page-one-movie-poster-01Is this film available on Netflix Streaming and Apples iTunes? Yes, this film is available through both services.

I majored in political science as an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley during my youthful 90’s. Most “Poli sci” majors who do not become professors or intelligence analysts will tell you that the major amounts to nothing more than developing analytical skills to better read a newspaper. So it is that reading a newspaper is an essential part of any poli sci curriculum. Which newspaper you read is indicative of whether or not you will be taken seriously by your professors and their teaching assistants. The newspaper of choice for Berkeley’s Political Science faculty was unanimously The New York Times. What went on in the world was dictated by what was covered in the Times. I initially began to read the Times out of obligation, but it wasn’t long before the paper turned me into a news junkie and I began spending my parent’s money every morning to get the paper. Over time, I started to recognize the names of the Times reporters and I developed a list of my favorites. Some of my favorite writers were Bob Herbert, Russell Baker and his outstanding “Observer” column, Anthony Lewis, Linda Greenhouse (her coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court partly inspired me to go to law school), and Thomas Friedman. No matter what your area of interest or what part of the world you wanted to read about, the Times offered comprehensive, quality news that was insightful and it avoided being sensationalist. You felt that you could not only trust the news it printed, but that it was the best source you could turn to in order to find everything you wanted to learn about that particular story.

As with so many other readers, with the rise of free news blogs and other news sites, I gradually stopped reading the New York Times newspaper. The Times no longer occupied its exclusively hallowed position as my go-to source for news. This was never a conscious decision and I cannot even remember when I stopped following the Grey Lady. However, I never imagined that in my lifetime, the newspaper industry would enter its current period of upheaval and decline precisely because of the Internet and because the newspaper industry lacked the foresight (as I think we all did) to adapt to this new technology.

Page One: Inside the New York Times addresses this crisis in the newspaper industry. Although the primary focus is on the New York Times, the documentary also touches upon how the crisis has affected the now gone Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. In addition we see how the Internet affects the Times readership with upstart news sites such as Vice and Gawker and how alternative methods of news gathering has arisen with web sites like ProPublica. Page One is produced by the husband and wife team of Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack and directed by Rossi, a former mergers and acquisition attorney from Harvard Law School, who decided to leave the law after two years of practice to become a filmmaker. The documentary premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and earned two News and Documentary Emmy Award nominations and won a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature. With Page One, Rossi was granted access to the newspaper for one year in 2009 – 2010. The film primarily covers the paper’s Media Desk (formed in 2008), whose editor is Bruce Headlam and its most well-known reporter is David Carr. Page One is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking in scope, especially for an unseasoned filmmaker like Rossi. Page One is not a perfect film and it has its share of flaws that may or may not have been within the filmmaker’s control. Nevertheless, Rossi and Novack have crafted a spellbinding film that is entertaining, informative, and above all and despite its portrayal of the doom and gloom pervading the newspaper industry, it is inspirational. There’s something to be said about this movie when it got someone like me, who has not picked up a newspaper in God knows how long, to walk to my nearest newsstand this morning and pick up a copy of the Times.

Chaptered throughout the film we witness major news events that occurred in 2009 and 2010 that the Times covered (e.g. Wikileaks, U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Chicago Tribune’s bankruptcy, and Apple’s release of the iPad). Its fair to say that the film assumes its viewers are somewhat aware of what’s going on in the world. I cannot imagine anyone who does not follow the news to even be interested in seeing a movie like this. Rossi takes advantage of his insider’s access to show us the inner workings of the Times. Although the film mostly shows us the Media Desk, we also get brief glimpses into the Page One meetings where the editorial staff determines what stories will go into the next day’s paper. Combined with these fly-on-the-wall observations are extensive interviews with Times journalists such as the endlessly fascinating David Carr, executive editor Bill Keller, Carl Bernstein, Brian Stetler, and Tim Arango, among others.

What makes Page One an inspirational experience is watching these journalists maintain their strict standards of professional, quality journalism in a toxic environment where the newspaper industry is falling apart and journalists are being laid off en masse. Particularly noteworthy is that despite the conditions these writers work under, we still have enthusiastic journalists who continue to approach their vocation with curiosity and optimism. One such writer featured in the film is Tim Arango, who in the face of the myriad of dangers from reporting overseas, he volunteers to be sent to Baghdad to report on events in Iraq. David Carr is presented as the Times’ eloquent evangelist. The film finds him frequently defending the relevance of his newspaper, especially to upstart internet news sites. There is a memorable scene with Carr at the offices of Vice Magazine where he is interviewing the magazine’s co-founder, Shane Smith. During the conversation, Smith compares the Times coverage of Liberia with the coverage put out by his magazine. Smith states, “And The New York Times, meanwhile, is writing about surfing and I’m sitting there going like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to talk about surfing, I’m going to talk about cannibalism, because that fucks me up.” Carr then interrupts, “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.” Its probably the film’s most memorable scene and at that point you realize that the entire film could have easily been just about Carr and I would have been ok with that.

The Wikileaks story is a fortuitous event for Page One because the story is emblematic of the identity crisis plaguing the newspaper industry. Wikileaks represents the technological changes involved in delivering the news (the Wikileaks documents were uploaded onto YouTube rather than delivered to a news network or a newspaper) and it represents the competition the New York Times faces from online news sources in the fact that the Wikileaks documents were not exclusively given to the New York Times to publish. This contrasts with the Pentagon Papers, which were secret government documents about the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia that were leaked exclusively to the New York Times. The film briefly touches upon the Pentagon Papers and Rossi nicely contrasts this event with Wikileaks.

Rossi’s approach to profiling the Times keeps Page One moving at a brisk pace, never slowing down. However, what contributes to this film’s pace and repeat watchability is also my main criticism of the film. I wanted to see more, much more, of every topic the film covers. Instead, Rossi jumps from one topic to another, touching upon each enough so that you are left wanting more. For example, we see just a little of the discussions at the Page One meetings and see nothing about the organization dealing with its financial predicament. At just over 1 ½ hours the film could and should have been longer especially given the film’s ambitious scope. Page One would have been better served by more expansive coverage of the Page One meetings, layoffs of the staff and its effects on the paper, some of the history of the New York Times and major historical events it covered, and especially other departments at the Times.

Some critics have expressed disappointment that Page One does not offer a juicy, insider expose into the New York Times. I find this critique a bit appalling considering how much drama occurred in 2010 alone in the newspaper business and most especially at the New York Times. True, we don’t see any mud being thrown between the editors and writers nor do we see the sort of melodramatic, gossipy sort of office stories that most expect to see inside a troubled company (with the exception of the layoffs I suppose). However, I was not expecting this and its clear that Rossi did not intend to paint this type of picture of the newspaper. On the other hand, this film is also not a love letter about the Times. The film is not afraid to deal with the paper’s flaws and weaknesses (e.g. Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals).

Page One: Inside the New York Times offers a fascinating window into the most tumultuous period in the newspaper industry. To cover both the inside workings of the New York Times as well as the general state of the newspaper industry is quite an ambitious endeavor. One could say that filmmaker Andrew Rossi takes on more than he can chew, but overall he puts together a compelling and entertaining film that with more material and better organization, it could have been a documentary masterpiece on the scale of a film like Hoop Dreams. As it is, however, Page One remains required viewing for anyone interested in the future state of journalism in this country or who is a news junkie. If you enjoy this film, which I can almost guarantee you will, then you may also be interested in checking out the companion book that was put out with this book. Entitled Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism, the book expands on the issues covered in the film.