Documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi spent “a year inside The New York Times” for his film, “Page One,” capturing one of the world’s great newspapers as it struggled, along with every other newspaper, to stay relevant and profitable in a media landscape utterly upended by lightning-fast change. What he got for his effort was a colorful “how the news is made” movie capturing some very smart, very committed reporters and editors adapting to the changing rules in our brave new online news world.
At the beginning of the film, the Times and its reporters are trying to figure out what to do with this pesky organization, Wikileaks, and its oddball founder. Wikileaks had just put incriminating state secrets and video onto to the web, and the Times was looking down its nose at the material and its source. By the end of “Page One,” the Times is teaming with Wikileaks to go over such documents, verify them, sort out and find the news in this massive release of “diplomatic cables,” taking part in an epic scoop. The implication? The Times is changing with the times, and quicker than most.
For his purposes, Rossi narrowly focuses on the Times’ media desk, where reporters such as David Carr cover online, print and broadcast media news and scandals. And the ongoing story of the most interest on that desk and in the movie is “What’s going to happen to The New York Times?”
We see that newspaper grapple with the new era in news one way, and then watch as the curmudgeonly Carr contrasts that with other companies that aren’t as nimble — especially Tribune. The film follows Carr’s reporting on the debacle that ensued when Tribune, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel along with other newspapers and TV stations, was taken private by a Chicago real-estate magnate, Sam Zell. We see Carr report and write how Zell installed cronies, incompetent veterans of radio station management, to run the company. And we see the impact of Carr’s stories about how those cronies proceeded to, in Carr’s words, “loot” Tribune and act like “pigs” as they did it.
Zeroing in on Carr as the movie’s “hero” was a smart move. He comes off as smart, confrontational and unconventional, with more than a whiff of the “institutional arrogance” that is the Times’ reputation among its critics. A one-time drug addict, Carr doesn’t fit the mold of what “a Timesman” should look like, a mold that another interview subject, ex-Timesman Gay Talese, established in his book about the Times “The Kingdom and the Power” back in 1969.
But as confidence-inspiring as the organization’s leadership (editor Bill Keller was then at the top, along with media editor Bruce Headlam) seems at keeping its footing on the shifting ground of New Media, the movie still doesn’t explain how this institution and many others like it can make enough money to survive in this “It’s on the web, so it must be free” day and age. And in focusing so intently on the Times, Rossi is intent to infer that the simple civic need for such watchdog institutions will save that newspaper and those like it.
Rossi shows clips from a 1950s TV documentary which captured the beating heart of the newspaper as it was back then. It’s hard not to see “Page One,” which opens Friday in Orlando, as something similar, an artifact of days gone by, news the way it used to be gathered and presented back when print was king.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Cast: David Carr, Bill Keller, Bruce Headlam
Credits: Directed by Andrew Rossi, co-written by Rossi and Kate Novack, produced by Alan Oxman and Adam Schlesinger. A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 1:28