Cinedelphia recently sat down with Director Andrew Rossi for what he estimated to be his 70-somethingth interview on the topic of his new film, Page One: Inside the New York Times.
CINEDELPHIA: How would you explain the importance of The New York Times to someone completely unfamiliar with the paper?
ANDREW ROSSI: I think that The New York Times is an institution which has a brand promise for its readers: to provide, above all else, quality journalism and to do so with original, boots-on-the-ground-styled reporting all around the world. Adolph Ochs acquired the paper in 1896, I believe, with a vision of it being a paper of record. So in the early days they had exhaustive lists of economic and financial statistics and were distinct from many other newspapers of the time that fell into the category of yellow journalism. So they sort of eschewed opinion to focus on fact-based reporting. And I think that tradition sort of lives on today. [In the film] you see Sam Zell, who took over the Tribune Company with a profit motive that was more important to him than the mandate to provide quality journalism, as he explains to someone during a town hall meeting that “I’m a businessman, I’m not a newspaper guy”. Well I think The New York Times is a real leader in newspaper guy-type publications versus ones that are driven by the bottom line.
So in conceiving this film, which is broadly about the crisis afflicting newspapers, it could have been done at any institution that has original reporting as its mandate. So The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, although The L.A. Times is owned by the Tribune Company, even places like Reuters or AP that are doing sort of pillar of society-type original reporting. The idea was to go in and give viewers a front row seat in an institution like that. So at the Times we were able to get access to everyone and we were thrilled to be able to tell this story there.
C: Was the film conceived specifically as an examination of a single newspaper or was your original premise a broader look at the changing landscape of journalism?
AR: It was more of a broad changing landscape-type approach until David Carr entered as a sort of Virgil character, a person that would be a guide through a lot of heavy debate about what the future is. And he worked at the Times, so…
C: Were there other subjects in addition to Carr that you were in contact with as the film was developing?
AR: Actually, my initial foray into this subject area was on the other side of the divide, not the old media print journalism side but rather the Web 2.0 start-up side. So I started developing a project for HBO that followed some start-ups to see what people learned from the lessons of the initial boom and crash of Web 1.0. I was following pioneers of the digital future, Dennis Crowley who runs Foursquare, Chris Dixon who runs Hunch.com, Zack Klein who used to be with CollegeHumor.com. And it was during the process of speaking to those people that I interviewed David Carr, who actually had a cameo in my last film [2007’s Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven]. In the process of interviewing him this light bulb went off…
C: Once you had your focus how did you go about approaching The New York Times?
AR: They were immediately not closing the door, meaning I asked David first and he referred me to people on the corporate side and I sort of spoke to them in a six month process of meetings and conversations. I met the journalists on the media desk and they expressed their concerns and ultimately I spoke to Bill Keller, the Executive Editor. The focus of my presentation to them was that I wanted to do an observational documentary. I didn’t go in with an agenda, I wasn’t a media guru who wanted to prove the future of journalism. So I think Bill felt comfortable with giving viewers a front row seat to what was happening at the Times and letting them determine if what they see seems archaic or wasteful or silly.
C: The observational approach you took reminded me of Frederick Wiseman.
AR: Those are my heroes. Frederick Wiseman, Pennebaker, the Maysles.
C: The film has a sense of immediacy to it. In a way, it develops in a manner similar to the news stories it documents. Were the structural aspects of the film formed in the editing room or did you have a game plan going into production?
AR: It was really a combination of the two. There were certain moments when I knew what I was getting would be in the film and those moments became stake posts in the linear structure of the movie. So when I was shooting Brian on the WikiLeaks release of the video of Reuters journalists being gunned down in Baghdad, immediately I knew that that was going to be a very important moment in the film. But then it was in post when we were structuring the movie that we decided that that should go in the beginning of the movie for various reasons: it introduces several characters, it gives a sense of the breadth of what they’re reporting on, it takes us to the A1 meeting where they try to figure out if what Julian Assange was doing was journalism, was the video edited…it really is a story that gives viewers a wide sweep over the Times. The Tribune story, when David is calling and confronting them, that’s another thing that’s instantly going to be in the movie, but that’s at the end of the film because it’s the perfect example of the sort of shoe leather reporting that results in a story with real world impact.
C: I admired the lack of absolute closure…
AR: Yeah, we didn’t necessarily want or feel like we could wrap it up in sort of a fortune cookie takeaway conclusion. It’s a moving target, this is a movie about themes and debates that are raging on.
C: Has anyone from the Times viewed the film yet?
AR: Sure. All of the main figures of the film have viewed it and they really liked it.
C: No negative reactions?
AR: No negative reactions. Well, Bill Keller saw it and I think he thought it was too long. So we made it longer.
C: In closing, where do you personally stand on whether or not the Times can be accurately replicated as an online publication?
AR: I really believe that the core of The New York Times is the journalism and not the print product. I do think that there is a lot of meaning to whether the article is above the fold or below the fold or where it lands. I enjoy reading the paper product, but I think that journalism can be reproduced on any platform whether it’s an iPad or a smart phone. It’s about monetizing the other platforms in the same way as the print edition because that Tiffany’s ad that’s always at the top right corner of A3 has been sold at a premium for years and there’s no equivalent to that on the iPad or website yet. There’s still a gap that needs to be bridged before the paper product will disappear.
C: But it’s ultimately about the content itself.
AR: Right, its about those individuals doing that reporting.
Page One: Inside the New York Times opens this Friday at the Ritz Five.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.