The demise of print news is not news. For those who favor print media, a documentary about the New York Times could have been crushing. (As Katherine Bouton, a NY Times writer, says, “Nobody knows if there will be a paper on paper in another five years.”) Page One: Inside the New York Times is not the eulogy for print media that critics believe it to be. It’s a great, informative movie about the fight that’s still left in the Times.
The documentary covers a broad range of the issues that have plagued the NY Times since audiences began searching for news online instead of waiting for the paperboy. Among the stories told by the film are the loss of credibility suffered by the Times as a result of Judith Miller’s controversial, inaccurate coverage of Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction and Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fabricated reports.
We see that the NY Times, like other newspapers, was unprepared for the destruction of its business model. Newspapers used to sell papers at less than the cost of printing them. They’ve not only lost sales revenue, but also the advertising revenue that they used to depend upon. The Times winds up hiring uber-successful blogger Brian Stelter, someone who is thriving in the new online world. Besieged on all fronts, the NY Times tries to incorporate what’s happening with online media to their business model—perhaps that adaptability is what will save it.
While “funereal atmosphere” and “grim undertaking” are phrases used to describe the situation of print media in the film, what’s remarkable is that the Times hasn’t rolled over. The Old Guard (made up of real newsmen) remains staunch against a variety of enemies—bloggers, Sam Zell (the businessman who purchased the Tribune Company), and online media aggregators.
David Carr, who writes for the Times and is a recovered drug addict, steals the show. He’s combative and clever, saying “the medium is not the message, but rather the message is the media.” And while opening a bag containing his colleague’s iPad, Carr whispers, “Is this the bridge to the future or… no, it’s a gallows!”
At one point in the film, Carr interviews three of the guys from Vice, an abrasive news media organization, about their expose of cannibalism and feces-covered beaches in The Vice Guide to Liberia, which aired on CNN. One of the founders says that while the NY Times reports on surfing, he’s doing something that the mainstream media doesn’t. Carr replies, “Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.” (Read a longer snippet of the interview here— http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/01/david_carr_puts_vice_founder_i.html)
The NY Times’ situation may be a bellwether for print media. But if so, there may be some slightly heartening news: in spite of a climate that is rapidly changing, online media hasn’t killed it. And the Times, still so beloved to some of us, continues to fight the good fight.