It may turn out to be one of the most acclaimed and popular documentaries of the year, but Andrew Rossi never intended to produce and direct the film, opening this Friday, Page One: Inside the New York Times.
As he tells it, Rossi was actually developing another project for HBO on Web 2.0 and social media, “and everyone kept on saying that on the road to digital future there would be several major dead bodies on the side of the road.” When a controversial (and almost laughable) article by Michael Hirshorn predicted the death of the New York Times—in just months—Rossi was filming a dinner party of web entrepreneurs and investors and, he told me this week, there “seemed to be this glee people were taking in the potential demise of the Times.”
A few weeks later, he interviewed Times media writer David Carr (left) for that project and their conversation “kept cycling back to the place of legacy media in a media future,” Rossi recalls. “David was very animated that people’s views of the future of the New York Times were misplaced,” especially since so many of the critics were, at the same time, fully aggregating material from the newspaper. Rossi concluded that even people who are investors or participants in new media “should not be cheering the demise of such an important source of news and analysis.”
Rossi switched gears, sensing (but not really knowing) that “commentary from new media was at odds with what was actually happening.” He determined “it would be very valuable to go in with an open mind and get a front row seat on what New York Times journalism is—is it wasteful or something of real value?” With a cinema verite approach he would “just capture what is going on there” right in the middle of what he calls the Gray Lady’s “collision” with the digital imperative, and let the chips fall where they may. No Jayson Blair—Judy Miller re-hash.
Carr, as it happens—as it was meant to happen—turned out to be the “star” of Rossi’s new project. In fact, in the early going he was even more of the focus, until Rossi broadened his focus to include three other key members of the Times’s media desk: editor Bruce Headlam and writers Brian Stelter and Tim Arango. (Among other things, we get to experience Stelter’s ninety-pound weight loss and Arango’s surprising decision to leave the comforts of the new Times tower for Baghdad.) But Carr still gets most of the best scenes and lines, as he critiques, even while engaging, the online world.
The highlight: After enduring, on a panel, one of Michael Wolff’s withering assaults on the demise of Times, Carr holds up a printed screen shot of Wolff’s site, Newser, full of more holes than Swiss cheese—where Carr had cut out stories from the Times featured there. Then there’s his smackdown of the editors of Vice magazine—but I don’t want to ruin it for you. His overall view is best captured by his cry, “The Times has dozens of bureaus all over the world, but now we’ll kick back—and see what Facebook turns up!”