Monday, June 20, 2011

Page One: A Peek Underneath the Grey Lady

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
Directed By: Andrew Rossi
Written By: Kate Novak and Andrew Rossi
Featuring: David Carr, Bill Keller, Brian Stetler, and Bruce Headlam
Director of Photography: Andrew Rossi, Editors: Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, and Sarah Devorkin, Original Music: Paul Brill
Rated: R for newspaper speak

            I don’t read the newspaper.I get all my content from online, or from podcasts. When I was in high school in Minnesota, I read the Pioneer Press each day, but as college rolled around, it came much easier to check a number of free websites than *gasp* pay for journalism and information. Who needs a paper when you can have a Kindle or an iPad? And thus the crisis of journalism continues to this day and whether online advertising and new media can emerge victorious over the place for all the news fit to print.

            If I were to subscribe, however, which I probably will find myself doing when my free online trial runs out, it would be of course to the New York Times, a newspaper I’m more fond of for their arts section than their news, though mainly because I follow those subjects more closely day-to-day. But the Times is an establishment that is more American than apple pie, and Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One asks the important question, “What would happen if there was no New York Times?” Unfortunately, Mr. Rossi thinks it’s important to really get to the heart of this subject and continue to pose and answer the question again and again, ruining an amazing opportunity to show why the Times continues to be the best at what it does.

            But by sticking to the Media Desk, Mr. Rossi spends way too much time asking the big question of how can the Times survive in the age of new media. It’s of course an important question, but Mr. Rossi brings nothing new to the table in covering this debate. That wouldn’t matter too much if Mr. Rossi wasn't giving up an amazing opportunity to show the Times reporters at their best. The glimpses we get into how the organization operates, from the Page One meetings with then executive editor Bill Keller (Jill Abramson, the newly appointed executive editor, appears only in the background), to debates on whether there is a story with the troop exit in Iraq make us realize how essential the Times is, and how damn smart these people can be, and how much they really know not just how to report the news, but make their readers think through the story in thoughtful and engaging ways.

            Those moments of real hard journalism make Page One answer the question on whether the Times deserves to live, and had Mr. Rossi explored more inside the building, letting us see real journalism, he would have had a unequivocal defense to the issue. Instead, Mr. Rossi is much too focused on trying to create and answer the debate at the same time, more or less letting Mr. Carr pontificate on end as his muse. Mr. Rossi allows the reporters and other analysts spend too much time explaining why the Times is an essential institution, when he can simply show these men at work, proving to the audience why they still matter. It’s the main difference between the print and the moving image—reporters need to explain the story, filmmaker’s have to show it.

            Mr. Rossi and his co-writer Kate Novack were given unprecedented access to follow the Grey Lady for a year that covered a number of major events—Wikileaks, the Comcast-Universal buyout, the Tribune company bankruptcy—and they tend to stray away from the big desks and toward the Times’ newly formed Media Desk, a section covering the transition from old media to new, including the drastic changes the Times has had to make. This gives Mr. Rossi the film’s unprecedented star, former Oscar blogger and media desk reporter David Carr. Mr. Carr is already a celebrity in some circles and his story from crack addict to reporter—beautifully explored in his memoir Night of the Gun—makes him a pitch perfect hero for this story. Plus, seeing Mr. Carr in his no-bullshit reporting mode in interviews makes him the type of hero most people imagine with cape and tights.

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