The newsroom in the documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times." (Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia…)
Watching "Page One: Inside the New York Times" is like talking to a smart person with a severe case of attention deficit disorder: A lot of what they say is intriguing, but you wish they could stick to the point.
Though it's blessed with a strong subject and some memorable characters and situations, the drawback of this fitfully engaging documentary is that it can't settle on anything even close to a single theme or line of inquiry.
Rather, as directed by Andrew Rossi (who co-wrote and co-produced with Kate Novack), "Page One" ends up all over the map, covering a smorgasbord of situations with a scattershot approach that leaves you hungry instead of satisfied.
Even though its title leads you to believe it will be solely concerned with the New York Times, the mighty monarch of daily journalism, "Page One" has many other things on its mind, starting with the crisis that what's come to be known as "legacy media" face in the Internet age.
So we get many of the usual suspects, all with their own ax to grind, talking up the death of daily newspapers and insisting that in this brave new world the New York Times is "just one of many voices in the marketplace," which is a little like saying Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge have no more power than a random blogger in Whitefish, Mont. If you've been paying attention over the last few years, this is not only questionable, it is very old news.
When it does focus on the Times itself, "Page One" doesn't exactly take you inside the place either. Huge chunks of the paper, like sports, entertainment and the foreign desk, are not even mentioned, and though we do get glimpses of the daily Page 1 meetings that select what appears on the front, at least as much time is spent on unnecessary tangents dealing with celebrated Times embarrassments like Jayson Blair's inventions and Judith Miller's misguided coverage of WMDs in Iraq.
As close as "Page One" gets to a focus is its extended look at the media desk, perhaps not the most compelling part of the paper, though editor Bruce Headlam does work under a camera-ready French poster of Orson Welles as "Citizen Kane."
This part of the film does give us a sense of how reporters and editors talk and what kinds of power games get played behind the scenes, but even these conversations feel a tad constrained by the camera's presence: Both of the women who work on the media desk, for instance, declined to be part of the project.
Completely unconstrained and in fact as close as the film gets to having a winning and charismatic central figure, is reporter-columnist David Carr. An irascible iconoclast who takes no grief from anyone, Carr can be counted on to be funny and to the point when those around him are not.
Even when it is nominally concentrating on the media desk, "Page One" further dilutes its focus by the way it gets fascinated by each story the team does; CNN's affiliation with Vice magazine, Comcast buying NBC and the crescendo of stories from the folks at WikiLeaks come off more like independent mini-segments than episodes in the broader picture of how the Times covers the world.
For readers of the Los Angeles Times, owned by the Tribune Co. as it is, "Page One" has a special poignancy and impact. Carr's front-page story on the moral fecklessness of Tribune management showed the continuing power of the New York Times as it led directly to a corporate shakeup and the resignation of chief executive officer Randy Michaels two weeks later.
Eavesdropping as Carr cracks wise ("You could call that incentive, or you could call it looting, depending on your perspective," he says of $100 million in Tribune bonuses) and masterfully works the phone with both sources and Tribune flacks is worth the price of admission. Too bad the rest of the film is not in this class.