Page One, the new documentary about the New York Times from filmmaker Andrew Rossi, is a valentine to print journalism etched in carbolic acid. This isn't Rossi's intention of course—he clearly loves the paper, and he's pulling for it, against some appreciable odds. Whether Rossi's cautious optimism about the future of a legendary but troubled journalistic institution is justifiable is a story yet to be written, but Page One assures us that if the paper goes down, it will go down swinging. The audience for documentaries skews almost precisely towards the NYT's readership—educated, upper middle class, and armchair liberal—and Page One is interesting and topical enough to be assured of a solid audience as a result.
Like most of the great print behemoths, the Times' glory days are surely behind it, though as America's "paper of record," it endures because it had further to fall. It all has to do with this new gizmo called "the Internet"—you've heard of it, maybe? Oh yeah, that's right, you've probably been using it daily for around a decade and a half—that's fifty thousand lifetimes in journalistic terms. But the web's implacable rise caught the titans of print flatfooted anyway. Add our ongoing economic depression to the mix, and newspapers have been shedding readers and advertisers like a septuagenarian sheds hair and teeth; the Times is no exception.
Page One finds the Times aggressively grappling with changed circumstances, in a world where WikiLeaks' Julian Assange blurs the boundaries between espionage and theft, and a Times story that cost tens of thousands of dollars to research and write can be cannibalized for free by Huffington Post volunteer bloggers and wage slave aggregators just five minutes after publication. But "the Gray lady" is a game old dame, at least as depicted by Rossi, who focuses much of his energy on the Times burgeoning and belatedly beefed up Media Desk, manned principally by Brian Stelter, a former blogger for TVNewser.com now working for the most established of establishment information enterprises.
Stelter is an articulate spokesman for the brave new world of digital media, and he sticks out like a sore thumb among his colleagues, who grouse about Twitter and fret like a virgin on Prom Night over the thousand page one scoops handed to them on a platter by Assange. Bill Keller, the paper's tweedy, toned and silver-haired Executive Editor is a far more representative sample of the Times staff—affable, articulate and about as contemporary seeming as the Jack Webb of Dragnet. Rossi figured out that Keller would make a poor spokesperson for the paper he oversees, and fortunately shifts his attentions to the Times' answer to Hunter S. Thompson: the lovable, frog-voiced and cantankerous former crack addict and recovered welfare recipient David Carr. Carr is a journalistic Lazarus if ever there was one, and he's both the paper's most eccentric and articulate defender.
The unprecedented access the Times gave to Rossi is a strong indication of the paper's dire predicament as well as its awareness that, in a world ruled by the blogosphere, solipsism sells. Still, the behind-the-scenes stuff isn't half as riveting as Carr's pinball trajectory through a brace of aggressively pursued headline stories, including an extremely unflattering depiction of the LA Times' troubled recent history under the stewardship of real estate mogul Sam Zell, which the film uses as a foil for the Times' relative grace under pressure. The lynchpin scene occurs not in a newsroom but at a public event, where Carr debates a ranting new media type who predicts the death of the Times with obvious relish. In response, Carr whips out a screen capture of his opponent's homepage, with the content his site has ripped off from the New York Times removed—about two thirds of the total. It's a hilarious moment, but it also gets to the heart of the civic dilemma represented by "old media's" decline: in a media world where the echo is what sells rather than the original shout, what happens to public discourse when the voice at the source goes silent?
The Times' story has moved on since Rossi shot his piece—more employees have been fired, more money and readers have been lost, a limited paywall strategy has been implemented online, and Bill Keller is in the process of bequeathing the Executive Editor's desk to Jill Abramson so he can "get back to writing," which is the journalistic equivalent of a politician resigning suddenly to "spend time with his family." Is Page One the story of a dramatic turning point, or will it be a time capsule portrait of a great and vanished enterprise? I don't know about you, but I'll be watching the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and my Twitter feed closely to find out.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Andrew Rossi
Producers: Alan Oxman, Adam Schlesinger
Rating: R for language including some sexual references.
Running Time: 88 min.
Release Date: June 17 NY, July 1 ltd.