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On Movies: Love newspapers? You'll like 'Page One'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - The Onion News Network, itself a child of the bedraggled medium of print, cuts close to the bone with a recent feature entitled "How Will the End of Print Journalism Affect Crazy Old Loons Who Hoard Newspapers?"

There's no mention of crazy old loons like me who READ newspapers from front to back before consigning them to the ever-growing stack by the back door. But we get the point: Everybody hip enough to be watching the Onion News Network reads everything online. Or soon will do so. The rest of us crazy old loons will just die out, like the daily newspaper itself, at least the "paper" part of it. Or so the theory goes.

How to save the "news" part of the newspaper is the great question facing journalism today. It is dealt with in lively and dramatic detail by the fine new documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times."

The kind of news the New York Times and other good daily newspapers pursue is real news, news about things that matter, gathered by actual human beings with a lively curiosity and experience in digging beneath the surface, factually checked and rechecked, told clearly, interestingly and in context. That kind of news costs money, leading to the current dilemma: Since daily newspapers are mainly supported by advertising, and at this point online advertising brings in only a small percentage of what print advertising fetches - or used to fetch -- how will journalism pay for itself if appears only online?

In one attempt to answer that question, the New York Times recently began charging for its online edition - you can skim the Times website for free, but you have to pay $15 every four weeks to actually read it online in any depth. The internal discussions that led up to that decision are among the topics of "Page One," which eavesdropped on the newsroom at the Times for 14 months and interviewed dozens of Times employees, media specialists and critics of the Times. The result is a fascinating cinema verite look at the workings of a daily newspaper at a time of great crisis.

(Since the film was made, the Times has announced an important change at the top - Jill Abramson, who has spent months studying Internet media, will replace Bill Keller as executive editor at the end of the summer. Her promotion is part of a "transition from a print-dominated operation to a digital-minded one," Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane wrote last Sunday (June 26).)

The stakes at the New York Times are high, and not just for New Yorkers. The Times is America's best and most important newspaper, and if it can't figure out a way to survive the latest electronic revolution, then chances are not so good for other daily newspapers across the county.

The film shows that, before deciding to begin charging for full access to the website, Times executives and media experts discussed various ways that news organizations might pay for themselves online, including the not-for-profit route taken by public radio and television stations and online publications like the Beacon. There is no shortage of ideas on a 21st century business model at the New York Times.

One way the Times, like other daily newspapers including the Post-Dispatch, has tried to deal with the economic crisis is by severely cutting staff. In some of the most touching scenes in the movie, longtime employees, people who love working for the New York Times, some in tears, gather up the personal clutter of their desks as they prepare to leave the newsroom for the last time.

"Page One" also displays some of the Times' dirty laundry. Times staffers discuss with chagrin the pre-Iraq-war reporting of former Times writer Judith Miller, who gobbled hook, line and sinker the Bush administration fairytale about Saddam Hussein and nuclear weapons. Because her stories were in the Times, they affected public policy in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

And mention is made of Jayson Blair, whose plagiarized and invented stories were splashed across the front page of the Times. But you sense that Andrew Rossi, director of "Page One," is a fan of the Times, and thinks it is on the whole a very good newspaper. He also understands how important it is for a democracy to have papers like the New York Times in some form.

The most interesting parts of the movie come when we sit in on the morning news meetings, and follow the trail of the stories discussed at these meetings. The film tracks the interaction between reporters and editors as the story is prepared for presentation. The focus is on the paper's Media Desk, and on media columnist David Carr, a rumpled contemporary version of the legendary hard-drinking reporters of yesteryear. Carr is a former drug addict whose talent and luck gained him a second chance, and he is a star.

He brooks no nonsense from media corporate types. One of the stories he is covering involves the bankruptcy of the Chicago Tribune after spectacular mismanagement by zillionaire Sam Zell. Carr is mad about what happened at the Tribune after corporate raider Zell bought it, noting that hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses were paid out to Zell-installed executives with questionable journalistic credentials. Carr seems to take the bankruptcy personally. Beneath his apparent cynicism beats the heart of a newspaper romantic. David Carr is angry because he loves the newspaper business, and he loves the New York Times.

I have to confess, so do I. I love newspapers, period, and that may be one reason I loved "Page One." The film has been criticized for not being organized in a coherent way to advance a theme, but the diary approach - here's what happened today - is almost an inevitable result of the eavesdropping method of documentary filmmaking. And in the end, I think, the theme is "survival with honor," and the viewer comes away understanding why the New York Times and daily papers in general are so important, why the country's founders put freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Opens Friday, July 1

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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