Back in 2009, documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi was amazed by how many media watchers were predicting the imminent demise of the print edition of the New York Times, the paper that for more than 150 years had represented the gold standard in daily print journalism.
Using celebrated media reporter David Carr as his entrée, he decided to chronicle the enterprise, with the result being "Page One: Inside the New York Times," a documentary that opened last week in New York and screens on Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, just prior to its L.A. opening.
"There were so many smart people at that moment talking about the great digital revolution, and saying, 'There's gonna be a lot of dead bodies, and if the Times is one of them, so be it,'" Rossi said. "And that stuck me as a very strange position for smart people to be taking."
Warnings of the Times' demise proved to be unfounded, though the paper is still struggling with its online strategy.
And while it farmed out its own review of the film to non-staffer Michael Kinsley, who panned the film, Carr has been an enthusiastic supporter, and Rossi insists that most other Times staffers have been similarly positve.
The following are excerpts from separate interviews with Rossi (left) and Carr (below), in which they talked to TheWrap about the beginnings of what Carr thought was a bad idea, the time the filmmaker went too far, and whether the New York Times needs to stay in print in order to remain the New York Times.
Andrew Rossi: I interviewed David for a movie I was doing for HBO, and our conversation, which was ostensibly about new media and social media and all the wonderful things about it, kept circling back to this notion of where is the place for legacy media in that future. And immediately this light bulb went off, and I said to him on the spot, "What if we did a movie about you, and about the New York Times?"
David Carr: I thought it was a terrible idea. And I said, "Great, go ask my bosses," thinking I'm going to get rid of him that way. And they said OK. I've never asked [editor] Bill [Keller] why he did that.
After Andrew was with me for four or five days, I was just losing my marbles. I finally said, "You should broaden out to some of my other colleagues, and you and I should spend a little less quality time together."
Rossi: It ended up being a great thing that he suggested that he didn’t want to be the sole subject of the film. Because the message ultimately is about this journalistic process, about creating stories that are engaged in by editors and writers and this whole panoply of resources. It’s not about one star.
Carr: If you want to signal to people what a jerk you are, having somebody walk behind you with a camera through a newsroom is the way to do it. You just might as well have a flashing sign on the cameraman saying, "FOLLOWING THE A-HOLE."
ALL ACCESS … ALMOST
Rossi: The only problem I had with access was in November of 2009, when the paper went through the second or third round of layoffs. My purview was to focus on the media desk, but at the moment people were announcing that they were taking buyouts, and I went to interview several of those people. And at a certain point they were going to start laying people off, and they asked me to not capture that part.
Carr: He got into a little bit of a jam the day of the layoffs, I remember that. People didn’t want him around. But like most documentarians, he got what he wanted before they threw him out. And then he had to negotiate his way back in.
Also, the women in the media department did not participate. They didn’t think it was a very good idea, and they didn’t want to be part of it. So you end up with hammy, needy males sort of swanning about. So there's a kind of self selection going on in the film.
Rossi: I think the general consensus is that that someday imminently there will not be a paper product, or if it does exist it'll be like a luxury artifact that will be super-expensive. But I think the message of "Page One" is that quality journalism is what matters, and that original reporting and boots-on-the-ground reporting, as much as that’s a cliché, is what matters.
Of course, those Tiffany ads at the top of A3 in the physical paper, for which they can charge incredible amounts of money, are still really important, because they're paying for all that reporting. So the physical paper probably isn’t going anywhere until the online journalism can be monetized to bridge that gap.
Carr: Ask the 40 million people who visit us on the web whether we need to be in print to be the New York Times. Ask the 100,000 or 200,000 people who are paying for our product on the web. They're not buying the Schmeckler Times. The brand is meaningful. It conveys not just authority but industry behind the work.
I love the printed artifact. I get four newspapers at my house every single day, including the New York Times. But I don’t think it's where the soul of the enterprise lives. I don’t think it has to smell like ink to smell like the New York Times.
Getty Images photos by Jemal Countess (Carr) and Larry Busacca (Rossi).