Page One: Inside the New York Times NewspaperIn the new documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” analysts ask the unthinkable: could the imperial institution one day go under as the Internet surpasses print as our main news source? Bruce Headlam, the paper’s Canadian-born Media Desk editor who’s featured in the film, says he has faith that won’t happen. “I think the Times will survive,” said Headlam, who grew up in Elmira, Ont., during a recent interview in Toronto. “How it will survive and in what form it will survive I still think is an open question. We had one set of cutbacks; we don’t seem to be looking at another right now. “But who knows. The world sort of turned upside down in the last 15 years.”
The fly-on-the-wall doc, which opened Friday in Toronto, begins with shots of the New York Times printing press and trucks delivering the paper. A montage of TV news reports then delivers a stark message: advertising revenue and circulation are in a sharp decline and newspapers are going under.

That has analysts wondering: is the mainstream media in trouble?

Through unprecedented footage of the Times’ story-pitch meetings, newsroom deliberations, journalist profiles and various interviews — all shot over 14 months starting in November 2009 — the doc profiles the paper as it tries to stay vital, financially sound and evolve.

Editors discuss the struggle to compete with bloggers and new media platforms, including Twitter and tablet computers, which have many readers believing that news should be free online.

Headlam, who’s been with the New York Times for 13 years, said the news organization is on steady ground right now.

More people read the New York Times than have ever read the New York Times,” he said. “It has a huge footprint online, we do hundreds of videos every month, we do all kinds of live blogging, they’re on Twitter, they’re on every possible platform. So I think it is a much more fluid situation than people give it credit for.

He also noted that although the Times now charges a fee for access to its website, at least 75 per cent of its income still comes from its paper presence.

That’s still our primary source of revenue — people picking up the newspaper and people advertising in that newspaper. It’s not the website,” he said. Now, that will change, gradually. No one knows what that’s going to look like…. But while it may look pleasant and anachronistic, it in fact is still the heart of our business: trucks delivering newspapers.

The main focus of the film is Headlam’s Media Desk, which includes a range of reporters, from tech-savvy former blogger Brian Stelter to grizzled veteran columnist David Carr.

Headlam admitted he wasn’t keen on the idea for the doc when filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack first approached the paper about it.

Now that he’s seen the film, he feels it speaks very well of the Times, of his staff and of the high-level of journalism that the paper attempts to produce on a daily basis

I hope (the Times) still thrives, not necessarily because I need a job there, although I do, but because I think it’s a really great thing,” said Headlam. When I was in Canada I worked for Saturday Night Magazine — the late, lamented Saturday Night Magazine — and that went away. It went away long after I was here, but you never get things like that back. And while it’s easy to mock the New York Times, as it was easy to mock Saturday Night Magazine, I think their passing, or even the possibility of their passing, should give everybody pause because if you were recreating the world tomorrow, things like the Times may not make sense in the same way and it would be, I think, terrible for the country to lose it.

Judging by the reception the film has received in the U.S., where it’s already been released, many others feel the same way, said Headlam.

“I was in Texas and I was in North Carolina and people are incredibly passionate about it,” he said.

“I think it’s like a third spouse in a lot of relationships. It’s like, the Times comes and we’re dividing up the sections and: ‘I can’t believe this guy said this again, and this is a great story and how dare they say,’ you know.

“The Times still is this incredible focus of attention in the U.S.”

[thank you to Victoria Ahearn from the Canadian Press for the above article]

The film is getting strong reviews according to a Wikipedia listing that includes a synopsis of the film from the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. The listing also includes an overview of the stories and issues covered in the film including a NY Times reporter interviewing Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.

You’ll find more details on the film and a trailer at  www.imdb.com/title/tt1787777.

Manori Ravindran, writing for the National Post, interviewed Bruce Headlam the day after the film’s release in Toronto.  In summary, this is what Headlam had to say about how the film portrays the NY Times:

A lot of people, when they see the film, look at it as a kind of battle between the old newspaper,” he says. “And up against that is the digital world of always being on, and twittering, and being on Facebook and all these things. And I don’t think those two things are in opposition at The Times nearly as much as the documentary suggests.

In reviewing the film, Ravindran gives it a lowly 2.5 star rating concluding that:

Page One is less hard-hitting documentary than leisurely recap of what The Times has been up to these past few years. Although it may be intriguing to those unaware of the problems haunting print media, for those well-versed in the digital age of newspapers, Rossi only rehashes the obvious.

Other journalists have more positive things to say about the film. Telly Davison, writing for FrumForum.com heralds the film for provoking much-needed thought and discussion:

Indeed, while the movie skates on some issues (and though it is specific to the New York Times, it tries to use the Times as a metaphor for what’s going on in the larger writing world), it raises just enough of them to provoke much-needed thought and discussion for the tuned-in viewer.  The most important area that the film breezes through is the fact that it isn’t just a decline in money that’s caused the problem at many papers.  As with the federal budget, there is definitely a revenue problem — but there’s also a priority problem, too.

The most interesting article I came across while researching this story is by Jennifer Lee, a young journalist who worked at the New York Times from 2000 until late, now writing for Poynter.com.  (The film hasn’t come to Alberta yet so I am limited to reading about how others who have seen the film are responding.) Her article ‘Page One’ Excerpt: How the New York Times learned to stop worrying and love the blog” is another fly on the wall expose of working at the New York Times. From her perspective, the events of September 11, 2001, ignited the digital transformation of the newsroom.

For The Times, adapting its processes to the new realities of an interconnected information ecosystem requires shedding or altering the outdated parts of an organization’s sensibility while keeping its essential principles. And that Herculean task involves qualities on which few newsroom leaders were evaluated as they ascended the editorial and managerial ranks.

But adapt they did. The Times now maintains 100 Twitter feeds, not counting those maintained by the journalists themselves. She also describes in her article how the Times views Facebook, Wikipedia, blogs, and personal branding of its reporters.

While Lee’s article was the most interesting article I read while surfing the net for stories on the film, for me, nothing beats watching videos on a topic that interests me.

Here’s a video of Andrew Rossi, the film’s director and cinematographer embedded in an article I found on the Daily Beast website where he introduces the film at the Sundance Film Festival.  The reporter Natalie La Porte sees the film this way:

Rossi’s film raises questions about the simultaneous crippling and dynamic state of journalism today—is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a reporter? Is Twitter a valid news source?—but it is ultimately a love letter to the Times, and to the kind of old-school journalism where facts are diligently checked, sources are given a chance to respond, and a level-headed sense of  reason prevails over flashy, traffic-driving headlines.

And here’s Bruce Headlam being interviewed by Jon Stewart for Comedy Central on June 23, 2011. In it Headlam argues the need for the financial underpinning that legacy print newspapers require in order to report the news that is then reported by other not so mainstream media.

The idea for this article came as a result of listening to one of my favourite journalists, Jiam Ghomeshi, host of CBC’s Q for Radio One.  On Monday, July 11, 2011 Ghomeshi interviewed Bruce Headlam. The podcast opens with a Times news reporter on the phone to his source: Julian Assange, publisher of Wikileaks.

The wide-ranging twenty minute interview covers the gambit from how it came about that the NY Times allowed unfettered access to the newsroom by a camera crew, to the difference between a “real” story and a “media” story, on up to the present day breaking news in the media landscape: the shutdown of the 162 year old News of the World newspaper by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.  The story continues even today. The alleged criminal activities of his reporters in conducting illegal phone taps is likely to derail Murdoch’s application for control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, especially in light of the fact that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s claims in today’s news that Murdoch hired criminals for his news desk.

Page One: Inside the New York Times opens in Vancouver and Montreal on July 15, and in Ottawa on Aug. 5. I’m not sure when it might open in Alberta. You can be sure I’ll be watching for it. I’ll post the date on my Twitter feed.