As befits its name, Page One, Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the New York Times that opens in Washington this week, asks big questions. Did the Times’ collaborations with and coverage of Wikileaks redeem the paper for its failures covering the leadup to the war in Iraq when it published articles based on bad information that bolstered the case for war? Can the Times survive a drastic shift in the media economy? And if it is to survive, what kind of people will the Times need to succeed in that new environment, where journalists need to move faster on consequential stories while being increasingly responsive to engaged, and often prickly, readers? The movie’s strength is not necessarily that it answers those questions, but in the lens it uses to examine them: the team of reporters at the Times who cover the media: Brian Stelter, the blogger-turned-whiz-kid-reporter and Twitter fiend, Tim Arango, who in the course of the movie moves from the media desk to the Times’ team in Iraq, and David Carr, who came from independent weeklies, to an early web journalism start-up, to the Times.
Carr already had a higher profile than the average Times reporter before Rossi made Page One, in part because of his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he went back and reported his way through his cocaine addiction. But he ends up stealing the movie. Whether he’s mounting a vigorous defense of the Times at SXSW, calling out the staff of Vice magazine for excessive self-regard, or reporting his way through a story that would lead to a major shakeup in the leadership at the Chicago Tribune, Carr’s an aggressive advocate for quality journalism, someone who can champion the Times without being in denial to the challenges the paper and the industry face.
I spoke to him this week after the spat between the Times and its most serious new media rival, the Huffington Post, over which publication has stronger web traffic. Carr says that while he doesn’t think the decision to sell Huffington Post to AOL was a good one because “when you deal with a big blob of media like AOL, they tend to overwhelm you,” it would be unwise to count the new-media giant out.
“I’m sort of done betting against Arianna,” Carr says. “When she first was talking about the Huffington Post, I was at a lunch with her house in Brentwood, and saw all her famous LA friends, and said this is so cheesy, this is going nowhere. She proceeded in two years to build out a huge national brand that cranked up enormous traffic and generated a way of engaging readers and creating community that few of us have seen.”
Carr said that while he and his colleagues on the media desk have been quick and very effective adopters of tools like Twitter, change at the Times has come less from their example and more from the company’s leaders. Some of that leadership is benign neglect, as when the paper decided to let reporters express themselves full on Twitter: “Where did that come from? From them not doing anything. They didn’t squish us when we started doing this.” And Carr was quick to defend outgoing Times editor Bill Keller’s controversial column on Twitter and social media, insisting that as Keller moves into a columnist role, “He’s always going to stick fingers in people’s eyes. And what happens because of it? He gets all kinds of bounce.”
And as the Times continues to reinvent itself, Carr also said he was encouraged by the changes that Hugo Lindgren’s been making at the Times Magazine, where Carr just published his first piece, a profile of Current TV’s Keith Olbermann (the magazine also excerpted The Night of the Gun).
“I was pretty impressed by the aggression and the magazine know-how, so I’m starting to think what kind of business I could do with them,” Carr says. “I really like the magazine that he’s making. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I find myself a lot more engaged in the magazine than I have been. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up at the vanguard of some of that stuff.” He also praises The Atavist, a tablet-publishing initiative founded essentially as a side project by a small group of New Yorkers that focuses on long-form pieces supplemented with interactive content.
And those kinds of projects make him optimistic about the ways unconventional journalists can make their ways to jobs at the Times.
“I think actually the Times is, for journalists of a certain ilk, it’s easier to penetrate. Look at my colleague Brian Stelter and how he came in [by founding an excellent blog about the television news business],” Carr says. “The means of the production are now in the hands of everyday people, and when you come in the door at the Times, they’ll say damn what you say, let’s see what you made.”
One of the thing that makes Carr stand out in Page One is the way the movie recounts the story Carr tells in The Night of the Gun about his addiction and recovery, and how he built the life he has now. The movie follows him back to Minneapolis, where he walks Rossi through some of the places he frequented at the height of his addiction
“I was not excited to take that walk and not excited to see it in the film,” Carr says. “But that’s his gift. He talks you into doing things you otherwise would not want to do. There are other people who are interested in Night of the Gun as a film or television project, and I’m happy to sell them the rights to the book. I did a treatment of it that I thought stunk. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken my book and website and smushed them together into a digital product for dynamic readers.”
Page One may not be the way Carr would have adapted his own story, and it’s not a perfect movie, but there’s still something vital and important about it, simply by virtue of the way it opens up reporting for viewers who don’t have experience with the process. Whether it’s Stelter impatiently waiting for his sources to start calling him back, editor Bruce Headlam advocating for his team’s stories in editorial meetings and pushing his reporters to tighten up their stories, or Carr annotating documents, Page One shows how much work it is to bring big, important stories together—and why it matters that they get told.