Let's Go to Press! 'Page One' Chronicles 21st Century Challenges at the 'Times'
Declining ad revenue. New Media. Widespread layoffs. Paywalls. Pulitzers. And a controversial Australian named Julian Assange.
In 2010, The New York Times made plenty of historic headlines.
And it was all caught on tape.
Page One: Inside The New York Times was co-written by director Andrew Rossi (who was associate producer on the highly rated documentary Control Room) and producer Kate Novack--the two previously worked together on documentary Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. The film chronicles a year in the life of The New York Times, taking viewers inside the storied office building on Eighth Avenue, affording them up-close and personal perspectives on the intricacies of editorial decision-making and page-one meetings.
Rossi's initial interest in the story came shortly after the financial crash of 2008, when newspapers across the country took a major economic nose-dive, and dozens across the country never came up for air. "There are some really smart people who were saying that, with the digital revolution, on the road to the future there are going to be some dead bodies, and some of those are places like The New York Times, and that's OK, that's part of progress," Rossi observes. "And I felt that it would be valuable for everyone to take a step back and get a front seat in a place like the Times--and it didn't have to be the Times, it could have been The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, anywhere that has as its mandate the creation of original reporting. I thought the world needed to see what that kind of journalism takes to do."
The film primarily follows journalist David Carr, a member of the Times' media desk, who is brazenly optimistic and unapologetically brash, and happens to be a devout believer in the longevity of The Gray Lady. In fact, it was Carr who sparked the idea for the documentary.
Rossi first met the journalist while shooting a documentary for HBO on Web 2.0 ventures, like Four Square. After talking to the grizzled newspaper vet about the future of print journalism, Rossi says, "This light bulb went off.
"I realized that David could be a sort of Virgil character, leading us through some of the issues that are a part of the digital future," Rossi continues. "And I thought that the stakes for him--as somebody who's at a newspaper that people are speculating could go out of business, and somebody who's both a chronicler of a specific world but is also really specifically implicated by everything that's changing--the stakes were so high that he'd make an ideal protagonist."
It took about six months of discussions with the editors for Rossi to ultimately gain access to the building, no holds barred. By explaining his process--relative "fly-on-the-wall" journalism coupled with analytical sit-down interviews with those outside the walls of the Times building--Rossi convinced editors that his concept for the film was not bolstered by any sort of agenda, or even any expectations. "I was able to explain the way I wanted to make the film, and people basically felt comfortable participating," he says.
Armed with a Sony EX1 HD camera and a cell phone (with which he would constantly text Novack to get more information on some of the issues circulating the newsroom), Rossi spent at least three days a week at the office, sometimes all week, ultimately compiling about 250 hours of footage. While some difficulty arose when certain members of the newsroom chose not to be on camera, one of the more challenging aspects of filming in a fast-paced newsroom setting came from simple logistics: "I was trying to be both a cinematographer and a director, and a producer and a journalist, and trying to keep up with all the different strands of the story, while physically moving around from the third floor, where the media desk is located in the corner, to the fourth floor, where David's desk is, to the second floor, where the technology desk is, all the while texting my co-producer and co-writer, Kate Novack, who's doing research so that I would be informed enough to do an interview with Bill Keller on the days when they were releasing the Wikileaks information," Rossi explains, without taking a breath.
"Juggling all those responsibilities was thrilling--I think that's the joy of making a documentary film," he maintains. "But, it's also extremely challenging."
While Rossi certainly spent many hours sitting in the newsroom merely observing his subjects, he was also buried in a tangle of storylines and timetables that sometimes dictated where he needed to be at a given moment. "As part of trying to have a very small footprint, to not become an obstacle and get in the way of the journalists as they're working, I would have to coordinate to meet people while they were trying to do an interview," he reflects. "I would kind of keep track of everyone's schedules, and then still try to accommodate the spontaneous things that would emerge."
One of the more exciting moments during production came in April 2010, when the newspaper received reports of a controversial video posted on YouTube by WikiLeaks. "It really represented such a confluence of drama, the visual drama of [Times reporters] trying to produce that story, and also the meaning of WikiLeaks trying to put this video out on YouTube," Rossi asserts. "It represented everything that's happening in the media today, where NBC or The New York Times is sort of irrelevant in that equation."
This came after Rossi had been in the newsroom for about five months, and it was at this point that he knew he had enough significant footage to make the film. He kept production to a 14-month timetable because he felt it was important for the film to be released as soon as possible, "in order for it to have some impact on people's conversations and thoughts about journalism and maybe allow people to take some action." (Rossi and Carr have been involved with numerous lectures and discussions on the future of media in the months leading up to the film's release.)
"Bill's tenure, his eight years at the paper, really represents a clear term," Rossi maintains. "He took over in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, he oversaw the corrections to reporting in the failures in the run-up to the Iraq War with Judy Miller and the WMD reporting, he has overseen these layoffs, and the murders/kidnappings/injuries to countless reporters and photographers who have been in war zones reporting under his watch, and he was there when the paywall went up. His stepping down now and [former managing editor] Jill Abramson taking over really crystallizes this idea of the movie almost representing a field manual for all the landmines that somebody taking over now will have to contend with."
Page One: Inside The New York Times opens in theaters June 17 through Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media. For more information, click here.
Claire Walla is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has been published by the likes of American Cinematographer and VanityFair.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.