Page One: Inside the New York Times

Movie Information

The Story: Documentary covering a year at the New York Times as it fights for its survival in a changing media landscape. The Lowdown: Compelling, constantly watchable, but somewhat unfocused documentary that is held together by the subject and the personality of media reporter David Carr.
Score:

Genre: Documentary
Director: Andrew Rossi (Eat This New York)
Starring: David Carr, Bill Keller, Brian Stetler, Bruce Headlam, Jimmy Wales, Carl Bernstein
Rated: R

I won’t deny that aspects of Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times feel more than a little like a combination of the Times sending a very self-congratulatory love letter to itself and an even more self-serving advert to get the viewer to pony-up for that paywall they’ve stuck on their online content. Having said that, I also found the film to be compelling viewing—not only for the issues it raises about the state of journalism, but because of the presence of the paper’s media reporter David Carr. Carr is like a modern variation on the old school Ben Hecht-style reporter—you know the kind that Hecht and Charles MacArthur immortalized back in 1928 with The Front Page. (And if you don’t know, seek out the play—or at least the 1940 film version His Girl Friday.)

Carr is the glue that holds the film together. Without him—and the central drama of him tackling the notorious regime change at the Chicago TribunePage One would have no shape at all. Even with him, the film kind of flops around. It seems to otherwise have no clear idea what it wants to say beyond putting forth the case that a world without the The New York Times is unthinkable. While I’m sufficiently conventional in my thinking to largely agree with that sentiment—as long as the Village Voice stays afloat, too—I can’t say that the movie makes it entirely clear why the Times is so important in this age of blogging and Twitter and so-called “citizen journalism.” (Then again, the case could be made that the unchecked blogger, the undigested Twitter postings and the all too often crackpot nature of “citizen journalism” are themselves reason enough.)

Thankfully, the film has Carr to keep it going. Even before settling into his central drama, his presence shapes the film—as in the scene where he subdues a cocky blogger site by cutting everything out of a printed version of their main page that they obtained from a newspaper or recognized media source, leaving them with a page that is 90 percent holes. He also works as the face of the journalist adapting to the use—however grudgingly—of the new tools on the interconnected online world. As a former crack addict who pulled himself together and essentially re-created himself, he understands the necessity of adaptation.

There’s no denying that the film’s centerpiece—its most entertaining, satisfying and convincing section—is the business involving him tackling the nightmare at the Tribune when new owner Sam Zell, who knew and cared nothing about journalism, turned the business over to radio executives who knew and cared even less. Seeing Carr and the Times bring them down is definitely gratifying. But beyond this—and despite what it omits and what it (perhaps foolishly) assumes you already know—I think the film is important simply for the issues it raises. That it can’t answer them is a separate issue. If it at least gets the viewer to think about them, it’s accomplished much. Rated R for strong language.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

14 thoughts on “Page One: Inside the New York Times

  1. I agree that Carr is a rock star and the film’s main attraction, but didn’t you like boy wonder Brian Stetler and steady Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam? Maybe it’s simple layman’s wonder at being inside a newsroom, but Stetler speaking with the WikiLeaks founder and Headlam’s nervously dismissive response to the nightly news’ coverage of the Iraq “news event” were two of the film’s most riveting moments.

  2. Ken Hanke

    It’s not really a question of not liking them (though I wasn’t that wild about Stetler), as simply one of impact. Those things didn’t impact me so much, especially the “news event” one simply because I was entirely convinced of its strict authenticity. It felt a little too pat, a little too convenient, a little too geared toward making the point that the Times is real news and TV is just this voracious beast that’ll grab anything labeled “news” and run with it. This, of course, is a personal reaction. It obviously had greater impact on you.

  3. Stetler is appealing in that he’s a peer steeped in the traditions of good reporting yet fully embraces new technologies and utilizes them to enhance his reporting. I see him as a powerful link between potentially conflicting schools of journalistic thought.

    I would have liked more Headlam. He’s a non-flashy lead but is denied the background story treatment given to Carr and Stetler. Maybe there’s nothing to tell. “Went to J School, worked his way to desk editor” < charismatic former crack addict.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Stetler is appealing in that he’s a peer steeped in the traditions of good reporting yet fully embraces new technologies and utilizes them to enhance his reporting.

    Maybe I’m misremembering, but I thought Stelter was the blogger who got hired by the paper because of his blog, which isn’t what I would call “steeped in the traditions of good reporting.”

    I would have liked more Headlam. He’s a non-flashy lead but is denied the background story treatment given to Carr and Stetler.

    Only if something else went. The basic problem with all documentaries is they don’t know when to shut up. I have seen maybe two or three documentaries that couldn’t have been improved by cutting — but bear in mind this comes from someone who does not find documentaries an inherently appealing genre.

  5. Maybe I’m misremembering, but I thought Stelter was the blogger who got hired by the paper because of his blog, which isn’t what I would call “steeped in the traditions of good reporting.”

    From the ’06 Times article featured in the film:

    “Mr. Stelter’s blog (tvnewser.com), a seven-day-a-week, almost 24-hour-a-day newsfeed of gossip, anonymous tips, newspaper article links and program ratings, has become a virtual bulletin board for the industry.”

    That, along with using the iPad, Twitter, etc. to further his reporting, says to me that he’s progressive. As for adhering to journalistic traditions, I mean his professionalism when interviewing the likes of Julian Assange and the clarity of writing in his articles that I’ve read. His own reporting is solid. Regardless of his electronic leanings and the online access of the Times, the fact that he writes for a long-standing print newspaper, as opposed to Vice (the shock-and-awe magazine Carr rips apart), says to me that he’s invested in the Times‘ traditions but is also there to help its reporting reach a wider audience through the use of technology.

    I’m not saying the Times is the world’s superior paper (even if the film’s directors try hard to convince me that it is), but it’s generally a trustworthy and ethically sound source that millions of people still read daily in print form. Since one of the film’s central points concerns the decline of print newspapers, having a young, techy guy like Stelter write for an “old fashioned” medium is exciting.

    I have seen maybe two or three documentaries that couldn’t have been improved by cutting

    Which ones?

    I recently read an article about Steve James’ THE INTERRUPTERS, which was 160some minutes at Sundance, then edited down to 140 for other festivals, and is now down to 120 for its theatrical release. The original cut I saw was sharp throughout, like the equally long and riveting HOOP DREAMS, so I’m curious to see what made the theatrical version.

    but bear in mind this comes from someone who does not find documentaries an inherently appealing genre

    I wasn’t a huge fan until I went to Full Frame for the first time. The quality of work on display there each year amazes me and has greatly improved my appreciation of docs. There’s a consistency of focus in today’s docs that’s less evident in the majority of narrative films.

  6. Ken Hanke

    That, along with using the iPad, Twitter, etc. to further his reporting, says to me that he’s progressive. As for adhering to journalistic traditions, I mean his professionalism when interviewing the likes of Julian Assange and the clarity of writing in his articles that I’ve read

    That doesn’t make him an adapting traditional journalist. Until he came to the Times he wasn’t a traditional journalist. This makes him a blogger applying the tools of his electronic media trade to traditional journalism. I find it interesting that the brass ring for a blogger is a job at the Times. I’m not saying his being hired by the Times isn’t interesing (I can’t quite call it exciting personally). I’m saying that he’s not steeped in traditional journalism and adapting to the “tools of today.”

    Which ones?

    Off the top of my head, The Times of Harvey Milk and Man on Wire — and only the first one am I wholly convinced on (it’s the only documentary I own). I may well be forgetting something. Tell a lie, I do own a documentary on Badfinger, but that’s because I like Badfinger. I can’t imagine it being all that interesting to anyone who doesn’t. (And that’s a little surprising, since how many rock groups have their two main members hang themselves?)

    There’s a consistency of focus in today’s docs that’s less evident in the majority of narrative films.

    In all honesty, I don’t even know what that sentence means. I actually cannot imagine attending a documentary festival. I see about ten a year, I’m guessing, and that’s more than enough. The basic problem with most of them — to me — is that they’re made by people who are enthusiasts on whatever topic, which makes sense — otherwise why would you make the thing? (Unless, of course, you’re one of those starting filmmakers who opt for the genre because it’s theoretically easier than narrative film.) The problem is the assumption that everyone else is equally enthused and that’s not invariably true. This isn’t to say that I don’t often times recognize the quality of the films, it’s that I admire them without necessarily liking them all that much.

  7. That doesn’t make him an adapting traditional journalist. Until he came to the Times he wasn’t a traditional journalist. This makes him a blogger applying the tools of his electronic media trade to traditional journalism.

    It’s a “chicken or the egg” argument. He was the student newspaper editor while at Towson but he’s also all about new media. He has solid reporting and writing skills (my definition of traditional journalism) and blogs/tweets extensively. Like Carr says, “Stelter is a machine sent from the future to destroy” him and I see him as a force for good.

    In all honesty, I don’t even know what that sentence means.

    Basically, if I randomly picked a documentary and a narrative film from this year, it’s less likely that I’d pick a bad documentary. Obviously, far fewer documentaries are made and even less receive decent distribution, but those that do are generally the genre’s best. Not so with narrative film.

    I agree that a documentary filmmaker has to be invested in the film’s subject, but I think of them more as visual (and far more interesting and concise) counterparts to non-fiction book-length authors: they research a topic of interest, complete the project, then move on to the next one. Some definitely are too in love with their subject and don’t know when to stop, but mostly they’re just passionate about it and the best ones make audiences feel likewise. I don’t agree that the filmmakers assume audiences are equally enthused. For me, as with any film, if it sounds interesting, I want to see it.

    At Full Frame, it’s the best of the best. To be able to see the likes of BUCK, PAGE ONE, THE INTERRUPTERS, BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD, BEING ELMO, PROJECT NIM, and TABLOID over four days was a treat. The festival certainly attracts a specific audience, but they’re just as likely to see a doc about an unfamiliar subject as one for which they’re willing to picket. (Though sometimes by the end of an especially good doc, they’re ready to fight for a new cause or at least read up on it further.) There’s typically some sort of social justice or moving personal journey on display in each film, and as long as the film sounds appealing, it’s usually enough to attract viewers.

  8. Ken Hanke

    It’s a “chicken or the egg” argument.

    No, it really isn’t. He either was “steeped in traditional journalism” or he wasn’t. You could make the argument that Carr was and that he grudgingly came to adapt to the new “tools,” but it doesn’t work with Stelter. Being editor of a student newspaper isn’t quite the same thing as a career journalist.

    He has solid reporting and writing skills (my definition of traditional journalism)

    I’d agree that it’s the definition of good journalism.

    I see him as a force for good.

    Well, I’d expect you to. I’m a little more skeptical. I suspect this is a generational difference.

    Obviously, far fewer documentaries are made and even less receive decent distribution, but those that do are generally the genre’s best. Not so with narrative film

    Exactly. You’re not judging an even playing field. It’s rather like the perception that foreign language film is better, more important, more sophisticated than English language film — based entirely on the fact that the crap has mostly been filtered out before it gets to us.

    I don’t agree that the filmmakers assume audiences are equally enthused.

    How exactly does that differ from “Some definitely are too in love with their subject and don’t know when to stop, but mostly they’re just passionate about it”?

    To be able to see the likes of BUCK, PAGE ONE, THE INTERRUPTERS, BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD, BEING ELMO, PROJECT NIM, and TABLOID over four days was a treat.

    OK, I’ve seen Buck, Page One and Nim, and all three are good to varying degrees, but I wouldn’t want to see them in close succession. I am not part of that “specific audience” that likes the documentary for its own sake. Nor are they as interesting or relevant to me personally as the best of this year’s narrative films. I know this makes me a philistine in some quarters, but I’m not going to lie about it.

    sometimes by the end of an especially good doc, they’re ready to fight for a new cause

    Don’t you think this can be counterproductive, too, in turning causes into a flavor of the week sort of thing?

  9. He either was “steeped in traditional journalism” or he wasn’t.

    Then I’d argue that he was. He grew up wanting to be a national nightly news anchor, but realized that only four people get to do that for a living so he took a different journalistic route. I see it that he grew up wanting to be a journalist and developed solid reporting skills, but as he grew up with new media technology, he synthesized it into a balanced approach of tradition and experimentation. That he’s embraced new media shouldn’t discount his sound reporting fundamentals.

    Well, I’d expect you to. I’m a little more skeptical. I suspect this is a generational difference.

    Agreed. Gotta be the source of our disagreement on the matter.

    Exactly. You’re not judging an even playing field.

    Right. And even with the filtering, the best documentaries don’t come close to the best narrative films. However, I’d argue that someone like Errol Morris or Alex Gibney has a better track record than the majority of narrative filmmakers working today. They benefit from being in the elite group of documentary filmmakers, but they also have a particular style that doesn’t vary much from film to film. In that way, their consistency can be a curse, but there’s enough variation to keep it fresh each time.

    How exactly does that differ from “Some definitely are too in love with their subject and don’t know when to stop, but mostly they’re just passionate about it”?

    Not sure I understand the question. Are you asking if I’m repeating myself?

    Regardless, I don’t agree that all documentary filmmakers assume audiences are equally enthused. It goes with what I said later about audiences being drawn to interesting subjects, not just ones they’re already passionate about. I don’t show up to nod my head in agreement for 90 minutes, but to learn, be challenged, and entertained. A filmmaker’s passion for the subject is essential for to gain the audience’s interest, but if they let it cloud their storytelling, the film is going to fail.

    STRANGE POWERS, the documentary on the band The Magnetic Fields, is an example of a director assuming the audience is equally enthused. It’s more of a P.R. piece than anything else. The band’s fans loved it, but I felt like an outsider at the screening. Not having seen the Badfinger doc, I can’t say if it’s guilty of the same assumptions (doesn’t sound like it is), but docs on famous people tend to run a risk of essentially deifying them. Something like the recent Philip Glass documentary, GLASS, is more warts and all, but mainly it depicts its subject as a dedicated-at-all-costs artist; a talented but flawed man. I’m far more interested in that kind of approach.

    I am not part of that “specific audience” that likes the documentary for its own sake.

    Neither am I. A film doesn’t get a free pass from me because it’s a documentary, though I’ve heard some Full Frame attendees rubber stamp everything at the festival because they deem the genre sacred in some way. They must also watch old National Geographic docs on an infinite loop at home.

    Nor are they as interesting or relevant to me personally as the best of this year’s narrative films. I know this makes me a philistine in some quarters, but I’m not going to lie about it.

    I’m the same way with reading. My fiction to non-fiction ratio is at least 9:1. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. I like what I like.

    Don’t you think this can be counterproductive, too, in turning causes into a flavor of the week sort of thing?

    It’s a danger of documentaries with a specific cause, but I’m struggling to think of one I’ve seen that’s produced flash-in-the-pan activism. Maybe one that’s blatant propaganda? A Michael Moore film? I don’t know. Certain docs get me revved up about their topics (i.e INSIDE JOB), but mostly I feel better informed after seeing them. More films come to mind that did things right and brought about social change, like THE THIN BLUE LINE. Something like MAN ON WIRE avoids the risk by focusing on telling a story and a particularly interesting man. Are you thinking of specific counterproductive docs or mostly the potential for “cause” docs to incite that kind of reaction?

  10. Ken Hanke

    Then I’d argue that he was.

    And I’m not agreeing.

    He grew up wanting to be a national nightly news anchor, but realized that only four people get to do that for a living so he took a different journalistic route.

    The difference in between a news anchor and a journalist is pretty extreme.

    I see it that he grew up wanting to be a journalist and developed solid reporting skills, but as he grew up with new media technology, he synthesized it into a balanced approach of tradition and experimentation.

    I don’t see this the same way you do. No.

    That he’s embraced new media shouldn’t discount his sound reporting fundamentals.

    I’m not discounting his reporting — in part because I have no familiarity with him outside of this movie. I’m saying that by my definition he is not “steeped in traditional journalism” from anything you or the film is saying.

    Not sure I understand the question. Are you asking if I’m repeating myself?

    No, I’m saying you’re contradicting yourself. I’m saying that there’s no praxtical difference between being so passionate on a topic that you don’t know when to realize you’ve made your point and shut up and assuming your viewer is as jazzed on your subject as you are.

    Regardless, I don’t agree that all documentary filmmakers assume audiences are equally enthused.

    I didn’t say all.

    It’s a danger of documentaries with a specific cause, but I’m struggling to think of one I’ve seen that’s produced flash-in-the-pan activism.

    Oh, I’d say that all activist documentaries have to one degree or another. It’s like a tent revival producing three day Christians. It’s not something you’re likely to notice because the effect is so short-lived. It’s an attention span thing, but I think it does run the risk of trivializing the subject. Of course, let’s be honest, the major market for activist documentaries are the people who already agree with the filmmaker’s point of view.

    mostly I feel better informed after seeing them.

    Haven’t seen Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, huh?

  11. I’m saying that there’s no praxtical difference between being so passionate on a topic that you don’t know when to realize you’ve made your point and shut up and assuming your viewer is as jazzed on your subject as you are.

    And so am I. They’re both signs of shoddy documentary filmmaking and are closely linked. I said that the best documentary directors don’t assume the audience is as jazzed about the subject as they are, but work to build the audience’s interest to something that closely resembles the director’s enthusiasm. However, a director still has to be passionate about the subject for the audience to have that connection. The best ones stand apart by knowing when and what to edit, and thereby tell a concise, well-executed story.

    Haven’t seen Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, huh?

    That one didn’t pass the “if it sounds interesting, I want to see it” test.

  12. Ken Hanke

    The best ones stand apart by knowing when and what to edit, and thereby tell a concise, well-executed story.

    The problem for me is that I see very few that actually quite pull that off — in my estimation.

    That one didn’t pass the “if it sounds interesting, I want to see it” test.

    That’s the advantage of not being a working full-time critic. You get more ability to choose.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Best documentary of the year so far is still THE PARKING LOT MOVIE.

    If you’ve seen it that probably means I won’t have to.

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