A media organization covering the media is reflexive enough, but how about adding documentary filmmakers to the mix? "It was journalists reporting on journalism, and we were working as journalists covering that," says Kate Novack, producer and writer of Page One: Inside the New York Times, a sprawling vérité group portrait of the Gray Lady's media desk. The paper's reporters and editors get the War Room treatment, with ornery vet David Carr playing James Carville to Brian Stelter's fresh-faced George Stephanopoulos, and inside baseball industry chatter presented as front-page news. "It was treating the New York Times newsroom as if we were reporting in the field," director Andrew Rossi says. "Our beat was them."
Not all documentaries realize the journalistic promise of the form, but the husband-wife team of Novack — a former media reporter for Time magazine — and Rossi (Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven) brought a warranted reportorial rigor to their subject. Though understandably eager to lift the skirts of the hallowed publication ("It's like a cross between a law firm and Congress," Rossi says of the 41st Street HQ), they also spotted a major breaking story and reported it out. When Rossi approached the paper in mid-2009, the institution was freshly reckoning with the industrywide fallout from the world economic crisis, with magazines shuttering; dailies, like the Times, instituting mass layoffs; and readership flocking from print to online aggregators. Along with corporate dealings and industry analysis, the media desk was busy monitoring its own bid for survival.
"We wanted to cover, almost as a primary document, the New York Times in what we viewed as a historic moment — not just for the Times, but for journalism and the way the culture processes information," Novack says. "People were talking about the digital revolution leaving a lot of dead bodies on the side of the road," says Rossi, and with the merits of old-school outlets suddenly questioned in the era of Gawker and the Huffington Post, it was time to take stock of what actually goes on at an institution like the Times and to consider what would be lost if the old lion became extinct.
After six months of pitching everyone from staff writers to soon-to-be-former executive editor Bill Keller, Rossi was granted unprecedented access to the newsroom, where he witnessed the rise of WikiLeaks, the launch of the iPad, Carr's spectacular mano-a-mano dressing-down of Vice magazine's Shane Smith, and Stelter's continuity-confounding 90-pound weight loss. Once inside the newsroom, Rossi had to earn the trust of the professional skeptics who were his subjects. "I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I was almost openly hostile toward him," Stelter recalls. "I knew he was a journalist who was doing a job, but I didn't want to go out of my way to try to help him. I didn't want to be perceived as the kid who was auditioning for the movie." In the Times newsroom, "no one wants to be the guy walking around with the camera behind his back, following his every move," Rossi says. Not even camera-ready Carr, who persuaded Rossi to ditch plans for a profile and expand the cast to Stelter, media editor Bruce Headlam, and Tim Arango, who was promoted to Baghdad bureau chief during the shoot.
Rossi, who kept things lean by acting as his own soundman and cameraman, took the classic vérité tack of simply showing up every day and letting the camera roll. "He would just sit there and kind of wait. A lot of the time, there was nothing interesting going on," Stelter says. But when something of note finally did happen, "we barely noticed he was there." Meanwhile, back at home, Novack did her own reporting, following leads and trends and messaging Rossi about whom to trail next. "I would compare the relationship that we had to his being a reporter in the field and me playing the role of an editor," she says. Novack and Rossi also conducted interviews throughout the shoot with outsiders like the New Yorker's David Remnick, new-media pundit Clay Shirky, and Gawker's Nick Denton, whose perspective "helped take us outside of the bubble."
Three editors worked simultaneous to the shoot, pulling out self-contained scenes like the aforementioned Vice smackdown and keeping track of the larger narrative for a film that kept expanding in ambition and scope — and didn't wrap shooting until after a version of the film debuted at Sundance in January. "I approached it almost as literary journalism," Rossi says. "Where it feels all right to go on some tangents before returning to a more conventional, heroic narrative," with the Times, as well as its reporters, playing protagonists fighting for their livelihoods.
"It's interesting as a documentary filmmaker to make a movie about journalists," Novack says. "So many of the issues that you're grappling with they're grappling with also," from questions over how best to gather and present information, to simply—or not so simply—following a story. Yet such self-reflexivity always runs the risk of becoming an irrelevant echo chamber, something that Headlam ruefully confronts in the film when trying to discern between "a real story and a media story." For Stelter and his colleagues, it's crucial that they not cover media, "as a navel-gazing exercise in what our friends in cocktail parties are doing. It has to be about citizens getting information."
And though Rossi was turned on by the prospect of a day-in-the-life-style record of all sections of the paper, "there was an urgency to this story, in focusing on the media desk, that I think exceeded my aesthetic or creative desire to make a movie like that." Whether it's showing Carr taking several months to investigate mismanagement at the Tribune Company or Headlam sagely refusing to cover the coverage of a phony Iraq-troop withdrawal, Rossi hopes the film can encourage "a broader conversation about the newspaper industry and the extent to which viable print journalism will be part of a democratic future."