A blog post about a movie about a newspaper

Rachel Lovinger   July 28, 2011
Don’t let the tombstones deceive you. (image via istorija)

Breakdown: Earlier this week Lisa Park wrote a post on the power of giving an editorial voice to the larger community. Rachel Lovinger counters with thoughts on why the social narrative alone might leave news lovers hungry for something much more substantial. Get in on the conversation and read below >>

This past weekend I saw “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” a documentary about one of the preeminent newspapers of our time. And – let’s face it – our time is not a great time for newspapers. Page One is a high-drama, must-see film for anyone who’s interested in “the future of print media,” because it shows that, whatever happens to newspapers and magazines, we will still need journalism.

Page One tells its story primarily through the NYT Media Desk, which was established in 2008 to report on the state of the media (including the Times itself). They report on phenomena like Wikileaks, Twitter, news bloggers, and mobile devices, even as they participate in them. As a result, they’re an extremely self-aware group of reporters. When one reporter, David Carr, looks into a bag containing a new iPad he proclaims, “Is that a bridge to the future? Oh wait it’s a gallows!”

The predictions of the demise of newspapers in general (and of the New York Times in particular) are a constant theme in the movie and a hot topic in the media biz in general. But if you look beyond the business models and the distribution metrics, there’s a deeper question being explored here: What is the fundamental purpose of news journalism? Do the new modes of digital media have the ability to fulfill that purpose? And what would it mean to our culture if the standards and practices of journalism were allowed to dissolve away?

Sure, news blogs and citizen journalism make many promises that are hard for traditional media to compete with. News blogs get information to us more immediately, where traditional media has to do research, analysis, fact checking, editing, and other time-consuming activities. Citizen journalism uses distributed sources, so they don’t have to worry about sending people to places to investigate a story, as long as someone who was there at the time reports in to them. News aggregators like Huffington Post and some other startups mentioned in the film can bring us news on a wide range of topics from a wide range of sources with very little overhead, but where would they be without mainstream media providing the bulk of their content?

But newspapers like the New York Times bring expertise, perspective, and journalistic standards. When the film touches on events that have hurt the credibility of the Times, like Jayson Blair making up stories, it’s notable that the reason these incidents are so scandalous is actually because the paper has such a dependable reputation. They take the time to consider “Is this a story? What is the story? How do we tell this story?” while news blogs may just put the information out there and let you decide.

And that doesn’t mean those other sources are neutral and objective. As the Times media reporters demonstrate in the deconstruction of an edited Wikileaks video that was widely distributed on YouTube, there’s often an agenda. It’s just not stated explicitly. When asked if he considers himself a journalist, Julian Assange says that he does, but if he had to choose between the values of journalism and the values of activism, he would choose activism.

Of course, there’s a place in this world for activism, and modern media and digital communications have made it easier than ever before to be an activist. And certainly the planet would be better off with fewer trees being cut down, printing plants running every day, and trucks carting the papers to your local store. We can afford to lose newspapers, but can we afford to lose journalism?

If Page One is any indication, the people at the Times are doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen. Check out the film and see if you agree with their choices. And if not, what do you think is going to get in their way? What do you think they should do differently? And do you think any of this matters?


2 Responses

  1. Andrea says:

    This is a thoughtfully written review. I have seen the film but confess that it was colored by my decade+ in web and print journalism (I’m now a content strategist and copywriter). I left newspapers in 2005. At that point, I’d been working for a number of years in the “new media” department- in other words, editing, writing and hand coding stories and experimenting with variously bad content management systems. Newspapers are suffering this fate because they were almost willfully unprepared for the onslaught of digital technology. Instead of embracing it and charging for the content, most newspapers allowed free access. Meanwhile, journalists still have to eat. As your review points out, in order to actually be a journalist, one has to adhere to certain ethics and standards, which includes fact checking and other safe guards to make sure the reader is presented with as close to the unbiased truth as it humanly possible. Unfortunately, the public now expects the news to be free. Trying to charge for site access or archived content now is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. What is the answer? I don’t know. For the most part, society really doesn’t seem to care where their information comes from and as long ago as six years ago, the page view numbers at the newspapers where I worked always skewed heavily in favor of the latest celebrity gossip and sports news. At some point, you have to expect that newspapers would dumb themselves down to accommodate that sort of demand. But I’m glad to see a certain backlash now against that. At least people outside of journalism are starting to talk about the future journalism. Because if the future isn’t in newspapers (and it clearly isn’t, NYT notwithstanding)- then where is it? Who will create a news delivery system that respects itself and its readership enough to not post/print garbage; who will pay its employees a livable salary and which will also somehow make money? It all remains to be seen.

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