Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year.
It’s an impressionistic tour through a year at the New York Times’ media desk, and it’s fast-paced, engaging, relevant, frightening and funny.
The man behind the camera is Andrew Rossi, and he follows the paper through the tumultuous 2008. In that year, the paper reported on the presidential election, the war in Iraq, the rise of WikiLeaks and social media, and bankruptcy of the Tribune Company. Rossi is there for all of it, and he deftly weaves all these treads into a film that has drama, action and character.
And, somewhat surprisingly, the movie’s characters are what make it special – especially David Carr, who to my great enjoyment is a Minnesota native.
He is the principle journalist Rossi follows in the film, and it’s through Carr that you experience the life of a Times journalist. Carr’s work is in media reportage, so naturally the film deals quite a lot with what, in that year, seemed like the death throes of old-school newspaper journalism.
The movie presents Carr, complete with his sharp tongue and crushed-ice voice, as something like the champion of the old-school bastion of professional reportage. He takes on New Media gladiators at debates and meetings, and the result is often funny and always interesting.
Page One is the kind of movie that, if I had seen it at age 14, I’d have planned on being a journalist a lot earlier.
I had the chance to meet up with both Carr and Rossi when they were in Minneapolis to promote the film in May. Unfortunately, a small black hole in my email made me miss my initial appointment, but I was able to hitch a ride with the pair on their way to lunch.
Below are bits of our conversation.
How has being from Minneapolis or Minnesota shaped you as a newsman? Has it done so at all?
AR: Definitely, it definitely has.
DC: I don’t know. I take a whole meat-and-potadees approach to New York journalism. They think it’s wild when someone just says what they are thinking. My gimmick, I think, is that I am from Minnesota. It also sort of helps that I’m a bit of a yeller.
How did you (David) become so involved in the film?
DC: Andrew had pictures of me in incredibly compromising poses and suggested that if I didn’t cooperate with this film then I was going to end up cast in some other kind of film that I wouldn’t like.
Actually, he asked very politely and nicely. And I told him to ask my boss … and he said yes.
Andrew, how much work was involved in getting to be in the New York Times?
AR:Well, it took about six months of meetings. I think they wanted to feel comfortable with what the process would be like and what the perimeters were. Once that was worked out … I was really impressed with the transparency of the organization. And I got along with them really, really well. And I think that they saw me as a fellow storyteller.
What was the origin of the movie? What made you think: I want to go to the New York Times and make a movie?
AR: It was right around the failure of Lehman Brothers … when a lot of the problems affecting media just sort of went into crisis mode. And they seemed to come to the front door of the New York Times. It’s sort of like something David uses in a lot of his columns: that if you write about the media long enough, eventually you type your way to your own door. So I always thought that David would be a wonderful character for a documentary. And with everything reaching this like apocalyptic (or seemingly apocalyptic) time that’s when I pull the trigger and ask.
Was the movie originally supposed to be about David?
AR: When you do a documentary film, you never know what it is going to be to, because you are doing it in real time. You’re not scripting it; it’s something that unfolds. You adapt accordingly. Initially, I thought David would be great to follow. But I think that he found me hovering over him with my camera a little overwhelming and that it might impede upon his getting his job done.
DC: There also might have been a worry about the commercial viability of a film that had a mental patient at the center of it.
How do you look at the New York Times now? How did you see it before you did the film and how do you see it now?
AR: That’s a good question. I think, you know, I am a lifelong reader of the paper … I didn’t want the movie to become an exercise in Times worship. When I started filming there were a lot of people saying snarky things about the paper and speculating about its survivability. So, in a sense, I think I had a little bit of a Devil’s advocate approach to all of that, you know, supposed conventional wisdom at the time that the [New York Times] was going to meet the same fate as a lot of the other newspapers.
I came out of the experience really impressed by what goes on. I think, in a pretty objective way, that’s reflected in the film.
David, what was it like being filmed while working? What was the schedule?
DC:He would come and go. He would be around for a while, then I would give him dirty looks, and then he would pick on somebody else. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was incredibly awkward. Being filmed while you work either suggests that you are a total jerk or really important, and I like to think that I’m neither. So, I was very self-conscious about being followed by a camera.
It’s really weird actually. Since we finished the film, and I don’t see him with the camera anymore, I’m really glad to see him. I actually like him.
How do you see the New York Times in the film?
DC: What I love about it is that it demonstrates that a media product emerges from the space between people as apposed to any individual who shapes stories. What you see everyday is a product of negotiation and an on-going conversation about what is real and what is not. And eventually you zero-in on what is the closest approximation of truth that you can come up with.
What’s next for you then?
AR: Getting this movie out to audiences. The distribution of the film.
DC: What I’m trying to do is crank out enough copy so that bosses don’t notice that I’m out promoting a film. I just sent another story … so I’m hoping they don’t check my cube and notice that I’m not present. This, essentially, is a phone interview.