For anyone involved in media - new media, old media, media schmedia - the idea of a documentary about the inner workings of the New York Times is a must-see proposition. The mother ship of American newspapers, the Times and its reporters, editors, and business suits have been busy trying to stay ahead of the curve - or at the very least, on the curve - as the paradigms of publishing a general-interest daily have flown out the window and up into the clouds. Or onto the Cloud. In case you haven't heard, there's this thing called the Internet. . . .
Alas, Page One: Inside the New York Times, director Andrew Rossi's portrait of the paper and some of its key players, doesn't quite meet the task.
Although there's plenty here for media junkies to savor, from All the President's Men scenes of dogged journos chasing down leads and typing away (on keypads, of course) to the sight of reformed crackhead and crack media reporter David Carr wailing about Facebook and Twitter and how real, enterprising, firsthand reportage is still what matters, the documentary is a victim of its own agenda. Rossi and his team set out to cover the Times, fly-on-the-wall style, over the course of a year, which means that even as Page One centers around the Times' media desk, all these big, breaking stories - Iraq, WikiLeaks - come and go, offering drama and distraction, but little in the way of coherence and closure.
The paper's motto is "All the News That's Fit to Print." But all that news doesn't necessarily fit neatly into a 90-minute doc.
There's also a level of institutional self-promotion going on: After inviting the film crew to tag along to editorial meetings and story conferences, desk-side hand-wringings and deadline editing sessions, then-executive editor Bill Keller and his team appear on their best behavior. Even when a dramatic round of job cuts is announced - more than 100 staffers either invited to take buyouts or asked to leave - the grim news comes with the kind of colorful and concise imagery, courtesy of Keller himself, that makes for a good story. "Some days I feel we should be symbolically wearing bloody butcher smocks around the newsroom," the top editor says to the camera, letting everyone know that he has a conscience, and some class.
Carr, whose best-selling memoir, Night of the Gun, chronicles his ordeal as a drug addict, easily emerges as Page One's star. Lean and ornery, and not anything like your stereotypical newspaper reporter, he roams the country, championing the Times' mission and legacy and questioning where journalism is heading in the aggregating, blogosphering, iPad-ing age.
That question - where is journalism going, and will the Times still be leading the charge, or even still be around? - is only partly answered. Stay tuned. Please.