The conundrum facing news media is that if one day its entire infrastructure ceases to exist, who would be there to write about the demise? Would media write about its own death? Would another form of journalism have spawned that will gleefully report on the carnage? Page One: Inside the New York Times takes on this topic in the way that the title newspaper has built it’s reputation, with intelligence, honesty and a knowing wink to the amusing nature of it all. Ultimately, the media has always been a giddy rat race.
In David Carr, the media reporter who centers a great deal of the film, the New York Times have a character who’s a throwback to a long dead form of journalism. He’s tough as nails, sharp-tongued and, from the looks of it, not at all Ivy league educated like his new media-versed colleagues. In some ways, Carr sounds like he could be the hard-boiled narrator of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, under a smoker’s rasp telling it how it is while allowing a little vulnerable glimpse into his soul. The beauty of a character like Carr is that he’s learned that you can’t wear your fears on your sleeve. Yet you can’t get to the point Carr has in a field like journalism without having so much neutral honesty imbued in your fabric that your insecurities inevitably shine through.
On a small scale, the New York Times office is a microcosm for the greater changes in media. Many of the upshot reporters are hooked up with two computers, an iPad, and an iPhone. One reporter, Brian Stelter, a wunderkind blogger turned mainstream beat writer, states, “I can’t stand when journalists don’t have twitter.” Carr, the elder statesman, who learned the tricks of his trade by living a gritty life of substance abuse that kept him in and out of the rehab, obviously resents his younger coworkers, while also begrudgingly acknowledging the enormous shifts they are ushering in.
On the grander scale, Page One comments upon a world where any person can receive dozens of breaking news stories while waiting on line at Starbucks. How does this bombardment of news affect what we take in? How much input remains relevant before it smokes away all inspired output altogether? The fight for New York Times to stay alive seems almost a moot point and a bit of wishful thinking on the part of its competitors. Nothing, besides a few major jobs cuts, really spells the end of New York Times as we know it. What we are left with is a smaller, more intimate ragtag gang that will report the news much the way they always have, only now their survival depends on how successfully they can maintain within the changing media world.
Page One does a solid job at not taking sides while reporting on the reporting of the media. It’s an interesting perspective to pose and the film achieves its ends admirably. The characters are engaging, dynamic, and varied. The risk with material like this is to get too news-oriented and bombard viewers with statistic about a rapidly declining industry. There’s no lack of facts in Page One, yet it’s the humans at the heart of the story that anchor it. About midway through the film, The New York Times is enduring job cuts. We see multiple newsroom writers tearfully discussing their long stays with the company. Somehow this scene manages to leave us with a sense of hope instead of sadness. One woman states, “I thought I would be here for a year and now I’ve been here for 20.” She says this with a grateful grin. Sometimes life is really about the journey and we aren’t meant to wallow in the miseries of circumstance. The greatest strength of Page One is showing us that success still does occur. David Carr was a man all but beaten by crack cocaine and now he may be mainstream media’s last great hope. Brian Stetzer was a shy 21-year-old with a blog and now he’s the guy who may almost single-handedly bring The New York Times in to the 21st century. Funny how a little bit of honest reporting can leave us thinking the world isn’t so dismal after all.
Page One: Inside the New York Times is not a groundbreaking documentary that provides viewers with great insights. However, the film is handled with the straight-forward accuracy of good news report. And like the best reporters it knows that the heart of the story lay not in the facts but in the people involved. There are some darn good people still working in the media industry, warts and all. Page One may have been a subtly slanted piece of propaganda but if it was, I surely was converted. To me, the film was a refreshing reminder that hopeful non-fiction filmmaking still exists but doesn’t have to provide false answers and doesn’t have to destroy our optimism either.