Will newspapers die? When will newspapers die? And what will happen to news if and when newspapers die? These were questions posed by ‘Page One: Inside The New York Times’, questions which were in the main deliberated by The New York Times journalists working the Media desk.
I went to see this documentary with a fellow ex-journo. How nostalgic were we upon seeing the messy desks of newspaper folk? I remembered her desk as a feat of physics with towering stacks of paper that threatened to collapse and bury you until the next Ice Age if you didn’t tiptoe past. Watching this doco, I was pleased to see journalists still excelling at doing several things at once. I recalled how my cadetship consisted chiefly of learning how to hold a phone under my ear with my shoulder and note the conversation while eating a burger and smoking a cigarette. Those were the old days of ‘analogue journalism’.
For my dysfunctional attraction to the world of deadlines and excess, I blame my father. For most of his career he was a print journalist at The News, a long-defunct tabloid. It was an early victim of Australia’s media ownership laws or Rupert Murdoch’s ambition, whichever way you want to spin it. The News was Rupert’s first newspaper, inherited from his Dad, Sir Keith Murdoch, and the first building block of the News Ltd empire. Legally, one can’t own two or more of the same medium in one city, so in 1987 Rupert sold The News to buy Adelaide’s other newspaper The Advertiser, a broadsheet which once stood proudly as the patrician alternative to The News but has since become more tabloid in its approach. That’s a nice way of saying it’s now a rag. As for The News, it closed down in 1992.
Anyhoo, as a kid I’d go to visit my Dad at his office and be made a fuss of by a bunch of kindly drunks amid a fug of cigarette smoke and a symphony of clacking typewriters. Later, when I said I wanted to be a journalist, my Dad tried to talk me out of it by telling me I would likely become an alcoholic and lose my marriage but there was no better job. I was 16 and not Appalachian, so the marriage thing didn’t faze me.
‘Page One’ is a real heroes and villains kind of documentary. The heroes are in the main journalists from The New York Times, including the star of the show, David Carr, a former crack addict who knows how fortunate he is to be rebirthed as a media journalist at arguably the US’s finest newspaper. In one scene, he casually mauls a VICE co-editor who’s all uppity about the fact they’ve reported from Liberia, ‘while The New York Times might write an article about surfing’. In another scene at a conference about the future of the media, David Carr holds aloft a paper cut-out of Michael Wolff’s aggregated news blog, having removed the stories that have been sourced from traditional media such as The New York Times. It’s mostly holes.
The villains come in the form of all those circling around the dead and dying newspapers that are now all too commonplace across the United States. There is footage of Sam Zell from his days as the new owner of the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. A real estate mogul with no journalism experience, he’s sweet-talking his new journalist charges with a diatribe against the ‘journalistic arrogance’ of quality news gathering, basically saying that if they think they’re too good to write stories about puppies, ‘F*** you!’ ‘We should have a porn section!’ he declares. He’s the cartoon villain of every journalism traditionalist. It would be funny if not for the fact that less than a year after Zell’s takeover, the company was bankrupt and more than 4200 people had lost their jobs.
David Carr’s process of researching and writing his extensive article on the Tribune Company’s collapse, together with scenes from the daily meetings of senior editors make a compelling case for finding a sustainable model to keep the institutions of quality journalism afloat. As one Times editor described eloquently, the editors’ meeting is where their combined experience is brought to bear on each story. Is the story framed properly? Are the sources the right sources? Are all the facts sound? This is the kind of vetting process that only happens in a well-resourced newsroom that values journalistic rigour.
‘Page One’ reveals a considerable generation gap between journalists of Generation X and beyond and Gen. Y. Young blogger-turned-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter bemoans his colleagues’ lack of use of Twitter while David Carr of the Old School jokes that Brian, with his one eye on his Twitter feed and the other scanning two computer screens, might just be a robot invented to destroy him. The meta example of how swiftly The New York Times is having to pivot to adapt to a new media landscape comes in the form of Wikileaks’ release of thousands of diplomatic cables. The New York Times was one of five newspapers worldwide who collaborated with Wikileaks on the simultaneous publication of the initial run of documents. As the Times’ media desk covers the story of Wikileaks’ role as media player, a broader and fascinating debate emerges within The New York Times as to whether Wikileaks should be regarded as an equal, as a fellow publisher and ‘partner’, or merely as just another news source. The thing is that the power dynamic between media and ‘source’ has shifted. Wikileaks, as the ‘source’, can publish with or without the newspaper’s involvement, i.e. it can now have a dual role as source and medium.
At the conclusion of the documentary, there was a panel discussion on the future of journalism. No one mentioned the documentary’s salience in view of the fact that sub-editing at the Fairfax papers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald has been outsourced this year, with approximately 80 jobs lost. A young blogger somewhat gleefully predicted that newspapers would not survive beyond our lifetimes. Thankfully I can’t remember his name, nor that of his blog. Sophie Black, editor of Crikey, the online news service, said that Crikey was not only surviving but expanding despite operating under a subscriber-funded model. Yet, she said, seeing the resources of The New York Times made her drool. Crikey delivers its daily news bulletin and website with a staff of seven plus a bank of freelancers. I can’t imagine they would have the time and resources that enabled David Carr to spend several weeks researching and writing his Tribune Company story.
Wanting The New York Times and news producers like it to survive is not based on inter-generational competitiveness, or misplaced nostalgia. In ‘Page One’, there are people across generations who care deeply about the work of sifting information, asking questions, researching, fact-checking and assimilating the gathered information – sometimes complex and often conflicting – into a fair and accurate account. This role of intermediary, of sorting the wheat from the chaff, is the service of journalism. This is why I don’t accept Julian Assange’s description of himself as a ‘journalist’, or view an aggregation of unchecked material found on the Internet as ‘journalism’. In the long run, it’s not important how the news is delivered but the quality of the news. The question remains – and it’s an important one – how best to ensure the survival of news outlets that are committed to striving for journalism’s tarnished prize – as Carl Bernstein describes it: ‘the best available version of the truth’.
Page One was directed by Andrew Rossi. For Melburnians, Page One: Inside The New York Times is now showing at Cinema Nova.