Friday, September 23, 2011

Review - Page One: Inside The New York Times

I knew I was going to enjoy Page One: Inside The New York Times as soon as it began. The opening credits run over images of the newspaper being prepared for its morning despatch – machines whirring as pages run through them, before being bundled and driven out in a fleet of vans. It is a familiar and heartening sight, but this is exactly what we are on the verge of losing, with print newspapers dying out in the digital age. Andrew Rossi's documentary couldn't have been filmed at a more turbulent time for America's "paper of record," having been shot while the Times saw sales drop, was forced to let long-serving staff members go, and faced difficult questions about its future as the entire media landscape shifted irrevocably.

Page One is a fly-on-the-wall film that takes us into the New York Times offices, observing both the everyday operations of the paper and examining the situation that it currently finds itself in. To do all of that in a shade over ninety minutes is a tall order and if I have a criticism of Page One, it's that Rossi tries to cover too much in a short period. Being allowed to watch as the paper gets put together is a fascinating and rare opportunity, but the filmmaker's attempt to blend that with the vast and complex subject of print media's uncertain future risks eating into the amount of time he can spend on those scenes, and vice versa. Both subjects are probably interesting enough to merit a feature in themselves.

Having said that, the feature we have is a solidly entertaining and thought-provoking one. The shift between the traditional values of the paper and the new world of technology is epitomised by young reporters such as Brian Stelter, who blogs and tweets and an extraordinary rate while filing his stories; but as adaptable fresh talent such as Stelter thrives, stalwarts from the paper's other departments – having given decades of service to the Times – receive news of their redundancies. The paper is rapidly reshaping itself for this new age and many of the contributors whom Rossi interviews have opinions on the its current position and future viability (some have already written an obituary for the Times), but as David Carr explains, even in the vast network of news sites and blogs that now inhabit the world wide web, the source for all stories is often the same – the New York Times.

Carr is a force of nature and he provides Page One with a fascinating, effortlessly charismatic central protagonist. A media columnist with the paper, Carr is a passionate advocate for everything the Times represents, even going off the record in an interview to angrily chastise his subject after an ill-advised remark against the paper. As he stalks around the NY Times office in his distinctive manner, grouchily espousing his own ideas on the changing face of journalism, Carr is at the centre of Page One's most memorable scenes. Towards the end of the film, Rossi follows Carr closely as he puts together a major story, ringing his contacts, checking his facts, piecing together the evidence he uncovers and gradually building the finished article through his painstaking work. It's truly compelling viewing and a vital reminder that no matter what media receive our news from, quality journalism such as this is at the bottom of it all. It is an invaluable commodity and one that must not be lost as the times rapidly change.