By Claire Walla
It was once the kind of thing that solidified a transition into adulthood. Along with wearing a robe, succumbing to slippers and remaining fully inoperable until that first cup of joe, it used to seem adulthood only really began when you sat at the kitchen table and unfolded the pages of The New York Times.
It’s no longer that simple. These days, robes and slippers are paired with laptops, LCD screens, hand-held TVs and other various PEDs (personal electronic devices) too numerous to list. For print media, times have changed: ad sales are down and local papers have folded, while at the same time new media ventures are multiplying and online readership has soared.
The nebulous future of the media is a national conversation that has those at the helm of publications across the country collectively scrambling to design a way to sail swiftly into the future (relatively) unscathed. And it is the thrust of the film “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” directed by Andrew Rossi and distributed by Participant Media and Magnolia Pictures.
“It’s a film that really tries to present the contours of a debate about the future of journalism and its challenges,” Rossi explained. “I think our goal was that it would resonate with journalists, but also appeal to a broader audience. So, to a certain extent, there might be some ideas, or debates, that feel like a rehash to people who live the story day in and day out, but hopefully there are things for multiple demographics.”
This Friday, July 22 Rossi will be on hand (along with Times executive editor Bill Keller and media reporter David Carr) to discuss the film with Alec Baldwin as part of Guild Hall’s “SummerDoc” series. The sold-out screening begins at 8 p.m. with a Q&A to follow.
To make the film, Rossi embedded himself in the offices of the 150-year-old newspaper for 14 months. Armed with little more than a digital camera, he became a fly on the wall, hoping to capture the real life stories of the people and decisions behind what we read in print and online. Rossi’s mission began at the end of 2009, about when The Times experienced its first significant (and well-publicized) round of lay-offs, and it winds through a smattering of topics from Wikileaks to the demise of leadership at the troubled Tribune Company.
Though calling on a couple of well-known talking heads (like former Times reporter Gay Talese) to expound on the history of the publication, the film largely sees these issues through the eyes of the reporters themselves. Primarily David Carr.
“He’s someone who I thought gave a really human voice to this question of how digital technology and the Internet and social media are affecting the way we’re communicating with each other,” Rossi said. “And I thought that he was somebody that could carry a film.”
“My biggest hope was that my character would be replaced by Javier Bardem and that I would come off as incredibly dashing and winning,” Carr began in his characteristic sardonic droll. “But that didn’t happen.”
Carr’s deadpan humor comes across as effectively over the phone as it does on screen. Of Brian Stelter, Carr’s media-savvy young colleague whom The Times nabbed straight from the blogosphere in 2007 at age 21, Carr says in the film: “He’s sort of like a robot manufactured in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”
The generational divide between Carr and Stelter is played-up in the film to demonstrate, in part, how media habits have changed. At one point Carr tells Stelter — who’s typing away on his Blackberry — that he is going to have to put him on a veritable Twitter time-out. However, Carr himself is no stranger to modern technology and new-media necessities, like Twitter and digital video.
And perhaps because of this, his optimism for the vitality of the old Grey Lady in the midst of what many see as a tumultuous media climate is apparent throughout.
“A lot of people who educate journalists or who work at newspapers say it’s pretty much over and it’s a terrible time to be in journalism — I think they couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “I think there’s more tools on the desktop for journalists than there’s ever been.”
Noting Twitter and the fact that endless streams of information can be gathered at the touch of a button, Carr added, “The tool kit [for journalists] is so much larger.”
Originally, Rossi’s idea for the film focused entirely on Carr, although through the process of filming the story expanded to include media desk editor Bruce Headlam, Brian Stelter and another young reporter, Tim Arango who, in the course of the film, leaves The Times’ New York office to cover the war in Iraq. The film has received criticism from some for narrowing its focus too drastically to these four members of The Times’ media desk, but for Rossi the opposite it true.
“As it turned out, we broadened out to focus on the media desk as a whole, which I think was great, because the message of the film — as it became more clear — was about the value of newspapers and the value of journalism in a rapidly revolutionizing world,” he explained.
“That’s not just a one-star story, it’s about teamwork. So, how Bruce Headlam the editor, and all the other writers on the media desk come together to produce their journalism is really instructive.” he added.
The film doesn’t shy away from raw footage of these journalists in action. It’s a fact Carr says he admires about the finished product, and he points to his favorite scene in the film:
Brian Stelter is working on a tight deadline to finish a Wikileaks story when his editor, Bruce Headlam, approaches his desk: “You sent it, right?” Stelter — busy typing away at his desk — assures him it’s in. Headlam rolls his eyes and stares into the camera: “He’s lying.” “You’ve got the one guy who’s working hard to make it as good as he can as fast as he can, and the other guy who’s trying to make sure it’s truthful and efficacious and ends up in the paper on time — and that’s the natural tension of the newsroom,” Carr said. “I like that you can see the role of editors in this film.”
Ultimately, Carr admitted the film could have gone in any number of directions.
“Any one of those things would have made a movie. You could have made a movie out of the iPad unveil, or tracking Wikileaks, or you could have made a buddy movie out of me and Stelter. But Andrew chose — and I think correctly — to go into a keyhole but to have a very wide focus afterwards, and pull the viewer through a number of issues.”
“I write about media issues and I sometimes have trouble interesting my readers in issues of consolidation, of who pays, about how you fund original reporting … You know, you start talking about stuff and people generally turn the page or go to sleep, or whatever they do,” Carr continued. “I think one of Andrew’s accomplishments in making the film is he made a real actual movie that seriously entertains those questions in a way that I think the public can really understand.”