First, a confession: I read the New York Times in print. As online editor at America, I feel slightly guilty about my preference for the paper edition of the Old Gray Lady. Surely I should begin my day by checking the Times on my smart phone, or better yet, on my new iPad. The Times does offer an excellent iPad app, but it has yet to replace my print subscription. At the end of the day I still find myself flipping through newsprint, just in case I missed something in this week’s Home section.
Old die habits die hard, but when it comes to the newspaper industry, habits are dying fast and furious. Once the locus of news and advertising for pretty much every city in the country, the newspaper has been savaged by the rise of the Web. A few holdouts may read the print product, and may even pay for it, but our species faces a Darwinian fate. I will shell out $40 each month for a Times’ subscription for as long as my budget will allow; my younger brother never will.
All of this is a familiar story, and hardly seems worth repeating, especially for a journalist such as myself in the early stages of my career. Why revisit the grim, enervating facts? Yet a therapy session seems in order after watching “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” a new documentary less about the reach and influence of the Times than the state of media in the age of Google and Facebook. Directed by Andrew Rossi, “Page One” employs the slick editing style of documentaries like “Inside Job” to take the measure of the country’s most prominent newspaper. For non-journalists, the film may seem too “inside baseball,” an exercise in promotion disguised as a defense of a Great Public Good. But those involved should be forgiven; it’s been a rough decade.
The star of “Page One” is not, as one would expect, the Times’ vaunted team of investigative reporters, or its foreign correspondents scattered across the globe. Instead, we are introduced to the motley crew of correspondents that make up the Times’ media desk, in particular David Carr and the indefatigable Brian Stelter. Reporter Tim Arango also makes an appearance, although he is not long for the media beat. With his war reporter looks and fondness for cigarettes, he is better suited to the foreign desk, and before long he is taking over the Times bureau in Baghdad.
That’s just as well, for Carr and Stelter make for engrossing watching on their own. Stelter plays the role of media savant, a one-time blogger who was hired by the Times after they profiled him for his spot-on coverage of the nightly news business. He keeps two computers open on his desk, compulsively updates his Twitter feed and is on a first name basis with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.
Carr, in contrast, is an almost Hechtian creation, salty of tongue and old of school. When he isn’t working the phones or exercising his shoe leather, he emerges as an unlikely apostle for the values of the institution. In Carr’s telling, the daily miracle of the New York Times is just that, a wondrous object that is somehow born from a frenzied blend of forces and personalities. Carr may not have been the paper’s first choice to play the role of spokesman. His raspy voice and sartorial habits do not mark him as your protypical Timesman. Yet he is articulate and unafraid of defending the Times against its new media critics. Old Punch would be proud.
A far more buttoned-up presence is Bill Keller, the Times’ soon-to-be former executive editor. Like Carr, Keller was raised Catholic and he embraces the Times’ mission with a sense of solemn obligation, if not Carr’s evangelical zeal. Both men believe that the Times is indispensable, and surveying the wreckage of the American newspaper industry, it is difficult to disagree. Once grand papers like the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, even the Washington Post, have been left wobbly by the swift changes to the media landscape. The Times is in no great financial position either, but unlike the Post or the Wall Street Journal, it is still largely owned and controlled by one family. In this media environment, that makes a big difference. Just ask the (few) remaining employees of the Tribune company. (Full disclosure: I was once a member of that tribe.)
Arguments for the Times’ importance may sound like special pleading coming from its employees. Longtime readers, however, will share their sense of urgency. I have experienced something like hunger pains when, while traveling, I am forced to subsist on a diet of local newspapers. The Times’ coverage may be flawed, even biased at times, and its opinion page is, well, let’s not go there. But the Times is a habit I can’t quit, even if I wanted to.
Ultimately, “Page One” is unable to capture the full force of the Times’ maddening brilliance. Then again, what film could? Even if Andrew Rossi dutifully surveyed the whole newsroom, as some critics seemed to wish, the film would have still come up short. Drawing back the curtain, revealing the wizards at work, is simply not enough. Somehow, Rossi needed to find a way to approximate the deliberate and serendipitous nature of the reading experience, a formidable assignment for any filmmaker. If only Terrence Malick made documentaries.
In a way, the Times’ iPad app succeeds where “Page One” does not. With its blend of audio, video and print reporting, its commentary from critics, reporters and columnists, the app both reports the news and allows viewers to see the paper's journalists at work. Like the Times’ Web site, it satisfies the need to keep informed while indulging another desire, familiar to any reader: to learn more about the writer. Its perspective is inarguably Timesian, and therefore not as objective as Rossi's film, but on the iPad the Times reveals itself in ways both satisfying and subtle. Whether watching A. O. Scott analyze "Sweet Smell of Success," or Sam Tanenhaus interview Harold Bloom, the intimacy of mobile platforms allows the viewer to be both a reader and a voyeur.
Yet the central question posed by Rossi’s film still lingers: can the Times survive in the media environment that gave birth to the iPad? The Times recently embarked on a closely watched attempt to charge readers for Web content. I dearly hope they will succeed, but then again I have skin in the game. I am paid to write, report and edit. I know it is difficult but worthwhile work. The Times makes the same case, day after day. If they can’t convince you it’s worth a dollar or two, who can?