Page One: Inside The New York Times Dir. Andrew Rossi

[Participant Media; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: Reporter, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, Control Room

Without doubt, Page One: Inside The New York Times is mighty interesting. It’s a tight, well-focused, and intelligent documentary that offers more than a slight peek into a highly specialized world. As a fan of these types of docs, I could watch hours of Page One’s B-roll without getting bored. But bear in mind — as you should with any review of this movie written by someone who works for a publication — I eat this stuff up because I both look up to journalists and am fascinated by the newspaper business. I suspect it’s not going to be hard to convince most film critics, whether they publish online or in print, that the people in this film, people working in the upper-upper echelon of the newspaper world, are worthy subjects of a doc. What the staff of the paper itself will make of it is anyone’s guess.

Because this isn’t really a movie about the inner workings of The New York Times, as the subtitle suggests. This doc is about one very specific, very high-profile aspect of the Times: Its forced transition from classical to digital news reporting in the few years since the industry started taking sharp economic whacks. As such, the film does its job, providing a focused account of the Times’ struggle to remain the world’s number one newspaper as it wades increasingly further into the digital muck populated by Gawker, The Huffington Post, and other young newsfeed sites that think they can take it down. The business of news is the point here. Tangentially (and happily), we are allowed a peek into the day-to-day job of a professional reporter.

In case we might find that job (what we see of it) a little dry, Page One offers acidic bad-boy, recovered drug addict, and veteran reporter David Carr as its de facto protagonist. Carr worked in Minneapolis for the Twin Cities Reader in the 1970s and 80s during his heavy cocaine days, and he is not loathe to mention that he has long balanced his journalism career with single parenthood, welfare, and addiction. He came to The New York Times late in his career, writing for the Media Desk (newly formed) and mainly reporting on what this documentary itself is interested in: the state of the Fourth Estate. Carr is the opposite of the pampered Ivy Leaguer that many people imagine at a paper like the Times, and he winds up with more screen time than any other reporter. He’s used as a relatable stand-in for the common man, and his dominating presence in the movie should be taken with a grain of salt. Carr is an acolyte of the Hunter S. Thompson school of journalism (Gay Talese, of Thompson’s school of New Journalism, also pops up for an interview), and from what we see of the more buttoned-down rest of the Times staff, Carr is an acerbic anomaly.

The bulk of the middle of Page One follows Carr to conferences on the state of the newspaper industry, where he defends his paper’s continuing relevance in the New Digital World. His foul-mouthed, irascible style butts heads with those of young newsfeed websites, each of whom (unconvincingly) preach the impending doom of the Times. Tellingly, though, when he’s outside of the conferences, Carr voices his serious concern for the future of quality journalism to anyone who will listen. On balance with Carr, we get Executive Editor Bill Keller (who stepped down from his post to be a full-time writer shortly after this doc filmed) giving us the ins and outs of managing the flagging institution as it attempts to hang on to its gargantuan clout.

Both are informed takes on the transformation of the business, and they should be taken seriously. But nothing Carr, Keller, or anyone else at The New York Times does — whether it’s embracing Twitter or continuing to write excellent news stories — is going to stop print journalism from shrinking and digital media from growing. We’re watching an industry, and an institution, in a process of change that it can’t afford to shrug off. Insofar as that, Page One is essentially an interesting nonfiction movie cataloging the tectonic shift of an ancient business model.

That in and of itself isn’t a problem, and again, Page One is an assured, informative, enjoyable doc. But it’s also unabashedly one-sided. Much like a foreign correspondent embedded with US troops who can’t bring herself to report anything bad about her subjects, director Andrew Rossi was clearly allowed privileged access to the newsrooms of the Times, and he seems reluctant to show any of its downsides. Carr and Keller and a handful of other Times writers are portrayed as, alternately or simultaneously, sharp, professional, and heroic. The grimier side of journalism — from the Times’ own Jayson Blair scandal to the corporate pirating, plunder, and sinking of The Tribune Company — are firmly distanced from Page One’s crystalline portrayal of its subject.

This doc may be a model for the news story of the future — a piece of journalism shot, rather than written; one of high technical quality, but nevertheless a piece of advertising. If it manages to stay afloat in the sea of similar documentaries, it will be with the help of its powerful subject: In the digital archives of the future The New York Times, Page One will be filed away as a puff piece.

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