If I thought about it at all as a young child, I imagined The Newspaper as a singular source that appeared on every doorstep every day and apparently everybody from San Fransisco to Sri Lanka concerned themselves with the reporting and opinions of The Omaha World-Herald. This notion developed cracks as I got older. For one thing, my grandparents received a different paper for their nearby small city and yet another one for their own small town, each with its own news reporting that only sometimes overlapped with ours. There was even a different daily edition of the World-Herald in the mornings – that one had The Far Side, where afternoon subscribers were saddled with Marmaduke.
When my family took a vacation to nearby Colorado the myth was shattered for good by a copy of The Denver Post. After the comics, the most important feature was the baseball coverage, and The Post had a bright, clear graphic containing all the scores right on the front page of the sports section. The font used for the box scores was more pleasant, too. For the first time I started reading the other sections on that trip and, like learning a new language and finding greater understanding of your native tongue, awoke a new appreciation for the unique virtues of my hometown paper and newspapers in general.
It’s not breaking news to report in this piece (which will never be rendered in ink on paper unless my mother happens to see it and prints it out to show her mother) that the newspaper industry has undergone profound and sad changes in recent history. In the advent of digitized news services, those papers that haven’t shuttered altogether have shrunk to dry husks. Journalists have been laid off in droves. It’s easier to get national news updates buzzed to your phone than to pull up a summary of local city council meetings. In a lot of ways, news is more like my original childish conception of it.
The end of an era creates new real estate for nostalgia, and I’ve staked out a few plots in the cinematic depictions of the bustling newsroom. Where the story is the crude oil made valuable only if there’s somebody to process it properly. Those somebodies are whipsmart reporters, dueling each other for scoops and headline space and using their command of prose and truth to, as the journalism saying goes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I aim to share some of those films with you the next few weeks and deliver what I hope sounds more like a celebration than a eulogy.
Today we’ll start at the end: the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times and in the spirit of starting at the end I’ll skip to the final verdict and say this is not a particularly good documentary. The few scenes of journalists at work make it worth a look, but director Andrew Rossi attempts to organize the film thematically. This is already a dubious choice for a film about hard news journalism, and is completely undone by a failure to go any deeper on the theme – the tenuous place of the New York Times in the new media landscape – as the movie meanders along.
It’s partially a scattershot look at a handful of the employees of the Times including media columnist/badass David Carr (now deceased) and media wunderkind Brian Stelter (now a host on CNN). It’s partially a list of thematically relevant stories covered over the course of the year. While embedded with the Times, Rossi covers the emergence of click-based reporting at Gawker, the dawn of WikiLeaks, massive media layoffs, the rise of Twitter and the announcing of the iPad. It fails to organize a coherent throughline with these events even while spending significant time on context, laying out the story of the Pentagon Papers and interviewing Gay Talese about his own behind-the-scenes peek at the paper in The Kingdom and the Power. Given that the New York Times has only grown in stature as a final outpost of the fourth estate, each undeveloped tangent in Page One is another squandered opportunity made in the right place at the right time.
Of course, I have the benefit of living in the future and knowing which of the branches will and will not go on to bear fruit. Gawker will disappear in a puff of hubris. Rupert Murdoch will fare worse. The iPad is a product associated with silencing small children on planes, not revolutionizing news consumption. The 2016 election will confirm many of the fears about a nation without strong traditional news outlets and create some new ones.
The lack of discipline here is all the more frustrating because at this unique time the filmmaker has access to a unique point of view. The film even contains a perfect situation to focus on when David Carr files an exposé on the sordid collapse of the Tribune Company and its CEO. If there’s something Page One does provide clearly, it’s a snapshot of the individuals who 8-10 years ago saw the ailing news industry as an opportunity for making a quick buck instead of a cause for concern. The film includes a handful of people, usually grandstanding on a panel and too often sporting a fedora, declaring print journalism in general and the Times in particular dying or outdated. These people resemble the ones I have encountered in real life who say such things, which is to say they’re smug dicks attempting to cover their intellectual laziness with confident and self-serving predictions. The film is most interesting – since it’s rarely interested in what I came to see, which is the day-to-day workings of a major newspaper – when it pits these fools against the weary professionals of the Times (usually Carr). That the Times lived to report the right way on the demise of a company headed the wrong way into history isn’t the only direction the film could have taken, but it would be a direction at least.
Page One won’t satisfy a craving for tales of journalism of yore, though it does a slightly better job of looking backward than forward. It’s too timid for the op-ed section, too pointed for human interest. It was there and it did get the pictures to prove it. Let’s run it in the society pages.