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.”