New doc goes inside the newsroom at The New York Times

The documentary Page One is a fly-on-the-wall look at the reporters and editors at The New York Times dealing with the triple threat of drastically declining advertising revenue, self-inflicted wounds to its credibility, and free media and news aggregators. The focus is on the newsroom's Media Desk and, among others, reporter David Carr, whose frequent F-bombs are apparently responsible for the movie's R rating.

The camera follows Carr as he meets with his editor, haggles with a source over quotes for attribution, and prepares a front-page story on Tribune Media and Sam Zell, the profits-first bad guy in this film. There is no attempt to glamorize Carr — a gaunt, reformed drug user — but his fundamental fairness, intelligence, and quirks come through loud and clear.

The Times and executive editor Bill Keller cooperated with filmmaker Andrew Rossi for this project. Viewers are taken inside the daily meeting to decide what goes on page one, the decisions about which employees will be laid off (including an obituary writer who got her job by writing her own obit in an application), the pay-wall discussions, the competition with broadcasters and new media, and the everyday back-and-forth between reporters and editors. Don't look for the column-writing stars such as Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd. They don't make so much as a cameo appearance, a curious omission since the Times once tried to put them behind a pay-wall.

Page One opens with a shot of the big rolls of paper that will be turned into print newspapers and the trucks that deliver those papers to their destinations. Publishing papers and keeping bureaus open all over the world is a labor-intensive, capital-intensive business. In a nice irony, there is a shot of someone noting that the $5 price of the Sunday paper was higher than the price of the company's stock that day. There are archival shots of white men in short-sleeved shirts and ties — the fabled "gentlemen from the Times" in the glory days when the newspaper set the news agenda for everyone else. This led to what Carr calls "decades of organizational hubris."

Keller, who salvaged the newspaper's reputation after the Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Judith Miller years, explains that he and his publisher gave serious consideration to seeking philanthropic underwriting before settling on the current strategy of charging for online readership above the level of 20 stories a month. Keller does not look all that confident that it is going to work.

Will the Times (for which I have worked as a freelancer and stringer) survive? Well, in one shot Carr holds up a piece of paper with pictures representing each story in an aggregator's product that day. Then he holds up the same piece of paper with the pictures cut out. It is worth 1,000 words.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Opening Friday, August 12th
Ridgeway Four

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Page One: Inside the New York Times
Rated R · 88 min. · 2011
Director: Andrew Rossi
Writer: Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi
Producer: Adam Schlesinger
Cast: David Carr

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