A Journalist’s Take on Page One

When the Sarasota Film Festival screened Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, the film earned applause, but also had its strong dissenters. Of course, every opinion is valid, but from the point of view of a professional journalist, the movie was an amazing exploration of what is happening to media at a very fractious time.

For background, I will note that before joining SRQ Media Group three years ago, I spent nearly eight years in the daily newspaper industry. That part of my career ended in 2008 when economic pressures forced layoffs at the paper where I worked. I landed here, and have greatly enjoyed the outcome, but have a vested interest both in the media landscape as a whole and in the newspaper industry in particular. Indeed, my wife still works for a daily newspaper in Southwest Florida, and I of course have friends at many papers around the country.

Andrew Rossi’s film followed the inner workings of the New York Times, and by proxy the public turmoil at a number of other news organizations through the Times’ media desk, and captured the impact on all of society which could occur if newspapers truly see a demise. The film notes how major news stories, even today, usually get big after appearing on the front page of the NYT. But it also notes the growing instances when that has not been the case.

Wikileaks shows international news can be made with a YouTube release. NBC makes news out of press event when it rolls out of Baghdad with the supposed last combat troops in Iraq. In cases like this, the Times wrestles internally with how to respond to stories generated independent of their own reporting, and Rossi captures the complicated debates inside the office regarding how the stories will be handled now.

The decisions on how to respond to these incidences was already publicly known, of course. In the case of Wikileaks, the media giant partnered with the smalltime publisher as the Julian Assange-led organization became increasingly controversial with its infamous cable releases. With the NBC rollout in Iraq, the paper threw skeptical cold water at the rollout while noting fighting would continue even after the embedded media had filmed their made-for-TV moment.

But watching the way the the decisions were reached is the fascinating part of this film. Media editor Bruce Headlam jokes at the newspaper about the sinking feeling that comes during the Iraq rollout as the newspaper bosses decide if the NBC moment shows “something is really happening” or if it is just a media story that his reporters should handle. “Kind of disheartening for a media reporter,” he jokes.

Media reporters argue amongst themselves whether WikiLeaks is a publisher or a source, and how the organization should be treated in the newspaper, especially when national leaders start talking about the leaking of classified document breaking the law. And they debate whether the Times needs Wikileaks more than vice versa, and whether that will change over time.

The film shines a harsh light at times as well, going into detail about the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals which plagued the paper in the last decade. It contrasts those moments to the days of the Pentagon Papers. These segments offer tremendous insight into the internal debates within the media world about the changing nature of media authority and the powerful stakes in credibility.

The most heart-wrenching moments for myself, though, came in the discussions of the painful economic circumstances affecting all of media. NYT suffered a 30 percent decline in circulation during the year this film was made, and the editorial staff of the Old Gray Lady was reduced by 100 people during the course of the filming, both through buyouts and layoffs. The newspaper struggled to grasp hold of new forms of communications to take it into the 21st-Century, but as media reporter David Carr noted, was finding every print reader worth a dollar in newspaper hey days was worth less than a dime online.

And despite a slightly misleading name, the film reaches far beyond the walls of the New York Times, exploring the situations at many of the rising new media outlets and evolving traditional media outlets. The significance of Twitter and the hype around Apple’s iPad get discussed in both fawning and mocking turns. Online video outlet Vice confronts Carr at one point about whether it is following stories in Africa which the Times won’t cover anymore, prompting a defensive Carr to point out it was putting reporters in danger in Africa years before Vice was paying attention.

The film draws laughs and gasps at various points, but when the lights turn on, the facts are what linger. The repercussions of a world without major media outlets watching our leaders, even for a temporary period as the media landscape sorts itself out, seems more daunting after watching Rossi’s film.

And for those of us who devote our lives to presenting those same obtainable truths which the Times puts on its front page each day, it drives us to find our way through the changing media maze with just a tad more haste.

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