Review: Page One

As Page One: Inside the New York Times, continues to slowly roll out across the country, journalism-geeks will undoubtedly flock to their local art-houses for a chance to peek behind the curtain of the nation’s “paper-of-record.” While a significant portion of the breezy, accessible documentary offers a unique, fly-on-the-wall perspective on the day-to-day operations of the New York Times, it turns out that – to the movie’s detriment – this isn’t the filmmakers’ central objective.

While about 40% of Page One provides an “inside” look at the paper’s production, the remaining 60% seems to be preoccupied with assessing the future of traditional journalism, and whether it has a future at all. The filmmakers show clips from relatively-recent TV-news broadcasts announcing the internet-induced shuttering of many of the country’s largest and oldest newspapers. This serves as a sort of death-knell for the business model upon which the New York Times has thrived for so long, and creates a debate that dominates the majority of the movie’s 2nd half.

While this encourages a very compelling and relevant debate, the decision denies the audience more of (what I believe) made them pay to see Page One: more scenes showing the detailed-minutiae behind daily decisions such as why some stories are given front-page priority and how the paper’s daily front-page photo is picked, etc. We get a taste of these types of scenarios, but it feels like the filmmakers were only allowed to shoot what the paper’s braintrust deemed appropriate… and it appears the cameras and microphones were shut off and removed the before the real decisions were made.

The movie’s strongest moments emerge from the time it spends with a cadre of reporters who work for the paper’s media desk. Although the details are a little thin as to how each of these men arrived at the paper, the doc quickly immerses us into a deadline-oriented atmosphere that creates a sense of how these reporters’ ideas evolve into newsprint.

As many have previously written, the “show-stealer” of the group is veteran reporter David Carr, who — while he definitely provides most of the movie’s laughs — at times comes off as somewhat of a blowhard who appears to enjoy cornering and embarrassing people with ‘gotcha’ moments. The main instance of this behavior occurs when Carr antagonizes a member of the VICE editorial staff who suggests that the Times doesn’t report on enough “hard news” stories, such as the desperate conditions in Liberia.

While both men make fair points, I doubt Carr would so-quickly and blindly jump to the Times’ defense, had he been one of the paper’s employees unlucky enough to be deemed “non-essential” in a sequence where a number of longtime Times-workers are forced out due to budget cuts.

Carr does come off in a positive light, however, when it’s revealed that he is a former drug-addict who embraced the straight lifestyle in order to raise two daughters and continues to dedicate himself to a job he obviously loves.

As far as the “characters” are concerned, the colorful Carr understandably eats up the most screen-time; Unfortunately, this prevents the filmmakers from embracing what might have been a slightly-more compelling story: that of the media desk’s cub reporter Brian Stelter.

Although his tenure-to-date at the Times might be considerably short, Stelter is already a well-known commodity in the journalism world due to his former blog TVnewser, which has – in the last 5 years – become a daily must-read for TV news professionals. The blog is briefly mentioned in Page One, which might have resulted in a stronger overall movie had it decided to streamline itself and tell its story solely from Stelter’s unique perspective.

The filmmakers’ decision to divide the running time among 4 or 5 different characters results in a slightly disjointed feel that would have been easily remedied with a little bit more focus.

While there’s a lot to be absorbed and enjoyed from paying to see Page One, I left feeling a little bit gypped by the movie’s subtitle: “Inside the New York Times.” After all is said and done, a more appropriate title might have been Page One: The New York Times & The Death of Modern Journalism. The actual subtitle suggests a definitive portrait of the inner workings of America’s most sacred journalistic institution. I feel like I only got a quick glimpse.

In fairness to the filmmakers, one can’t assume that this was ever their overall objective. In fact, such a feat would be impossible to accomplish in Page One’s 90 minute running-time.

Paging Ken Burns…