Sundance Review: Page One Is A Riveting Year Inside The New York Times

By Katey Rich 2011-01-26 13:13:38discussion comments
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"The New York Times is dead. Long live The New York Times."

It's hard to imagine a more fascinating time to check in on the newspaper industry, as advertising revenues continue to decline, major papers continue shutting their doors, and the likes of Gawker Media's Nick Denton and Wikileaks's Julian Assange continually try to redefine what we mean when we refer to "journalism." And it's also hard to imagine an august institution that's deal with this cultural shift as well as The New York Times, the stately Gray Lady that still believes in shoe-leather reporting and a rigorous editorial process, but also has a remarkable web presence and some of the best blogs you'll find on the Internet.

Maybe the best asset at the Times, especially when it comes to straddling old and new media, is David Carr, the brash and brilliant reporter and former crack addict who makes up the spiritual focus of Andrew Rossi's documentary Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times. As Carr put it to a rapturous Q&A audience after the screening, there was no way he'd be able to do his job and be the subject of a documentary for the entire year, so Rossi expands out to other media reporters at the paper, including blogging wunderkind Brian Stelter and Iraq-bound reporter Tim Arango. Rossi also delves into the shifting media climate that surrounds them, meeting with the unrepentant Denton, documenting a panel where Newser founder Michael Wolff derides the arrogance of old media, and visiting the frenzy that greeted the arrival of the iPad, including members of the print media who thought it could save their business.

Threaded throughout nearly all of these stories is Carr, a believer in what he calls "New York Times exceptionalism" who will tear down anyone who suggests that a blogger on a laptop can replace old-fashioned reporting and knowledge. In one hilarious incident he meets with editors of Vice magazine who dare to claim their one-shot reporting on cannibalism in Liberia trumps the Times's decades spend on the ground; in a thrilling sequence near the end of the film, Carr charges ahead with an expose on rival newspaper magnates the Tribune Corporation, ignoring lawsuit threats to publish an article that eventually caused top executive Randy Michaels to resign. Carr shrugs off any suggestion that he's a hero here-- "I look homeless for much of the movie" he claimed in the Q&A-- but there's no question that Rossi sees him as both the last of a dying breed and, as a plugged-in embracer of new media, an important bridge to the future.

I admit to already being a Times acolyte-- it's been my homepage since college, and I relish encounters with the Sunday print edition the way pilgrims breathe in the Bible-- but I was riveted by the film, which gives both an in-depth look at how some of the paper's most important stories are assembled and a clear-eyed assessment of how the media might survive from here. Rossi directly compares the Times's work on both the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks documents from last year, brings in Carl Bernstein just before analyzing the financial woes of The Washington Post, and joining his hard-nosed reporter subjects in skeptically analyzing those who predict a rosy future for print media. He weirdly skims over the Times's stellar web presence, most of it coming through watching Stetler break news on Twitter even as he's still reporting a story, but the film is still remarkably thorough, following its subjects from a Minnesota media conference ("We must be OK, we're wearing badges," as Carr describes it) to an embedded reporter in Afghanistan. Try finding that much range at Gawker Media.

Page One has been picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, and will be showing at every arthouse that shows socially conscious films sometime soon I'm sure. If you care even a bit about the direction of modern media, if you still sometimes want to get newsprint on your fingers, even if you've started reading this site instead of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, Page One is an essential overview of where things stand and how one crucial institution may lead is into the future. Parts of The New York Times online will start going behind a paywall early this year for its most loyal readers, another experiment in keeping the news a manageable business; things are changing even as Page One screens to these rapt Sundance audiences. Even 30 years from now, though, Page One will remain a vital and fascinating portrait of the news and the people who make it.
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