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On the Media: 'Page One' can be read different ways

The New York Times documentary is likely to hearten believers and leave skeptics unmoved. It's a picture of media in transition, and some inside the paper resent it.

June 18, 2011|James Rainey
  • David Carr and Bruce Headlam in the movie "Page One: Inside the New York Times."
David Carr and Bruce Headlam in the movie "Page One: Inside the New… (Magnolia Pictures )

In the new documentary film "Page One: Inside the New York Times," we see media columnist David Carr attending lots of conferences on the future of newspapers. People talk intently about new platforms, worry about endangered advertising models, and parse the viability of "pay walls."

Something else goes on at these powwows. "It's kind of lonely and scary out there," Carr tells us. "It's a way to sort of gather around a campfire and say, 'We're all right aren't we? We're OK.' … 'Yeah, we're fine. We've got [conference] badges.'"

Director Andrew Rossi's film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, effectively brings us all around the campfire, with Carr as shaman and chief storyteller. Those who still believe in the power and righteousness of big media, and the New York Times in particular, will experience a warm glow of affirmation. Skeptics of America's most prominent newspaper, and new media loyalists, will likely be left cold.

The movie has a few problems — particularly what seems like a too-ready dismissal of the journalistic prospects of newspapers. Former Washington Post reporter (and current New Yorker Editor) David Remnick, for instance, dismisses the Post's current incarnation in a sentence or two. It doesn't dig in that deeply into any one topic — relying on a 30,000-foot scan across new media, citizen journalism, investigative reporting and the demise of print.

But the real and more potent focus of "Page One" is the New York Times, particularly its 14-member media desk and Carr, 54, a refugee from alternative journalism and onetime crack cocaine addict whose "textured life" (his words) is a side plot throughout the film. What we see inside the paper's sleek new, Renzo Piano-designed headquarters is Carr and his colleagues working earnestly to figure things out and tell us about them as clearly as they can, sometimes with a distinct lack of cooperation from the people they are writing about.

In an age when many Internet lone wolves go it alone, the movie makes an implicit argument for the value of teamwork and editors. We see an extended discussion between the paper's media and foreign desks, intent on not over-playing the significance of a partial American troop withdrawal from Iraq. In scenes about Wikileaks and its release of diplomatic cables, the Times' news managers seem admirably lucid about the upstart organization's dual role as both political provocateur and invaluable source.

Working inside a newspaper, one can't help but wonder how outsiders would have any way of knowing the considerable care and even occasional soul-searching that go into journalism. "Page One" gives a palpable sense about the care and nurturing of weighty news.

"Page One" also leaves no doubt about how considerable the worries have been inside the Times about finding the money to make sure that serious journalism can continue. The film reviews the $250-million, high-interest loan procured from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú. It relives the essential mortgaging of the glam new headquarters to obtain more operating cash. Editor Bill Keller acknowledges how the paper, casting about for an antidote to disintegrating ad revenue, even mused about turning the Times into a nonprofit.

Instead, the Times forges ahead as its venerable, capitalist self. New York Times Co. has seen revenue drop 27% over five years. Weekday print circulation slumped more than 15% over four years. Though hardly cause for celebration, those results make the company a relative stalwart in a swooning industry. Analysts have been cautiously optimistic that a pay wall introduced in late March (those who read more than 20 articles a month on www.nytimes.com are charged) could become a course-changing source of new revenue. We will see.

An old company whose profile is well established, for good and ill, might seem like an unlikely topic for a feature-length movie. But Rossi, who grew up in Manhattan reading the paper, said he wanted to show the valuable work still going on in "old" journalism. He wrote the film with Kate Novack, also his partner in an HBO documentary about the restaurant Le Cirque.

Keller initially had qualms about giving filmmakers broad access to the normally sacrosanct newsroom. He eventually agreed, saying he believed in the kind of work his journalists did and wanted the world to see it. By focusing on the media desk, Rossi had access to rapidly moving stories and reporters who could also tell the larger tale of the press in crisis.

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