Beyond what the title says, what is Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times? Is it the story of the venerable newspaper as it stares down the challenges of dwindling subscriptions and print advertising, the parasitic practices of content aggregators like The Huffington Post, and a sea change in how readers receive the news? Certainly. Is it the story of the Times’ newly created Media desk, which reports on this ever-changing landscape, including the paper’s own tenuous place in it? That, too. Is it about David Carr, a former crack addict turned indomitable reporter who’s taken to the Times with the fervor of the religious convert? You betcha. It’s about all that and much, much more, including brand-damaging scandals like Judith Miller’s dubious WMD reporting and Jayson Blair’s fabulism, the daily conference meetings that set the news agenda for the paper (and everyone else), and the particulars of the first big Wikileaks data dump and Carr’s reporting on the atmosphere of harassment at the Chicago Tribune.
All these angles and stories are fascinating—and the year-in-the-life concept allows room for them—but Page One has the distracted quality of a news junkie's Twitter feed. A director like Frederick Wiseman might have planted his camera in Bill Keller’s conference room and left it at that; director Andrew Rossi does the opposite, flitting around from bit to bit in the hope that all those bits will amount to a compelling—though not terribly cohesive—overview. For the most part, it’s a good strategy, offering a vivid thumbnail sketch both of the Times’ current existential crisis and its day-to-day operations. If Page One were spread out into, say, a 10-hour PBS series—or maybe a really classy reality show—it might have been extraordinary. And Rossi has a terrific through-line in Carr, a journalist’s journalist who’s shown vigorously defending the paper and practicing his craft with a shoe-leather doggedness that’s genuinely inspiring. (Carr’s flambéing of Vice magazine co-founder Shane Smith over Smith’s criticism of the Times’ Liberia coverage alone makes him the summer’s greatest superhero.) In the meantime, Rossi never gets around to exploring his opening question: What would the world be without The New York Times? Perhaps, as with a lot of his subjects here, the answer is just too painful to consider, no matter the economic realities.