Page One, Inside the New York Times

Page One takes a look at the happenings of the media desk at the New York Times within the narrative of the print media debate. I interviewed the film’s director, Andrew Rossi and New York Times media columnist and culture reporter, David Carr at the Cambridge Film Festival.

Leading up to the UK release of Page One: Inside the New York Times, Andrew Rossi described his latest film as a look through ‘the media desk at The New York Times as a prism’ into ‘the broader conversation about print media’. An ambitious feat, maybe, but Page One can more than handle it. Far-reaching yet focused, professional but personal, it is a documentary with great character – four, in fact, and one in particular. Shadowed by Rossi’s camera at the Times media desk are writers David Carr, Tim Arango and Brian Stelter and their editor, Bruce Headlam whose hardly ordinary day jobs we are invited to watch. The result is a culturally pertinent documentary about their Times for our times – and one hell of a newsroom movie.

Page One began as ‘a project about the digitization of information’, addressing ‘the social media companies popping up’ in 2009, a year Rossi articulated as ‘a moment of great instability in the media landscape’, borne out of the financial crisis and the declining advertisement economy. When Rossi approached David Carr, Media Equation columnist and culture reporter at The New York Times who would become Page One’s champion newsman, to talk about a possible film, their conversation quickly ‘circled back to the fate of the Times itself and, more broadly, print media.’

Like ‘many other corporations, the Times was in great peril’, Rossi explained. ‘I just had this light bulb moment and I asked David, “What about telling a story through your eyes?”’ Referring Rossi to his bosses, Carr was certain they would turn him away. On the contrary, they gave Rossi the go ahead. In the beginning, ‘he followed me four days straight’, Carr said of Rossi. ‘I was walking around with the camera behind me all the time and it was uncomfortable, even though Andrew is a wonderful person’. Soon enough, Rossi and his camera (much of the film was shot by Rossi himself on a handheld camera) became a fixture at the Times media desk so that, Carr admitted, ‘it was weirder when he wasn’t there’. Carr admired Rossi’s decision to shoot singlehandedly which, he said, ‘requires a great deal of stamina and resulted in a much better film than if he had come in with a great big crew.’ Andrew Rossi, Carr said, ‘has the gift of all great documentarians… he is able to observe a scene without intruding upon it.’

Though David Carr would remain his main man throughout Page One, Rossi moved on to shadow more of the media desk reporters. A pack of talented, driven men, they appear in ensemble as a news force to be reckoned with. As well as working extremely hard and well together, they provide spectacular office humour and give the documentary a necessary humanity. Media editor, Bruce Headlam has a bag of great facial expressions to pluck from, it seems, in moments of workplace frustration and his deadpan one-liners, delivered pitch perfect to the camera, make for some pithy asides. There is Tim Arango who decides during the film to migrate to Iraq as a correspondent. The difficulty Arango faces in leaving behind his colleagues in New York lends a sense of the amity between these newsmen. He is now the Times’ Baghdad Bureau Chief. And then there is Brian Stelter. Before the Times hired him, Stelter ran the TVNewser blog. In Page One, we seem him in action, a breed of media-hopper; tweeting out, blogging and penning articles in a flurry, he is a hat-trick maestro of media, old and new. Carr’s relationship with Stelter is played upon in the movie, which sets them up as almost polar opposites. In one scene, Carr sardonically quips, ‘that Brian Stelter is a robot assembled to destroy me.’ Carr set me straight on this in our interview: ‘I think that Andrew used the tropes of filmmaking to set us sort of against each other in a way that’s not precisely true.’ In fact, Carr could not speak more highly of his colleague: ‘Brian is as close to the beau ideal of a journalist… if we could clone him at The New York Times, we probably would.’ He adds, ‘in terms of speed, efficacy, importance of good, reliable, branded information, we [himself and Brian] very much have values in common. I corresponded with him today, actually.’ At this point, Rossi appends, ‘David is precisely the same [as Brian] just in a very different package. He’s not 26 years old and still glistening with the… what do you call it, the stuff you have when you come out of the womb?’ Lost for the right word – is it umbilical fluid? – they chuckle. Carr does highlight one difference between himself and Brian, though, referring to Brian as ‘a digital native’ and himself as ‘a digital adapter’, a difference perhaps best illuminated in a scene of Page One where Brian brings to David a newly-released iPad, in its own “umbilical fluid” (Apple bag), fresh from the mother store. In a snatch of acerbic and hilarious dialogue – that perhaps encapsulates a widely shared attitude toward the digitization of information that the iPad and its exemplars represent – David test-drives the iPad, scrolling over page one of the Times, and says, ‘You know what this reminds me of?’ Brian: ‘What?’ David: ‘The newspaper.’ This is not to suggest that Carr is the old school journalist (in fact, he mentions his iPad) and Brian the new media marvel. This time Rossi sets me straight: ‘David in his own way has accomplished a sort of hybrid role of tweeting out… incorporating a blog voice in his work in the paper and the column, and… in doing hardcore investigative pieces like on the Tribune company that have real world impact on page one.’ Indeed, Carr’s piece that uncovered the ‘bankrupt culture’ of the now defunct Tribune empire and landed itself on page one of October 5, 2010, stands as one of his best feats as a journalist.

It’s clear as the interview progresses that Carr and Rossi are under no illusion that Page One is the movie ‘The New York Times would have made’. Few as there were in its making – virtually none, actually – Page One is a film aware of its natural limitations. Only once during shooting, Rossi reports, was he asked to leave (when the Times had to lay off staff, out of respect to those former employees), though the Times had no influence whatsoever in the film’s production. For Carr, one of the advantages watching the movie is that it ‘is one of the rare journalism movies where you see editors making decisions’. Page One promises to take us inside The New York Times – and it does, but only so far as the media desk. That is not to say it is not a privileged place to be (far from it), but rather, it would be naïve to presume that the story of the media desk is the only story the Times has to tell. There are, to borrow Carr’s words, ‘as many New York Timeses as there are readers.’ It’s not all about the writers, then, let alone those four on the media desk who appear in the film. One might ask about the sports or arts desk, and what happens there. What about Tim Arango reporting from Iraq? The Times no doubt could tell a hundred stories.

In proportion, Page One is a large-scale journalism movie. By honing in on the media desk as a rich example of one of the stories the Times has to tell, the film gestures toward many others within the narrative of the print media debate. For David Carr, more humbly, Page One is ‘a movie about the place I work. I’m really proud of it.’ As he wrote in the Times review of Page One, Michael Kinsley is unconvinced of Carr’s ‘inability to be cynical about his employer’ and bemoans the fact that ‘David Carr loves The New York Times.’ One wonders, watching the film, why exactly that shouldn’t be the case. Besides, Carr’s savoir faire as a journalist, his infectious wit and character prove him more than worthy both as spokesperson and defender of The New York Times. Kinsley also stresses the movie’s reference to Carr’s past as a cocaine and crack addict. Though the movie does briefly capture Carr revisiting some of “That Guy’s” footsteps – he is filmed outside the Skyway Lounge where he remembers being arrested after a security guard caught him rolling “a loud joint” – Page One does not endeavour to tell David Carr’s story, one that the man himself so deftly articulated in his memoir, The Night of the Gun. Indeed, viewers who have read The Night of the Gun will surely note the gulf between David Carr’s book and Andrew Rossi’s movie; two very disconnected, but respective, masterpieces.

In feeling out what Andrew Rossi calls the ‘contours of the [print media] debate’, Page One doesn’t shy from the fact that people no longer need news institutions such as The New York Times to break news; they’ve got YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Rossi illuminated that ‘the film is trying to capture a very vulnerable transition moment’ in print media, ‘where business models are being tried to figure out the most profitable and successful way of moving forward.’ He noted that, though the film doesn’t settle on a resolution, the trend to emerge most explicitly is that of ‘hybrid models’, suggesting the example of the partnership between The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel with WikiLeaks. Though this relationship, Rossi intimates, ‘is very fraught… the fact [these papers] were willing to [take information from WikiLeaks] is very smart’. He also brings up ProPublica, an online reporting organisation that, Rossi explained, ‘nonetheless published out to The New York Times and to television outlets with its stories to amplify them’, reminding us that while such news ‘can go direct to its viewers… the traditional skill-set of newspaper journalists proved vital to getting those stories to have impact.’ Page One might be the best example of a hybrid model yet. It is a documentary in its scope and delivery of information, but a movie at heart.

Two years on from the beginnings of Page One and we are still, as Rossi put it, at ‘a moment of great instability in the media landscape’, though arrived perhaps by alternative means. The film carries a particular resonance post News of the World, going some way toward restoring the unkind image of journalists perpetuated by the Murdoch scandal. David Carr reassures me it is a great time for journalism. When I asked him what he would advise aspiring journalists, he replied optimistically: ‘you have the tools in your hands to make anything you want, so it’s important to not talk about journalism but to make journalism.’ He seems to echo the sentiments at the end of the movie, which ends on ‘a bit of a hug’. It ends, Carr said, on ‘somewhat of a happy ending, though there is no happy ending. After all, journalism happens every day, it goes on.’

Please note, a shorter version of this article was originally published on The What Where When.

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