The new documentary offers a hopeful portrait of an American institution struggling in a time of change and difficulty
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."
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.
Bill Keller, the newspaper's now-outgoing executive editor expresses his commitment—endorsed unequivocally, he asserts, by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—to protect the core values and structure of the paper even as it goes through the painful process of cutbacks in staff and sections and an allocation of tight resources. At one point, Keller says there are days when he feels he should be wearing "a butcher's apron." All this is happening against the backdrop of providing a top-quality daily report while simultaneously coping with the integration of nytimes.com and the demands of a 24/7 news operation.
In contrast to the weakening of other prominent "legacy" news organizations, 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. Kurt Anderson, editor, writer, broadcaster, and astute monitor of the media scene, noted in an earlier cut of the film that was quoted in the book that "in the secular church of establishment opinion and press, The New York Times is where the encyclicals come and where life is organized and ruled." I wrote recently about the extensive and complex organization of the paper's foreign desk. With so much trouble in that 2009 to 2010 period, there was an unwavering stance toward breaking news in two wars, the financial crisis, politics, arts, sports, and so much more, while upgrading the myriad ways it had to be presented.
In one revealing sequence, the paper became involved in the Wikileaks episode, in which vast amounts of confidential military and State Department material was made available via the erratic Julian Assange, the organization's founder. Keller and his colleagues recognized the importance of the documents, but wrestled with how best to use them. The unresolved and vexing question was whether Wikileaks should be considered a provider of explosive content, or a form of journalism in today's free-for-all means of distribution. The New York Times favored the traditional role of news organizations: obtaining material from sources (which is how it regarded Wikileaks) and then deciding what to do with it. But like so much else in our era, this process was complicated by the pervasiveness of the Internet, and in this case, Assange's own provocative stance towards anyone who questioned his brand of transparency.
In the spring of 2010, in what becomes the film's last scene, Keller is able to gather his colleagues in the vast expanse of the paper's newsroom to celebrate another collection of Pulitzer Prizes. Meanwhile, as the risk of further crises remain high, the New York Times presses ahead on all platforms, adding a paywall, and most important for the time being, suppressing the buzz of its possible demise. The story of the New York Times ultimately seems more hopeful than what one prominent editor described (elsewhere, not in the film) as a period of "managed decline" for many venerable print news organizations. Page One is not the end of story. It is a portrait of a particular period of extraordinary challenges. I came away with the belief that, whatever else happens in the world of journalism, at least this great institution is built on principles that are likely to last and possibly to defy the prevailing odds against a revival of financial success.