The New York Times Company

New Documentary Film Analyzes the Future of Printed Newspapers in America

In the tradition of great fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Page One: Inside the New York Times deftly gains unprecedented access to The New York Times newsroom and the inner workings of the Media Desk.  With the Internet surpassing print as our main news source and newspapers all over the country going bankrupt, Page One chronicles the transformation of the media industry at its time of greatest turmoil. Writers like Brian Stelter, Tim Arango and the salty but brilliant David Carr track print journalism’s metamorphosis even as their own paper struggles to stay vital and solvent. Meanwhile, their editors and publishers grapple with existential challenges from players like WikiLeaks, new platforms ranging from Twitter to tablet computers, and readers’ expectations that news online should be free.

But rigorous journalism is thriving. Page One gives us an up-close look at the vibrant cross-cubicle debates and collaborations, tenacious jockeying for on-the-record quotes, and skillful page-one pitching that produce the “daily miracle” of a great news organization. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of journalists continuing to produce extraordinary work—under increasingly difficult circumstances.

At the heart of the film is the burning question on the minds of everyone who cares about a rigorous American press, Times lover or not: what will happen if the fast-moving future of media leaves behind the fact-based, original reporting that helps to define our society?

From inside the frenetic corridors of The New York Times – comes a riveting portrait of a classic American institution battling to survive an all-out revolution. In a brave new news world of tweets, blogs and aggregators, the storied newspaper faces massive technological, economic and cultural upheaval. Yet, PAGE ONE reveals that the heart of The New York Times beats as passionately as ever – driven by a group of tough-minded journalists who remain determined to bring to light some of the most important stories of our times -- even when that story is them.

Filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack (LE CIRQUE: A TABLE IN HEAVEN) gain unprecedented access to the Times’ long-hidden inner sanctum for a year, just as the paper is confronting newsroom lay-offs, the game-changing emergence of WikiLeaks, and questions about whether the newspaper itself could go bankrupt as print outlets across the country collapse. The result is an exhilarating view into a world where Old School values are colliding--and sometimes converging--with a new future.

Tracking four journalists profoundly impacted by the shifting media reality – intrepid media reporter David Carr, Iraq-bound reporter Tim Arango, twenty-something-blogger-turned-Timesman Brian Stelter and their demanding editor Bruce Headlam – Rossi and Novack capture the paper’s clashing personalities (and boys’ club atmosphere,). Newsroom cross-fire erupts, reporters jockey to get onto page one and Headlam tries to keep the chaos under control. PAGE ONE peers into the scandals that have rocked the paper, from the fabricated journalism of Jayson Blair to Judith Miller’s pre-war coverage of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; and looks at how transformative events of the past, including the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, resonate today.

Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media and HISTORY present Page One: Inside the New York Times, directed by Andrew Rossi, produced and written by Kate Novack and Rossi. The film was also produced by Josh Braun, David Hand, Alan Oxman and Adam Schlesinger. The executive producers are Daniel Stern and Daniel Pine. 

See the official trailer.

The Idea

When Adolph Ochs purchased a faltering New York Times in 1896, he vowed to deliver “All the news that’s fit to print,” a paper based on reported facts, in contrast to the predominant yellow journalism of the time. In the tumultuous century that followed, the paper became a newsgathering force, its pages helping to inform discourse and, in many cases, effect change around the world. In those years, its journalists garnered over 100 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other news organization in history.

But by 2009, The New York Times was facing troubled times. Its circulation and ad sales were in steep decline. More than 100 workers were asked to take early retirements. And as major newspapers around the country started going belly up, even the Times’ own survival seemed precarious. For the first time in generations, people started thinking the unthinkable: could The New York Times go out of business?

It was in the midst of this tense and electrified atmosphere that documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi ventured into the editorial halls of The New York Times. The bold idea to do so came to Rossi unexpectedly. He was in the middle of a meeting with veteran reporter David Carr, one of the paper’s most colorful characters and passionate advocates, for a completely different project. As Carr expounded on the changing role of the Times in an evolving media landscape, Rossi looked around, and was deeply lured by the exciting yet endangered atmosphere around him.

“We were sitting in the newsroom at the Times and I thought, This is where the story is,” Rossi recalls. “I saw the Media Desk as a prism through which to look at journalism at a moment of great peril, but also of great opportunity.”

The director envisioned “embedding” himself at the Times, tracking stories with the reporters on a day-to-day basis. But the vision, too, was precarious, in part because the Times has been notoriously averse to letting cameras pierce the private debates and conversations that lie behind the making of the news.

During a period of six months, Rossi met with Media Editor Bruce Headlam, who would eventually became a central subject in the film, as well as with the paper’s Executive Editor Bill Keller and the entire Media Desk. Concerns were aired and carefully negotiated, but Rossi ultimately won the most complete and intimate access to the newsroom that cameras have ever received.

Collaborating with his regular writing and producing partner, Kate Novack, the director spent the next 14 months inside the Times’ midtown Manhattan headquarters –where his first mission was building relationships and fitting into the lightning-paced routines of the paper. Rossi began trying to wend his way into the confidence of the 14 journalists working on the Media Desk. Only two were women, but unfortunately, both declined to be captured on camera. Meanwhile, the fact that he works as a one-man crew helped him to blend into the woodwork.

“I knew that I wouldn’t have a film unless I earned the trust of the reporters and editors,” explains Rossi. “Going into the newsroom with a boom operator and a field producer watching a video monitor would have destroyed the intimacy and led to a very different type of film.”

“It just took time. I wanted to become part of the furniture. For the first couple of months, I’d often sit on top of one of the low file cabinets the writers have inside their cubicles and just wait for hours for something to happen.”

The Future of News

Page One unfolds at a crossroads for news coverage in America. The old business models of print and broadcast are dying, but no truly sustainable new ones have yet emerged to take their place. An astonishing 2,800 U.S. newspapers have gone out of business over the last decade. Newspapers are not just financially embattled but face a barrage of competition from internet-based publications, the rise of citizen journalists, opinion-driven bloggers and news aggregators (such as Newser and The Huffington Post), which add to a dizzying atmosphere of overwhelming information, some of it with uncertain reliability.

The shift represents an exhilarating opportunity for a richer and more diverse news landscape, with, for example, new platforms like Facebook helping to spark a youth revolt in Egypt and the online non-profit website ProPublica garnering the first Pulitzer Prize for a solely Web-based outlet. At the same time, there is a grave danger that the most important functions of the press – serving as a watchdog over government, business and other wells of power; ferreting out trustworthy, factual information, when the truth is deeply buried; providing context and background to essential public debates; offering a wide variety of perspectives on all sides of an issue – could get lost in the search for fast-paced news and commercial success.  

The questions are flying: Will hard-hitting journalistic exposés be pushed to the margins by “infotainment?” Can the vitality of journalism survive even if the newspaper, as we now know it, doesn’t? Are the emerging hybrids of old and new media going to increase or decrease the ability of news to serve the civic good? And in an age of so much free-flowing opinion, aggressive public relations and bad information, can any news organization maintain the basic precept of trust?

In PAGE ONE, Rossi gives us a front row seat, as the media reporters at The New York Times grapple with these questions, even as they are acutely aware that their own livelihoods and the traditional values of journalism are on the line. But he also reveals something he feels is equally important: how incredibly hard it is to investigate and publish well-researched, important and change-effecting news – a process the Times has honed for more than a century.

 To give the audience further perspective on the challenges faced by The New York Times at this pivotal juncture for news media, Rossi and Novack broaden their project from the subjects at the Times to interview a wide range of experts in the field. They include new-media thinker Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody), who argues that the decline in advertising revenues coupled with an explosion of competition represent a revolution for journalism akin to the invention of the printing press; Atlantic contributor Michael Hirschorn, who wrote the 2009 article that dared to ask “What if The New York Times goes out of business?”; Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who posits that originally-reported journalism is a public good; Paul Steiger, the founding editor of ProPublica, a model for a non-profit, investigative journalism newsroom on the Web; Gay Talese, who, in 1969, wrote the quintessential behind-the-scenes book on The New York Times, The Kingdom and The Power; as well as Nick Denton, founder of the popular blog collective Gawker Media; David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?; and Sarah Ellison, a media-business journalist whose book War at the Wall Street Journal exposed many of the tensions and intrigues at play in the modern-day newspaper landscape.

Each provides hotly argued perspectives on whether or not the disappearance of traditional news outlets will shrink or expand our knowledge of the world, and whether “The New York Times effect” -- the paper’s presumed influence on media coverage -- continues to be felt.

Page One raises a minefield of haunting questions about the future of the Times, and, ultimately, the kind of original, rigorous reporting that appears in its pages. Rossi shines a spotlight on David Carr’s relentless advocacy for the paper, the passion and power of which, Rossi says, are hard to deny.

That passion was in effect when PAGE ONE premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film received a standing ovation after the screening. In the Q&A session following the film, Carr summed up why he believes the tenacity and devotion of reporters at The New York Times is as important as ever right now.

“The one thing that is sort of true even of people like me, and I don’t do the most mission-critical job at The New York Times, by a long shot . . . [is that] the impulse is to go toward things. That’s what we do. We go toward things,” Carr commented.

For Rossi, that is exactly what PAGE ONE set out to capture: the Times going toward the unwritten future, eye wide open and ready to cover the changes they hope to survive. 

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