Saturday, July 2, 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Ironically, this is the last of more than nine years' worth of weekly reviews I wrote for TimeOFF, the entertainment supplement for about a dozen papers in Central Jersey. Last week I got a call I'd been braced for: In the latest of a series of cuts, they'd trimmed the pages down too far to accommodate more than the occasional movie review.

Page One: Inside the New York Times ends with a series of updates on journalists featured in the film. Tim Arango, a young general-interest reporter, becomes head of the Times’ Baghdad bureau six months after his arrival in Iraq. An executive of the Tribune Company resigns after media reporter David Carr’s investigation of that company explains how it brought several great newspapers to their knees. And technology reporter Brian Stelter loses 80 pounds.

That hodgepodge pretty much sums up what’s wrong with this movie—and what it gets right. Listening in on Carr’s phone interviews and consultations with his editor as he develops the Tribune story is thrilling, but director Andrew Rossi has an irritating inability to distinguish between hugely important issues like that one and mere trivia, like Stelter’s weight loss. Worse yet, as the bit about Arango illustrates, Rossi almost always fails to ask the questions any decent journalist would ask. We’re told that Arango is diligent and talented, but we also hear him joke with his colleagues about how the old pros at the Baghdad bureau are bristling at the news of his impending arrival, sure he’ll soon be on TV opining about the situation after just two or three weeks in country. So what are we to make of the news of his promotion? Is it another example of the kind of clubby favoritism that often operates at places like the Times, or is it a bracing example of the recognition and promotion of outstanding talent that helps makes the paper great?

Unfortunately, Rossi never makes room for that kind of introspection. Despite the movie’s title, we don’t get far inside the Times: Aside from a few privileged glimpses of reporters at work, all we see of the paper are some not terribly interesting conversations at the daily editorial confab and a few self-congratulatory speeches.

What’s worse, the film provides almost no insight into the media revolution that has the Times’ knickers in a twist, its editors and writers fretting about how to respond to Wikipedia or whether they need to start Twitter accounts.

As you may have noticed, the paper you’re reading is struggling to survive, and we’re hardly alone. The bad economy isn’t helping, but the main reason most papers are fighting for their lives is the Internet, whose ever-growing gusher of facts and factoids is redefining how we get our news and how we pay for it—or, more often, don’t.

How will this mass migration from print to pixels affect the content and quality of the information we receive? Will anyone pay for real reporting, not to mention the non-factual content provided by people like me? And if the traditional gatekeepers fall, will we find other ways of getting at the truth that are just as effective—perhaps even better, since our current news media are hardly paragons of virtue? Rossi touches on some of these urgent questions but he doesn’t explore any in depth, flitting from issue to issue like a hyperactive five-year-old.

Half video press release and half time capsule, Page One starts and ends with the premise that journalism as we know it and need it cannot survive without the Times. Now and then someone questions that premise, but only so he can be swatted down by a Times loyalist, most often Carr. The perpetually hoarse old warhorse is well cast as the paper’s chief booster. A gifted writer and reporter, he promotes his employer as fiercely as he does himself, riding his redemption story about being a reformed crack addict hard to establish his grizzled hipster cred.

It’s fun, I gotta admit, to watch Carr take down a self-styled citizen journalist from the Vice website who talks about having reported on things the Times missed. (“Just because you put on a f---ing safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you a right to insult what we do,” Carr snarls.) But it would have been more enlightening to have heard more about what Vice does and why its users like it.

We don’t even learn anything about the Times’ own website, long lauded as one of the best in the news business. Rossi was shooting when the paper started charging nonsubscribers for access to its site, so we hear a few references to that decision, but we learn nothing about why they decided to charge what they did or what they hope for or fear as a result.

Instead, we just keep hearing how much the world needs the Times. Didn’t anyone ever tell Rossi that reporters are supposed to show, not tell?

Written for TimeOFF

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