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MOVIE REVIEW

Page One Inside the New York Times

Documenting the Times as newspaper, institution

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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The dirty little secret about newspapers is that they can be desperately dull places to work. A cubicle farm full of well-mannered wordsmiths peering into computers is not exactly a visual grabber, and the upper editorial ranks are even less given to melodramatic fits. Sadly, the days of Cary Grant reaching for the phone and barking “Get me rewrite!’’ are gone.

So, for the most part, are profits, ad revenue, readers under 30. Andrew Rossi’s “Page One: Inside the New York Times’’ has its work cut out for it, because how do you document something that isn’t there? The film’s about an industry in crisis as seen from the windows of that industry’s most vaunted institution, a bastion of serene professionalism and/or entitled noblesse oblige. (The New York Times Co. is also the owner of this newspaper.) The Gray Lady is the epitome of dead-tree media, an info-dinosaur par excellence. How do you make a movie about it and how do you make that movie interesting?

Rossi takes several approaches. Interestingly, almost all of them pay off. First, he narrows his focus to the paper’s media desk, formed in 2008 to specifically report on the issues roiling the information universe. He hunkers down and observes as reporters and editors follow several stories over several months: the rise of WikiLeaks and its mercurial founder, Julian Assange; the meltdown and bankruptcy of the Chicago-based Tribune Co.; the secret talks leading to the merger of NBC and Comcast. The pure process of teasing out a story and getting it into accurately reported shape is fascinating to watch and more collaborative than you would expect.

Still, even documentaries live and die by their personalities. “Page One’’ has a few rough charmers: media desk editor Bruce Headlam, with his old-school cynicism; a baby-face recruit from the blogosphere named Brian Stelter; the dashing, earnest Tim Arango, who seems bound for greater Times glory if he and the paper survive. But in David Carr the movie has a natural-born star, and director Rossi knows it. The storied media reporter has been candid about his very checkered past (crack addiction, jail time) and he’s immensely grateful, to both fate and the Times, for his rehabilitation.

Because of that second chance, Carr becomes the film’s most eloquent, if eccentric, spokesman for the continuing viability of the classic newsprint model. Aggregator sites stealing readers? Carr holds up a printed home page with all the mainstream media links cut out; there’s barely any paper left. Upstart magazines cobbling deals with news giants panicky about losing young readers? The reporter pauses during an interview with Vice magazine’s smug founder to slap down any journalistic pretensions the man might have that don’t involve financing and manpower and long-term commitment to the facts.

Carr is such an arresting figure that he unbalances the film, which struggles to stay on top of an endlessly complex story. There are the Times’ missteps to account for — Judith Miller, Jayson Blair — and an ugly round of layoffs. On the other hand, “Page One’’ also lets the new press barons hang themselves with their own words. (Sam Zell, the Tribune Co.’s “savior’’: “I think we should have a porn section. Don’t you think that would sell?’’)

Then there’s the Times’ decision to start charging online users for the paper’s content, an attempt to reverse course after 15 years of information-has-to-be-free naivete. The jury’s still out, as it is for the Globe’s similar plans, as it is for the entire process of assigning value to a product that consumers have come to expect for nothing.

“Page One’’ wishfully concludes that “journalism is alive and well and feisty at The New York Times,’’ but that’s missing the point, isn’t it? Of course the journalism’s fine; that’s why everyone still links to it. It’s who values the journalism, and for how much (or how little) that’s the issue. As eye-opening as this movie is, the real story is outside the Times building, in the browser windows and iPads of me and you and everyone we know.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @tyburr.

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PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Directed by: Andrew Rossi

Written by: Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack

Starring: David Carr

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: R (language, including some sexual references)

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