Reading ‘Page One’

My first job, the one I’d always dreamed of, was at The New York Times. But my dream didn’t survive the Times’ 1970s newsroom. Here were row upon row of gray, smoking, middle-aged men, bent, slumped, sweaty, full of dandruff, many with tremors and tics, old before their time. It was a visual wasteland. Life—or at least the will to dress for it—had mysteriously left the place. I was 20 years old and this was a bleak future. I escaped as fast as possible (disappointing my father—many Times careers are driven by proud fathers).

These same people, still mostly men, still smoking, and still aggressively unattractive, are back in the documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times, except this isn’t the 1970s. It’s today’s newsroom.

Page One is an agonizing film to watch, 90 minutes of visual deprivation. It could be the least glamorous film ever made.

In some sense, this may be its point. The New York Times, the film assumes, is of such profound importance to civilization that its fate is the fate of the world—all else is trivial. Along with the Times’ centrality and necessity, come the dedicated and even heroic—all ineffably burdened by their devotion—people who work there.

The film is largely about the 2008-to-2010 period (with ritual digressions to Watergate and Pentagon Papers days) when nearly every big city paper in the country, including the Times, found itself bankrupt or in financial extremis. The through line is the Times’ struggle during this period and its little-engine-that-could story of survival.

The focus is on the Times’ own media desk, which in a bit of meta this and that is covering the very story that most preoccupies people at the Times: the fate of their own industry.

There are some gnarled and unacknowledged conflicts here. First, the media desk has become the front line of the paper’s financial and existential struggle, with its reporters actively demonizing the enemies of proper news organizations. In venue after venue (as an indication of the droning nature of the film, many of the scenes are of conferences and panels), they proselytize for the virtue of newspapers and the Times’ certain value. Second, the most prominent of the Times’ media reporters have used their activist support of the Times to promote themselves into the kind of public faces that will ensure their futures were the Times to depart this veil of tears (this film is part of that self-promotion).

The central role in the film belongs to David Carr, a former drug addict whose life was transformed by his job at the Times. The loyalty he gives it now is that of a Road-to-Damascus convert. Carr is a hyper-exaggerated version of the men I first encountered in the Times newsroom in the 1970s. Indeed, he’s a train-wreck figure quite in the manner of a reality TV star. He’s the Snooki of journalism. Grotesque, annoying, yet somehow transfixing (or, anyway, what passes here for transfixing). Carr is flanked by Tim Arango, who also has done rehab time, and Brian Stelter, who loses 90 pounds during the filming of Page One, giving the project a 12-step aspect—everybody focused on the program, which is devotion to the Times. Without the Times, they would all be lost.

The strangest thing in the film however is the resentful and stubborn denial of business reality by the paper’s own business reporters. Curiously, nobody interviewed here is from the business world (this is an insular and inbred cast of media commentators, who all talk to each other). There are no bankers, analysts, or advertisers (only Gawker’s Nick Denton makes a frustrated point about business exigencies). If there had been, the makers of the film—themselves business know-nothings—might have had a more realistic sense of the Times’ current tenuous position. Newspapers, including the Times, have shed enough costs (the Times Company has mostly cut those costs from its other papers, which are not mentioned in the film), to have momentarily balanced out the downturn—but nearly everyone with an informed view of the news business expects that downturn to continue. What’s more, this is not just about paper versus digital—and how to manage the transition. It is the whole of the news business that is in structural decline, experiencing a catastrophic 25 percent fall in three years.

As a founder of the news aggregator Newser, and hence a heretic in the news business, I turn out to be one of the Times’ enemies—a mighty one apparently, with Newser singled out in the film and in its accompanying press material. I don’t know if Newser actually threatens the Times, or, even if it does, if this is so bad for the world. But I do know that by the time I arrive on camera late in the film as part of the David Carr reality show, after watching all these aggrieved and shlumpy Timesmen, scowling and angry, huffing and puffing (they smoke), I come off looking handsome and young.