“If the world still existed, it would duly be recorded in The New York Times” says an excerpt from Gay Talese’s iconic 1969 book The Kingdom and the Power, a prelude of sorts, to the thrilling documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. During the early ’50s, Talese became an employee for what is arguably considered the most prestigious news source in the world. He began as a copyboy, then moved to sports reporting and eventually became one of the paper’s most famous writers, even gaining exclusive backstage access to the printing and editing process, on order to record it on his eventual bestseller.
Talese’s journey through The New York Times could encompass every journalist’s ideal path. To work their way through one of the most famous papers on Earth is the stuff little children’s dreams are made of. We are reminded of this by an image we see looming on the Media Editor’s office: a massive poster of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane which through a deconstruction of the American dream, chronicles the rise and fall of a media mogul.
Yet, what exactly is it that makes this newspaper so appealing? Why is all this prestige, enigma and fame so seductive? Why are so many willing to go down with it if they must? Most importantly, how is it that it has kept this reputation for more than a century?
The last few years have presented the printed media with a conundrum: news is still happening but daily papers have stopped being profitable. As the documentary begins we get a taste of how the world has been treating newspapers lately; forcing owners to sell, conduct massive layoffs, merge with alternative media outlets and in the worst cases, file for bankruptcy and stop operating altogether.
The New York Times has not remained immune to this phenomenon, but it has managed to survive. It’s suggested that one of the main reasons this happened is because an entire department was created to keep up with the constant changes in media. The New York Times then, is reporting on one of its enemies and throughout the film we get tastes of how stories are created around the very things that threaten to destroy this institution.
Directed with a hawk’s eye by the remarkably impartial Andrew Rossi, Page One: Inside The New York Times feels like a perfect companion piece to cinematic journalism classics like Network and Good Night, and Good Luck, all of which have presented us with insight into what goes on at the very source of the news. Unlike its fiction counterparts, which seem to probe hard to obtain some sort of emotional resolution, this documentary mostly observes.
We attend meetings where writers’ works are made or destroyed (watching an editor do his job and tell the writer the truth about his misleading piece has rarely felt so heartbreaking), we eavesdrop on a phone interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange who confesses he likes to be called a journalist, and we see the controversial David Carr take on a group of hipster reporters with violent passion. What remains constantly surprising throughout the film is the urgency each action obtains. Even when we know that the filmmakers aren’t precisely bending truths around in order to achieve dramatic tension — there’s not even the morbid need to go into the private lives of journalists — we still feel there is a larger story to the way the stories are made.
Even if at no point are we showered with tabloidesque musings, this film certainly leaves us wanting more and fortunately, the DVD bonus features satisfy us. Among the many featurettes there is an insightful visit to the paper’s Baghdad office, a fascinating examination on how media mogul Rupert Murdoch has made it his mission to vanquish the paper’s existence (again with the Welles influence), deleted scenes where we see a bit more of the editorial process and a few speculative opinions on what the future might hold for this media giant.
Can it be that this newspaper, as Talese suggests, has become a sort of godlike tool that reminds us about our role in the world? “The old newspaper format is dying, news are not dying” says one of the interviewees, as if to reassure us that as long as societies exist, we will need someone to put together the pieces for us.
In spite of all its shortcomings, The New York Times has survived the great world wars, the nuclear nightmare and even the iPad (which it even covered with awe and dedication). “There’s been a death watch on The New York Times for as long as I’ve been covering media” says Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison. This documentary might not help to save the paper, but it certainly shows great respect for The New York Times and the part it plays in shaping history.