Interview: Andrew Rossi on Page One: Inside the New York Times

In looking at how print media is adapting to the new online order, Andrew Rossi's vibrant doc reminds us how essential solid news is to a functioning society. Plus, David Carr is awesome!

This weekend marks the theatrical debut of one of the most anticipated docs of the year: Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times. For New Yorkers of a certain breed, a peek inside the rarefied halls of The Times is selling point enough. But when you throw in terrific characters like sturdy newsman David Carr and tech-savvy upstart Brian Stelter—key players on the formed-in-2008 Media Desk—and combine them with a microcosmic exploration of the dogged rumors of the demise of the printed newspaper, you’ve got something for everyone.

Over the course of a year, Rossi took his camera inside the gleaming headquarters on 41st Street, where he captured the dawn of the WikiLeaks saga; a meta-story about the news industry, as filtered through the demise of the Tribune Company; and a news?/not news? debate about the purported end of the war in Afghanistan. Along the way, he is witness to a massive news team adapting to the new media techniques (Twitter, mobile apps, 24-hour blogging) they hope will keep the paper alive, vital, and solvent. At the same time, reporters are struggling to keep their strong journalistic ideals intact in the face of overwhelming online thirst for gossip and infotainment. The result is a fascinating 90 minutes, peppered with interviews with outgoing executive editor Bill Keller, erstwhile Times biographer Gay Talese, The New Yorker editor David Remnick, and many more.

Part thriller, part character study, and part microcosm of one of the biggest debates of our time—can newspapers survive, and charge money, in this free-for-all Internet age?—Page One couldn’t be more timely.

Director Andrew Rossi

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?

Andrew Rossi: For an HBO film about Web 2.0 and the virtues of social media I was developing, I interviewed David Carr about Dennis Crowley, who runs Foursquare, and Chris Dixon, who runs Hunch. In the middle of our conversation, Carr kept on circling back to one question: What is the place for legacy media in this new digital future?

At that time, a lot of people were saying that in this digital revolution, there were going to have to be some dead bodies on the side of the road. And in fact, Michael Hirschorn had argued that The Times itself could go out of business within five months—this was in early 2009—which to me seemed like a very curious position for these smart people to take. The Times is so instrumental to people coming up with new venture ideas, and just keeping track of what’s going on, and just being informed people. In fact, the same could be said of the Journal, or the LA Times, or Reuters, or AP.

So suddenly David Carr, someone who was already such an interesting figure—I had always thought he would make a great protagonist for a film— for him the stakes were suddenly extraordinary. He really just wouldn’t let go of this idea about legacy media and defending the Times, and this light bulb went off. “What about a movie about you and The Times?” I figured, maybe the way to tell the story of the digital future is through someone like David. He sort of provides the plot for a play within a play: the stories that he and his colleagues Brian Stelter and Tim Arango are putting into the paper for the Media Desk, which was formed in 2008 to cover the evolution of media in the digital era.

Tribeca: Was Carr at all reluctant to participate?

Andrew Rossi: No, he was game for it. In fact, I think that’s literally what I said: “Would you be game for this if I could get the access?” And he said, “I’m a qualified yes. See what you can do.”

David Carr

He had done The Carpetbagger beforehand, which was a video blog, so he definitely knew what it was like to be on camera, and to have somebody follow him. One of the reasons why The Carpetbagger was successful was because he was so unvarnished. He’s got such a great sense of humor, and there’s no bullshit with him. He doesn’t mind cursing someone out if he disagrees with them.

As a filmmaker, you are always looking for characters who are really—well, it depends on what the film is—who are smart and knowledgeable. But also, having somebody who can bring all that heady, intellectual stuff down to a very human level is a godsend. I think people expect everyone in The New York Times to be very sort of buttoned-down—the idea of The Times man is very conservative—and David is not that at all. So I think immediately he gets people’s attention.

Tribeca: There are several fantastic characters in this film. Did you ever just think, "How did I get so lucky?"

Andrew Rossi: Truth is always better than fiction. Brian Stelter was hired right out of college, like before graduation. He was doing his TV Newser blog, and he was hired to work at The Times, and he is ferocious on Twitter; he is such an avatar for the future journalist who’s able to be on the front page and have 2 stories in the Business section, and then be tweeting all day, like from a tornado in Missouri or Kansas. It’s incredible. As David says in the film, he thinks Brian was a robot assembled in the basement of The Times to come and destroy him. [laughs]

Brian was the perfect foil to David, who’s equally ferocious—David has over 300K Twitter followers, and I think is really associated with being somebody who people are comfortable with in an online context. He’s definitely not an old-fashioned guy, but there’s something about him—he has an old soul, and he comes across as someone who really embodies the best of shoe-leather reporting and classical journalism.

Tribeca: I loved seeing Stelter’s desk in the film, with so many monitors and devices. I do the social media for Tribeca, and I can barely keep up. I can’t imagine doing what he does. So how did you get the Times to agree to the film?

Andrew Rossi: There’s actually a new thrust at the paper to encourage transparency, to really let people see how the news is created. And I think the way that I explained my process made them feel comfortable about participating. I don’t go in with an agenda; I’m practicing what I believe is a sort of observational documentary filmmaking. So it’s not satirical; I’m not there to do a gotcha piece or to make fun of them, or to filter everything through my point of view.

So, after like 6 months of meetings with all the folks on the Media Desk, and phone calls with corporate people, etc., Bill Keller said to me, “I’m proud of what my journalists do, and I’d like the world to see it.”

Watch the trailer: