It’s hardly news that it’s a scary time for print newspapers. Digital media threatens their existence in a myriad of ways, most importantly undermining their business model and circumventing their editorial authority. When an article is posted online, you don’t often pay for access. The old business model of print newspapers that relied on 80% ad revenue and 20% subscription fees has collapsed, and newspapers are closing all over the world. Furthermore, you’re likely to see breaking news trending on Twitter before any newspaper publishes it, online or otherwise; an eagle-eyed passerby with a smartphone can easily trump coverage by the major players. Suddenly it seems we can all be journalists, and newspapers are left fighting to stay relevant to their readers.
But if any newspaper were to survive, it would be The New York Times, wouldn’t it? In 2008, the Times created a Media Desk that is perceptively, yet ironically tasked with covering the downfall of traditional media and developments in new media. Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times investigates the fate of print media by crafting an intimate portrait of the Times Media Desk and its struggles to maintain traditional journalism values in this shifting media landscape.
The film’s anchor is David Carr, a veteran Media columnist and colourful elder statesman who passionately defends the Times and its values, regularly appearing on panels and at conferences. His presence is refreshing and effective – he certainly doesn’t look or act like a member of an elitist, stodgy institution. Carr’s candid commentary and gravelly, authoritative voice imbue the film with hope for print journalism’s future.
To represent the next generation, there is Brian Stelter, a rare example of a blogger-turned-print-journalist. The contrast is striking – Stelter works with a desktop AND a laptop in front of him, drafting articles and tweeting constantly while consulting sources through the phone glued to his ear. With a straight face, Carr says: “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter was a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy me.”
Page One’s fly-on-the-wall coverage mixed with a smart selection of interviews and archival footage paints a broad yet detailed portrait of the Times and the challenges it faces. We see Carr grilling Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice, who supports a different, gonzo-esque form of journalism altogether. We see Stelter talking to Wikileaks founder (and Gordon Ramsay impersonator) Julian Assange about how he believes that journalism’s values are more muddled than activism’s. The film exposes the expertise of the Times’ process of curating the news, from fact-checking to thoughtful collaborations and editorial meetings, and it becomes clear that the New York Times’ position as a prime mover is threatened by new kids on the block with chips on their shoulders.
The Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam and notable staff from other departments are consulted throughout the film, and we are even granted access to the thoughts of Times executive editor Bill Keller – proof that Rossi was really trusted. The film’s sources go beyond the Times staff to include TV news footage of key media business moments intercut with commentary from a well-chosen range of academics and major players in print journalism. Though there is a ton of information presented, the content is tightly edited and aided by effectively subtle scoring and logical transitions. The result is an entertaining, information-packed 90 minutes that capture the integrity and tenacity of the Times at this grim time for the print industry.
DVD Extras: UK trailer, featurettes (including a segment on ‘American Newspapers in Transition’), deleted scenes and further interviews (including a discussion with legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein).
Page One: Inside The New York Times is available now on DVD (and iTunes), and is released by Dogwoof.