Is journalism sexy? Do people get off watching editorial meetings take place in well-lit conference rooms or tearful — and forced — retirement parties?
This might not be the case for a small-town daily, but when it's The New York Times, you buy yourself a ticket. It's interesting, and a touch voyeuristic, to witness the privileged inner-workings of this massive institution in Andrew Rossi's Page One: Inside the New York Times. These editors and reporters are not to be taken for granted. They wear the same suits and ties as any other white-collar workers, but they also determine what America — and even the whole world — will read and, more importantly, care about. Those editorial meetings are where it's decided what the public is going to discuss on any given day. But it's an organization whose credibility is faltering, whether because of its plagiarizing writers or its dissolving advertising revenue or its inability to keep up with the digital revolution. The media desk at the Times is put in an interesting position: They are on a sinking ship, and they have to document it as it happens, as the entire industry starts to falter or when the Times does itself, like when it gets rid of 100-plus employees.
Page One is very loosely narrated by media columnist David Carr, whose trachea is seemingly about to give out at any moment. He's a prickly character, a journalist's journalist and former cokehead who curses out one of the co-founders of Vice Magazine in the middle of an interview because the guy dared to insult the Times. We also follow his younger counterparts, including former blogging wunderkind Brian Stelter, and the media desk's editor Bruce Headlam.
The film is a bit ADD. Time is given to a multitude of topics, most seen through the eyes of the media desk, jumping from WikiLeaks to the Judith Miller scandal to a stop at the Gawker offices to the rise in popularity of tablets to the failure of the Tribune Co., owner of the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun. We see where Carr was arrested for cocaine possession, and we see a newsroom at 7 p.m. when a possible breaking story occurs. Amidst all this, Rossi explores how the Times handles these stories and the crumbling industry around them, and the generational conflicts between old and new reporters and old and new methods of reporting, including Twitter and other social media platforms. In interviews, media bigwigs both praise and criticize the paper, including Gay Telese, author of The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at the New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World (as well as what is considered one of the best examples of long-form journalism ever written, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"), Gawker's Nick Denton, and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. It might be a lot for the viewer to handle, but Rossi's method is probably not too far from the actual mind-set of an employee at a massive daily newspaper, where the news never stops because the world is always changing.
Oddly enough, this story, limited to a period of time in 2010, seems dated. Just as the news evolves every minute, the media world seemingly does as well, and there's new ground that Page One doesn't tackle because it wasn't an issue when Rossi was compiling his footage. For example, there's no talk of Patch, the hyper-localized websites that AOL is staking its future on, while the Huffington Post was recently called out for punishing a low-level employee for "over-aggregating." And the News of the World hacking scandal, which no one involved in this project could have predicted, has chipped away even further at the credibility of print media.
Ultimately, Page One gives the Times an outlet to express its position on the demise of media debate. In this current world of HuffPo-like dominance, Carr brings up a good argument: If traditional journalism is abandoned, what will the aggregators aggregate? We currently take for granted that we live in a world where you can pick up a copy of the Times at any neighborhood Starbucks, regardless of what city or state you're in. We'd like to think that the Times is impervious to failure, but there's no telling what improvements in technology will do to it, whether for better or worse.
Page One isn't necessarily a profile of The New York Times and its storied history. It's a portrait of the newspaper at one specific period of time, one that happens to be incredibly perilous for the publication. In 10 years, a new Page One could be made, and it would be a completely different film. If the Times still exists at that point.