I can't rightly review a documentary about The New York Times without acknowledging my own history with the paper. I worked there, first as a freelancer and then as a staff editor, for a little over seven years. I was paid well—absurdly well, given my previous experience with journalism wages—and treated kindly by bosses who liked and encouraged me. Right up until some bean counters in the corporate axe-wielding office decided that the small department I worked in could be outsourced on the cheap to Florida. (We ran the paper's wire service and published a bunch of auxiliary Times products, like the small TimesDigest you may have encountered in hotels or on cruise ships.)
It wasn't supposed to be like that. When I was granted full Times citizenship, my boss said, "Well, you probably have a job for life." He wasn't lying to me: In his long experience at the newspaper known as the Gray Lady, that was how it worked. People got hired, and they stayed hired. You could get fired for gross incompetence or—in the case of one clerk I heard a lot of stories about—making the mistake of dropping acid the night some big story broke. But other than that, once you were made, you were made. I came on staff in 2004. The lay-off came five years later.
That peripheral bit of carnage, which threw me and about 20 colleagues out of work, does not merit a mention in Page One, the new movie by director Andrew Rossi. But the big cutbacks in the main newsroom that came at the same time certainly do. One poignant thing for me about watching the film is that it picks up the story of the paper in late 2009, right when I was getting ready to leave it. And what the movie is really about is the whole shockwave of technological and economic changes that have destabilized the entire enterprise of print journalism.
The subtitle of Rossi's film is "Inside The New York Times," and it delivers on that to an extent. If you're a news junkie curious about what the paper's offices look like or what goes on at the daily meetings where stories are selected for the next day, Page One provides some nice candid moments. Everything looks and sounds like I remember it. There's the brick-orange paint on the walls, dubbed "Renzo Red" in honor of architect Renzo Piano, who designed the Times' new, expensive, probably ill-advised headquarters. There's the way Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson, aka Bill 'n' Jill, frown and harrumph over story pitches from assorted department heads. (Since the film's completion, Abramson has been promoted to editor, with Keller retiring to the op-ed pages. But apart from those group-meeting shots, there's no Abramson in the movie, which is too bad.)
And most of all, there is the institutional sense that what goes on at The New York Times matters. When editors hash out how to play a big story—like, say, the release of combat video by WikiLeaks—they are worried not only about whether it will sell papers or generate page views, but about what their decision will mean for the rest of the media, for the U.S. legal system, for society at large. There is an awful lot of self-importance at play here, of course, but as assorted talking heads attest, it is largely warranted. For decades, the Times really did help set the social and political agenda for the country.
What Page One wonders, in a hyperactive, disorganized way, is whether that's still true. And if it is, how the Times (or any media) can continue to play that role in an era of declining revenues and circulation, and rising competition from the by-now familiar cacophony of digital voices: Gawker, HuffPo, and bloggers, tweeters, and aggregators of all kinds. Rossi makes the smart move of focusing on the paper's media desk, where a small crew is reporting for the Times on the same forces that are buffeting the Times. Through their eyes we get glimpses of stories like the rollout of the iPad, the bankruptcy of the Tribune Co., and the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
But Rossi never really decides what he wants his movie to be. He glances backward at some well-covered Times scandals (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller) without shedding any new light on them, and barely mentions the details of the paper's immediate financial plight. He brings in some new-media oracles (Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky) to make their usual pronouncements about the decentralization of information. And he lets himself be seduced by the admittedly seductive but overbearing presence of David Carr, the Times media columnist who is as well known for his inglorious crack-smoking past as his brash, hardboiled reporting.
In the end, what Page One delivers isn't much more than a snapshot of the current media landscape. Or a collection of snapshots, some blurrier than others, with the whole amounting to an indeterminate shrug. But that's an honest reaction for anyone trying to sort out big questions about the future of American media right now. Having been inside The New York Times myself, I can't really do any better.