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Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times Introduces a Question for a New Generation: "Mommy, What's a Newspaper?"

By Seth Freilich | Film | February 14, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | February 14, 2011 |

Going into Page One, I didn’t know anything about it beyond what the title suggested — that it was a documentary following a year in the life of the Gray Lady. I figured the doc would have to talk, at least a little, about the struggle that so-called “old media” in general — and newspapers and the New York Times in particular — have had in light of the instant, blurby news of the internet age. I wondered if the documentary wasn’t going to wind up feeling like a sad In Memoriam piece released a little too soon. “Newspapers, 1605-2014. You will be missed.” (*I can’t believe fucking Charlie Sheen got more applause than Newspapers!*)

But it turns out that the film’s title is misleading because, although it does spend a good bit of time with the Gray Lady over the course of a year, it’s not really about how the New York Times does what it does. It’s really a broader attempt at a study about the idea of old media versus new media and the value and place of journalism going forward. The film does show us some of the Page One inner workings — there’s footage of a handful of their meetings deciding what will go on the next day’s cover page, and the paper’s current editor-in-chief is reasonably candid, both in those scenes and with various talking heads (particularly when talking about the economic layoffs the paper is forced to handout during the filming). But even here, the focus is really on the Media Desk, which the paper formed in 2008 to focus on the media itself and its role in society.

It’s through the lens of the Media Desk, and correspondent David Car in particular, that the film looks at some of the larger issues facing the paper these days. The documentary touches on a lot of interesting ideas. In the wake of the April 2010 Wikileaks release of the Collateral Murder video, the film looks at this idea of Old media versus new Media through the lens of the Pentagon Papers versus this Wikileaks release, also touching upon Wikileaks’ blurring of the line between activism and journalism. Later on, the film looks at the idea of the media itself creating a story (in this particular case, NBC’s choice to focus on the “last” Army truck rolling out of Iraq as a true declaration of the war’s end, despite no such statement from the Administration or the Pentagon). It similarly looks at why true journalism — the kind where a reporter gets to really embed himself into an issue, spending months researching it before publishing any articles — is an important societal tool that is lacking in the new world of blogs and the Huffington Post.

There is a lot of potential packed into this study of new versus old, and how old media and true journalism can survive, but the documentary unfortunately does not do a particularly good job of unpacking these issues in any great depth. It begins the exploration, raises some interesting questions and offers a good starting point for meaningful conversation, but it doesn’t present much more than the average viewer already knows, which is a shame. Because this is a fascinating and important issue that deserves some really in depth study and analysis.

Just because the documentary may be too superficial doesn’t change the fact that it’s very good. David Carr, in particular, is going to have a lot of new fans as a result of this film. He’s got an interesting back story, being a former heavy drug addict, but more importantly, he’s smart and clever, and he speaks his mind sharply and scathingly. Several times we see him taking his opponents on directly, and he takes them down in a way that’s admirable. A lengthy section of the film follows his research and battles over an in-depth article covering the Tribune’s bankruptcy, and it’s a great example of true reporting done well (and it makes sense that, from what I hear, the doc was originally supposed to be focused almost exclusively on Carr, but he hedged because he didn’t want it to intrude too much on his ability to get shit done).

As a spotlight for Carr, a deserving subject, Page One succeeds strongly. Although it touts the crew’s “unprecedented” insight into the inner workings of the Gray Lady, it doesn’t quite live up to its title as A Year Inside the New York Times, as we don’t really get more than an taste (albeit an interesting taste that did leave me wanting more) into the nuts-and-bolts of the paper’s daily grind and attempts to adapt. On the broader issues, while it admirably does more than dip its toe in the water, it doesn’t quite provide the kind of depth that offers satisfaction when leaving the theater. To be fair, I’m not sure it could have really achieved such a goal and provided that kind of depth without going the multi-part Ken Burns route. Page One may not be as important a documentary as it could be, given the topic, but it’s still a very good documentary, and one that I hope finds its way to your local indie theater some day soon, hopefully before Newspapers and Charlie Sheen are no longer with us.

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.