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Hot New Film Asks: Is ‘The New York Times’ Worth Saving?

Greg Mitchell – The Nation June 14, 2011   It may turn out to be one of the most acclaimed and popular documentaries of the year, but Andrew Rossi never intended to produce and direct the film, opening this Friday, Page One: Inside the New York Times.   As he tells it, Rossi was actually developing another project for HBO on Web 2.0 and social media, “and everyone kept on saying that on the road to digital future there would be several major dead bodies on the side of the road.” When a controversial (and almost laughable) article by Michael Hirshorn predicted the death of the New York Times—in just months—Rossi was filming a dinner party of web entrepreneurs and investors and, he told me this week, there “seemed to be this glee people were taking in the potential demise of the Times.”   A few weeks later, he interviewed Times media writer David Carr (left) for that project and their conversation “kept cycling back to the place of legacy media in a media future,” Rossi recalls. “David was very animated that people’s views of the future of the New York Times were misplaced,” especially since so many of the critics were, at the same time, fully aggregating material from the newspaper. Rossi concluded that even people who are investors or participants in new media “should not be cheering the demise of such an important source of news and analysis.”   Rossi switched gears, sensing (but not really knowing) that “commentary from new media was at odds with what was actually happening.” He determined “it would be very valuable to go in with an open mind and get a front row seat on what New York Times journalism is—is it wasteful or something of real value?” With a cinema verite approach he would “just capture what is going on there” right in the middle of what he calls the Gray Lady’s “collision” with the digital imperative, and let the chips fall where they may. No Jayson Blair—Judy Miller re-hash.   Carr, as it happens—as it was meant to happen—turned out to be the “star” of Rossi’s new project. In fact, in the early going he was even more of the focus, until Rossi broadened his focus to include three other key members of the Times’s media desk: editor Bruce Headlam and writers Brian Stelter and Tim Arango. (Among other things, we get to experience Stelter’s ninety-pound weight loss and Arango’s surprising decision to leave the comforts of the new Times tower for Baghdad.) But Carr still gets most of the best scenes and lines, as he critiques, even while engaging, the online world.   The highlight: After enduring, on a panel, one of Michael Wolff’s withering assaults on the demise of Times, Carr holds up a printed screen shot of Wolff’s site, Newser, full of more holes than Swiss cheese—where Carr had cut out stories from the Times featured there. Then there’s his smackdown of the editors of Vice magazine—but I don’t want to ruin it for you. His overall view is best captured by his cry, “The Times has dozens of bureaus all over the world, but now we’ll kick back—and see what Facebook turns up!”   A Place Where a Knowing Carr Goes   It may seem as if Page One opened long ago. That’s because it debuted at Sundance and then it was screened at other film fests, at conventions of journalists, and in smaller screenings for the media (and just this week for Times staffers). This has guaranteed almost continual mentions or reviews and “buzz,” but the film won’t open nationally until July 1. Carr and Stelter have embraced the film, and promoted it around the US. After screenings at the Times, Rossi says he’ll have a better idea what others at the paper, who are not in the film, think of it.   Rossi, an attorney who turned to film, is best known for his doc Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. His wife, Kate Novack, a former media writer at Time, served as a writer and producer on Page One.   The film has been updated in various ways in just the past couple months, including mentions of the paper finally launching its paywall, and Jill Abramson named to replace Bill Keller as executive editor. Rossi thinks the latter move signals the paper will move even more aggressively into new media (after Keller, a curmudgeon in regard to social media), pointing out that Abramson, among other things, swiftly launched a personal Twitter feed.   The notoriously thin-skinned Keller had made the film possible by finally agreeing to Rossi’s plea to allow him to film on site several days a week for six to ten hours each time. Rossi had first gotten an okay from the media writers. (Keller did ask him to leave the building during two-week period when people were actually fired.)   “I always viewed this film as a play within a play,” Rossi reveals, “with stories produced by media desk that would serve as vignettes within a wider take on the fate of the New York Times in a newspaper industry so devastated by financial collapse.” So we follow Carr’s combative reporting on upheaval at the Tribune Co., which makes the Times’s problems seem tame. Then we hear Headlam’s misgivings about covering a faux media story on the last US combat troops allegedly leaving Iraq.   Outsiders also come and go in the film, including digital gurus Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Carl Bernstein, Paul Steiger of Pro Publica and Nick Denton of Gawker.   In the film The Times announces its decision to erect a paywall at their popular site, a move met by the usual derision and confident predictions of failure from the usual suspects—online media “experts” who have long claimed that readers will never pay for what they have long gotten for free. Rossi claims, on the contrary, that the site has retained 90 percent of its users, more than 150,000 have signed up for the pay feature and even print subscriptions are up because you get web access for free.   Of course, I was particularly interested in one continuing story in the film. Rossi tells me that it was mainly “luck” that he was filming extensively on the third floor at the Times on the day WikiLeaks posted its “Collateral Murder” video (depicting a US copter strike in Iraq which killed two Reuters staffers among others). We observe staffers watching the video for the first time on computers, like the rest of us. “I got goosebumps filming Stelter as he viewed it, “ Rossi says. Then editors, energized, decide how to handle it, and fret that this may usher in a new world of journalistic competition. They are already “focused on the collision of old media and new media,” Rossi recalls.”It was visually very dramatic but also a perfect metaphor for what the movie is all about—that collision.”   As Keller says, “WikiLeaks doesn’t need us.” Except, as the film shows, they do, sort of, as they form a partnership with the Times for the release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs. Then came the Times’s falling out with Julian Assange. Keller explains that people either view Assange as the messiah or think he is treasonous son of a bitch. But Keller is flat-out wrong about most people embracing that black and white break down.   I’d also argue with Rossi’s view that Keller’s now famous magazine cover piece on his dealings with Assange was “a fair story, with the exception of certain details about Assange’s physical appearance.”  (Keller, a “liberal hawk” on invading Iraq, where more than 120,000  have died, now complains about Assange not fully redacting documents that might have put a few informers in jeopardy.) Rossi also terms “fair reporting” the profile of Assange by the Times’s John Burns, which started the split.   Today, at the end of the film project, Rossi senses that the worst may be over the paper—well, at least a third round of major cuts has not yet materialized. “After we filmed that second round of layoffs, there was feeling of the apocalypse approaching,” Rossi recalls, but it hasn’t arrived. ”People are getting used to the new normal. I definitely believe there is a new sense of optimism but all the challenges remain. There has been no rebound in advertising revenue for print to suggest the print product is out of the woods, and not enough gain in online revenue to bridge the gap.”   Newspapers, he observes, are “still in a transition period, no longer in a free fall. There’s enough stability so at least we can think rationally about what positive steps can be taken. That’s what we hope Page One can be a part of.”   Here’s a link to the film’s site for background, trailer, and much more. PublicAffairs is publishing this month a tie-in book, also called Page One, edited by NPR media reporter David Folkenflik.   http://www.thenation.com/blog/161426/hot-new-film-asks-new-york-times-worth-saving