“We need institutions,” a subject argues in “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times,” and it’s a position also held by director Andrew Rossi’s fleet, timely assessment of the ongoing crisis in journalism. Handily synthesizing more than a year’s worth of stories and setbacks at America’s paper of record, this efficiently assembled primer hardly counts as a revelatory dispatch from the old-vs.-new-media frontlines, but its ideas will engross anyone for whom the viability of traditional newsgathering remains a matter of pressing significance. Docu looks set for a distinguished smallscreen career following theatrical release by Magnolia and Participant Media.
Just as 2009’s “The September Issue” provided carefully filtered access to Anna Wintour and the offices of Vogue, so “Page One” offers a respectful, mostly flattering glimpse inside the Times newsroom — an approach likely to annoy those who view the paper as an old-media dinosaur or a bastion of liberal bias. Yet it’s a reasonable enough tack for an 88-minute film whose intent is diagnostic rather than investigative. Focusing primarily on editors and reporters from the media desk that was launched in 2008, Rossi shows not only how the Times has been impacted by turmoil in the newspaper industry at large (historic declines in advertising and circulation, massive staff bloodletting), but also how it has covered that very turmoil in its pages.
Thus, the paper’s handling of the controversial WikiLeaks story, spearheaded by blogger-turned-Timesman Brian Stelter, raises questions about the relevance of print media in an era when the Internet has enabled the dissemination of classified materials as never before. (As executive editor Bill Keller drily notes, “Daniel Ellsberg needed us. WikiLeaks doesn’t.”) Times experts such as former reporter Gay Talese and New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick reminisce about the days when a story wasn’t a story until the Times had written it. By way of contrast, Rossi includes footage from recent media conferences where Web journalists debate such questions as “Could the New York Times go out of business?” — a prospect pooh-poohed by some and salivated over by others.
In these often heated scenarios, the Times has its loudest advocate and biggest rock star in David Carr, the brilliant, sometimes irascible veteran reporter whose frog-throated charisma threatens to hijack the film altogether. Whether he’s putting aggregators like Newser’s Michael Wolff in their place or simply letting Rossi observe his day-to-day reporting, Carr is easily “Page One’s” most memorable camera subject. Pic devotes some time to his rough personal history (detailed at length in his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun”), and Carr seems to view himself as an improbable mouthpiece for the traditional journalistic values he exemplifies.
Carr’s recent investigative report on heinous executive practices at the rival Tribune Co. allows the film to conclude on a triumphant note for the Times. This segment also offers the viewer a crash course in the time-honored mechanics of good reporting — careful interviewing, sourcing, editing and fact-checking — which are increasingly threatened not only by the blogosphere, but also by the indifference of the average news consumer and the widespread assumption that information should be free. Still, the film acknowledges that even the strongest system can fail, and it duly if briefly addresses the scandals over the fraudulent reporting of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, and the damage they caused to the Times’ credibility.
Recorded over a period of 14 months, Rossi’s coverage of daily news meetings and interviews with editorial staffers aren’t as juicy as one might have hoped or expected, but for journos (who will likely rep the film’s most appreciative audience), simply being a fly on these hallowed walls will offer much to savor. Excellent tech package includes black-and-white footage of the newsroom at its 1950s peak, a precious yet saddening reminder of the profession’s more prosperous days.