I’m sorry to leave the Times.
—Katherine Bouton, former Theater and Books editor
“We’re a perfect example of a culture that is having what we do completely ripped open,” says Bruce Headlam. “So, it’s… ” And before he can finish his thought, the phone rings. This is what it’s like, you guess, being the media editor at the New York Times, always taking a call, always making a decision.
Even if not every call has to do with the new sense of siege at the paper, the abrupt end to this interview suggests that Andrew Rossi’s documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, captures daily life for employees. Those featured here describe the changing mood at the office: as the film shows the newspaper-making machines producing each day’s product, sleek white-on-white common spaces or cluttered editors’ offices, the institution appears simultaneously old-fashioned and new-new-new. Reporters stare into computer screens or speak into phones, their fingers tap-tapping as they nod and listen.
As work goes on, the movie contends, workers worry. They’re concerned that the nature of what they do is changing. “There’s been a death watch on the New York Times as long as I’ve been covering media,” says Sarah Ellison (formerly of the Wall Street Journal). “It hasn’t come and it hasn’t come, but that doesn’t lessen people’s certainty that it will come.” That certainty is a function of the changing industry, the speedy evolution of the internet as a delivery system and the loss of ad revenues. The role and expectations of journalists have also changed. No longer are they regarded as trained or expert workers; as New York University’s Clay Shirky puts it, “Reporting has become something that literally every connected citizen has access to.”
The film considers ramifications of such changes for the profession, with the Times as the last, best example of what that profession used to look like. And so the problem is built into each interview, as journalists see themselves trying both to preserve and adjust their practices. Exhibit A might be Brian Stelter, since 2007 employed at the Times to write about television and the web; before then, the film notes, he founded TVNewser, which made his name as it “became this kind of must-read for the Brian Williamses of the world.” That is, Stelter is the kind of journalist that old school Times types worry about: he’s an aggregator.
David Carr is not. That’s not to say he hasn’t come, as he says several ways here, to see the “real value” of Twitter (namely, “listening to a wired collective voice,” as he wrote his famous New Year’s Day 2010 op-ed piece). But Carr is also keenly aware of what comprises that voice. Taking on Newser founder Michael Wolff during a panel discussion, he holds up a paper version of the website’s front page with stories from the “mainstream media content” cut out, and yes, most every story is gone. It’s a great visual and makes the point, that for all the attention to how news is delivered and consumed, the question of who actually produces stories worth reading is left by the wayside.
The problem is at least three-pronged. First, as the film observes, the process of journalism is changing, with aggregate sites like The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post constituting the present. These sites of course, depend—for now—on writers, some “citizen bloggers” and other unpaid workers, and also writers paid by other venues, like the Times. And when this model shifted, the Times didn’t keep up; as Carr puts it, “there was just this sort of decades of organizational hubris about our own excellence and our own dominance” before reporters and editors realized they now have to work differently.
Another prong has with public trust in those writers and editors. If the stereotype of bloggers is that they’re cynical and undertrained, some Times employees, supposedly adhering to a higher standard, have been exposed as not. The film notes a couple of high profile scandals, namely Jayson Blair and Judy Miller. Both undermined the paper’s credibility—and further, raised questions about how any daily newspaper handles its high pressures, makes arrangements with sources or monitors and edits employees over time.
The film offers precious little contemplation of what happened in these cases, but they speak to a broader problem, that the proliferation of sources and speed of doing business have reshaped how news works. That’s not to say that plagiarism or other sorts of corruption in the writing process haven’t always existed: it is to say that exposing these problems is now something of a business in itself.
A third prong concerns journalism’s relationship to news, decisions about what stories to tell and how to gain or keep access to them. And WikiLeaks is one sensational example. The film underscores the difference between the Pentagon Papers and Julian Assange’s operation, as Times executive editor Bill Keller sums up, “The bottom line is WikiLeaks doesn’t need us. Daniel Ellsberg did.” And this introduces another set of questions—how is journalism a “fourth estate” anymore, if it depends on people in power for access to information? Assange tells Stelter he aligns himself with the “values of activism, which struggle toward justice, other than the values of journalism, which is a bit more muddled.” But if the paper is no longer necessary even as a means of delivery, it has to sort out what purpose it does serve.
That sorting out will take place after this movie, which ends with a cryptic, if true enough, epigraph (“Readers and publishers are still debating how journalism can sustain itself”). But it involves yet another component the movie does not address out loud: the roles played by women and people of color at the Times. Since the film’s production, Keller, a self-proclaimed old schooler, has been replaced by Jill Abramson.
It may be telling that Abramson spent six months at the paper’s website before taking the new job. And it’s worth noting that she was the first woman to be managing editor and now, executive editor. Page One focuses on the Times’ male writers and editors worrying about how they’re handling the fast-expanding digital landscape. They don’t talk about how they’ve handled being males in what remains a male-dominated industry.