Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011) is a vital, timely, and utterly fascinating documentary. It works as both a profile of the American newspaper of record, and a bleak examination of an industry nosediving into a profitless future. By squaring his focus on the media desk of the Grey Lady, director Andrew Rossi has fashioned a smart and expansive account of an industry looking introspectively, frequently finding itself the centre of the news.
As a subject, the The New York Times is a documentary filmmaker’s dream. You have a hundred and sixty year history to draw from, a cacophony of controversies and scoops. And the timing could not be more apt, with mass layoffs aplenty triggered by the decline in print advertising and sales, and the world wondering whether a post-mortem on journalism is premature or not.
Rossi structures Page One well, ostensibly tracking the life of the media desk through a year, but also allowing for side segments showcasing the paper’s eventful history. It looks at the golden age of investigative journalism in the seventies, which saw the publication of the Pentagon papers exposing the lies of Vietnam, and draws parallels with the more instant release of the recent Wikileaks diplomatic cables leaks, which were posted in their entirety on the internet with astonishing immediacy.
The debate rages over the future of journalism, and whether that future exists exclusively online. Rossi’s approach seems to frame the The New York Times in a relatively affectionate light, but provides perspectives from bloggers such as Arianna Huffington or Markos Moulistas, who view print as dead or dying. The outlook certainly appears bleak, with many experts noting the catastrophic collapse of an outdated business model. One academic says the combined fall in advertising rates and sales suggests it is less of a transition and more of a ‘revolution’.
The media desk itself provides valuable insights, too. Our guides are forthcoming and interesting. Media editor Bruce Headlam provides a world-weary look at a section editor’s daily struggle to find their way to the front page, as well as ongoing efforts for his news to be taken seriously and legitimately. Former blogger Brian Stelter offers a terrific view of the tenacious newsroom reporter, as does well-known special columnist David Carr. And Carr’s occasional croaky-voiced narration adds a glean of wistful poetry, e.g. “For those of us who work in the media, life is a drumbeat of goodbye speeches with sheet cakes and cheap sparkling wine.”
It’s a characteristic touch from an altogether thoughtful and captivating take on an important cultural issue. The unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access doesn’t quite bring up scoop-standard revelations about the paper, and perhaps the tone could have been a little less passive. It may also be unpalatable to those who don’t see the media as an important subject. But they’re wrong – journalism is, as editor Bill Keller observes, the sign of a healthy democratic society; which is part of what makes Page One: Inside The New York Times such invigorating viewing.