- When David Carr folds his arms, he means business. Or his arms are tired.
Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times opens with that sad, spare piano familiar even to casual fans of documentary films, soon followed by a swell of ominous strings. It's the kind of soundtrack you might expect from a film about, say, the Rwandan genocide — not one about the nation's leading newspaper. But there's an impending death, of a sort, implied by the music, which accompanies images of the newspaper's production plant. As the day's edition is conveyed by a labyrinthine roller coaster, organized into small stacks, then loaded onto delivery trucks, I couldn't help but shake my head at this antiquated method of information distribution. Having not purchased a physical newspaper for at least two years, I even felt as though I was watching a film not from the present, but the past.
The death of newspapers has been predicted for as long as newspapers themselves have existed, but now is perhaps the industry's most precarious era yet. Sales and ad revenues are down significantly, and neither is likely to rebound with the economy. A dozen dailies have folded in recent years, including the Rocky Mountain News, while others have axed their print edition, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, or declared bankruptcy, like Tribune Company. So how, exactly, does the Times plan to weather this storm — or, more accurately, to adapt to this permanently altered climate?
By covering the death of newspapers, for starters. For Page One, filmmaker Andrew Rossi spent 14 months filming in the Times' newsroom, primarily around the cubicles of Brian Stelter, David Carr, and other members of the paper's Media desk, which it launched in 2008. Rossi was present when Wikileaks posted its "Collateral Murder" video on YouTube, when the iPad was launched, when 100 editorial staffers were laid off, and when plans for a paywall were unveiled. He chose a good year, in other words, to hang around in the shrinking belly of the Gray Lady.
Page One is not, as I feared, simply a feature-length version of TimesCast. If I recall correctly, only two editorial meetings are shown in this Sundance film, and both contain a twinge of suspense as Bruce Headlam, the editor of the Media desk, lobbies for his reporters' work to make A1 — the front page. Instead, Rossi shows us reporters and editors, from Executive Editor Bill Keller on down, doing their jobs while also wondering how long they might get to keep those jobs; they are forthright, transparent, and frequently funny. To this reporter, at least, it was as entertaining on the screen as it sounds boring on (digital) paper.
Carr, frequently sporting a City Paper cap, is the film's most entertaining subject, eviscerating Vice Magazine co-founder Shane Smith in one scene and discussing sexual improprities with a Tribune Co. representative in another. But all of the film's principal subjects are portrayed in a positive light, which may have less to do with Rossi's intentions — the film lacks a narrator, after all — than that Carr, Stelter, Headlam, and their peers are simply witty, interesting people. More suspiciously, though, the film ends back at the production plant, and the mood couldn't be more different from the beginning. Accompanied by twinkling, uplifting music, the humming machines suddenly seem less antiquated than impressively industrious. Watching the papers zip by in a blur, I almost believed that everything was going to be fine. And then I went home to file this review for a website that aggregates links from its dead-tree competitors.