“There’s no times at all—except The New York Times,” Paul Simon sang about the hardship of romance, though the quote also speaks to how the paper has seemed to simultaneously epitomize and transcend journalism. Both a profound influence on and a literate exemplar of American culture, the Times is now perhaps the most crucial canary in mainstream media’s asphyxiating mineshaft. Andrew Rossi’s talking-head-oriented documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times allows this print titan a kind of nail-biting self-portraiture as it peers off the precipice of (hopefully) a 2.0 rebirth. Intimately circling the media desk and ace staffers such as David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam, and Bill Keller, the film provides a taste of the day-to-day challenges of news-corralling, as well as eyewitness analysis of how the digital age has transformed the role of the newspaper from an information conduit to a legitimizing voice.
Given that the Times‘s employees are both the focus and our rhetorical guides through this discussion, though we do hear from outsiders with varying sympathies, the movie can’t help coming off like a defense for the value of old-school journalism. This argument only occasionally feels pitiful; there’s some “aw, shucks, we’re sorry” self-analysis around Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s controversially influential coverage of Iraq’s WMD stockpiling. But considering the curious symmetry between the film’s release and the debut of the Times‘s online pay wall, much of the landscape-surveying, and the bids for the Times‘s extant relevance, appear as unsavory bids for subscriptions. Gay Talese takes us back to the good ol’ days when CBS and NBC were cribbing scoops from the Times‘s morning edition; others’ points that Gawker’s meta-coverage of Times reportage implies an evergreen social worth. Recounts of the coverage of scandals surrounding the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy subtly argue that the media needs to be comprised of rival institutions to keep itself in check.
Rossi’s roughhewn hero throughout is the media columnist David Carr, who provides some narration and a slew of juicy biographical details in addition to his topical interviews. (His trajectory from drug addiction and incarceration as a twentysomething to a career in media reporting becomes a conscious metaphor for the Times‘s own resilience and purported transformative abilities.) But while Carr argues cogently for the Times‘s existence, he also recognizes that editorial value is not necessarily a marketable entity in the digital landscape. “Have fun figuring it out,” he says in one telling scene after admitting that he’ll only last another decade or so on the masthead. One senses that this confession is meant to establish Carr’s quasi-cynical personality, but it more dramatically reveals an essential distinction between off- and online news writers: Traditional newspapermen doggedly seek the scoop, but the monetization of clickable content is a foreign concept. Carr is a writer (a shrewd and lively one), but he’s not, and sees no need to think like, a brand. That the Internet’s peculiarities have necessitated the development of this kind of self-value will indeed continue to cattle-prod journalism toward a new and perhaps, at first, bleak era. And it’s hard not to hear death knells for the old guard when newspapermen start assigning themselves brand prices out of vague, jaundiced entitlement.