If you are reading this, then you are part of the problem. In fact, the very act of typing this review, and forever contributing to the discourse on the topic, is a factor in the demise of print media. At least that is the argument of the traditionalists. The rise of the Internet as the primary source of news for people around the world has been signalling the death knell of print for decades, with several major newspapers already succumbing to the sharp drop in advertising revenue. For many, the question is not whether print will die out, but when.
Documentarian Andrew Rossi (Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven) is given unprecedented access to the The New York Times newsroom, a newspaper that has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes in its 160 years and defines the term “old media”. Rossi focuses his lens on the media desk, the news within the news. This group of journalists investigate the stories behind the news, and in many ways decide what news is presented to the public. As the now infamous WikiLeaks story unfolds, changing the nature of reporting by combining it with activism, the New York Times struggles to remain vital by republishing the material in a partnership with these new media upstarts. Meanwhile, acerbic and seasoned reporters such as David Carr and his colleagues seek to uncover the trajectory of print media while embracing the very tools of social media that threaten to bring down the news.
The case for web media eclipsing print is one that is not isolated to the news, as it is something that is presently plaguing the music industry, movie distributors, libraries, academic institutions and yes, film critics as well. It is not simply the plethora of websites and new media aggregators such as Newser or Google News that are taking a dent out of the fourth estate, but social media networks such as Twitter that allow stories to spread like wildfire to millions of readers before the mainstream press are able to get an angle on them. Yet Page One: Inside the New York Times takes a bigger picture approach in asking what are the consequences to an institution like “the Gray Lady” falling. In a particularly memorable moment, David Carr holds up a printed copy of aggregator Newser‘s front page, complimenting it on how attractive it is. He then shows the same page without the sources of the news, the old school media who do the investigative reporting, and it is simply a headline above a series of empty holes where the ‘stolen’ content would normally reside.
It is a credit to Rossi’s team that they managed to thread such interesting strands from a year’s worth of stories, where the temptation much have been very great to be all things to all people. Indeed, it would have been fascinating to spend a few more hours wandering through every section of the newspaper. Concentrating on the media desk not only gives us an insight into how a story becomes ‘The News’ (the definite article, one would say), but just how close some of the major stories of the last few years have come to not being told at all. The New York Times is positioned as one of the makers of the news, in that the stories it runs with will be picked up by the major news outlets the next day. This power is understood by Rossi and from his explorations, it seems the Times has the same understanding. Whether this power is still relevant in the coming years is up for debate, and Page One: Inside the New York Times doesn’t offer any easy answers. What Rossi does prove is that there is still a role for investigative journalism, and the longevity of that power is just as much the responsibility of the readers as it is of the writers.
Page One: Inside the New York Times is released in Australia on 15 September 2011 from Madman.