Page One: Inside the New York Times [Review by Haus]
Page One: Inside the New York Times ostensibly follows in a long line of behind-the-scenes looks at the news media. It does so, though, at a time when the Grey Lady’s decline and fall is itself making news. This documentary by Andrew Rossi is not really a look at the workings of a paper, the daily grind of the city desk, or the ways in which reporters shape the news. It’s a look at the scramblings of a paper trying to find footing in the tumult of new media. It’s timely and interesting, though its title perhaps suggests a different type of film.
Like all institutions, the Times is at its core just people. The people featured here are attached to the Times media desk, a 2008 innovation tasked with reporting on new media — which frequently includes the Times’s own adaptations to a digital world. The star of Page One is unquestionably David Carr, an ex-drug-addict media desk reporter who curses, grumbles, and cracks wise like a newspaperman from another time. He’s fascinating to watch, though I’d have liked to see some more background on the other staff members. Carr and others lend a personal face to the challenges facing this venerable institution.
The main story here is one with which our readers are almost certainly familiar (you savvy bunch, you): the Web has yanked the rug out from under traditional media, leaving newspapers in particular with drastically reduced advertising revenues on the one hand, and pushed to deliver increasingly sophisticated online content (generally free of charge) on the other. Layoffs and bankruptcies are commonplace; several high profile papers have been shuttered. The Times’s share price dropped from over $50 in 2002 to $4 in 2009. And this spring, the Times made a long-awaited and much-dreaded move to paid digital subscriptions, provoking mopey twitter tantrums from HuffPo-fed bozos drunk on a heady mix of mob indignation and information-wants-to-be-free sloganeering. (These folks — come on, you know a few — have no qualms dropping $700 on an iPad but scream bloody murder if perhaps the most robust content generator of all time finally charges a few bucks a month for access. These are the same people who “proudly support” NPR and who carry metal mugs for their $5 lattes. Oh, and “information wants to be free” was originally a comment on scientific knowledge and what would today be called a patent anticommons — in the newspaper context, the appropriate inquiry is into the tension between information wanting to be free but needing to be expensive. Put that in your metal mug.)
If Page One is to be believed, and I think it is, Times reporters are dealing with this transition head on and as best they can. Carr and his colleagues in no way have their heads in the sand: they’re very well acquainted with new media, twitter, blogs, news aggregators and so forth, but they maintain a respect for and a belief in the traditional approach to desk-and-bureau journalism. (In this, they are not wrong.) They turn out a thick paper every day, and at the same time face a whole host of new decisions and pressures.
Today, news updates push instantly and around the clock, fed live via countless channels direct to our mobile devices. Many of those channels enjoy limited accountability and can run with whatever leak or story they grab; the Times must sometimes lag behind a little, verifying and vetting. A particularly crazy vignette shown in this film details a live NBC announcement of troop draw-down in Iraq — it’s funny but also disheartening to watch old-guard reporters puzzle over this, asking whether an NBC news spot can really, as it claimed, constitute an official Pentagon announcement. Do they report this, or not? It’s a new world, with new rules. Maybe no rules.
I feel for the Times here. There’s a strong pressure to jump on the bandwagon and get out there with the frontrunners — no one reads old news stories. But only fools rush in, as the Judith Miller saga makes clear. (Miller published a series of Times articles in 2003 stating that Saddam Hussein had or was developing weapons of mass destruction — her sources were later, of course, found to be wrong on this crucial point.)
So where does all this leave journalism, and the Times? Aside from briefly touting the iPad as a potential savior, Page One offers few answers, probably because right now there are few answers.
There’s much lamenting, especially in this picture, of the possible demise of the Times and what this would mean to journalism and to the world. To me, this seems overblown.
Yes, print journalism is in trouble: Local papers in particular appear doomed, their revenues gutted by online-hungry advertisers, craigslist, and monster.com. And America truly has become a digital village of sorts, where any strange news item or viral video can be propelled to the national consciousness in a way unimaginable only a decade ago.
But as this film points out, there remains room for a professional and dedicated staff of newshounds to not only chase and gather new stories with reporters on the ground, but also to vet the occasional core-dump digital harvests of sources such as WikiLeaks. 100 people with camera phones can add real value to coverage of a breaking political situation, but they won’t interview the leaders or assemble balanced stories or have to run the gauntlet of steely-eyed editors before their contributions see day. New-media types (and certainly content aggregators) rely to a huge extent on mainstream reporting for their material, in much the same way as local papers have long relied on AP, Reuters, and the Times for a large share of their news. If you ask me, there is room for a flagship paper like the New York Times in our digital future. (Though there may not be room for two.)
I’ve talked very little about the actual movie here, and that’s because I see it chiefly as a vehicle to fuel debate about the value and the future of traditional media in modern society. And that’s a discussion worth having. But Page One also paints a candid and unvarnished portrait of the earnest and hard-working staff of the nation’s paper of record struggling through a bleak and taxing time in their business. Hard-nosed capitalist notions, though logically sound, are misplaced here: that this little enclave of values-driven reporters was born as a profit generator in a time of great advertising dollars is immaterial. That they are no longer sustained by a profitable classified-ad section should not sign their death warrant. Now that this culture exists, we can see that it has value beyond the bottom line.
And it is worth supporting — should it come to that.
HAUS VERDICT: An interesting look at the Times. Big T and small.
See what the other half thinks: Parsi’s view.