Andrew Rossi’s “Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times” takes a conventional verité approach to the one topic that virtually everyone today has an opinion on. Turning his cameras to the inner circle of editorial decision-making at the proverbial paper of record, Rossi delves into the lively debates about old-new media tensions within the context of the reportorial focus of the Times’ media desk, which was launched in 2008. The result is a cogent, provocative portrait of the intellectual process behind conventional newsmaking and the forces opposed to it.
[Editor’s Note: iW first published its review of Rossi’s “Page One” during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures will open the film beginning in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new Film Center and the Angelika Film Center this Friday June 17, followed by additional cities in the New York region and across the country in the following weeks.]
Rather than settling for a barrage of talking heads, Rossi makes it clear from the get-go that he intends to make a movie instead of simply surveying the debate at its center. The opening shots show a massive printing press – the central symbol of informational power from the pre-internet days – spitting out copies of the Times in rapid succession. Accompanied by an awe-inspiring orchestral score, this introductory bit gives the impression of an ancient, sacred ritual. The ensuing narrative furthers that impression, while capturing the necessity for infrastructure in the dissemination of reliable information. Mostly set in the vast open area of the Times’ newsroom, “Page One” predominantly involves a handful of media reporters as they analyze the changing landscape of media consumption and contemplate its future.
At the core of “Page One” is a tension between two equally aggressive journalists from different generations of the business. The ever-versatile David Carr, a former drug addict whose harsh backstory appears to inform his staunchly confrontational technique, conveys the image of an old-school muckraker always on the brink of the next big scoop. At the other end of the spectrum, the much younger Brian Stelter — hired after his TVNewser blog gained national attention while he was still in college — epitomizes the model of a new-media journalist, capable of picking up the phone and delivering a timely tweet in the glorious harmony of a trained multitasker.
Rossi uses their beat to explore the broader changes of the newspaper industry around the country. Moving beyond the newsroom, he speaks with advocates of emerging journalism models like Gawker founder Nick Denton, centering on the juxtaposition between their competitive strategies and the Times’ investment in maintaining its status at the top of the media totem pole. The remarkable amount of access that the paper allows Rossi enables him to capture veteran journalists on their final days at work after accepting buyouts, while others nervously watch from the sidelines.
Rossi also uncovers transitional moments that contain a whiff of optimism about the paper’s ability to evolve, including the arrival of the iPad in the Grey Lady’s halls, where Carr and others enthusiastically embrace the new device. At the same time, he observes the general incapacity for anyone to offer a precise forecast about the direction of the business. The future is now, and it looks a lot like yesterday. “Trees are still cut,” says editor Bruce Headlam. “Papers are still delivered.”
By examining a medium constantly assailed for its archaic qualities, Rossi’s project has a thematic connection to the James Franco-directed “Saturday Night,” which observes the continuation of NBC’s weekly sketch comedy in the face of accusations that a six-day production period no longer makes sense. In both cases, displaying the process behind media creation raises questions about whether or not the resources are worth the effort — although Rossi reaches a much sunnier conclusion. In an early scene, Stelter grapples with the ramifications of Wikileaks, which bypasses conventional media outlets and delivers its content straight to the public. The movie argues that it’s not an instant newspaper killer: By doing nothing with the information it possesses aside from unleashing it, Wikileaks lacks the contextualization that the newsroom works around the clock to sustain.
Rossi captures the minutiae of the newsroom, from the rapid transcription of interviews to the rush of deadlines, as if observing an Olympic sport. That sort of energetic investment explains the ideological loyalty that a large number of Times staffers possess. Indeed, the witty Carr is constantly seen defending his employer’s credibility (one bit in which he berates a condescending Vice editor neatly establishes the power relationship). Rossi also has Carr read excerpts from his media column as a voiceover. “If you write about the media long enough,” Carr asserts, “you’ll eventually arrive at your own doorstep.” Through his personal story, the director gives an intimate polish to a large-scale historical shift. The movie culminates with Carr’s recent expose on the fratty culture of the Tribune Company, a story that resulted in CEO Randy Michaels’ resignation. The impact of that piece can be read as a celebratory act confirming the Times’ ability to survive — or a way of going down with dignity. The answer lies somewhere between the lines.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Recently purchased by Magnolia Pictures, “Page One” will attract literate older audiences intrigued by its incredibly contemporary hook and could be leveraged as a starting point for greater discussion about the topic at its core.
criticWIRE grade: A