Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times *** ½
Directed by: Andrew Rossi.
Written by: Kate Novack & Andrew Rossi.

Anyone with a brain can tell you that the news industry has changed remarkably over the past 15 years. Nightly newscasts on the major networks don’t draw anywhere near the number of viewers they once did, because anyone interested in TV news can turn on any number of 24 hour news networks. The effect in print has been even greater. With the internet around, fewer and fewer people are reading physical newspaper. They are more sources of news and information than ever before. Same internet companies can “aggregate” the news – pull stories from everywhere, offer commentary, and do it all with a small staff and little overhead. But what about an institution like the New York Times. They employ hundreds of people in offices around the world. They survived for years on ad revenue and the revenue from those who bought their paper. But now, advertisers aren’t spending as much on them, and fewer people are buying the paper. The Times is in trouble. But do we really need the New York Times, or is it an outdated, entitled company that adds little to our discourse?

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is a remarkable documentary in many ways, and over all, it argues that yes, we need the New York Times. You can track back many news stories from any outlet back to reporting initially done by the Times. They have a staff of excellent writers, who know what they are doing, because they’ve done it for years. They are not perfect – and the documentary does not shy away from recounting some of the Times recent failings (like the Judith Miller fiasco), but without the Times, the national discourse would still be radically different.

The Times finds its greatest defender in David Carr – a Media reporter who has led an interesting life, including years as a crack addict, before finding his way to the Times later in life. Watch how quickly and decisively he takes down the executives of Vice TV, essentially calling them idiots to their faces, and watch how they immediately back down and look foolish. Or watch a debate he participates in, where the head of Newsr, one of those aggregate sites, talks about how they no longer need the mainstream media because of what people like him do. Then watch as Carr shows what Newsr would look like with the mainstream media to glam onto – it isn’t pretty. Carr is a colorful character – one of those old school newspaper men who take no crap, and can still inspire fear when he calls someone on the phone to get a comment on a story he’s working on. He smokes, he swears, he walks with a little bit of a hunchback, and has a voice that always seems to be about to give out.

But if we need the New York Times, and it is no longer making money, how the hell can it survive. This is the question that hangs over Page One – the question that does not have an answer yet. Newspaper all over America are failing – victims of the same disappearing ad revenue and lack of readership that is sending a scare into the Times as well. When one reporter tells the camera that the Times is going to put up a pay wall on their website – essentially requiring readers to pay a monthly fee if they want to access more than 20 articles a month – he justifies it by saying that the Times has always survived on two things – ad revenue and money from the readers. And if you give away your paper online everyday, who is going to pay for it. This argument makes sense.

And yet, I know I’m a hypocrite in many ways. When I hit the Times pay wall, as I have done numerous times over the past year, I don’t sign up and pay. I simply don’t read the article, and come back when the month is up and I can access 20 articles again for free. And, of course, I’m one of those stupid bloggers that get derided in the film (although I doubt me and my 13 followers have affected the Times at all). But, personally, I think we still need the New York Times, and other papers. We need to professionals to do a lot of work, so the rest of us can argue about it, and give our commentary. I hope the New York Times survives.

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