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Page One: Inside the New York Times

David Carr in Page One

Stop the presses

Page One: Inside the New York Times

There are two main attractions in Page One, a documentary which intends to examine the culture of the New York Times and the paper’s adaptations to modern media realities, and filmmaker Andrew Rossi finds and establishes both very quickly.

The first is the fantastic building, completed in 2007, which houses the offices of world’s largest, arguably most ambitious, and probably most respected news-gathering organization. It’s a sleek, modern beauty, and apparently irresistible to Rossi, who allows the film to linger admiringly on shots of the newspapers employees riding its escalators, navigating its bright corridors, and conferring in its open spaces. Nor does Rossi skimp on footage of the presses themselves, which are equally modern and cool.

A little more than a year after the building’s completion, the New York Times Company was forced to borrow money against it to stay afloat, a fact that underscores the dire state of print media megaliths like the Times. But more about that grim subject later.

On to the second, even more irresistible star: New York Times media columnist David Carr. Rossi seems to recognize that Carr is a character too precious to waste: slope-shouldered, shambling, wickedly funny, keenly observant, and profoundly grateful, after a sometimes brilliant career in alt-weekly journalism hamstrung by drug addiction, to have landed clean and sober at the most prestigious newspaper in the world. “I came late in my career to the New York Times,” Carr says, “and I have an immigrant’s love of the place.” Indeed, one of the early highlights of the film is Carr’s visit to the offices of a brash new media outfit called Vice, which seems to trade in sensational journalism aimed at titillating a youthful, print-disdaining audience. When one of the company’s correspondents talks about his reports on cannibalism and beach defecation in Africa, and derides the staid old toads at the Times for failing to give its readers similar stories, Carr snaps: “Before you ever went there, we had reporters there reporting genocide after genocide. So just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and look at some poop, that doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”

Perhaps Rossi latches on to Carr because his film is otherwise a stone skipping across the surface of a pond: The cameras move from office to office and subject to subject without wading deeply into any one story. We learn more about Carr’s checkered and admittedly engaging personal history than we do about the ambitions and experiences of the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, whose placid demeanor in the face of a dramatic reversal in the economics of newspaper publishing cries out for greater exegesis. We are granted only a perfunctory introduction to managing editor Jill Abramson, who will succeed Keller next month. There is no arc here, no commitment to the subject matter, but instead the impression of a fleeting voyeurism.

There are subplots that hold great promise as narrative frameworks for a documentary like this one: Particularly interesting is the way the paper’s editors (especially media desk editor Bruce Headlam) debate first how to report on the phenomenon of Wikileaks and later what it means that the Times is partnering with Julian Assange and his cohorts. Equally compelling is Carr’s reporting on the bankrupting of the Tribune Company by Sam Zell and his merry band of uncouth dinosaurs—a subplot that might have kept the entertaining Carr in the spotlight while showcasing how a story about a media company’s meltdown is reported by a newspaper struggling itself to meet the marketplace’s new challenges.

Either story might have given Page One a more satisfying narrative structure. (Who knows, though: Maybe this desire for structure is particular to stubborn, ossifying print journalists.) Rossi was associate producer of Control Room, a documentary about Al-Jazeera at the start of the most recent Iraq war in which the fly-on-the-wall approach worked brilliantly. Here, it merely seems unfocused. The litany of dead and dying daily newspapers recited at the beginning of the film demands the kind of in-depth analysis that consumers of news rely on the Times and outfits like it—as opposed to blogs and content aggregators—to provide.

Nonetheless, if you love the Times as Carr does, and if you despair for the future of the sort of journalism it represents, you’ll love this film and be as frequently disappointed by one as you are by the other. The great film about the Times and its place in the new media world is still to be made.

Watch the trailer for Page One: Inside the New York Times

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