Andrew Rossi’s documentary not only covers—selectively, of course—a year in the life of the nation’s newspaper of record, but relates the storyline to the difficulties facing traditional print media in the face of on-line competition. “Page One” serves as both a fitting tribute to a great journalistic enterprise and a warning about what would be lost if it—and others like it—ceased to exist.
The focus is on the Times’ recently-established media desk, which covers the journalistic beat generally. And so while executive editor Bill Keller (who recently stepped down from his position) comments on the overall problems confronting print media as rumors swirl about the paper’s financial troubles and staff reductions occur, most of the picture centers on that desk’s editors (particularly Bruce Headlam) and reporters. The emphasis simultaneously allows Rossi to illustrate the workings of the newsroom while pointing up the pressures the paper must deal with in terms of budget-cutting and working out relationships with non-print operations.
Thus we watch as two investigative writers, Tim Arango (who later transfers to the Baghdad bureau) and Andrew Ross Sorkin, put the final touches to an investigative piece on a complicated media merger. And how Brian Stelter, an erstwhile blogger hired by the paper, deals with the WikiLeaks release of classified government documents, in which the Times itself becomes a partner (a decision much debated among its staff).
And then there’s David Carr, the older media desk reporter with an admittedly dark past, including a drug arrest and jail time. He serves as a spokesman for traditional journalism against the new media, travelling to a conference in his hometown of Minneapolis where he encourages print reporters. He also appears on a panel where he eviscerates Michael Wolff, the pompous head of Newser who predicts the demise of outlets like the Times, merely by pointing out that without newspapers, Newser would have virtually nothing to aggregate, since it offers little that’s original.
Carr also serves as the rumpled, disarmingly gruff star of the last reporting segment of “Page One,” which concentrates on his expose of the destruction of the once-great Tribune Corporation by a group of buyers headed by Sam Zell whose dedication is to profit at any cost rather than journalistic integrity. It’s a cautionary tale that also serves as a fitting finale, contrasting the high standards of the Times, which it tries to uphold even in the face of such manifest blunders as those involving Judith Miller and Jason Blair (both of which are included summarily here), with the entirely mercenary motives of the Tribune investors.
The Times footage per se is the meat of the film—and that involving Carr the centerpiece of that—but observations from outsiders like Gay Talese, David Remnick and Katrina vanden Heuvel provide pointed context, usefully comparing the Pentagon Pages incident with the WikiLeaks episode and placing the paper’s contributions to the national life in historical perspective.
The result is a documentary that’s totally conventional in form, but offers fascinating behind-the-scenes material while encouraging us to think about issues that are significant for the future of news reporting and, therefore, to the possibility of substantive public discourse. Though “Page One” isn’t as flashy as some non-fiction films, it’s a fine contribution to an important topic.