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‘Page One’ Director Saw Keller ‘About to Throw in the Towel’

June 6, 2011 at 4:11PM by Anna Peele Esquire.com   In a scene from Page One, Bill Keller informs his staff about the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners.   When Andrew Rossi began quietly documenting the New York Times in 2010, he had no idea the Iraq war would end, Wikileaks would expose government secrets, and the Times would roll out a new paywall, effectively symbolizing the marriage of old and new media. He did, however, suspect that Executive Editor Bill Keller would step down, a move that shocked Times readers. Between conversations with Keller himself before and after his announcement, we spoke with the filmmaker about the editor’s legacy and his new documentary, Page One.   ESQUIRE: Obviously Bill Keller’s resignation has huge implications for the paper, but what does this mean for your movie?   ANDREW ROSSI: It’s a godsend for a documentary filmmaker when two weeks before you open in theaters, a major turning point occurs in the life of your subject. That, I think, in many ways, makes the film salient, and I think it crystallizes so many of the issues that were raised. It’s almost like the movie is now this field manual for all of the landmines that Jill Abramson’s gonna come up against as the new executive editor.   ESQ: Did you have any inkling that Bill would resign?   AR: I had no good inside intel or anything like that, but I definitely have been asking everyone when he was gonna leave because I could just tell. I’ve had a gut feeling for quite some time. But the general consensus was that he would probably stay for the election, so I assumed that was accurate. I have to say, there was a moment when Bill was discussing the fact that the Times had actually considered having a foundation support it, because the advertising market had so dramatically collapsed. And, you know, that’s a moment to me of extraordinary candor in the film. And when he said that, I wondered to myself, “Are these the words of the executive editor of the New York Times?” And it just seemed to be rife with the wisdom and exhaustion of somebody who’s about to throw in the towel, basically.   ESQ: You feel like he threw in the towel?   AR: I mean like a great fighter who’s gone several rounds with a really worthy opponent, and is ready to ring the bell… and transition to writing. You know, I think he did nothing short of help to save the newspaper in a series of really cataclysmic events. I mean, he took over from [former editor Joseph] Lelyveld in the middle of a moment when Howell Raines had to resign because of the Jayson Blair scandal. He oversaw corrections in reporting following the failures in the run-up to the war in Iraq. He twice had to lay off about 10 percent of the newsroom, which had never happened in the history of the New York Times, which happened in the wake of the great recession of 2008. And he also oversaw the implementation of the metered wall, which was wildly unpopular. It turns out it’s been really successful, the paywall. But you know, there were people estimating traffic for the Web site would drop off 90 percent.   ESQ: His column seems like it was part of his transition back to writing. What do you think of it?   AR: You know, I think… I…. I have to say that I don’t really agree with all of it.   ESQ: Like what?   AR: I definitely do not think that Twitter makes you stupid. And I know that that in itself was a more provocative, you know, meme that he wanted to plant into the Twitter stream as a provocation. But I really do not believe that people’s memories are significantly eroding because of digital technology.   ESQ: Do you think the column shows that he’d become out of touch with being a writer during his executive editorship?   AR: He’s probably more in touch than many of us combined. I just think that he has a really distinct point of view on all of it. So it’s almost like what Harold Bloom says about Hamlet: It’s not that he thinks too much, it’s that he thinks too well.   ESQ: Bill had been at the Times since the 80s. Do you think it was hard for someone who was such a part of an institution to really change it?   AR: I think his track record speaks for itself. Bill took over in the wake of this Howell Raines scandal, and the hit to the paper that came in the failures to the run-up to the war — I think his preserving the authority of the paper and its credibility transcends all these multimedia platform things. And it seems to me that you need someone at the head of the ship that is protecting those core values and making sure everyday that they’re covering Iraq and covering Afghanistan, covering the Middle East, as well as the tornadoes in the middle of the country. And it’s up to the corporate side to find out how to monetize the corporate side, and keep it all alive.   ESQ: What inspired Page One?   AR: It was basically in the winter/spring of 2009. And it was in that moment of real crisis for the New York Times, and indeed for newspapers across the country. A lot of very smart people were saying some very harsh things about the fate of the paper, all of which made a lot of sense. “You don’t need to have a newsgathering function and an opinion or analysis function under the same roof. It’s really expensive, there’s no need to have so many reporters.” And it was great sort of cocktail-party banter, but it immediately struck me as probably facetious, and just misguided also. That there could be consequences to that sort of thinking. So I think the part of the reason I wanted to make this film that could function as something of a devil’s advocate to this prevailing wisdom of the moment that new media is a panacea and many things are going to have to die as this revolution unfolds and as this transition happens, and so be it, you know, let’s dance on the graves of everything that’s left in its wake.   ESQ: How did you get the New York Times to let you film?   AR: Bill Keller is really the person who authorized the whole thing. Ultimately, he said, “Okay, well, you know, I’m proud of what my writers do and I’d like the world to see it.”   ESQ: The lawyers must have been terrified.   AR: The Times had no editorial control over the film. They weren’t able to veto its contents. I promised to work in a manner where I upheld high journalistic ethics and they didn’t have the right to say, “Actually, we don’t like the way we look here. That’s not nice.” To tell you the truth, that was a really ballsy call on Bill’s part. I think in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal there were internal efforts to encourage more transparency at the paper, and part of that is, in some cases, letting readers know more clearly how the news is created and how the stories they see everyday in the black-and-white pages of The Gray Lady, how those are created.   ESQ: Did you always envision Times media reporter David Carr as the lynchpin of the film?   AR: Yeah. He was always used as a Virgil-like character, who could guide us through all these different stories. And the idea was always that there was going to be a play within a play. All these stories that David and Media Desk editor Brian Stelter, and reporters Richard Pena and Tim Arango and the other folks on the media desk are writing, those are like little plays in this broader play, which is what’s happening to the New York Times itself.   ESQ: What’s been the response so far?   AR: People have come out of the film saying, “Oh I just got a notice online that I’m five articles away from bumping up against the paywall. Maybe I’ll decide to pay for it.” Because the ethos of freedom of information — that information wants to be free — is just as important as the ethos of protecting sources of original reporting that makes us all better and informed citizens. I think that they are both coming out of a sort of utopian or idealistic place that young people can embrace. For some reason in that kind of popular culture, they’ve been pitted against each other.       Read more: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/andrew-rossi-page-one-interview-5874480#ixzz1Oc9BjCjf