Prominently displayed in New York Times Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam’s office is a French poster for Citizen Kane, perhaps the most famous film of all-time about a journalist. Although Headlam tells us that he loves the improbable graphics of French movie posters, it is impossible not to draw a comparison between Welles’ film about a newspaperman and the documentary we are watching, Andrew Rossi’s engaging and often humorous Page One: Inside the New York Times, which follows the work of several Times reporters working at the paper’s newly created Media Desk. The role of these reporters–including the perpetually boisterous David Carr and the energetic new media whiz Brian Stelter–is to document the changing state of the media industries, even while the Times itself, like other newspapers, is undergoing rapid change. Rossi and his production partner, Kate Novak, had incredible access to the work of Stelter, Carr, and Headlam, watching as they adapt to a range of new media tools, even while they seek to preserve the journalistic standards associated with their paper.
Rossi and Novak followed the Media Desk for approximately fourteen months, using a hybrid cinema verite and talking-heads style, and the film is essentially framed by the newspaper’s complicated attempts to engage with Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s notorious website where whistleblowers could post state secrets. As Stelter observes early in the film, Assange essentially sees himself as an activist working on behalf of radical government transparency, a goal that is vastly different than that of a journalist, but the exchange with Assange does illustrate the changed landscape when people can go public through Wikileaks rather than through a major newspaper like the New York Times, and the film spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the ethics of publishing Wikileaks documents, and later, on what it means that the Times partnered with Assange to release other documents about the war in Iraq.
Inevitably, the film spends quite a bit of time meditating on the changes to the Times’ business model as a result of the changes introduced by social media. To some extent these positions are articulated by Web 2.0 champions such as Jeff Jarvis claims in the film, that “newspapers are dead.” Page One also quotes Clay Shirky as stating that because “anyone can publish,” we have achieved something approximating a “revolution” when it comes to media. To some extent, Jarvis and Shirky come across (somewhat unfairly) as wild-eyed futurists, especially when paired with images of Arianna Huffington brusquely defending the practice of aggregating articles from other news sources. At the same time, Brian Stelter, in particular, defends the role of social media in gathering and sharing information (even the more traditional David Carr becomes a somewhat reluctant convert).
Ultimately, the film is at its best when it observes David Carr at work, talking with his father, or generally enjoying life. I’d never seen him speak before, and he has a raspy voice, one that conveys the many challenges he has faced–including drug addiction and being a single parent on welfare–and his toughness comes through very clearly, but he’s also incredibly funny and generous with his younger colleagues. In places, the film does feel a little like an advertisement for the necessity of The New York Times. The film, which must have been completed only very recently, mentions the Times’ decision to create a paywall that requires readers to pay after they have read more than twenty articles in a month, and I found myself contemplating paying for an online subscription. The Times newsroom is often romanticized, especially when we see Carr mentoring Stelter or when Headlam encourages one of his journalists to pursue a story.
But beyond that, the film is a reminder of the importance of an energetic and critical news media. One reporter remarks on the fact that most news services have cut back on the “press gaggle” that follows the President around the country because of the expense involved, while Stelter points out that despite our nostalgia for print, the crucial issue in saving newspapers is the importance of “original sources,” of gathering the information necessary to make sense of the world. To that end, Page One is a Participant Media film, and the “cause” identified with the film is “the importance of knowing the original source of the news you read, watch, hear and tweet and the difference between original reporting and commentary.” This is, no doubt, an easy message to sell at a festival dedicated to documentary, but I hope that Page One will have a wider impact, allowing us to reflect on the changing media distribution landscape and the ways in which that affects the practices of journalism.