Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011)

02Oct11

Directed by Andrew Rossi. Rating: U. Running time: 92 minutes.

The newspaper industry has been dying for a long time now, and everybody knows it. Everybody, apparently, except some members of the industry itself. Whilst the reasons behind the demise are undoubtedly diverse and intricate, a predominant cause is evidently the web, and here the industry has, shockingly, done its best to kill itself. It has given away its content online for free since day one, and when The Atlantic wrote an article pointing out this trend, warning of the future and even entertaining the eventual fall of the New York Times, the media’s reaction was hostile and dismissive. Page One, it seems, does want to remind us of the fragility of the financial situation, but it doesn’t bother to bore us by wheeling out the numbers and emphasising the economics. The focus is instead on why, if the decline of the newspaper does transpire, this would be a tragedy of revolutionary proportions first and foremost for democracy.

With the arrival of Twitter, Wikileaks, blogs and the web more generally it may be easier than ever to distribute vital political information, and the temptation is high to casually conclude from this that the paper as a news source is increasingly being rendered obsolete. Where the industry itself commits the fallacy of thinking because newspapers shouldn’t die, they won’t, some make an even worse argument and suggest that they should fall because they are no longer needed. If there’s an intention to be identified that lies behind Page One’s variety of narrative arcs, it’s definitely a commitment to dispelling this dangerous myth once and for all. It may be the case that with the rise of the tablet computer newspapers will vanish, but this isn’t to say the producers behind the traditional papers should or will also evaporate as news sources. 140 character tweets may be great, but imagine that site without links to lengthier, justificatory articles. Wikileaks may be able to share 150,000 cables without the need for a publisher playing middle man, but there’s little chance the public will be capable of digesting this heap of information were it not for the help of The New York Times and The Guardian.

And this is where the documentary’s real lesson lies: for all the changes that the media undergoes, one thing that cannot ever be altered is the fact that serious, salient journalism requires intensive investigations that are carried out by experts. We cannot possibly understand the Afghan situation on the ground without reporters actually flying out there, and whether such an operation is profitable or not, it is the likes of the New York Times that continues to set the agenda, to create the news. Page One‘s message is that without their work, our work as citizens is made impossible through an unacceptable lack of information.

I’m not sure how to consider the film stylistically, because with all due respect to the filmmakers and any artistic intentions they might have, they must know that it is the substance of their work that matters here. They don’t want you to leave praising the documentary. They want you to leave praising serious newspapers. It’s no exaggeration to say they are as crucial to the defence of liberty as the US Constitution. The best we can do is to keep on buying them, and hope the likes of Mr. Murdoch continue to kindly run these great institutions through cross-subsidisation. The future may be not-for-profit, but to see Page One is to see that money shouldn’t matter.

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