Director: Andrew Rossi,
Watched in: Theater,
Page One: Inside The New York Times peeks its head in the doorway of the venerable newspaper’s building, peers around a few corners, and shuffles its feet in a couple of offices. It is not a gritty, in-the-trenches, behind-the-scenes expose on the day-to-day running of the most famous newspaper in the world, a subject more suited to a reality TV series than a 90-minute independent documentary. Given that, the movie’s title, or titles, are misleading.
Page One: Inside the New York Times is not about the battle of various managing editors to get their department’s hot story on the front page of the paper and it’s more interested in what is happening outside the Times rather than inside. The movie’s main subject is the struggle of traditional journalism to stay vital in a world of blogs, on-line news and palm-sized screens. Within this limited scope, Page One manages to inform and entertain by avoiding, ironically, the use of slick, software-centric tools now available to all would-be, desktop filmmakers. There are no sequences stuffed with animated After Effects or fluttering graphics; no professionally lighted studio interviews or soaring crane or dolly shots.
The director, Andrew Rossi, who shot much of the movie himself, is no slave to cinematic sophistication. He keeps the lens close to his subjects, pins a mic on their lapel, and turns up the gain on his handheld HD camcorder instead of setting up lights. It might be an old-fashioned approach, but as any reporter would tell you, it’s the characters who bring a story to life. In this case, the characters—David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam—all work the Media Desk for the Times, reporting on the tumultuous changes threatening their very own existence.
Carr makes the most impact. With his misshapen body and throttled croak of a voice, and a battle-scarred past of drug addiction and single-parenthood, he shows up at several conventions defending the Times against digital media proselytizers whose aggregate news websites exist only because traditional papers like the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post provide them with content.
Stelter, a Young Turk who made the switch from popular independent blogger to paid employee, represents the newspaper’s attempt to stay at least within spitting distance of the new Now of Instant News. Even though his office desk holds several computers and he is a maniacal tweater, it’s inspiring to see him gathering news the old way: by working the phones and double-checking sources.
Headlam, the media department’s managing editor, exudes an uneasy concern with nearly everything. He embodies the paper’s mandate to practice accurate and concrete journalism while also riding the trends of on-line video, Twitter and Facebook.
At the helm of this 160-year institution is executive editor Bill Keller, seen in the morning meetings sifting through the stories that deserve page one exposure and in interviews cautiously expressing optimism regarding the future of the news business, despite the rounds of layoffs and the acknowledgment that “breaking the news” is no longer possible in a paper’s print edition.
Page One suffers from the same malady infecting most online only news sites: an inability to focus. The movie attempts to do too much in too little time, failing to “click through” on many issues, including the Times’ embarrassing handling of the Judith Miller fiasco, the reporter who championed George W. Bush’s rush to war based on false intelligence. But with guys like David Carr holding the line against pessimism while also embracing the new tools of journalism, you come away with a feeling that the New York Times will be around forever, as long as readers are willing to pay for it.