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‘Page One’ Film Review: Doc Reveals New York Times’ Digital Dilemma

Film is a year-long chronicle of my former colleagues on the media desk of The New York Times and their struggle to produce journalism in the Internet era

This review of “Page One” was first published on January 24, 2011 after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. 

It’s kind of weird for me to watch “Page One,” a year-long chronicle of my former colleagues on the media desk of The New York Times and their struggle to produce journalism in this most challenging of times.

The film, which starts around the time I started TheWrap in 2009 after having left the paper, is kind of like watching the conversation continue in the room after you’ve walked out.

On the one hand, the film directed by Andrew Rossi does an able job of documenting the critically important role that the Times continues to play in news-gathering and dissemination – and why it can be so damn exciting to be there.

On the other hand, the film gives a rather superficial assessment of what everybody really wants to know: Will the Times make it, or not? Can the newspaper of record change fast enough, dramatically enough, to adjust to an upside-down business model?

That he doesn’t answer.

In 2008, the Times cut 100 jobs, borrowed $250 million and re-leased its building. In 2009, it cut another 100 jobs.

It is distinctly odd to hear someone say on film exactly what I felt at that tie: “The mood is funereal.” And, I might have added, not conducive to doing great journalism.

The team on which he focuses includes heroically smart and dedicated journalists – David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam (proud to say I’ve worked with two of them, hope one day to work with the third) who make up much of the media desk.

The challenge of the media desk is even more profound – to chronicle the potential demise of an industry of which you are a part. Which could indeed mean chronicling (as Richard Perez-Pena did) the challenges of the newspaper in which you are printed.

Anyone who has worked at the Times understands that it is a uniquely complicated organism, one which Gay Talese, who is actually in “Page One,” brilliantly described in “The Kingdom and the Power” 30 years ago and whose lessons remain largely the same. The hubris, the institutional arrogance, the rigidity, the arena of court politics. And despite that all, a vital contribution to democratic society that we can hardly afford to lose.

My least favorite moment in the film is when both Atlantic columnist Michael Hirschorn and filmmaker Rossi get it dead wrong.

In “Page One,” Hirschorn points out  that you can “trace any major story to an origin in the Times.” Unh-unh. The Times does not like to break news, traditionally speaking. And in the age of the web it does so even less often. Instead it provides gravitas, context, depth and analysis.

The very next scene proves my point. Tim Arango and Andrew Ross Sorkin work on a ‘tick-tock’ of the Comcast deal to buy NBC-Universal. Um – hello? Who broke that story? Um, we did over here at TheWrap. And the web continues to break plenty of news. (Note to Rossi: please amend this on the DVD!)  

My favorite moment in the film, by far, is when Times journalist David Carr faces down Newser founder and Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff at a formal debate over the future of news.

I’ve made my views clear about Wolff’s self-serving arguments for his parasitic site. In summary, Newser represents the worst of the cut-and-paste news age.

In the film, Carr holds up a colorful and lively page of Newser’s aggregation of New York Times stories. Then he holds up the page absent that original reporting. It’s a cut-out of empty square.

Here’s hoping the Times figures it out. 

“Page On” premieres March 1, 2022 on HBO Max.