Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Paper Chase: PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES


Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times is positioned as a film that looks at the changing media landscape. Within the film are various talking heads that pontificate endlessly about the Internet, about the “old guard” journalism of the past, and about “New Media.” But the sad truth is that no matter how hard the film tries to understand just where print journalism is going, it simply cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. Is journalism as we know it dying? Or is it stronger than ever? The truthful answer is that no one can yet tell for sure. The media landscape is changing. That we do know. What we don’t know is where that will leave us. I hope that once the ground stabilizes underneath the newspaper industry that we will still have one.

The fact is, there never really was a time like the one that exists hyperbolically in the public’s nostalgic imagination when a breathless man with a press card stuck in his fedora could storm into the editor’s office with a big scoop that would cause the two of them to dash out over the factory floor and holler “Stop the presses!” We see in archival footage that, at its height, the newspaper industry was a collection of diligent, determined men sitting around tables writing and reporting, working their hardest to get the day’s events into a written, digestible form for the masses. Here were men with their sleeves rolled up and smoke curling in the ashtrays while they scrambled to find a story.

Rossi’s film, which unspools mostly in a fly-on-the-wall style filmed in 2010, follows a handful of committed modern day newsmen, mostly at the Times’s fairly new Media Desk. Editor Bruce Hedlam presides over a group of talented writers and reporters and together they work to negotiate the tricky balance between print deadlines and rapid-fire online responses. We see reporters like Tim Arango and Andrew Ross Sorkin scrambling to finish a piece about a secret meeting held between Comcast and NBC. (Later Arango will leave to become a war correspondent in Baghdad). We see blogger-turned-reporter Brian Stelter, his desk a labyrinth of electronic screens while he researches, interviews, and tweets in a way that is engaged and rigorous beneath its scattered surface.

Most of the time, Rossi follows the gravel-voiced David Carr. He strides through the newsroom with an irascible charm as he moves from meeting to meeting then heads off on the road, always in the process of researching, writing, interviewing, learning. Not only does Carr have the most intriguing personal story – he overcame an addiction to cocaine that plagued his young-adulthood to become a well-respected journalist – but he also has the best on-screen personality. He’s an engaging presence, quick with the quips and fully capable of an extemporaneous analysis of a given situation that sounds both thought-through and off-the-cuff.

The screen lights up when Carr and the others get down to the business of reporting, writing, editing. At its best, most purely enjoyable, desperately fascinating moments, the film feels the weight of the current economic conflict pervasive in the business without commenting on it directly but instead observing its milder forms in the day-to-day works lives of these newsmen. When the film bogs down in speculation or analysis of past Times scandals and mistakes, the scope of the problems and solutions are beyond the reach of the talking heads and, by extension, the film itself. What the film makes clear is that journalism – that the form of written news and analysis – is a profession that should not die. There may be a battle for the fate of the newspaper industry playing out amongst the pundits and businessmen and aggregators who control the economic fate, but the true heart of the industry will always be the newsmen who will be out there finding the story as long as they have the means to do so.

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