You could almost hear the snickers when, near the end of Page One: Inside the New York Times, several of the newspaper's executives discuss the newly announced paywall in which non-subscribers will be charged a minimum of $15 per month for full access to the Gray Lady's website. That paywall, which has since taken effect, preceded the similar—albeit cheaper—pay system enacted last week by Lee Enterprises and the Missoulian. Lee execs even compared its new business plan to that of the New York Times.
I didn't hear snickers because I was the only person in the Wilma's large theater on Sunday night, though I do remember snorting. But an empty theater for a newly released documentary about the precarious state of print journalism might be a good enough sign about the plight of dead-tree media. At the very least it's worth a long sigh.
From small city dailies like the Missoulian all the way up to national standard bearers like the Times, the state of all newspapers is unhealthy at best, terminal at worst. For reasons both in and out of the newspapers control, the last 15 years have not been kind. Monster.com ate up the job listings; Craigslist ravaged the rest of the classifieds; and online aggregators like Huffington Post and Gawker Media make millions by rehashing and commenting on the work done by newspaper reporters. And it's no longer just an abstract business problem: causalities include major metropolitan dailies the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Granted impressive access to the small band of media reporters and editors at the New York Times, Page One attempts to make some sense of the unsettled and Twitterfied media universe over the course of a year in the newsroom. And the filmmakers do a fine job at crafting a documentary that will please most hardcore news junkies, if only for showing how the sausage is made at one of the world's largest papers. As one of those junkies, I sure got a kick out of sitting in on the daily newsroom meetings and watching reporters I've read for years scramble to finish a story before deadline. It's journalism-nerd voyeurism at its best.
But as a conduit for exploring the modern day problems of the newspaper industry, there is little in the way of revelation or solution here, mainly because the filmmakers chose the wrong subject. Making the New York Times the centerpiece of a documentary about the ailments of newspapers is akin to following around an Olympic tri-athlete for a film about America's obesity epidemic. The Times isn't without its troubles (there's a surprisingly emotional scene after 100 of the 1,300-employee newsroom are either bought out or laid off), but sympathy is in short supply as we follow the day-to-day activities of an international media behemoth, headquartered in a swanky new 52-story high rise on 8th Avenue. Newspapers are most definitely in trouble, but using the industry's gold standard as a metaphor for those troubles doesn't make a lot of sense, no matter how well their reporters and editors are at articulating the problems.
Just the fact that the paper has a six-person strong team tasked with covering the media (and often itself) is indication enough that things are still swell in midtown Manhattan. Though Page One jumps around quickly to different subjects and interviewees, the two stars here are veteran media reporter David Carr and 25-year-old Brian Stelter, a media wiz kid who joined the Times after he caught the attention of the media world through his blog TVNewser. The two reporters play off each other well, with Stelter's new media philosophy slowly influencing the reluctant Carr, who doesn't even want to join Twitter. Stelter, meanwhile, is seemingly able to simultaneously Tweet, conduct a phone interview and write a story.
The film is at its best when it looks outward from the comfy confines of the Times newsroom, and especially when it weaves in a story that Carr is working on about the ugly demise of the Tribune Company, which owns several of the country's largest papers and is mired in bankruptcy. But again, it's a story told through the lens of the New York Times. I want to actually see the ugliness first hand. Take me inside the newsroom of a mid-size daily in Cincinnati, or Olympia, or Lincoln, Nebraska. Ask those reporters what it's like to take pay cuts, to lose benefits, and to write for an audience that no longer values news. Ask those editors what it's like to lose page after page of space as advertisers flee and the paper shrinks. For as interesting as Page One can be, too often it regresses into "rich people complaining about their problems" territory. And after a while you'll just stop listening.
Page One: Inside the New York Times ends its run at the Wilma Thu., Aug. 11.