As the Industry Panics, the Times Gets Its Own Reality Show in Page One


Nobody cries, “Stop the presses!” in Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times; no one would dare. There’s a palpable fear that it could actually happen.

Rossi’s documentary, which might have been called Inside Baseball: Inside the New York Times, opens with a montage of the press in full operational mode, spewing out newspapers all but automatically for a fleet of waiting delivery trucks. It’s a system at once efficient and cumbersome, ultra-modern yet quaint, that suggests nothing so much as a herd of dinosaurs, oblivious to the threat of impending extinction.

Part vérité, part infomercial, Page One celebrates a way of life shared by more than the ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate. “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer,” G.W.F. Hegel, onetime editor of a Bavarian daily called the Bamberger Zeitung, noted in his diary nearly 200 years ago. For many New Yorkers of a certain age, the New York Times still fulfills that sacred function (even if they’ve already heard the news on Morning Edition or watched it on Morning Joe). The paper is doing God’s work; as more than once noted during the course of Page One, the Times re-creates the world each and every day by setting the news agenda and, in so doing, sanctifies our ongoing social existence.

Given its subject’s cosmic significance, Page One is both fond and alarmist. Are we living in the end-times? Newspaper ad revenues have collapsed. The voices of laid-off journos haunt the newsrooms. Dailies are dying all over America. The New York Times could be the last of its breed. What would happen if it, too, expired? Does evolution work? Will the noble brontosaurus give way to HuffPo, Gawker, and all the other scampering little rodents of the Internet? Highly unlikely, given the degree to which such sites live off the masticated tidbits that drop from Gertie’s mouth.

Page One is less about the end of print journalism than the birth of some newfangled cyborg—indeed, with its blatantly self-reflexive approach and emphasis on personality, it’s part of the process. Where there once was Daniel Ellsberg, now there is Julian Assange . . . and David Carr. Shooting solo over a 14-month period, Rossi found his story at the Times’ media desk, focusing on three media reporters: Carr (covering the Tribune bankruptcy and promoting the Times), Tim Arango (eager to change his beat for something a bit less meta), and the former teen blogger Brian Stelter (described by Carr as “a robot assembled in the [Times] basement to come and destroy me”), plus their young old-school editor Bruce Headlam (whose most colorful trait is the French Citizen Kane poster behind his desk).

Rossi touches lightly on the Judith Miller and Jayson Blair scandals of the mid-’00s, shows the daily struggle for real estate waged in editorial meetings, and films discussions about the pay wall, but he doesn’t exactly follow the money—the Times owners are largely invisible and the paper’s Mexican angel Carlos Slim goes virtually unmentioned. Rossi’s nose is for the newshounds. Some years back, he co-produced Jehane Noujaim’s Al Jazeera doc Control Room, and although burdened by the weight of the Times’ institutional gravitas, Rossi’s own reporting suggests—as Control Room did—the fun of journalists at work. Thus Carr, a voluble personality as well as a tough interviewer and shameless hambone, steals the show, whether telling the now-familiar tale of his onetime crack addiction or announcing his conversion to Twitter. Looking like a refugee from the Sunday funnies that the Times would never run, Carr does not recall Woodward and Bernstein so much as the quasi-bohemian, self-regarding wiseguy squawk-boxes (usually played by Lee Tracy) who enlivened the newspaper flicks of the ’30s.

Page One’s greatest achievement may be to have turned the Times saga into an ongoing reality show. As the movie ends, we learn that Arango has decamped for Iraq (eventually to become bureau chief) and Stelter has dropped 90 pounds (while blogging about it). News never sleeps: Two weeks ago, one secondary character (Bill Keller) stepped down as editor (replaced by another, Jill Abramson) to become an opinion writer; meanwhile, the irrepressible Carr, who now, one suspects, has reason to fear Keller muscling in on his turf, has been informing bloggers that Page One was always intended to be a movie about him, while filling cyberspace with usable blurbs: “I adore the film. And it’s not just a documentary. It’s a real movie movie. It’s super exciting.”

Informing that his own 14-year-old daughter had already seen Page One three times, Carr expressed amazement regarding its alleged appeal: “The ability of this film to connect with young people, not people her age but people 18 and 20 is just breathtaking.” Will Page One lead American kids to that golden city behind the pay wall on their iPad? Not sure about that, but the movie is at least someone’s answered prayer.

Given its strong appeal for the neighborhood demographic (and affirmative view of a fellow beleaguered medium), Page One is an appropriate opening attraction for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, located downstairs and across 65th Street from the Walter Reade, in a site impressively carved out of a former parking garage.

With two theaters (144 and 87 seats, respectively) showing a curated mix of first-run movies, film series, and revivals, along with the potted national cinema surveys that can be the bane of a reviewer’s existence, this smartly conceived glass, chrome, and poured-concrete venue provides the Upper West Side with its own Film Forum or IFC Center. The optimistic cine-agora feeling is accentuated by a café and an amphitheater boasting the largest plasma screen in the U.S. and promising the opportunity for who knows what cinephile (or New York Times staffer) to hold forth between shows.

The 268-seat Walter Reade, which opened 20 years ago (as the crowning achievement of Joanne Koch’s tenure as Film Society executive director), still has the best sightlines and most impressive screen-to-room size ratio in Manhattan. But the new Film Center theaters have screens that seem bigger and seats even roomier. The architects have done their job. Now it’s up to programmers Richard Peña and our former colleague Scott Foundas, plus booker Bingham Ray—and the audience. Will the Upper West Side forgo its HBO and walk on over?