Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Need for Journalism

Page One: Inside the New York Times is an engaging, important documentary that is an inner look at how the editors and reporters at America's most famous newspaper are dealing with a vital question - is journalism, the kind of journalism that the Times and several of the country's best daily papers provide - still relevant in today's digital and electronic world?

Directed by Andrew Rossi, who applies a journalistic, fact-gathering approach, the film focuses on a few individuals that give the paper its essence today. One of those is David Carr, a former drug addict who turned his life around at the age of 31 and has become one of the paper's finest reporters. Carr has a unique sense of humor to say the least. He's self deprecating, but he's also ready to pounce on someone who makes fun of him or his paper. At times he comes across as a smart ass, know-it-all, but in the final analysis, he's very loyal to his friends and his bosses and is one helluva reporter and writer.

David Carr (l.) with Bruce Headlam, media desk editor

Another important character in this story is Brian Stelter, who was 22 years old when he was hired by the Times as a media reporter. Stelter, who constantly updates his Twitter account with news leads he assembles all day long, is the new face of journalism at the paper, someone who approaches his job in an entirely different direction than Carr and other investigative reporters. For Stelter, it's a question of why wouldn't a journalist be on Twitter, while for Carr, it's his belief that "Stelter was a robot assembled to destroy me." 

It's this multidimensional way of journalism that is now standard operating procedure at the Times. Rossi argues that social media has - at least for the short term - saved the paper. The death of several excellent American newspapers is noted in the film and the question of could the New York Times be next is dealt with for much of the second half of this film. One television reporter notes how the paper's trading value is $3 per share, which is less than the cost of the Sunday edition. We also view scenes of a few employees - some of them with decades of experience at the paper, being let go as the managing editor had to make the tough call of which 100 employees would be eliminated in cost-cutting measures. Could the paper go out of business?

Given the ways that the public can access information these days, the answer to that question is certainly, yes, it could. To that end, we witness how the reporters and editors at the Times are doing everything they can to stay relevant; the online edition is the most read of its kind in the country and Carr notes how there are dozens of videos each week on this site, thus giving readers who prefer visuals to words their fix for facts and opinions.

The recent WikiLeaks situation is dissected in great detail in the film. The editors examine these documents and videos and ask themselves if these would indeed be harmful or not before they make the decision to publish them. One point worth noting here is that Rossi does not question the fact that the Times seemed to be a willing partner for Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, when they became his partner in crime, so to speak, by publishing these reports over the course of several weeks in late 2010. Whether you believe the paper was serving the public's need to know or thought that this was an improper use of journalism, it certainly seems that the editors at the Times made this determination based on staying relevant; as this news was being broadcast all over television and the internet, the decision makers at the paper clearly wanted to stay in the game and keep readers thinking about the need for the Times.

This aside, I recommend the film quite highly, especially for its look at how journalists do their job. One of the most absorbing sequences deals with Carr and how he breaks the news about the new management team at the Chicago Tribune. The new owner admitted he was not a newspaper man, but clearly a business man interested primarily in money, who then went ahead and hired a former radio general manager to run the paper. It was a disaster in the making which only became worse when Carr learned that several female employees complained of sexual harassment at their workplace. 

Carr makes dozens of phone calls, gathers all the information, shares what he knows with his editor and gets the OK to write the story. He did his job magnificently - I still recall the day that story was issued and I emailed it to dozens of friends who lived in Chicago or once lived in Chicago. The details of the article were shocking, especially for a once-great paper such as the Tribune and within weeks, the management team resigned. Yes, print journalism still has the power to change things and when reporters  like David Carr are given the freedom to do their job, the power of the printed word can be devastating.

We are left to wonder how long the New York Times will exist as we know it. Change has come to the paper and Rossi argues that this change has pumped new life into the publication and has certainly staved off its death knoll. But for how long?

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