Vice, an online news "competitor" (using the term loosely) to trade profanities with the starry-eyed 20-something staff, who seem quite flattered to be receiving attention from the Times' chief media consultant. Later, Carr makes a trip to Austin to host an interactive session at SXSW.
"The medium's not the message — the messages are the media," posits Carr, in an attempt to define the brave new paradigm of the Twitter era.
In between his coverage of these contemporary events at the newspaper, filmmaker Rossi presents us with key bits of historical background on the Gray Lady. We're reminded of Gay Talese's 1969 book about the paper, The Kingdom and the Power. We're briefed on former staffer Judith Miller's controversial reportage on WMD's, which arguably contributed to the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq. The Jayson Blair plagiarism affair is coughed up for a renewed tasting.
Inevitably, there are layoffs, and Rossi and his cameras are there to record the "funereal" mood (as it's characterized by Executive Editor Bill Keller), when the pink slips come out and the unfortunate ex-employees begin boxing up their belongings.
Not long afterwards, the Times announces that they'll be putting up a paywall, charging readers for access to their online content. "This is the end of pretending," as Keller puts it.
The film ends with a look at how Carr researched and published his story on billionaire business tycoon Sam Zell, who took over the Chicago Tribune and attempted to run it as a profit-centric entity, without any sense of moral conscience or devotion to the journalistic duty of keeping their readership informed. (The Tribune Company declared bankruptcy about a year after the Zell takeover.)
"The old newspaper paradigm is dying," media expert (and former Tribune employee) Jeff Jarvis proclaims during an on-camera interview. But if this is the rule, the New York Times seems to be an exception, continuing to work its daily miracle of in-depth news reportage — just as it has since 1851. The death watch may continue, but those keeping vigil seem to be diminishing in number.