Consider for a moment that The New York Times is over one hundred and fifty years old. More impressively, the third largest newspaper in the United States can still claim relevance regardless of its antiquity. With online news aggregation sites fast becoming the face of new journalism in the modern world, it’s becoming increasingly– and alarmingly– easy to overlook the importance of analog journalism and in fact ignore its necessity a democratic country. Why pay for a paper when the same information is available for free on the web? Why carry around the front page and its nine sections when you can just access data from the palm of your hand through smart phones and tablets? When information flows to us so quickly, so easily, so readily, what does a print establishment represent in contemporary society?
Andrew Rossi’s documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times should answer these queries pretty handily for most. Rossi’s film ensconces itself in the newsroom of the Times for the run of 2010, capturing the bustle and momentum and pace that defines the paper’s working atmosphere; for a collection of adherents to an allegedly doomed medium, everyone interviewed and depicted here shows work ethic that’s nothing short of admirable. But that’s what Page One‘s all about– upending the idea that newspapers are on their way out. There’s no arguing the setbacks and defeats that newspapers have suffered over the years, certainly, but if Rossi’s documentary accomplishes anything it proves that institutions like the Times are here to stay.
The argument is sound enough; web sources (apart from those of course which represent print publications on the net) typically get their information from analog sources. Paraphrasing Bill Keller– one of the film’s interview subjects and executive editor of the Times for eight years until stepping down in 2011 to pursue writing full-time again– the Internet’s many aggregates frequently are disinclined to put people out on the street. So long as that’s the case, papers like the Times will always be relevant by virtue of their dedication toward researching and digging on their own; if the flow of information starts with newspapers, they’ll never relinquish their place in society.
But Page One isn’t just a proclamation in favor of print resources. In point of fact it works much better simply as a glimpse into the inner workings of one of the world’s most well-recognized newspapers. In part this is because life inside the Times (and for that matter any major newspaper in the country, I’d imagine) never ceases. Where there’s a lead there’s a pulse, and the Times‘ lifeblood flows at an impressive and constant pace. So much of the film’s interest lies in observing just how entrenched in the matters of nation and the globe these people are on a daily basis– and I’ll admit right away my personal surprise that what Rossi shows us feels so exciting. I’m not naive enough to believe that working at the Times could ever be low-stress, particularly with life today being what it is, but Rossi introduces stakes into each dot on the timeline whether intentional or not.
There’s a lot on display here, too. Page One covers not only the challenges facing print establishments today– a running theme that climaxes with the Times‘ coverage of the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy– but a gamut of stories from Julian Assange and Wikileaks’ release of Afghan War documents to the release of the iPad to the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, while also touching on the sharp rise of aggregates. Watching the research process is fascinating; watching the characters behind the stories as they tap their sources and dig for facts is even more so. Page One is much less focused on the actual news being reported (for good reason, since anybody who keeps abreast of current events already knows these stories), and instead is more honed in on the people behind each column and each report.
But among the Brian Stetlers and the Bruce Headlams and the Tim Arangos, no one proves to be more magnetic than David Carr. Carr’s a captivating figure to behold, biting and coarse and seemingly unafraid of speaking his mind, consequences and repercussions be damned; seeing him spar with journalists and reporters hailing from other publications is immensely satisfying (in particular his interview with Vice magazine editors and contributors is a thing of beauty). In fact, every moment of screen time bequeathed to Carr proves so effective at capturing our attention that the rest of the film’s candid moments with other staff members suffer by comparison. It’s not that Mr. Arango’s arc, in which he ultimately goes overseas and ends up serving as the Times‘ Baghdad bureau chief, isn’t interesting– it’s that it’s just not as interesting as anything involving Carr. After a point one starts to ponder why Rossi didn’t just make a documentary film focusing solely on Carr, which does injustice to the rest of the director’s subjects.
While the treatment feels uneven, the quibble nonetheless proves minor because Rossi’s film succeeds in rendering the processes and protocols of the Times into something palatable; by the time Page One ends we understand the paper’s inner workings clearly, and in attaining that understanding we may also gain a heightened respect for what these people do day in and day out. I suppose a criticism could be made in regards to Rossi’s clear bias in favor of the Times, assuming one believes that documentary films should strictly remain unbiased by taking the genre’s name quite literally. But if that notion is rejected then Rossi deserves applause for fashioning a strong case for the continued existence of print journalism when establishments like the Times continue to serve as the cornerstones of information proliferation even well into a new age of technology.