Journalists Navigate New 'Times' In 'Page One'

Originally published on June 17, 2011 9:41 am

There was a time when The New York Times was known as a leader in daily news. Today, the new documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times finds that paper struggling to get a footing in the new media landscape.

Beginning in 2009, filmmaker Andrew Rossi spent over a year embedded with the Times' media desk. Rossi tells NPR's Renee Montagne that he was attracted to the "play within a play" quality of shadowing media writers at a time when the paper was renegotiating its place in the media world.

"We're looking at The New York Times really through a sort of keyhole which is the media desk," Rossi says. "It's comprised of 14 journalists all writing on various different aspects of the media landscape. So that's advertising, books, movies [and] the way the Internet is evolving."

For The 'Love Of The Press'

David Carr is one of the four media journalists who take center stage in Rossi's film. He tells Montagne that although he's not the most traditional candidate for employment at the Times — Carr speaks openly about his former drug addiction — he's still extremely devoted to the paper.

"I do have sort of an immigrant's love of the press," Carr says. "Because I'm the media columnist, I end up on these panels and I get sort of excited."

In one scene, the cameras follow Carr to a panel discussion about the value of old media. Carr argues that the Times is fully engaged in the media revolution, citing the more than 17 million people who visit its website each year — but he gets most riled up when defending the paper's print version.

"The New York Times has dozens of bureaus all over the world and we're going to toss that out and kick back and see what Facebook turns up?" he says in the film. "I don't think so."

Not 'One More Commodity'

Still, it's hard to encourage optimism at a time when insiders and outsiders alike are wondering if traditional media can remain relevant

In the film, Rossi looks back to the financial collapse of the Tribune Co., which Times journalists followed closely. One scene from the film shows Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell responding to the collapse by saying, "I'm not a newspaper guy; I'm a businessman."

"It's sort of indicative of the broader disrespect of journalism as it is practiced," Carr says. "Again and again we have these saviors from outside come in and saying, 'You guys don't get it. Here's how it's gonna happen.' And in Sam Zell's case, he acted as if [the Tribune Co.] was one more commodity."

Carr says that such treatment affects not only the financial standing of a media group but also the quality of its product. So when he sees the diminished state of journalism across the country, he says he's reminded of how lucky he is to be working at the Times.

"It is such a luxury, and I try not to forget that," Carr says. "I can just turn and say, 'Look, yes, I'm going to blog. Yes, I'll be tweeting out. Yes. Yes. Yes. But for this longer thought, it's going to take me a couple weeks to get it together.' [That] never would have happened if I didn't work at the paper that I do."

Media's 'Moving Targets'

Today, the effort to balance old and new media in the newsroom continues — and the question of how journalism will sustain itself looms large. But in his film, Rossi avoids steering viewers toward any one answer or conclusion.

"My sense is that this is really a moving target," Rossi says. "Readers and publishers are both continuing to debate how journalism can sustain itself."

And, Rossi says, he has faith in the power of that public debate.

"Ultimately," he says, "I think it's for viewers to decide whether a place like The New York Times is worth keeping alive."

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A Y: Beginning in 2009, filmmaker Andrew Rossi spent over a year, deep inside the newsroom of The Times, and nearly every day brought bad news for the business of news.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

David Carr and Andrew Rossi joined us to talk about "Page One."

ANDREW ROSSI: We're looking at The New York Times, really, through a sort of keyhole, which is the media desk. It's comprised of 14 journalists, all writing on various different aspects of the media landscape. I thought that it would make for a fantastic, sort of, play within a play.

MONTAGNE: Which meant that you followed - there are many characters - but basically for from the media desk. David Carr is one of them, and you're this enormously creative writer, but you have had, you know, quite a different history, I think than one that most candidates who were being hired by The New York Times have.

DAVID CARR: Yeah, I think drug addiction usually isn't featured prominently on people's resume. I know that The Times was aware of that and aware that I had done a few things since then; that I'd raised twin girls by myself, I had read newspapers and I seem to be a fairly stable candidate for employment. But the fact that I used to be a crack addict is not the only thing about me, but it's probably the most interesting thing about me.

MONTAGNE: David Carr, in the film you are extremely devoted to The New York Times. Let's play a clip of you representing The Times at a debate about the value of old media.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES")

CARR: We have 17 million people that come to our web site. We put on a hundred videos every month. We have 80 blogs. We are fully engaged in the revolution. The New York Times has dozens of bureaus all over the world, and we're going to toss that out and kick back and see what Facebook turns up?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

CARR: Well, I do have sort of an immigrant's love of the place. Yeah, I ended up being a little bit of moany(ph) about it. And sometimes, because I'm the media columnists, I end up on these panels and I get sort of excited. My daughter saw the film and she said, Dad, you're always yelling at people - you should stop yelling at people. And I said why should work be any different than home, honey?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And, Andrew Rossi, I wonder if you thought you were making a depressing documentary - or at least one that's bittersweet?

ROSSI: This is a period in which WikiLeaks became such a huge story. You know, it's just there's momentous things happening and the stakes are really high, because journalism, as being practiced in places where the mandate is original reporting, is really at risk.

MONTAGNE: Here's a clip from the movie of the Tribune Company's Chairman Sam Zell, telling an audience about what he thinks about those who bemoan the demise of mainstream, traditional journalism.

SAM ZELL: When you're reading The New York Times today, in the business section, you will see that the obituary of the newspaper industry. Jesus, what a bunch of (Beep).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZELL: I'm not a newspaper guy. I'm a businessman.

MONTAGNE: I'm a businessman, and this is a man who controls several of the best traditional newspapers in the country.

CARR: And one of the cool things about the movie is it shows me talking with my editor, figuring out what the story is. And I've talked to other reporters and they say, and then you said you're going to take a couple weeks to write it. And that in this day and age is such a luxury and I try not to forget that; that I can just turn and say, look - yes, I'm going to blog. Yes, I'll be tweeting out. Yes. Yes. Yes. But for this longer site, it's going to take me a couple of weeks to get it together. Never would have happened if I didn't work at the paper that I do.

MONTAGNE: In the end, Andrew Rossi, did you come away feeling that the New York Times was part of the larger picture, the troubled picture of newspapers, traditional media? Or did that it would pull it off?

ROSSI: Ultimately, I think it's for viewers to decide whether a place like The New York Times is worth keeping alive.

MONTAGNE: Filmmaker Andrew Rossi and New York Times media columnist David Carr.

Y: A Year Inside The New York Times" is out today.

: And from NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.