Root around inside the workings of the Gray Lady in Page One: Inside the New York Times, a scattered documentary that offers snippets of behind-the-scenes newspapering action and a lot of ruminating on the State of Newspapers.
And, of course, any discussion of the State of Newspapers always leads to a discussion of the Future of Newspapers, about which there is also plenty of jib-jabbing.
Despite the title, Page One isn’t really about how the front page is constructed, though we do see a meeting that demonstrates how editors narrow down the candidates and follow them throughout the day. It doesn’t particularly give you a lot of “inside the New York Times” either, in that we don’t see who reports to whom or how a story goes from a tip to an award-winning article or how they follow a story over time. What we get instead is a grab bag of New York Times- and newspaper-related stuff. There’s some stuff about reporting in the age of Twitter. There’s some talk about Judith Miller and Jason Blair and how their downfalls affected the Times and its editors. There’s some talk about the Times’ financial troubles and a few scenes of reporters taking buy-outs or succumbing to layoffs. There’s a goodbye party for a reporter headed to Iraq. There’s a whole section about WikiLeaks, and how it may or may not compare to the newspaper’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers (it’s really time for newspapers to let the whole Vietnam era/Watergate thing go as a reason for justifying their existence in the present day). There are some scenes where now-outgoing executive editor Bill Keller is interviewed about a variety of things, none of them memorable. And then, at the heart of the movie, is the work of the newspaper’s media beat team (the reporters and editor who follow media-related news) and specifically David Carr.
Carr, in look and in voice, is the very picture of a rumpled newspaper man. You suspect he bleeds sooty black ink. We see him doing the work of a reporter (namely, talking to an endless number of people on the phone and hoping some of them will agree to have those conversations on the record) as well as being a take-no-crap advocate for newspaper journalism. He smacks down Internet and new-media types in a variety of settings, to include an interview wherein he is doing a story on one of them and several panels. In one, he shows the representative of a news aggregator site the holey, newsless appearance his homepage would have without newspapers. At another, he tells Arianna Huffington essentially that the day she has reporters doing nuts and bolts, sitting-in-zoning-board-meetings reporting is the day her news outlet is an adequate replacement for traditional newspapers. These are great rah-rah moments for newspaper-lovers but they don’t have a whole lot to do with any central argument made in the movie. Many of Carr’s lines, some of which narrate the film, are nice and writerly — perhaps even a little too writerly. Sometimes the crafting of a phrase seems to have overtaken its meaning. He’s a hoot and as the movie isn’t, when you stand back, really about anything in particular beyond “stuff related to the New York Times,” it’s good to have someone around who keeps things lively.
Just as a clear coherent vision of where to go now is often missing from discussions of the Future of Newspapers, a clear coherent vision is missing from this movie. The scattered approached keeps the film from being the news-junkie treat it could have been. It just so happens that well before I saw the movie I heard a Slate podcast discussion about it, and one of the commentators compared this movie and what it didn’t do to the things that The September Issue did so well. That documentary gave you a real window into Vogue and how it put together an issue — created photo shoots, arranged images, picked the fashion, decided what to highlight — as well as introducing you to the characters that gave that magazine life. The movie made me actually purchase a Vogue, even though the finished product was nowhere near as much fun as the movie that discussed it.
As a reporter, I got a kick out of seeing the New York Times offices. They are very nice, design-wise, very Big Time. But when you look at the individual reporters’ desks, they aren’t unlike desks at any newspaper — just like my desk here at the Hippo, New York Times desks had piles of junk, half-eaten plastic-wrapped something, coffee cups, rings from where coffee cups had been. And just like reporters at every paper I’ve ever worked at, the reporters here looked like they could use some time in the sun, a good meal and some time at an ironing board. And it’s fun watching reporters, including Carr working his story about the bad behavior at Sam Zell’s Tribune Company, chasing down a story. (Side note: Google “Sam Zell Tribune” and the first link is Carr’s story.)
There are good moments in Page One but they don’t string together into anything. The movie doesn’t follow the creation of any one thing, not even a “page one.” We get to know a few characters but I’m left without really understanding why we met them other than that maybe they’re the people who were willing to be on camera.
You could make a good, drama-filled documentary about any newspaper — perhaps the smaller paper the better and more dramatic the movie would be. And I’m sure there’s a way to capture the Timesiness of the New York Times so that you leave the movie proud you read or more furious or feeling something more about the organization than when you went in. But Page One tells neither a good Times story nor a good newspaper story. C+
Rated R for language including some sexual references. Directed by Andrew Rossi and written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi, Page One: Inside the New York Times is an hour and 28 minutes long and distributed by Magnolia Pictures.