David Carr, "Page One," and the Future of the "New York Times"

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 28 2011 5:44 PM

David Carr, "Page One," and the Future of the "New York Times"

Reporter David Carr is the star of the new film Page One ,the documentary about the New York Times that premiered at Sundance thisweek. There are others in the film, but it is Carr who represents the paperitself, the printed word made flesh. As such he does not disappoint. Strappingon his telephone headset like a soldier putting on a helmet, he spraysobscenities at sources and antagonists alike, sparing no feelings in his searchfor the truth. When not reporting, Carr travels the country to defend the printmedia at conferences, biting the heads off bloggers and new media entrepreneurswith practiced ease. In the firm's climax Carr confronts and defeats thepicture's greatest villain, Sam Zell, a hunchbacked philistine who has takenover and damaged the L.A. Times , Chicago Tribune , and other newspapers.(Zell's theory of journalism is revealed by his suggestion that newspapersought carry porn because people like it.) Carr spends weeks digging out a storyexposing mismanagement and sexual harassment at Zell's conglomerate; Zell's CEOpromptly resigns, and justice is served.

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Carr is a sympathetic hero for what turns out to be ariveting film. While billed as "A Year in the Life of the New York Times, " Page One is really a spirited defense oftraditional print media in its year of greatest crisis, 2010. As such it iseffective. It helps that a cast of supporting characters (many from The NewYorker) warn of dire consequences in a world without the Times. Worrieslike climate change or global poverty seem light as compared to life afterfurther cuts to the newsroom.

Page One

portrays the reporting function of the

Times

and other papers as an important public resource, even a national treasure.Original, investigative reporting, it suggests, is as important to the Republicas its university system, our great museums, or the Library of Congress. But ifthe film is right about that, it raises a different question. Just why do wepersist in thinking that serious news reporting can be run as a for-profitbusiness when nothing else of comparative public importance is?

The documentary shows well what happens in the 21st centurywhen you mix raw business with reporting. It is a choice of horrors. One resultis simple bankruptcy, as many cities and town papers have suffered. Another is takeovers by the like of Zell low-minded profit seekers. The final alternative is a purely derivative media outlets like Gawker or the Huffington Post that exist merely to comment orgossip about what the Times and other news organizations dig up.

Will the New York Times suffer one of these fates? That's the question posed by the film, butthere are also hints of another way. As Clay Shirky points out, the Times is slowly and subtly moving towards a funding model more like NPR's than NBC's that is, one that depends on its most dedicated listeners for support. In myview, it's only a matter of time until the most serious and valuable newsreporting organizations become supported by what are, in effect,donations. If that's so, then Page One is the film that'll make you want to give.

 

Still from Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times © Andrew Rossi. All rights reserved. 

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