Monday, November 28, 2011

Extreme Makeover: Gray Lady Edition

Today's film: Andrew Rossi's 2011 documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times.

I heard of this film during a Fresh Air interview with David Carr, who is a correspondent covering media and culture for the Times. The film follows several reporters on the Times' Media Desk during what must surely rate as one of the most tumultuous years in newspaper history. The film mostly consists of interviews with a bunch of people inside and outside the Times, both about the institution of the Times itself and its inside operations, and about the states of journalism and of print media during the exploding digital age.

The interviews make clear that virtually everybody, friend and foe alike, looks at the Times as a unique place, something quite above and beyond newspapers in general. But time does not stand still, and the changes wracking the media universe in the past decade make for a gripping story. We live in an unprecedented age of information, and we have become accustomed to having largely unfettered access to all information all the time--and for no cost.

Or not for a monetary cost, anyway. What used to take time and careful vetting before it was presented authoritatively to us--an expensive proposition--now gets splashed up on the Web at the first hint, often raw and rife with rumor and inaccuracies. Any vetting follows in the form of corroboration from other sources, and revisions and corrections now follow the initial reports as necessary. It's a different world; we simply consume information differently than we have in the past, and our expectations have changed accordingly. Page One shines a light on a lot of this, and makes it plain that news gathering and production involves skill and art and a whole lot of hard work. (There's a very interesting panel discussion where someone representing, I think, Gawker argues that traditional media is dead and it's time to move on. The New York Times correspondent deftly demonstrates how aggregator websites like Gawker create little or no original content, so that if the "traditional media" go away then the aggregators will go with them. Point taken.) [Correction: the website in question was Newser.]

Like many people, I've been grappling with this whole idea for a while now. For years I've clicked a dozen times a day on Yahoo News to check headlines, and I've become accustomed like most people to thinking of news as something like fresh air that's just all around us and free for the taking. Though I've always been a contributor to NPR, I came to the realization a few years back as this issue was heating up that I needed to start paying much more seriously for the coverage I have come to rely on. All of this is front and center in Page One, and serves as a pretext to give us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the newsroom and the briefings and editorial meetings that result in a daily paper that is read around the world. The Times we see on the inside is a place characterized by a group of really smart middle-aged people struggling to understand complex things and to work through a codified collaborative process to tell the world about those things in a fair and relevant way. It's an impressive thing.

But David Carr, who emerges as the film's central character, was the real revelation to me. I lived for years in Minneapolis, and during this time Carr did a stretch as the editor of the premier weekly paper in Minneapolis / St. Paul, the Twin Cities Reader. I vaguely remember his name from around that time. But in between his stint at the Reader and his job at the Times (which he's held now for about 10 years) it sounds like he lived a life of great variety and richness, as it were. He wrote a book in 2008 called Night Of the Gun which details his addiction to cocaine and crack and alcohol and his struggle to get and keep clean while trying to raise a family. Carr plays a central role in Page One, both because he is working on a couple stories which figure prominently in this tumultuous year at the newspaper and because he was most extensively interviewed. And this is likely because he comes across as a very compelling character on camera (and indeed on tape). He is a striking physical presence; after a bout of Hodgkins' Lymphoma the treatment for which left his neck muscles in shambles, he walks around with his head bowed and his voice raspy and hoarse, a small man's head and neck grafted onto a big man's body. But woe to anyone who mistakes this physical trait for frailty. He is a tenacious reporter who is not given to social nicety, and people quickly learn that whatever he looks like he means business. Fiercely intelligent and, thanks to his hardscrabble life, absolutely unshockable, he says what he needs to say, speaking with a surprising directness and force that is both disarming in its honesty and disconcerting in its unflinching character. He is simply a fascinating character. I have his memoir on deck.

The film is told absolutely without bullshit. It's professionally made, but there are no effects or flash. If you care about print media, and especially if you care about the New York Times, this is a really gripping film. It tells an important story about one of the biggest possible players.

Grade: A

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