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Movie Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times

July 22, 2011

Not just for those of us who treasure The New York Times, nor for you others who loathe it, but for anyone who cares about the existence of the free press and its role in a democratic world, Page One: Inside the New York Times, is a must-see.

Unless you’ve been drifting at sea for the last decade, you’re aware of the precipitous decline of newspapers, so the film feels somewhat like the dramatization of a best-seller. We all know the story. But it’s amazing to see it played out, this time by the actual players. Frankly, for media watchers such as myself, it’s a fascinating and voyeuristic thrill to get such an inside view of the inner workings of The Times.

Every documentary needs a major character, and Page One‘s character is David Carr, The Times‘ colorful and pugnacious (and seemingly self-appointed) defender. He has, he tells us, “an immigrant’s love” for The Times, having come late in his career, and it shows. He appears in panel after panel, meeting after meeting, passionately jumping to The Times‘ defense against those who would accuse it of irrelevancy or prematurely celebrate or mourn its demise.

Many might be familiar with Carr’s biography, detailed in his memoir and in the pages of The Times. A gifted reporter and writer (there are numerous fantastic scenes of him putting together stories), he was also for a decade or more, addicted to crack, and even went to prison for drug possesion. In case we don’t know his back story, this movie reminds us, at least one too many times. Carr’s plain-spoken frankness is particularly vivid against the smooth eloquence of The Times‘ editor, the distinguished and handsome Bill Keller. Keller presides over The Gray Lady with the gravitas befitting a man who’s forced (as is nearly every newspaper editor in this day and age) to prune his staff of even long-term veterans. (He himself resigned from The Times this June, just before Page One‘s opening).

With as bleak a picture as this movie paints of the future of real journalism, one gets an unexpected jolt of hope seeing the idealism and dedication and talent evinced by young journos like Tim Arango and Brian Stelter. Interesting to note, however, that future there is seems to be, as its past, a man’s world. There are few women visible in the halls of The Times (one assumes that Style and other soft features departments are located on different floors) and few women’s voices at all in this film, although Kristina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation makes one of the most persuasive of the talking heads.

A brisk, unexpectedly gripping 88 minutes, Page One explores the possibly unreconcilable tension between the need for informed, long-term, investigative journalism on the one hand—an enterprise that requires qualified staff and immense commitments of resources—and the undeniable fact that ad revenue, the traditional venue stream of newspapers, has suffered devastating and possibly unretrievable declines. In one year alone The Times lost 30% of its ad revenue, on top of a 17% loss the year before. It takes no economist to come to the conclusion that the traditional model is unsustainable. But what is to be done?

I have wonderful memories of visiting my Aunt and Uncle in New York City in the summers as a teenager. The Sunday Times would be waiting outside the door of their apartment on East 24th Street, and, after breakfasting on bagels and lox, we’d each claim sections of the paper and while away the rest of the morning pleasantly immersed in its all-encompassing, authoritative take on the world and the greatest city in the world. It was the absolute best way to spend a Sunday. That was our feeling about The Times, and it is my feeling still. The paper has had its public stumbles (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller—both of whom are discussed), but it is still the world’s paper of record, and its journalistic standards are the absolute standard.

After nearly two decades in New York, I now live in Kansas City, where the daily paper (The Star) is not only a joke, but a dying one at that, laying off dozens of employees every six months or so. The same is true in most cities in the country. But to finish this review I’ll make my confession: I am one of those, reviled ever so gently in those twice-yearly pledge drive son NPR, who takes and does not give. That is to say, I have long been accustomed to taking the incredible content of The New York Times, without paying. And when the paywall went up, I did not subscribe. Even though I am a writer and editor (and because I am a writer and editor, paid lower rates and salaries than ever for fewer opportunities than ever), I simply did not feel I could afford the $15 a month.

Yes, I know I’m a hypocrite. And yes, I feel guilty.

Early reports predicted that The Times‘ paywall would be the coup de grace in its demise, and indeed, traffic declined by almost 25% in early months. But recent reports indicate that the paywall may be working, and that is good news indeed. After seeing this movie, I may even subscribe.




One Response to “ Movie Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times ”

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