Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oh goodie, more news about the news biz

In this documentary, media columnist David Carr practically becomes the face of The New York Times.
One of the early sequences in Page One: Inside the New York Times mentions the demise of The Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that almost lived to celebrate its 150th anniversary. As a former News employee, the reference made me sad -- not only because the death of a Denver daily cost many friends their jobs, but because it suggested that an atmosphere of gloom would hang over Page One, an all-too-familiar pall cast by predictions that newspapers are one step away from the death rattle.

If you've been paying attention to the world of journalism, you already know a lot of what Page One has to say. If not, you can catch up with the litany of newspaper woes by watching, Stop the Presses, a more comprehensive documentary than Page One.

For the uninitiated, a brief recap: Declining ad revenues, sinking circulation, feisty new media outlets and an inability to attract young readers have imperiled newspapers. Many men and women who dedicated their lives to newspapers have lost jobs.

Know this: Journalists harbor strange, complicated feelings about the papers for which they toil, but they mostly love them. That's why a downsized journalist isn't just a newly unemployed person: He or she is a jilted lover. But that's a story for another day.

Having set a grim stage, director Andrew Rossi takes us into the world of the New York Times as revealed by the Times' media department, the section of the paper that covers the business and social implications of newspapers, television and the Internet.

There, Rossi finds his documentary's dominant character, columnist and media reporter David Carr. Carr, who wrote a book about his life as a crack addict and single parent, is a savvy writer whose work consistently breathes fresh life into the Times' business section. He's an interesting guy, who grew up working for alternative papers, which may explain why he has a convert's zeal for his current employer. He's a vocal, gravely voiced keeper of the Times faith.

Nothing wrong with that, but Rossi's focus on the Times' media department doesn't do enough justice to the paper's scope. A documentary about the Times without a word from Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman or Frank Rich, who still was writing his influential Sunday column when the film was shot? Sure, we hear from executive editor Bill Keller, and we also get an idea of how the Times works a big story, in this case, Carr's knock-out punch of an article about the Tribune bankruptcy. We're inside the Times' building, but are we inside the Times?

Rossi doesn't tell us where the Times' powers are concentrated, who has juice within the organization and who doesn't, and how ordinary reporters view their lives at the paper.

For me, an inside peek at a Times news meeting hardly seemed revelatory. News is interesting (or should be); news meetings, not so much. And it's hardly surprising that the editors we meet are hardworking, conscientious and, like most editors I've known, concerned about when the hell a story is going to move from a reporter's computer to theirs.

But did we really need rehashing of the old-media/new-media debate, which by now should cause eyelids to droop in all quarters? Too many tears already have been shed by too many people about the diminishing stature of newspapers, which is why Page One sometimes feels old hat, the worst thing you can say about a documentary about the world's greatest news gathering organization. Moreover, the business environment for papers seems to have stabilized -- at least a bit -- since the movie was shot.

Still, there's something to be learned here.

A title card at the end of the movie tells us that one of the paper's media reporters has become chief of the Times' Baghdad bureau. I don't know if Rossi really understood the importance of that -- not for one reporter's career but for the flow of information at a time when too much of the media has buried its head in the sands of hyper-local coverage.

Even with cutbacks, the Times has a Baghdad bureau. That should shame every news organization that has attempted to cut and slash its way to profitability. It should, but I'm guessing it won't.

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