Reading 'Page One'

How I became a suave villain

Source: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux

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.

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