The year is 2009. Circulation of The New York Times is down, morale at 'The Grey Lady' is at an all-time low, and director Andrew Rossi is spending three days on average, per week inside The Times' Manhattan headquarters collecting what will become over 300 hours of footage of a time of crisis at the bastion of American journalism.
Within two weeks of Rossi's arrival, the newspaper went through historic layoffs; in excess of 100 staff members were asked to take early retirement packages. “It was a vulnerable moment for The Times,” Rossi says, “and I think we were able to provide a prism through which to understand the stories taking place in that landscape.”
The idea for Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times was born when Rossi was interviewing straight-talking reporter David Carr for another project. Carr is a well-known figure in New York media as he writes a popular weekly column for the Times analysing the intersection of media with business, culture and government. Rossi garnered Carr's qualified support and approached management about documenting the newspaper from the inside-out. “Ultimately, it was the simplicity of my presentation that won the day,” the director says of his unprecedented access. “I felt it was valuable for the viewer to have a front row seat and see the resources required to undertake organised reporting; to understand the values required to work at The Times and to make their own decision about whether it was worth protecting and conserving. I'm not a media expert. I'm somebody who views myself as a filmmaker aspiring to the Cinéma vérité tradition. My ambition was not to go in with an agenda, to prove The Times is amazing and for everyone to want it to stay alive. It was rather to let the camera capture the subject and present as engrossing a one-and-a-half hour film as possible. I wasn't sure what I would find.”
Rossi's approach is well-established; he applied it on the landmark documentary Control Room (dir. Jehana Noujaim) and his previous HBO documentary, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. In Page One, Rossi incorporated outside sources to offer a meta-analysis of the material captured inside the walls of The Times. “The layering of an analytical framework was a new approach that complements the primary material to make sure you don't 'drink the Kool-Aid',” he explains.
The Times presented no limitations to Rossi and his co-writer Kate Novak, other than restricting access to one desk. “Limiting it to the Media Desk allowed [the project] to move forward,” says Rossi. “There was no way I was able to do a comprehensive portrait of The Times. Limiting it to one desk allowed us to capture a glimpse of the broader institution.”
Rossi presents a microcosm of the styles of journalism that operate at The Times. The desk is comprised of four journalists: Iraq-bound reporter Tim Arango (who entered the industry when tenured positions were still a possibility); Brian Steltzer, who at 18 became a blogging sensation with his anonymous blog, 'tvnewser.com' (The Times uncovered his identity, then hired him); the notoriously candid Carr, one of the most visceral characters to emerge through Rossi's lens, (his autobiographical account of his cocaine addiction, The Night of the Gun, was a bestseller); and Media Desk editor, veteran newsman Bruce Headlam, who is ultimately responsible for their work within the institution.
Page One has the advantage of being history-in-the-making but it also risks being dated to the exact moment it all occurred. Ultimately, the insights of the film defy specific dates and reveal a telling portrait of the issues facing journalists, and by extension readers, today. The emergence of WikiLeaks as a major force in the news business is a central element of the film. Page One documents the moment in July 2009 when WikiLeaks approached The New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegal and the UK's The Guardian, allowing the three papers full access to over 90,000 previously secret documents concerning the war in Afghanistan. The question of allegiances is raised both outside and inside the walls of The Times, and whether WikiLeaks was a source or a contributor to the major new story. Page One, then, attempts to answer the question facing all major newspapers throughout the world: Will traditional media organisations such as The New York Times remain viable with the rise of multi-platform delivery systems? And can they withstand challenges to their long-held dominance by new media players like WikiLeaks?
Watch 'Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times'
Sunday 1 November, 10:30pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Andrew Rossi
Featuring: Bill Keller, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam, David Carr, Carl Bernstein