The News About the News

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When I was a child, we subscribed to two newspapers a day. The Los Angeles Times arrived early in the morning, and the Herald-Examiner plopped onto our doorstep in the late afternoon, usually thrown by my friend Dennis Miller, who had a paper route. (Back then, moms felt safe letting their young boys ride their bikes by themselves every day and knock on doors asking for money once a month.) I always liked the Examiner better, because the photos were a little larger, the stories a little racier, the features a little more entertaining. I didn't realize back then that it was intentional: morning papers contained cold gray news for people in a hurry; evening papers provided lighter fare and racier storytelling for readers who wanted to relax and unwind after a hard day.

With the advent of television news, then cable news, then electronic news, print news has become less and less profitable. Newspapers around the country are cutting back on stories, letting staffers go, and just plan folding up. When documentarian Andrew Rossi received permission to hang out with a video camera at the New York Times offices for a whole year, he didn't know that the demise of print journalism would become the focus of the story; no good documentarian ever knows exactly where the film will end up. But that's where Page One: Inside the New York Times went, and the result is a sometimes lively, sometimes somber, mostly interesting story about the past, present, and future of journalism.

Page One is a bit character heavy in the beginning as it introduces several side stories at once. The character who shines with the most luster is David Carr, the eccentric Monday columnist for the Business section of the Times who focuses primarily on media issues. One of the ironies pointed out in the film is the fact that the Times found it necessary to open a desk in 2008 to cover the demise of the media, and Carr does it in this film with a protective vengeance.

What's cool about Carr is that he lived first, and became a respected journalist second. A self-described cokehead in his youth, he spent some time in jail before becoming a respected writer. He wrote for a number of alternative publications before joining the Times when he was approaching 50. As a result, his voice, both written and spoken, is often unfiltered and unabashed, providing most of the humor in what is often a gray documentary.

But what is killing print journalism? First is the need for profits. Subscription rates will never be able to cover the costs of writing, printing, and delivering the news. Advertising revenue is the true source of support for newspapers, and ad revenue in print media is down everywhere. As a result, coverage is down, and serious coverage is down even more. Who's going to cover city hall when readers only want to know what Lindsay Lohan is up to? And since readership determines advertising rates, more fluff is passing for news these days.

Second is the need for speed. People used to be willing to wait for the scheduled newspapers, with an occasional "Extra" in which to "read all about it" when breaking news called for the editor to "Stop the presses!" Today's tech-savvy consumers, by contrast, are constantly in touch with breaking news, through texting, Twitter, Facebook, and other instant news feeds. They expect to know what's going on, moments after it happens.

On the other hand, the blogosphere's post-now, check-facts-later mentality gives print media the edge in accuracy and credibility. Carr wryly disparages the "caco-phony" of Twitter, even though he grudgingly admits that Twitter is a "wired collective voice" that gives him a sense of what people are talking about. One important scene in the documentary demonstrates a typical 10 a.m. meeting at the Times, where several editors and reporters sit around a table discussing stories currently in progress. There is an air of calm as they take the time to check facts, discuss context, consider reader interest, and check facts again.

Nevertheless, the documentary pulls no punches in reporting on the Times' gross mistakes, including the Jayson Blair scandal and Judith Miller's 2002 articles reporting weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out not to exist. Miller defends herself by saying, "If your sources are wrong, you're going to be wrong." Blair was simply lying. I'm not sure which is worse — being naively hoodwinked or being deliberately devious.

One of the most shocking revelations in the film is the "end of the war" in Iraq that was neatly choreographed by NBC execs to coincide with the 6:30 news. The documentary claims that NBC simply wanted to give viewers a "mission accomplished" closure to the story. So they filmed their reporter accompanying "the final combat troops leaving Iraq" and broadcast it live on the evening news, even though the Pentagon had made no such announcement. It reminded me of the ending of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, when protagonist Guy Montag watches an innocent pedestrian being chased down, caught, and killed in his stead, just to give viewers the satisfaction of "closure" on the evening news.

The film touches on dozens of areas affecting journalism today. All of them are interesting and important, but the film's own cacophony of information prevents it from having a strong central storyline. In a way, this presentation is more real and honest than a neatly tied story with a beginning, middle, and end. Life doesn't always have a climax on page 72. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating film, well worth viewing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Page One: Inside the New York Times," directed by Andrew Rossi. Magnolia Pictures, 88 minutes.



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