First off, everyone who cares about newspapers and journalism in general or the New York Times in particular should see this movie.
Page One: Inside The New York Times is a compelling fly-on-the-wall documentary (released in 2011) that takes you inside the newsroom during a stressful, challenging time in The Gray Lady's history.
It's 2010, and as newspapers all around the country are going bankrupt, things are looking dire at The Times too. The question is, if it's this tough for the New York Times - and by extension every other national and major metro newspaper - what hope is there for everyone else?
For those who know the industry, the challenges are not new: Like most US newspapers, the NYT is struggling in the age of the internet. The high costs of the "legacy" business - a big newsroom, a network of global bureaus, a dead-tree product distributed inefficiently by a fleet of trucks, etc. etc. - are slamming up against a declining print readership and, even more importantly, a cratering ad market, with the Classified section already savaged by Craiglist and the "expensive" display advertising market tanking in the face of a brutal recession.
But if the future is all online, where does the future revenue come from? Especially in a world where, as the Times's Brian Stelter points out, more and more online readers have, "grown up in the era where everything seems free."
Beyond the business questions, the film also explores the crucial debate about the role newspapers like the Times play in American society. Are they, as then-Executive Editor Bill Keller says, "essential to a functioning democracy." Do they still fulfill the mission described by famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein of delivering "the best obtainable version of the truth"?
Among the 2010 news stories we see covered: The release of the Wikileaks cables. The final pullout of combat troops from Iraq. The Times reporting on the bankruptcy of Sam Zell's doomed experiment at the Tribune Company. Plus, stories crucial to the Times's own future: the launch of the iPad, the decision to charge for access to the Times online. (This attempt to reinvent the online business model with a "metered paywall," is described by media and tech guru Clay Shirky as the "NPR model" relying on the support of a faithful, well-intentioned audience so that a product may survive to serve the general good.)
At one point Sam Zell is seen (in a clip from a YouTube video) talking to his newspaper employees explaining how he will save the Tribune Company because "he is not a newspaperman, (but) a business man."
The movie follows business columnist David Carr - a star of the movie - as he reports on the collapse of Sam Zell's Tribune Company, the biggest media bankruptcy in history. When explaining how CEO Randy Michaels and a handful of executives extracted $100 million in bonuses even as billions of dollars of value evaporated, Carr wryly states: "you could call that incentives or you could call that looting, depending on your perspective."
Later we see how David Carr's extensive takedown of the "frat-house" culture that helped destroy the morale of Tribune employees comes together--and how Carr relies on "the muscles of the institution" of The Times to get to work when the Tribune lawyers threaten legal action before his story goes to press.
Watch this movie and you will, I'm sure, care about the answers to the questions it raises: Can news(papers) be saved? Can reporting staffs and foreign bureaus be saved? What is journalism in the age of Twitter and Wikileaks? Who will pay to keep newspapers going? How much do we all lose if and when the journalism now produced by newspapers goes away?