PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Glasgow Film Theatre, 26.09.11

The demise of the print news industry over the last ten years has been making headlines itself, and it becomes the focal point of Andrew Rossi’s behind the scenes access film – Page One: Inside The New York Times.  The New York Times has the third largest circulation numbers in America, behind USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, but like all newspapers around the globe has seen that figure drop drastically, falling below 1 million daily sales for the first time in 2010.  At the same time as readership dropped, so the advertisers disappeared, finding the internet a far more effective advertising tool than dated print media.  This leads to painful cutbacks at the NY Times, but so far, it has avoided the fate of several American newspapers, mentioned in the film’s opening, that have gone bust and ceased to exist after histories of a hundred years-plus.

Rossi makes this the central theme of his film, and follows the newly created NY Times Media desk, as they cover media-related stories and the changes that new technology are bringing to the media industry, threatening the very existence of the publication that they work for. We follow new kid on the block, Brian Stetler, who came to the NY Times via his creation of a blog about media news, and contrast him with old hand, ex-drug addict and voice of experience, David Carr, along with their Media editor Bruce Headlam.  While Stetler and Carr come at their journalism from opposite technologies, they both end up at the same point – that there is no substitute for detailed, properly researched and fact checked journalism.

The clash between Stetler’s new style and Carr’s old school approach provide several humourous moments – Carr threatening to confiscate Stetler’s smart phone if he doesn’t stop checking it during a BBQ; Carr’s resistance too and eventual submission and championing of Twitter – and also give the film its central argument.  Essentially, as Carr advocates, social media is all well and good, but proper journalism and news reporting will always have its place at the heart of any society, and in fact, the social networking world we live in is based on and built around the news that the major corporations and newspapers provide.  It’s a pretty easy case to make – one look at the Twitter ‘trends’ column reveals that Twitter, rather than making or breaking news, acts as a conduit through which users can gather and discuss news seen elsewhere, usually whatever happens to be on television at the time, or indeed, any recently breaking major news story from newspapers or the internet websites of the major news companies.

Having established that it is not the craft or job of the investigative journalist that is under threat, but the traditional institutions where these individuals would normally find a home, Page One shows an answer for the future for the media corporations.  This seems to manifest itself, as Stetler enthusiastically agrees, and Carr cynically admits, in utilising the new technology of the internet and the income that can be generated from it.  Tablets are heralded (somewhat contradictingly) as the saviour of the newspaper industry, meaning of course the corporations and journalists themselves, rather than the media of actually printing copy, which is given no hope of reprieve in this film, by anyone.  The film opens in the NY Times actual printing press, but it seems like an inevitable, and regrettable,  goodbye to this old style of delivery.  The quote that the tablet (specifically the ipad here) is the saviour of news corporations comes from none other than Rupert Murdoch, owner of the mighty News Corporation, and a man whose media empire was initially built on newspapers all over the globe.  During the course of filming, the NY Times introduces a pay wall onto its website – the third most visited news website in the U.S., and the staff seem to regard it as an inevitability.  Despite any grievances they have, they seem reluctantly approving of this step.  The first paper to introduce pay walls was of course Murdoch’s all-powerful News Corporation on its titles like the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and in the UK, The Times. Murdoch famously has said that readers should pay for any content on the web, as they would in print, and so it seems inevitable that the rest of the industry will follow.  Interestingly, the wider debate about media plurality is not touched upon at all, something that would seem relevent to the New York Times, which is still owned ostensibly by the Ochs-Sulzberger family, as it has been since its establishment, while  it’s rivals, like The Wall Street Journal and New York Post, along with many others, have been swallowed up by the News Corporation behemoth. 

This tablet reference is the only mention of Murdoch or News International throughout Page One, and that glaringly highlights the age-old problem of cinema as a medium for delivering topical documentaries.  Although the phone-hacking scandal at News Corporation’s News Of The World paper had been rumbling on in the UK for a number of years, the real breaking of the scandal that took this story global happened seems to have happened after Page One was more or less complete, as it gets no mention anywhere.  We have mention of the scandals that have embroiled The New york Times in recent years – the fake and plagiarist reporting of Jayson Blair and the poor journalism of Judith Miller in the lead up to the Iraq War, but News Corp. gets away scott free.  The phone hacking scandal, that led to the closure of the historic News Of The World paper has, without a doubt, done more damage to the reputation of journalists and the media corporations than any other single incident in recent years.  Interestingly, while NBC television news is used to highlight a story of poorly researched news gathering and staged media headlines, Fox News is notable in its absence.  Perhaps the film-makers felt News Corporation takes enough of a bashing from other sources without the need to join in, but in a film dealing with the stature and state of modern journalism, it seems like a massive white elephant in the room where News Corporation’s part should be at the centre, not skirted around.

It can also be argued that by concentrating on the Media desk and the very future of the New York Times itself, Rossi and his team may have missed the bigger news stories.  As important as the state of journalism is, and the fate of the Times is clearly the story Rossi wished to follow, it may have provided for a much more meatier film to follow the other news desks, such as the big political, war or crime stories that the Times covers, and in providing a detailed report on just how difficult and demanding proper journalism is, in that way have mounted an even stronger defence of the craft.  The main story we do see David Carr investigate is the collapse of their rival Tribune Group (including the newspapers The Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun), and the scale of wrong-doing that led to it.  It’s a great piece of work, and seeing Carr on the office phone, tucked into his messy cubicle, is a reminder of what journalism should be about.  It’s enough to make one rewatch newsroom-set films like Kevin MacDonald’s State Of Play (2009) or the ultimate journalist film, All The President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula).  Carl Bernstein, half of the team that broke the full-scale of Nixon’s corruption in the Watergate scandal, makes a brief appearance towards the end of Page One, and serves as a reminder of the great things a free press can achieve in holding to account those in power.  It’s just a shame that in trying to make this argument for The New York Times, Page One arguably follows one of the less significant, if no less valuable,  desks.

Carr comes out of the film as a star. Cynical and world-weary he defends The New York Times against all who seek to bad-mouth it, and through him we see the character of the dogged, put upon, hard-working, thorough journalist of old, a dying breed perhaps amongst his younger, socially savvy colleagues.  But through his story and the team at the Media desk we do find the same newsroom feel of those films mentioned, along with an almost wistful camaraderie. No matter what the media and news world looks like in the future, it’s easy to surmise that the loss of the paper newsroom and the people who make an honest living in it would be a massive one.

Film Rating 3.5 out of 5.

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