Print is dead. It’s a refrain that gets repeated a lot in today’s Wi-Fi-filled, Twitter-fied, Kindle-toting world. And—premature obituary or not—it’s still an uncomfortable pronouncement for those of us still gainfully employed in the industry. Depending on how you look at it, the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times can be seen as either an elegy for a dying medium or a paean to an industry in flux. Either way, it should be vital viewing for those in the business of being informed.
The New York Times has been “the nation’s newspaper of record” since 1851. But times are changing. Journalism is changing. With Page One, documentarian Andrew Rossi (director of Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, associate producer of Control Room) spends a year or so behind the scenes at the Gray Lady, acting like a fly on the wall and seeing what makes the old gal tick. The film starts up in 2008, right around the time the paper formally acknowledges its own sinking-ship/changing-tide status by hiring a media columnist (the colorful David Carr) to cover all the developments happening in today’s fast-paced information society. Irascible, tenacious and edgy as an indie rock star (he’s a self-admitted former crack addict), Carr is the perfect personality on which to hang much of the film’s narrative.
Though he may be the lede, Carr is hardly the only story here. Shortly after his arrival, the WikiLeaks scandal breaks worldwide. It’s notable not merely for its wealth of controversial scandals, secrets, lies and government cover-ups, but for the fact that WikiLeaks whistle-blower Julian Assange set out to bypass the venerable mainstream media entirely. The film wisely counterpoints Assange’s crusade with that of notorious Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who broke shocking tales of Vietnam-era malfeasance to the New York Times back in 1971. Ellsberg needed the reputation and readership of the Times in order to reach the widest possible audience. All Assange needed was a YouTube account.
Beyond the headline-grabbing stories, we see the many small fractures and frissons that mark a seismic change in the Fourth Estate’s fundamental structure. Carr castigates the hipster staff of Vice Magazine for their gonzo style of journalism. (“Just because you bought a plane ticket and looked at some poop on the beach doesn’t make you a journalist.”) He rails against the invention of the iPad. (“You know what this reminds me of? A newspaper.”) Even so, the editors of the Times respond to the changing landscape by adding a twentysomething blogger to the staff (the surprisingly effective Brian Stelter).
And, lest we forget, there are the internal scandals—those of reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. Although both of them were busted for fabricating stories while on the Times’ payroll, their public downfalls say less about a single aging company asleep at the wheel and more about an industry forced to compromise its every standard for the sake of budget and expediency. The point of all this industrial introspection is a fundamental and often overlooked one: It’s not simply about the medium in which news is delivered (newspaper, TV telecast, website—who cares?). It’s about the character of news that’s being delivered and demanded. Do we want fundamental truths exposed and explained by seasoned professionals, or do we want Casey Anthony rumors 24/7?
In all journalistic honesty, writers are boring people. They think a lot and they write a lot—neither of which is really thrilling cinema. But the makers of Page One have found a way to make the story of today’s newspaper industry a scrappy tale of underdogs and integrity—at least to those audience members still enamored of the ink-smeared world we once lauded in movies like Citizen Kane, The Front Page and All the President’s Men. Confined largely to the media desk and kept out of the boardroom where all real decisions are made, Page One isn’t able to dig all that deep into its subject. It certainly finds no cause of or solution to the myriad woes facing today’s major newspapers. But longtime newspaper readers (I hope there are still a few out there) will appreciate this brief glimpse behind the curtain. Not to mention the somewhat reassuring idea that cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing reporters are still out there trying to locate that elusive thing called The Truth.