SIFF MOVIE: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011)

This documentary, my first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) film of the year (reviews of more coming soon!) covers a lot of ground — everything from WikiLeaks to the sex scandal with Sam Zell, the previous business owner of the Tribune, who, in one clip, argues that newspapers ought to consider offering porn in order to increase sales (great idea, Sam!  NOT!) — and this wide range of topics was, in my opinion, the sign of a lack of focus and organization to the film overall.  That said, despite the fact it’s sort of all over the place, this movie is absolutely fascinating and completely engaging, thanks in large part to its overall theme and its star player, New York Times media columnist David Carr.  Those are the two elements I’ll be focusing on in this review.

The theme of  Page One is that, despite the increase in news blogs and other technology, we still desperately need traditional newspapers.  Maybe not in print, but fully financed and supported, read, and respected.  In that regard, the movie was completely preaching to the choir for me — not only am I married to a newspaper reporter myself, but I’m also a research librarian, frequently tasked with the daunting, difficult chore of weeding out all the garbage one finds online to find the few trustworthy, dependable sources.  The quest for accurate information is getting harder and harder as the web gets bigger and everybody with a WordPress account decides their opinions are the ones the world needs to hear about (ha ha, get it?  I kill me!).

More importantly, though, people need to realize that solid, vetted reporting costs money.  It costs money and it’s worth paying for.  Listen up.

For the most part, the arguments made in this film, which features interviews with a variety of reporters and writers, were ones I’ve heard a million times before — arguments for traditional newspapers involving concepts like fact-checking, ethical codes, and a striving for bias-free presentation of facts (as opposed to, the film points out, the plainly biased “reporting” at HuffPo and WikiLeaks — it has a lengthy segment about a film clip released by WikiLeaks, for example, that was edited heavily to present their point-of-view.  The New York Times has published a lot of WikiLeaks content, but it vets it all stringently itself before printing, considering Assange to be a “source,” not a “journalist” himself).

But there were a few new ideas (to me, anyway) included here as well.  One of the ones that really struck me was the question: if all we have are news bloggers — amateur or even professional journalists predominantly writing singly or for news groups that are giving that information away freely (and thus, not making any significant money off it)  — who goes overseas to cover wars?  Who pays for that?  Who volunteers to do it?  Who creates the smooth transition between one reporter’s tour overseas and the next’s?

Along the same lines:  how do you cover the President of the United States on the cheap?  Who pays for all those flights to follow him around?  All those hotel rooms?

On a less dramatic, but equally important scale, who covers all those insanely boring city government meetings and tells us about the one important nugget that came out of three hours of tedious torture?  I mean, according to my husband, it’s already hard enough to get “real” reporters to those meetings because newspapers are so understaffed nowadays due to cut-backs and lay-offs.  And when governments, local or national, get to do whatever they want to do without anybody paying attention and telling everybody else what’s going on, BAD SHIT HAPPENS.

David Carr, a long-time reporter and columnist at the Times, stood out in this film not only as a man with an interesting history (he was a cocaine addict for most of his young adult life, and even served time in prison for possession — what he describes as his “textured” youth), but also because he’s smart, funny, and holds no punches when it comes to defending his profession.

For example, in a delightful clip from an episode of Intelligence Squared, Michael Wolff from the web site Newser argued that we don’t need newspapers anymore because sites like his are taking care of the work and offering it to people for free.  Brilliantly, Carr responded by holding up a print-out of Newser’s home page, covered in icons representing about 20 stories.  Then he held up  another copy of the same thing, this time with all the pieces on the page taken from newspapers like the Times cut out — only about two stories remained on a page now full of holes (pretty striking visual aid, if you ask me).

Carr’s point: Yeah, YOU can do this for no charge because WE’RE the ones doing all the work!  This is something a lot of news consumers take for granted these days — because they CAN get information for free, they think they OUGHT to get information for free (something true in the library world as well, with the increasing availability of online journals and books).  But there’s no such thing as a news story that is truly free.  The question is, will people figure that out before newspapers die?  Do we really want to reduce the information we’re able to access to two stories on a site like Newser, written by people with no real oversight, training, or journalistic ethics?

So, what’s the future?  Sites like ProPublica, which does some of its own investigative reporting and also frequently joins forces with mainstream, “legacy” media sources like the Times and CNN to cover larger stories, is one direction we might be heading in — a hybrid model that combines the new ideas of the more “citizen journalism” approach (though most ProPublica reporters are ex-newspaper editors and reporters) and technologies while also maintaining the ethics, methods, and vetting that are the backbone of traditional papers (though Carr would argue here that the Times is already blogging, Tweeting, and more — what the hell else do you want from it, people?).

Who knows — it’s a difficult question, and a challenging time; “a revolution, not a transition,” one reporter in the film says.  All I know is that I fear living in a world where rookies are in charge of reporting the news.  Reporters don’t always get it right, of course, and the film talks in some detail about the impact on public trust when reporters get it really, really wrong (Judith Miller, for example).  But they still work harder, do more, and do it more carefully than bloggers.

The process by which a story makes it onto the front page of the Times is also described in the film, and it’s laboriousness, with editors from every department meeting twice a day to ask questions, check for reliability, double-check sources, and more, ought to be all the proof you need to that real reporting is a valuable public service in a way amateur reporting never will be.  A front page Times story is vetted multiple times before it goes to print, by multiple people.  It’s obviously still not fool-proof, but that doesn’t mean that lengthy vetting process is unnecessary.

We need newspapers.  We need reporters.  Without them, without someone keeping a diligent eye on things who’s trained to explain those things to the rest of us so we can stay informed too, we’re totally sunk as a nation and as a society.  I believe it.  You should believe it too.

Page One’s last showing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is tomorrow at 3:30pm (May 30th) in Everett — go buy a ticket and check it out!

When it’s over, you can subscribe to the New York Times here:  I hope you’ll want to.

Now, somebody go get me David Carr’s number.  I need to buy that man a beer.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Andrew Rossi

Tags: ,

12 Responses to “SIFF MOVIE: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    I entirely agree that we need good journalists. I’m not convinced that newspapers are the place for them, though; looking at the British press, most of it has already gone down the cheap and easy route of recycling press releases and printing unverified whatever it’s paid to print (particularly the Murdoch papers, of course). Perhaps more to the point, it’s pretty clear to me that people aren’t prepared to pay for good journalism – they’ll pay just as much for rumour, innuendo, propaganda and celebrity gossip.

    I don’t have an answer for this. Sorry to be a downer. (But I’m about to host a very wet barbecue, so… 🙂

  2. megwood Says:

    The primary reason newspapers are running more stuff like that is because they don’t have any money, though. There’s a part in the film where they show the previous owner of the Tribune (who quit after a massive sex scandal) talking about how he thought they ought to start running porn in the paper because they’d sell more copies that way. He was mostly serious too — the corporations in charge of newspapers are businessmen, and they’re in it to make a buck, first and foremost.

    But the editors and reporters are the opposite — they still care deeply and passionately about the integrity of what they do. When you’re running a newspaper with half the news-room employees you used to have, though, you can only create just so much original content. That’s why we’re seeing more wire stories, more press releases that haven’t been altered much, etc. (I don’t know about the Brit papers, but you aren’t seeing a lot of unverified stories in US papers, to my knowledge, and you certainly aren’t seeing a lot of it in papers like the Times). And celebrity gossip and cute pictures of puppies (the daily front page of the Seattle PI, for example, which is only available online now) gets people to buy papers.

    Lots of people WOULD be willing to pay for good journalism, I think, if the good journalism they’re already reading for free disappeared because all the papers died. I’m just hoping it doesn’t have to go that far before we find a system that works.

    I’m very interested in the paywall at the Times for that very reason, and am curious to see how much income it generates for them. If it works, I’m hoping more newspapers will be able to adopt similar procedures. You can’t make money off ads online (most advertisers are unwilling to pay as much for an online ad as they are for a print one), and classifieds, which were the newspaper’s biggest source of income, have all but died due to Craig’s List and similar services. That means subscriptions and usage fees are pretty much all that’s left.

  3. RogerBW Says:

    The Murdoch press at least started being blatantly for hire well before anyone was worrying about newspapers losing money – back in 1981 when he bought The Times. Over the next ten years, anyone who was a serious journalist bailed out and looked for work elsewhere. Many of the other UK papers did the same thing, to try to increase circulation not because it had been dropping but simply as competition. By the time we’d got to the mid-2000s and the real financial pressure started, it was too late to try to sell papers on quality because everyone knew that wasn’t what they did any more. I’m glad that it’s lasted a bit longer in the USA…

    The TImes’ paywall has been an industry joke. Even its subscribers and staff, who get free access, don’t bother to use it – they do a Google News search instead. Even that much barrier to information is too much, it seems, when everyone knows that The Times doesn’t carry anything unique except the owner’s propaganda.

  4. Meg Says:

    Subscribers and staff don’t need to use the paywall, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about there. I’m a subscriber and I’ve never even seen evidence it exists, so, yeah, what barrier, bro? I signed in when I set up my subscription (years ago) and I’ve never even had to sign in again (if you let your browser store the pw, that is). Staff certainly wouldn’t have to. Not sure where you’re getting this information, but it’s not accurate.

    As for it being “a joke,” that’s not what I’ve been hearing from people in the biz — Business Insider reported that immediately after the launch of the paywall, the Times got 100,000 new online subscribers, at $15/month — not bad, if you ask me). I predict that initially a lot of people will/will-have jump/ed ship out of spite (what do you MEAN I have to PAY you guys to do the work I want to consume later?!), but that they’ll eventually come back when the work of skirting it gets to be more trouble than its worth to save such a nominal fee.

    As for the NY Times carrying nothing unique aside from the owner’s propaganda, well fuck you, sir. When you say something ignorant like that, you insult my husband and 95% of my friends, all of whom are newspaper reporters who work their asses off despite the fact they’re now doing three times the writing they ever used to, for no money (haven’t seen a raise in 7 years). They do it because they care. Not about the morons who own the paper or the editorial board whose opinions couldn’t be any further from those of the actual reporters. But because they are passionate about reporting and dedicated as hell.

    You should probably move on from this discussion now, Roger. Your comments are ignorant and unsupportable, and, what’s more, they’re pissing me off.

  5. RogerBW Says:

    Ah, bear in mind I’m talking about The Times, the one published in London, not any of the other papers that took its name later on.

  6. Meg Says:

    The Times in London has a paywall?

  7. RogerBW Says:

    Yes, they established it in July last year, and website usage has collapsed since; people just find it too much trouble.

    (I know quite a few current and former journalists and techies at – should I call it the London Times to avoid confusion? – and none at all at the NYT. If as you suggest they’re managing to hang on and produce some good quality material, I’m very glad indeed! I was aiming to contrast your experience there with the state of print journalism in the UK, where apart from The Guardian (which is slowly slipping into the pit) most papers have given up even trying, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. My experience of American newspapers is limited to USA Today and season 5 of The Wire…)

  8. Meg Says:

    Let’s use “LT” and “NYT”? Less typing, more clarification!

    The NYT is not only “hanging on,” but actually doing a lot better these days than they were a few years ago (when there was talk of them going under completely). And their reporting is still the national standard — the film talks about “The Times Effect,” which is a phenomenon that started way, way back in the early days, in which any major story published by the NYT would show up the next day on the second tier papers, then the next day on the third tier papers, etc. etc. until it had infiltrated just about every newspaper in the country. This still happens, which tells you the NYT still has a lot of influence and respect.

    I hope that when this film comes out on DVD, you’ll give it a gander, Roger. I think you’d find it interesting. You might also enjoy the episode of Intelligence Squared I mentioned in the review — see the link above.

    Are you British, by the way? How did I not know that?

    • RogerBW Says:

      I blend well? (I also write for Americans sometimes, so I can usually get the idiom more or less right.) I’ve certainly put the film on my list. (I don’t do television or cinemas these days, for various reasons, so “wait for DVD” is my usual response to something I want to see…)

  9. Meg Says:

    p.s. “Season 5 of The Wire” made me laugh out loud. Nice one! 😉

  10. Cheryl Says:

    Voice in the wilderness, here. I hope this makes you feel a little better about the state of print jounalism:

    Although we live two counties away, the paper almost never ever prints anything that we would consider local to our home, and as a teacher in a public school my husband gets a copy at work for free; we have maintained our subscription to the print version of the Morning News for twenty years. With no intention to stop.

    Even though I find that I’ve already seen many of these stories on line, there is just something about reading through them again on paper in my hands.

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