'Page One': Inside the New York Times and Journalism's Future

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The new documentary offers a hopeful portrait of an American institution struggling in a time of change and difficulty 

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Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


An explanation: Participant Media, a major backer of the new documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, has a partnership with PublicAffairs to publish books about Participant's documentaries (Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc., among others). These books are intended to extend the reach of the films through informed essays on the films' subjects. Jeffrey Skoll, founder and chairman of Participant Media, explains the company's purpose this way: "With each film, we create social action and advocacy programs that highlight the issues that resonate in the films and provide ways to transform the impact of the media experience into individual and community action."

To coincide with the national roll-out of Page One, PublicAffairs has released a book edited by David Folkenflik, media correspondent of NPR News. Included is a contribution by David Carr, the New York Times columnist prominently featured in the film, as well as 15 other chapters by knowledgeable outsiders (including me) that extend beyond the newspaper to the broader question of journalism's future. Others will judge how successfully the book underscores the film's portrayal of the pressures on journalism in general, and the New York Times in particular, in what the book contends is "the most tumultuous era for journalism since the printing press was invented."

The view that comes through the film, from both inside and outside the offices of the New York Times, is that the paper is too important to be allowed to deteriorate.

So, with that caveat about my objectivity about the film's intentions, here are some impressions about how Page One goes about telling its story.

Page One was written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack, who came to the topic with more interest than expertise. They had recently made an HBO feature documentary, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, about how the proprietor and his family struggled to maintain the famed but old-fashioned, New York restaurant. The concept for Page One was shaped in February 2009, a period of especially intense and unquestionably serious financial pressures on the New York Times Company and its flagship newspaper. The company was recording losses and took an expensive loan from shareholder Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican and global magnate. The dazzling new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue had to be sold, and space leased back to the company. Dire predictions about the newspaper's future moved from whispers to public declarations. In The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn wrote: "What if The New York Times goes out of business—like this May ... It's certainly plausible. After all, financial industry stalwarts Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns recently met a similar fate. Why not The New York Times?" Across the country, large newspapers were shutting down or declaring bankruptcy.

After a meeting with the gruff but consistently engaging David Carr, whose media reporting has become one of the newspaper's signature beats, Rossi and Novack decided to solicit cooperation from the newspaper's leadership to track the crisis over 14 months from inside the newsroom, supplemented by interviews with observers commenting on what everyone agreed was a tale of "disruption and transformation." Among those who turn up in the film are digital notables Nick Denton of Gawker and NYU's Clay Shirky, as well as David Remnick of the New Yorker, whose devotion to journalism, he says, began with reading Gay Talese's classic 1960s book about the paper The Kingdom and The Power.

Having secured the newspaper's cooperation—itself a significant accomplishment, given the perils of access in a time of trouble—the filmmakers built a narrative that had Carr and his colleagues on the media desk as a focus. What unfolds is distinctly fair-minded in its presentation. No one disputes the challenge of reinvention to accommodate the financial and content upheavals of the digital age. But there is an openness of perspective that enables the events to unfold without prejudging the outcome.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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