Director Andrew Rossi discusses his documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, the state of print journalism, and much more.
In the world of journalism, there are fewer places more sacred than the hallowed grounds of The New York Times, a newspaper steeped in award-winning tradition and possibly the last bastion of quality print journalism left in the world. Director Andrew Rossi takes us inside this legendary institution with unprecedented access in the fantastic documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, which is currently playing in New York City and will expand to more markets nationwide on June 24. I recently had the chance to speak with this filmmaker about his documentary. Here's what he had to say.
I really enjoyed this documentary. I actually have a degree in Journalism and it was very interesting to see how The New York Times really ticks.
Andrew Rossi: Oh, great. Thanks so much.
I was curious how this project started out for you. Did you set out to look at the state of journalism and the New York Times? How did this project evolve for you?
Andrew Rossi: Well, initially I started filming at a moment when a lot of smart people were saying that the digital transformation of media was going to acquire a lot dead bodies along the way. A lot of people were speculating if The New York Times was going out of business. That just struck me as a really curious position for a culture to be in. I thought it was worth exploring why people thought that, and what's involved in that proposition, and also, what was going on inside a place like The New York Times or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, or Reuters, or AP, any place that's engaged in original reporting. I wanted to know what they were doing, and if it looked like they were wasting money, if it was bloated, if they're being foolish, or if there, in fact, was something of value going on there. The New York Times really came into clearer view, because (The New York Times reporter) David Carr is somebody I had worked with before. He was in my last movie about the restaurant, Le Cirque. So I knew him and I was actually talking to him for something different, another movie I was making, and our conversation ended up circling back to media. I eventually ended up saying, 'What about a movie about you and the Times?'
You get some unprecedented access to this institution. Were they fairly open to let you and your crew in?
Andrew Rossi: Well, first of all, it was just me filming, which I think was part of it being workable. There was basically about six months of disucssions and meetings and phone calls. I do think it's unprecedented. Here we go to the media desk, the Page One meetings that they have every day, where they decide what's going onto the front page. I think the back press is something we haven't seen on film before. I went to the Times and I talked to Bill Keller, the executive editor and said, "I'm interested in doing an observational documentary. I'm not trying to do a satirical piece to make fun of you guys, I don't have an agenda, I'm just interested.' I'm just interested to see how journalism is created. What Bill ultimately told me was, 'I'm proud of my writers and I would like the world to see them.'
I'm so used to seeing documentaries which you can tell right away have this spin or agenda. That just wasn't here and it was cool to see that unfold. It was weird because I was almost waiting for that to happen, like a big turn towards an agenda, but it never happened.
Andrew Rossi: That's great. Thank you. I had hoped it felt that way.
I don't want to say that you got lucky, but there were a lot of really big stories coming out at that time. Can you talk about the landscape of being there at that time and, for a documentary like this, how do you gauge on where to stop, when you're done?
Andrew Rossi: That's a good question. First of all, I can tell you I just locked picture a few weeks ago, so I've been tweaking since it premiered at Sundance. Ultimately, the movie is about a moving target, the medium of journalism. We always felt it would be a movie about people and a place, and not just an idea, so ultimately, we tried to craft it where it was a cinematic journey which has an organic conclusion. With David Carr being the crucial figure guiding us through this whole thing, after his story about the Tribune Company, we just felt that was a natural conclusion there. Basically, I went in thinking this would be a play within a play, meaning all those different stories that the writers are creating about all these different stories about what's going on in the media, would be this micro play within this macro play about what's happening within the New York Times itself. I guess I figured, I'm not exactly sure what those stories might be, but every day when I went in to speak with the editor and checked in with the writers, they would tell me they were writing about this or that, and I was following the evolution of the arguments and the different theories about where the media was heading. It just so happened that the iPad and WikiLeaks and Comcast/Universal were just these huge stories.
I remember in my freshman year in college back in 1995, they were saying even then that newspapers would probably be gone in 20 or 25 years. And back then the Internet wasn't anywhere near what it is now. What would you say was the biggest or most important thing you learned through getting this kind of access, about the process of crafting a story?
Andrew Rossi: I think one of the more interesting things we see is writers and editors collaborating to create these stories. You see the byline and follow David Carr on Twitter, and he's become this brand unto himself, alongside The New York Times. I was fascinated with how important it is to have a team produce a story. To see all those moving parts come together, was really revealing to me.
I was curious what your own thoughts are on the iPad and new media, and how you think they will change journalism and print media?
Andrew Rossi: Well, the publisher of The New York Times has said that the print edition will be suspended or will go away at some point in the future, date to be determined, so it's clear that the physical paper isn't what's important, it's the journalism which is important. With that being said, those advertisements you see in the paper, they still haven't found a way to monetize journalism online, because with those ads, you can't charge a lot. They're not intelligent, in the way they may be able to become on the iPad, and that's what's really exciting about the iPad. First of all, it's a high-resolution thing you can hold in your hand, but also you can have a platform for advertising that is tracking the user's interests, and targeting better ads. You can flip through the pages, as it were, on an iPad, instead of clicking onto a banner ad or something. I do think that the iPad or tablets in general, are a step in the right direction.
I've noticed in my job, going to screenings and junkets, there is just this huge disconnect between the online journalists and the print journalists. It was interesting to see David's reactions to that blogger which was trying to rip on The New York Times. Did you see more of that kind of stuff which may not have been able to make it into the movie?
Andrew Rossi: That's a good question. There were a lot of other conversational moments like that, but it's true. Questions like that just follow The New York Times around. It's an inescapable question that people have, and rightfully so, because it's people coming to terms that, especially now in the digital era, there is no Walter Cronkite figure who is the voice of God and is always infallible. The tagline for the film, Participant Media is one of our co-distributors on the film, and they came up with the tagline, 'Consider the source.' I think that's really interesting because it's relevant. You might see something online wonder if it's true or not, and go, 'Well I've never heard of this website.' That's valid and, even when you read things in The New York Times, like Judith Miller's reporting about Iraq'a weapons of mass destruction, she said that's what her sources told her. She was accurately reporting what her sources told her, but you have to consider that source too. I think in this new era with all these tools at our disposal, people can empower themselves to be astute readers, even of The New York Times. If they see something that sounds weird, or they're not sure about, you can go on Twitter or the comments or any other site online, and get a bigger picture.
You said you were working on another documentary before this came together. Are you working on that now, or is there anything else you're putting together?
Andrew Rossi: Right now, I'm just in the process of promoting this. There is nothing really that I'm able to talk about.
I have noticed in Participant's other movies they usually have some sort of online campaign to get people more involved. I was curious if they have a campaign like that for this? Do they have another website set up for this?
To wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about the documentary, or just journalism in general, about why they should check this out in theaters on June 24?
Andrew Rossi: Well, I think for people who are interested in where their news comes from, and what the craft of journalism is all about, I think this movie provides a really interesting window into that process.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Andrew. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck. I'll have my fingers crossed for some Oscar consideration for this.
Andrew Rossi: Thank you, Brian. I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.