Friday, 23 September 2011

GFT programme note: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

It's another programme note. This time with one important difference: 'Dr Christopher Buckle' at the bottom!


It’s a familiar narrative: the newspaper industry is in dire straits, flanked on one side by growing public distrust; on the other by new media forms poaching readers and revenue. In the US, scores of newspapers have shut down in the face of dwindling advertising sales and declining circulations,[1] and even venerable institutions like The New York Times are argued by some to be on the verge of extinction. From here, new media optimists predict a bright future of democratic reportage, the dinosaurs of old slain by a digital revolution that makes DIY journalists of us all; others retain a more conventional view of journalism’s need for professional rigour, and mourn the industry’s seemingly-eminent demise abjectly.

Page One opens with footage of the mechanics of traditional newspaper production, with rolls of paper hoisted across warehouse floors by automated loaders, while seemingly endless conveyer belts bring fresh print to delivery. It’s illustrative of the title’s brief – we are, in a fairly literal sense, ‘inside’ the Times’ presses – as well as its primary theme: the aforementioned tension between conventional news models and an emergent media sphere of bloggers, tweeters and aggregators. Following the opening credits, compiled footage from ABC, Fox and elsewhere sees network news anchors shrilly bone-pick bankruptcy after bankruptcy, tolling the bell for the entire industry in the process. As the obituaries crescendo, Rossi cuts to the interior of the Times’ New York headquarters: a smart, bustling, modern office, neither fossilised nor limping (as the previous woe-betiding commentators would have you believe). It’s a telling contrast, indicating Rossi’s own stance; to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of death knells are, it seems, somewhat exaggerated.

Deliberately or otherwise, Page One is structured like a newspaper front page, jumping from story to story, its strands linked not so much by a single narrative but by their proximate occurrence in time: from troop withdrawals in Iraq to Wikileaks, it surveys several of the key events during that year. Rather than orbit a single story, the film, to a certain extent, orbits a single man: while time is spent with several of the paper’s staff, one reporter clearly interests Rossi more than the others. Columnist David Carr plies his trade with a sharp wit and uncompromising opinions; whether ‘vapourising’ opponents in debate or swearing his way through conference seminars, it is immediately clear why Rossi has labelled him the “soul” of the film.[2] In the same interview, Rossi identifies parallels between Carr’s personal history (reformed drug addict turned intrepid ink slinger) and an industry undergoing its own substantial period of transition.

In Carr, Rossi finds his most compelling argument in favour of preserving major newspapers like The New York Times: his maverick professionalism is indicative of a body of experience that the blogosphere is ill-equipped to emulate. Even Jimmy Wales, founder of user-generated encyclopaedia Wikipedia (and therefore someone arguably at the vanguard of new media), agrees, pointing out that, when it comes to the coverage of wars, only major news institutions are likely to have the skill and resources to cover the story from the ground level. This idealised notion of seasoned newshounds shrewdly following stories wherever they may lead is a cinematic staple, echoing the likes of All the President’s Men (Pakula, 1976) and Good Night, And Good Luck. (Clooney, 2005). But Rossi is careful to acknowledge flaws in the model, with reference to both Judith Miller (whose coverage of the build up to the US invasion of Iraq uncritically relayed false intelligence reports relating to weapons of mass destruction) and Jayson Blair, found to have plagiarised and falsified stories throughout his tenure.

Regardless, Page One presents a compelling case against turning news reporting over to the twitterverse, and for keeping it in the hands of the serious few over the frivolous many. Rossi’s admiration for his subject is reflected in the film’s subtle contempt for many of the alternatives challenging print news’s hegemony. comes off as a particularly anaemic alternative, a pan across its biggest stories promising tales of Kim Kardashian having a backstage bust-up with Paris Hilton; topless Helen Mirren photographs; and “condoms with teeth” fighting rape. But Gawker is, by its own admission, a gossip site, with no apparent agenda in the serious news market, something which Rossi perhaps unfairly glosses over. More precise is the film’s criticism of aggregators, such as the hugely popular Huffington Post. Carr puts it best when he takes a printout of such a site’s front page and cuts out all material pilfered from regular news sources; the remainder looks like Swiss cheese. Without professional reporting from The New York Times and elsewhere, what, he asks, is left to aggregate but opinion and hearsay? Hence the film’s tagline, ‘consider the source’, which implores viewers to question not only a news story’s accuracy and veracity, but its origins, maintaining the distinction between original reporting, and repeats and re-tweets.

In his recent Fulbright lecture, Lionel Barber, editor of The Financial Times, discussed why he believes the newspaper industry can prevail. His optimism comes not from nostalgia or “some irrational fondness for dead trees”, but a recognition that “the decline of the newspaper does not necessarily translate into the death of the newspaper”.[3] From paywalls for online content to iPad apps, Page One shows The New York Times with its thumbs in the dike, and with staff like Carr, the film’s verdict is optimistic; fit to print the news for the foreseeable future.

Dr Christopher Buckle

Researcher and Journalist

University of Glasgow

[2] Scott Macaulay, ‘Page One’s Andrew Rossi and David Carr’, Filmmaker accessed at

[3] ‘Lionel Barber’s Fulbright Lecture – Full Text’, available at

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