Still, there’s some great moments of privileged vérité cinema in Page One. This is a rare chance to see inside an organization that many consider the paragon of American journalism, of journalism everywhere.
Page One: Inside the New York Times. Directed by Andrew Rossi. At Kendall Square and other theaters around New England.
By Taylor Adams
“The Grey Lady,” sometimes preceded by the descriptor “Old” is the nickname of the New York Times. In any other context, it might seem like an epithet, but for those who admire, even seem to love, the national paper of record, it’s a fond, respectful appellation that seems uniquely reverent in the newspaper world.
But these days, the image it conjures—somber, elderly, regally aging—seems appropriate to the situation the Times finds itself in: struggling not only to stay relevant (this is almost the easy part) but to find a business model that supports a huge, legacy media organization in the Internet age.
The media landscape is more crowded and competitive than ever. That’s exciting, but consider the Times’s other troubles: news aggregators and blogs cannibalizing the paper’s content for traffic gains, cheap web advertising replacing old-school, lucrative print ads, Craigslist and online job sites decimating classifieds sections nationwide. It’s certainly possible to ponder what once seemed unthinkable: “Could the New York Times go out of business?”
It’s a question asked in Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times by the documentary’s most compelling character, Times media reporter David Carr. It’s a question the film doesn’t really try to answer. It’s too busy asking too many other questions and hoping great, vérité footage gleaned from observation and excellent access would provide suitable material to allow the viewer their own opinions. It doesn’t quite work.
Rossi’s team spent a year covering the paper, mostly focusing on its media desk. There’s a meta touch to this: a documentary about the Times covering the decline of its own industry. It’s just a touch.
And it’s strange, because there couldn’t have been a better year to cover the Times: wikileaks and its partnership with the paper, a hugely controversial release of classified government cables, the paper’s coverage of mismanagement and bankruptcy at the Tribune company, the laying off of 100 Times employees—we get inside glances at all of them.
But none of these are comprehensive, and the overarching narrative of a changing media landscape is never fully fleshed out. There’s footage of reporters chasing these stories, and editors discussing them. There’s plenty of great journalism. But it’s not enough for a story this big, one much bigger than the Times itself.
Attempts to fill in the bigger picture are similarly lacking. We see some new-media conferences that Carr attends, the general idea being always that the gruff, old-school newsman puts young upstarts in their place concerning the obvious importance of the Times without us ever seeing the problem discussed more deeply. One can’t help but agree with Carr. He’s entertaining and human. He has convictions and believes deeply in the exceptionalism of the Times. He’s a wonderful documentary character. He also understands that the Times being important isn’t enough. It’s still a business. The film acknowledges this fact, but that’s it.
We see awkwardly-included interviews with media experts from universities and other publications. There’s a short interview with former Times writer Gay Talese that seems meant to stand in for exploring the paper’s entire history.
It’s all quite interesting but quite scattered. You’ll exit the theater knowing a couple things about the paper and maybe feeling like you got an idea about the characters of some of the talented, humorous, and interesting personalities that put it together. You won’t learn much about the wider situation in journalism though or even all that much about the situation at the Times. How is it doing? Other than the layoffs and talk of the paper’s new online subscription model, we don’t get much of an idea.
Rossi told the Boston Phoenix that he considers the film “almost the Canterbury Tales of media,” meaning that it represents a bunch of short vignettes within a long journey of changing American journalism—a journey with no definite point of closure. That’s fine, but this seemed more like the SparkNotes version than the full, Chaucerian experience.
Still, there’s some great moments of privileged vérité cinema in Page One. This is a chance to see inside an organization that many consider the paragon of American journalism, of journalism everywhere. In the interest of disclosure, I’m a big fan of the Times (also as a matter of disclosure, I work for the Times company via its ownership of the Boston Globe).
I thoroughly enjoyed much of this film, and people interested in the media, other journalists of all stripes, should certainly seek it out for the glimpses into this world that it offers. But the fact that they are just that, glimpses, prevents Page One from being a great documentary and prevents it from holding much interest for anyone else.
It’s not quite the documentary this paper really merits, especially now. There are dramas, thorny narratives evident in the film, that just aren’t fleshed out—tentative glances of the real story underneath the film’s tortuous narrative weave. There’s a film’s worth of relevance in the editorial conversations we see in discussions about Wikileaks’s relationship to the traditional media and the coverage it warrants in the Times. There’s a film’s worth of relevance in the day-to-day experiences of the media desk reporters.
Page One admirably but clumsily attempts to focus on all this and more, and this is almost certainly to the detriment of each individual story. Revelation is lost in a hodgepodge of crisscrossing narratives and skin-deep, talking-head interviews.
Unfortunately, Page One doesn’t explore in depth all the news that’s fit to shoot.