David Carr, Andrew Rossi talk 'Page One,' Gawker, and the future of newspapers
Last night, the documentary "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times" premiered at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. The movie stars Minneapolis alt-weekly alumnus David Carr, who is now the Times' brashest media writer. We caught up with Carr and film director Andrew Rossi before the showing.
City Pages: Why do you think this story is best told as a movie rather than, say, a book?
Andrew Rossi: I think it's the ability to see David in the flesh. The incredibly handsome man sitting next to me.
David Carr: You replaced me with this old homeless guy!
AR: You know, otherwise we'd need to have Hardy-Boy-style illustrations inside of the book...No, I've always been attracted to film as a medium that really succeeds in bringing something to life. I think that when you get journalists in an environment and in a period when the stakes are really high, which they were because of the economic conditions affecting newspapers, then you can really get some tremendous cinematic moments.
DC: I told Andrew that this is not the stuff of movies. You have middle-aged people typing in cubes with headsets on. And I think he proved me a liar. I think it looks and walks and talks like a movie, and the nice thing is through the magic of editing, all the broken plays, all the quotidian aspects of what I do and what you do, all the non-stories that you have to write anyway, you don't have to look at them. It's just like duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, Everything's going along. It doesn't show me wandering around having no idea what I was doing, whether my story would work or not. It looks so much more heroic than what we actually do.
A lot of the movie is examining the mortality of the New York Times. Does the fact that this movie was made about the New York Times have dire implications for a smaller paper, say the Minneapolis Star Tribune or the St. Paul Pioneer Press, or is that an apples-and-oranges sort of comparison?
DC: I think the New York Times is in a different business than the regional papers. Regional papers, more so than community papers and national papers, are particularly imperiled. But if you look at the Star Tribune which was in bankruptcy, the last circulation period they upped Sunday circulation 5.7 percent. That's pretty impressive. That suggests that not only toes touched bottom, but maybe they'll come back a little bit.
AR: But I also think that the Times' decision ultimately to let cameras into the newsroom is part and parcel of an attempt to address some of the threats to mainstream journalism that this film is presenting. After some of the failures in the reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, and also the Jayson Blair scandal, the paper decided to make some changes, one of which is to install a standards editor, and the other one I believe was to try to be more transparent. And so this film is helping to let people into the process that goes into the stories you read in that great newspaper. And it just provides some more color for people to understand what's happening, and I think that maybe you'll see something like that happening in regional papers or other papers, not trying to be so hermetically sealed.
CP: Speaking of Jayson Blair, there's a part of the movie where you talk about Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and the people who look at them as a way to criticize the New York Times' credibility. Do you think that seriously has damaged the reputation of the New York Times, or is it just used as an excuse by people who would be hating on the New York Times anyway?
DC: I think it hurt us with our most loyal and best customers. Jayson was a friend of mine, who said he was where he wasn't. He was writing about military families. Just a real breach of trust. People accused us of starting the Iraq war, which I think is nonsense. I think our paper could have done a better job. In technical terms, that's a way-off brand message to have something less than efficacious. And people lay all sorts of political trips on it -- I could care less about any of that. In terms of "we started the war," "we're ending the war," I don't see any evidence of that. But we did screw up.
CP: In the world of the Huffington Post, Minnpost, and the blogosphere, is there still room for the alt-weekly? And has what the alt-weekly does changed, or should it change?
DC: The alt-weekly was historically in the business of not being the daily paper. When I worked in Minneapolis and when I worked in Washington, you were defined by what you were not. That's not a very good definition going forward. The problem is, so much of what drives alt-weeklies in terms of listing of information of various options and stuff, gets so much better on the web.
I do think that some of the long-form alt-weeklies do - I'm sorry, this is just a fetish of mine [to AR] - some of the long form that weeklies do, they shouldn't let go of that, because I see more and more, whether it's Atavist or Long Reads or whatever, where people are back reading these big heaves. News is the killer app, and as long as alt-weeklies can be the source of information that's theirs only, that's actual news - you know, some have done very well in the current environment.
CP: In one part of the movie, you talk about Gawker, and you show the TV they have that shows the top web-hit stories. Is that dangerous? Is that the future? Ten years from now, is that going to be the New York Times newsroom?
AR: Right, you're referring to The Big Board, which Nick Denton proudly showcases as what readers want. He says 'we're not trying to tell readers what to focus on, and stories about corruption in Albany, which is the capital of New York, may be important, but they're not sexy and they're not what people want to read.' And I do think that it would be dangerous if we were only reading the stories that had the flame next to it, with thousands of people having read it, and we only focus on those ones that are hot. The curatorial work that the Times does is really important, and there are people that benefit from getting to look at that front page and get a sort of diet of what's happening in the world. That's not to say that what Nick Denton's doing at Gawker, and Gawker itself, is not also a sort of valid player within the information diet that we get.
DC: I don't look at my traffic numbers constantly, but I looked hard at them about four months ago, and it does influence what I do. Like, I wrote about Gannet and their bonuses this week, and I know that no one in relative terms will read that. I don't care. I want to write about that and I think it's important, but at least I should know that going in, that it's not going to set the world on fire. And you know what, you never know. My story about the Tribune Co., which was a story about newspapers, was huge on the Twitter. But in terms of, is that where we're heading, Gannet just announced that USA Today is gonna start bonusing people on traffic. So I guess I should turn this conversation toward sex so it becomes link bait.
CP: There was a story that Forbes blogged -- you tweeted about I this, I believe -- essentially putting these deaths in Afghanistan at a 21-year-old college kid's doorstep for writing about this pastor who was burning the Qur'an. It was written about in a way to say this is a symptom of 2011 journalism - this wouldn't have happened if he would have been in a traditional newsroom. I'm wondering if you agree with that.
DC: I don't think a new ecosystem can be blamed for, number one people who wanna burn a book, and number two other people who act like burning a book is a crime against humanity. If all known thought is one click away, it's going to be found somehow, it's going to be amplified somehow, and I don't think we should do journalism on perceived consequence.
CP: Are there people that see a failure in the system and say, well this is because it's 2011 and journalism is so different? Is this something that could have just as easily happened 30 years ago and we're just blaming the new age?
DC: I'm with you on that. I think there's always going to be a kind of pathology in the system, and yes it could be put on steroids by new platforms. But journalism is constructed by humans and there's going to be mistakes. If anything the web, in general, is more of a self-cleaning oven, more of a self-correcting narrative. Things get truer as they go.
Is there another book in the works?
DC: I want to do a book for this [pulls out his iPad]. So where I'm filming you during the interview and then I finger edit and that becomes an embedded media file. I don't want to do any nonfiction that doesn't include rich media files and transparent reporting. That's what my interest is. And so far, I think I've come up with ideas that I think four or five people total would buy. I don't want to do one of those books that no one reads. I'm not one of those people that's like 'oh there's a book in me that needs to get out.' My book needs an audience for me to do it.
CP: Are you able to share any of the ideas?
DC: No, you know what, I think they're so white hot. [Laughs] Let's just say there's a shopping mall I live by that's 95 percent completed. And it's got a ski hill, and it's got the wade pool, and no one's there, right. It's built in the New Jersey swamps, so you can kind of fill in the back story to what Uncle Guido did to get it built, and all the back story to it. So, it represents the sort of peak of shopping media and real estate mania, and so it would be about how America went to the mall and lost its mind. Here's the punch line: What's the place called?
AR: What's it called?
DC: Xanadu. C'mon!
Page One will open in full release this summer.
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