I’ve been writing for newspapers for 35 years. My father was a reporter for my hometown daily. Its editor was my uncle. I mention these facts because I think they explain in part why I found Andrew Rossi’s rumination on the state of print journalism in the Internet age 88 minutes mostly well spent.
The inner sanctum of the nation’s most venerable ink-and-paper institution seems a logical enough place to take the pulse of an industry in crisis. For 14 months in 2009 and 2010, the filmmaker followed several Times editors and writers as they did their jobs. In the process, he captured a pivotal moment in media history, along with the panic and confusion that accompanied it.
Ad revenues plummeted at papers across the country. Many shut their doors. Others slashed their staffs. At the Times, top brass scrambled to make sense of the phenomenon and simultaneously develop a new model capable of recapturing lost dollars.
One of the film’s key insights involves the failure of publishers to anticipate the impact of the web: Suddenly classified ads relocated to specialty outlets like Craigslist. Automakers and other major businesses no longer needed newspapers to get their messages out. They now had their own websites. Increasingly, younger news junkies were getting their fix from blogs.
Some of this, of course, is old news. And then there’s the whole Do big newspapers have a place in the digital future? thing. The filmmaker spends too much time spinning his wheels on tail chasers like that. He also goes a tad ADHD on the viewer, flitting arbitrarily in places from one unrelated topic to another. I’m not sure the picture benefits from superficial sequences touching on WikiLeaks, Comcast’s purchase of NBC, Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, Twitter, the Pentagon Papers and the release of the iPad.
What Rossi does well is give us a glimpse of day-to-day life at the Times and some of its more colorful characters at work. Easily the most colorful of these is media reporter David Carr.
A former crack addict and welfare recipient, Carr hardly fits the profile of a 21st-century Times journalist. He’s hot tempered, chain-smokes and likes his reporting old school. One comes away with the sense that his first Tweet was done with a gun to his head.
It’s fascinating to watch Carr work the phones and pound the pavement over a period of several weeks as he crafts a 5000-word cover story on the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company. Grilling a spokesman on the subject of $100 million incentive bonuses that executives at the business paid themselves as it crashed, he’s resplendent in his indignation: “You could call that incentive,” he rasps. “Or you could call it looting, depending on your perspective.” The guy absolutely steals the show.
Rossi’s latest makes the case that a democratic society requires the “apparatus of accountability” that traditional newspapers provide, and it makes it rather convincingly. It’s difficult to imagine the Watergate scandal wrought by a roomful of bloggers. Anyone involved in or interested in the business of print journalism is certain to find the film an arresting assessment of the forces that imperil it, even if at this point little of Page One is front-page news.