Reports of the newspapers' demise may be premature...
"Airstrike Video Brings Attention to Whistleblower Site" was an April 2010 article in the New York Times that signaled a decisive moment in this relationship between web sources and "print" ones in the US. It was about the WikiLeaks revelation of a moment in the Afghan war that brought WikiLeaks and Julian Assange to worldwide attention. The Times decided to feature this article in their "page one" conference where all the "desks" meet to decide what the days' top news stories are and where they will go in the paper. Julian Assange became Time Magazine's 2010 Reader's Choice for Man of the Year.
If you Google-search that first Times Wikileaks article you will find the next item that comes up is a WikiLeak-run piece, "Mainstream Coverage of WikiLeaks Has Fallen Far Short," and you'll see how the battle and hostility between old and new media platforms rages on from day one. Each world seems to see the other as a threat. The new media sources, like WikiLeaks -- and in the past year Julian Assange's hubris has been much in evidence -- regard themselves for good reason as the Next Big Thing, and they believe they have rendered or soon will render print journalism obsolete, banishing forever the print newspaper sold in newsstands and delivered to your door.
But this nifty new documentary, which relies on Times media writer and former crack addict David Carr as a personal focus -- he's a point man for the paper on new media -- strongly argues that the US's "journal of record" remains relevant. Rossi's film makes it clear that the newspapers are an endangered species unless they adapt to the new circumstances, but the top papers are doing so. Carr points out that the Times has a major online presence; that its print edition is one form in which it is available, not the chief form. This documentary film seeks to focus on how the Times is adapting to new circumstances.
Part of the story is things like WikiLeaks. There is a strong tendency in the Brave New World of Web information to declare newspapers irrelevant. And while WikiLeaks later bolstered its legitimacy and cooperativeness in the world of journalism by collaborating with major western papers for several of its big revelations, about the Afghan war and about US diplomacy, Assange has since been less collaborative, and unhappy with the way papers have edited and positioned his "findings" to fit their own perceptions of their nature and relevance. For instance, the Afghan video was initially dumped on YouTube by WikiLeaks in an edited form that did not reveal there was somebody armed with a missile launcher in the US target. The Times pointed this out. Indeed to do so was one of the main reasons for running the article.
The situation is that newspapers were fading a long time before the Internet came into being. There were a lot of papers. And papers like the Baltimore Sun, in the city where I grew up, which in the good old days was a great newspaper, three newspapers, in fact, Morning, Evening, and Sunday, and now is greatly deteriorated, used to have London, Paris, Rome, Moscow and Bonn bureaus. That seems like ancient history now (though the Times still has multiple bureaus). TV had a bad effect on print news. Rich media moguls bought up lots of local papers to create syndicated chains of papers, which they didn't care about except as commodities and were glad to trade or dump. Recently the Internet has, of course, coopted sales and advertising, devastating newspaper revenues. It might also be argued that the US print news system was too decentralized. In a smaller country a few big papers can logically function for the whole country.
It's more of a blow when it develops that Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit, Los Angeles, or San Francisco no longer have competing newspapers, or don't even have one good newspaper at all anymore. All of this makes the three big US papers, the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, more important for all of America -- the way Le Monde and Le Figaro always have been for all of France. The year 2010 was devastating for newspapers in America, a time of massive layoffs, bankruptcies, closures. Is the New York Times (which itself had to lay off some longtime newsroom staff in 2010) no longer relevant -- or is it more important than ever, a last bastion of good reporting? Is Julian Assange a reporter? (In this film, he is heard saying he is one, but that more than that he is an "activist".) Is Twitter a legitimate news source? (David Carr recounts his own personal history of loathing Twitter, which his youthful new media Times colleague Brian Stelter deems essential, and then himself becoming a convert.)
The trouble with the claims of online sources to equal significance and the capacity to render WP, WSJ, and NYT irrelevant is that they are "aggregaters." Without the original mainstream media reportage the aggregaters won't have any news to gather and disseminate. At a public debate where new media people attack the New York Times, which they claim is discredited after Judith Miller and its cheerleading of the runup to the Iraq invasion, David Carr holds up a page of the online aggregater Newser with the mainstream media contributions cut out -- and it's turned into Swiss cheese, nothing but a network of empty windows. These new media organs do not originate news, but collect it from elsewhere and make it available, often in abbreviated form. Or they are fonts of editorializing and advocacy, trumpeting opinions without bothering to establish credentials for doing so. In the new media, most of the time the "reporter on the beat" doesn't exist. In his place is just a young guy at a computer finding stuff on the Internet. That is information-culling, not news-gathering. There is still a need for a reporter who does interviews, or for a brave young man (like the Times' Tim Arango in this film) who chooses to go to Iraq or Afghanistan -- to places where you can get killed. But there is also a need for the declining race of reporters who cover city hall, go to government meetings and look for news, or go out to wherever events are happening. "The New York Times has dozens of bureaus throughout the world," the feisty Carr declares at the debate. "Are we going to kick back and see what Facebook turns up? I don't think so!"
This film is above all a one-year chronicle of and up-close look at the New York Times, its newsroom, its reporters, its editors, its important stories, and how the whole paper functions, even to the great press room and the giant rolls of newsprint that fuel the presses. We meet Bill Keller, the paper's Executive Editor (just replaced by the first woman in the position, Jill Abramson); Bruce Headlam, Media Desk Editor; Brian Stelter, a bright young Media Desk reporter who was found as a blogger; Tim Arango, now the Times Iraq Bureau Chief; and various other figures. The heart of the documentary, its face and voice, is David Carr. Carr, who has worked for the paper since 2002 after time as a crack addict and raising two children alone on welfare, is a slightly strange man who is also engaging, funny, blunt-spoken and clearly committed. He has a born-again gleam in his eye and fearless quality, the air of a man who has hit bottom and more deeply values being back up than any ordinary man can. These qualities lend an intensity and credibility to all he says.
Page One begins with the WikiLeaks Afghan video. It begins its final segment -- and the Times news climaxes of 2010, if you will -- with WikiLeaks' massive release of leaked US diplomatic cables, played out over nine issues of the paper, a major news story that, while playing ball with the "enemy," so to speak, also kept the paper important with a story of historic significance. This is followed by David Carr's big story of the year, about the bankruptcy of the Tribune conglomerate, brought down by a new culture of sexual permissiveness and the takeover by a businessman who thumbed his nose at journalism. The Trib threatened legal action. Carr stood firm. "The muscles of the institution are going to kick in at some point," Carr declares on camera at this point. "It's not really up to me." The Times ran the story on page one. In a terrific shot, we see that page one sitting on the massive press.
And it was a hell of a story. I read it. I get the Times every day, dropped on my driveway. I'm not unbiased here. I've always loved newspapers. And foreign correspondents -- my earliest dream was to be one. I love the New York Times. I want it to survive -- and prevail. The film suggests that the era of everything free on the Internet is ending. In early 2011, the documentary tells us, the paper began charging for full access online. We don't know what that will lead to. We don't know what the Times' future will be. But this documentary is a fine record of what has been happening and what to look for. For news junkies of any kind, it's essential viewing.
Page One: Inside the New York Times debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and was shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April, with June 17, 2011 the New York release. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, has announced that the grand opening of their new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center across the street from the Walter Reade Theater will launch with this film. US limited release follows on June 24, 2011. The website for the film is TakePart.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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