An eye inside the New York Times

MEDIA LANDSCAPE: Media desk reporter David Carr, left, who became the star of Page One: A Year Behind the New York Times, with his boss Bruce Headlam, right.
MEDIA LANDSCAPE: Media desk reporter David Carr, left, who became the star of Page One: A Year Behind the New York Times, with his boss Bruce Headlam, right.

There is this bizarre scene in the fly-on-the-wall documentary following a year at The New York Times where the executive editor, Bill Keller, compares the newsroom to a butchery.

The soft-spoken silver-fox, whose most well-known on-camera interview was lampooned by The Daily Show, opens up about the current state of journalism with squirm-in-your-seat candidness.

"Some days I feel we should, you know, be symbolically wearing bloody butcher smocks around the newsroom," says Keller, with a strange half-smirk but eyes full of uncertainty. "It's such a kind of grim undertaking.

"The mood is so funereal." Despite the bleakness, Keller, who is stepping down from his role in September, was convinced by film-maker Andrew Rossi that the public wanted to know what it was like in The New York Times newsroom.

"What I told Bill was that I thought that people would benefit from seeing inside the four walls of the Times, to see what traditional journalism means," Rossi says.

The movie could have been made at Wall St Journal, Washington Post or Le Monde - any place that has as its mandate the production of original, hooves on the ground reporting. "On those terms I think Bill felt comfortable with the ways journalists would equip themselves, and so what he told me was 'I'm proud of my writers and I want the world to see them'."

Rossi says the film is about the crisis affecting newspapers and print journalism in general, especially in America. "It is also a movie that's almost about David Carr guiding us through a broader question," he adds.

"We structured it along a sort of 'hero's journey' I guess - with David who is being that heroic character who is just on this journey that we thought the viewer could go on as well."

Criticisms of the movie have centred around the fact that the film doesn't show the full New York Times newsroom - which features more than 900 editorial staff - but instead focuses on a small team at the media desk headed up by the Steve Carrell doppelganger Bruce Headlam.

But it is media desk reporter Carr whom Rossi unashamedly says was the star of the documentary.

Carr, whom Rossi knew from previous work together, becomes one of the key characters in the film and Rossi says it was important to have a human voice behind such a big idea to "bring everything down to earth".

"[Carr is] incredibly sceptical and at the same time sincere," Rossi says.

"I think he taps into a broader view of what digitisation is doing to society." Gravelly-voiced Carr does so with cutting one-liners which are standout among the often sporadic scene-shifting in the film.

"I still can't get over the feeling that [fellow media reporter] Brian Stelter is a robot assembled to destroy me," remarks Carr about the Generation Z wonder-kid who was hired by The New York Times after writing a successful broadcasting blog of his own.

Rossi says the film was "not an unmodified opening of the lens and just letting things go" chronologically in time, but rather "we compose the events in a manner that illuminates some greater idea, while still remaining completely true to the events as they were in the moment. That's the power of film as a narrative form," he says.

"The idea was always that this was going to be a play within a play, so that the stories that the writers were producing for the paper were going to illuminate aspects of the media landscape and its transformation.

"So in a sense I was just trying to be a good student of their work and make sure I had read all their articles and get a sense of what the trends were that they were trying to cover," Rossi says.

As a one-man band, Rossi says he didn't impose on the newsroom in the way a film crew would be perceived.

The trick to gaining the trust of the reporters was to sit there day in, day out, even when there was nothing exciting happening - just to catch those key moments when the newsroom flies into action.

Just weeks after filming began in November 2009, 100 jobs were cut.

"We were going over lists, prioritising skills we could afford to lose," Keller says.

"We have to dump bodies overboard," Headlam says.

Then came Wikileaks: Rossi had a front-row seat to the developing story which propelled the underground whistleblower site in to mainstream media.

"I always believed those individual stories would provide the meat of the film and then the sort of articles would be what's happening to the Times itself in a sense, the insights, the conclusion of other stories would gel with what the ultimate fate of the paper was," Rossi says.

And that ultimate fate? Rossi won't be drawn - except to say he hopes those who have watched the film have a greater understanding about the process behind mainstream media and the massive change it faces.

"I think that the mood feels much more stable. When I started filming it was an apocalyptic feeling. At the moment it feels more optimistic - 150,000 subscribers have opted in [to the New York Times paywall]. Things seem primed for positive movement."


Page One: Inside The New York Times screens in the New Zealand International Film Festival, Paramount Cinema, Saturday, 6.45pm and Monday, 11.45am. NZ Film Archive, Tuesday, 6.15pm.

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The Dominion Post