Page One: Inside the New York Times (Pretty Pictures, R)

For all the "unprecedented access" Rossi claims he received to the Times newsroom, the end result is disappointing.

 

 

I read the New York Times every day and consider it my primary source for news and cultural commentary. But I’ve never been a subscriber to the print edition; I read the paper online* and can’t imagine doing otherwise. I value the Times as a unique source of news and expert writing (confession—I spend more time in the Op-Ed and Arts sections than anywhere else) that can’t be replaced by aggregators and bloggers. At the same time, I find the online Times offers far more than any print edition could, including access to previous days’ papers and links to sources outside the Times.

There are a lot of people like me out there, and that’s a key dilemma addressed by Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times. People are still reading the Times but they’re not paying for it, and the rates the paper can charge for online advertising are far lower than those for ads in the print edition. So how is the Times going to stay afloat and keep producing in-depth news stories, international coverage, and cutting-edge criticism if its sources of revenue are fast disappearing?

Page One has no answer, but does raise this question along with a host of other issues that make the film feel like a hastily-assembled collage. The title should really be something like "Assorted Stuff About the New York Times in the Age of WikiLeaks, With Special Attention to the Media Desk," because this film has little sense of chronology and makes no attempt to offer anything like comprehensive coverage of how the paper functions. Much of the focus is instead on the newly-created Media Desk, which has the advantage of offering lots of on-camera time to the charismatic David Carr (granted, his curmudgeon act gets old in a hurry) but is probably one of the least important sections of the paper from the point of view of the typical reader (you know, the type of person the Times is trying to get to pay for the privilege of reading the paper).

For all the "unprecedented access" Rossi claims he received to the Times newsroom, the end result is disappointing: mostly talking heads interviews that could have been done anywhere, shots of people working at their cubes, and some reporter-editor interactions that feel uncomfortably stagey. I’m not saying these are re-enactments, but that’s what they look and feel like and the result is that this part of the film feels utterly unconvincing. We also get discussions of the threat posed from aggregation sites, meet former blogger Brian Stelter (now a Times reporter, offering living proof that the gulf between worlds of print and digital news is hardly impassable), discussions of the decision to impose a pay wall, and some old news about things like the iPad. We even get to meet David Carr’s father and hear about Stelter’s weight loss—yet so many important questions remain unaddressed.

One thing really bugs me about Page One is that it presents the Times as the province of white men. Maybe that’s the reality, or maybe it was a directorial choice on Rossi’s part. Maybe, being a white man himself, he didn’t even notice what he was doing. Be that as it may, the only person of color mentioned in this film is the plagiarist Jayson Blair (really old news, as he resigned in 2003). The only female reporter mentioned is Judith Miller, who published a number of inaccurate stories about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (also old news—she resigned in 2005). There’s one brief interview with a female editor and some female employees crying on camera after they’ve been laid off, but as far as current, active journalism it’s presented as a white man’s game. If this is truly the way the Times operates today then I find my sympathies suddenly diminished. It’s the 21st century, for heaven’s sake, and there’s a big, multi-cultural world out there so getting your news filtered through the consciousnesses of a small, historically privileged segment of that world really isn’t really a very good idea.

Ultimately Page One is disappointing because if you’re going to invoke the name of the Grey Lady you’d better be able to live up to all that name implies. Otherwise it seems like you’re just using the paper’s name in the hope of attracting attention (and selling tickets) to your film, and that’s pretty much the way Page One plays out. No one would pay the least attention to a documentary of similar quality about, say, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, however worthy a paper it may be. The name of the New York Times, on the other hand, still carries a certain cachet and the opening shots of papers rolling off the presses like a clip from some 1940s film noir evokes memories of the paper’s storied past. It’s too bad the film as a whole is not better, because we need a serious discussion about where journalism is going and most particularly how it will be financed in the future. Someone may make that film in the future (but they’d better hurry before the newspaper business crashes entirely) but Page One is simply inadequate to the task.

*And no, I haven’t ponied up $180 for an annual online subscription. Given what, say, magazine subscriptions run these days, that price is in the realm of "you’ve got to be kidding" and I can’t imagine they’ve been selling too many to private individuals. As has been noted elsewhere, the Times‘ pay wall is more like a pay hedge, of only symbolic importance as there are so many ways around it. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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