“Page One” Breathes Life into the New York Times

On the surface, the story of a newspaper company during an age of digital revolution does not seem like the best candidate for a gripping drama. In the hands of Andrew Rossi and through the eyes of David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam, and Tim Arango there lies something akin to The Social Network for the news business, a movie uniquely capturing this moment in time.

There’s a scene midway through Page One when David Carr goes to meet the guys who run Vice, a brash and unvarnished multimedia content company that CNN just partnered with in an effort to court a younger demographic. “I don’t do corporate portraiture,” Carr tells them as they attempt to give him their pitch. Vice co-founder Shane Smith tries to make a case for why Vice is doing the job that the New York Times failed to do. “Everyone talked to me about cannibalism! That’s fucking crazy! So the actual — our audience goes, “That’s fucking insane, like, that’s nuts!” And the New York Times, meanwhile, is writing about surfing, and I’m sitting there going like, “You know what? I’m not going to talk about surfing, I’m going to talk about cannibalism, because that fucks me up.” Carr interrupts Smith for a history lesson “Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”

That moment sort of crystallizes the two worlds that Carr and the Times now live in. Countless outlets like Vice and others were born in an age where virtually anyone can cobble together a place on the media landscape, but often with little regard for those who came before them. Some are outright contemptuous of the Times and newspapers in general, as a few attendees at SXSW, the annual Austin gathering of digerati expressed by a show of hands that they would not miss the Times if it ceased to exist.

Others, like Markos Moulitsas, are annoyed by the perceived authority that the Times has, citing Judy Miller’s blind acceptance of WMDs in the lead up to the war in Iraq as essentially being a stenographer for the Bush administration. The movie pulls no punches when it comes to the fiscal crisis at the Times and also the confidence crisis some had in their ability to provide the news, following the failings of Miller and Jayson Blair.

The fallout following their scandals coincides with the Times beginning to find its legs again, with the help of digital natives like Brian Stelter. Carr and Stelter come from different generations but they’re both digital hybrids — one adapted to the present who has became even more influential because of it; the other absorbed by the wisdom of the past who has became a force to be reckoned with.

Page One weaves together the day to day machinations of hunting down a story; misdeeds at the Tribune company being a particularly compelling one. Carr coaxes the truth out of sources in a vibrant and unexpectedly exciting way. Drama drips from the clouds of uncertainty during an uneasy moment in the paper’s history. A moment, the film admits, that seems like it has always existed. The numbers are more stark and the challengers more formidable than in previous eras where network news and radio grew as alternatives sources for information. Disruption has always been the norm, but the digital age brought the institution to a point where it was forced to stare into the abyss, consider its mortality and find a way to save its own life.

The movie does not have all the answers — we are all still trying to figure them out ourselves. It does, however, give pause to those who think the Times is replaceable.

There is much that we have gained in the last decade or so with the  invention of Twitter and Facebook. These platforms, along with the web itself, have given us a tremendous ability to publish and transmit information far faster and wider than ever before, but those who think we can simply replace the DNA that exists within the walls of The New York Times building are simply ignorant of what role it has played and will continue to play for years to come.

The publication has not always been perfect, as a collection of mortals will often fail to be, but the film displays an institution that tells stories that still have wide impact on our lives with an influence that still reigns above many of their digital counterparts. This story is their own. It is a story well told, that left me rooting for it to continue to be told for years to come.