Last night I fired up my DVD player with a documentary that turned out be an absolute belter: Page One, an inside look at The New York Times and its vanguard struggle to keep print media alive as readers and advertisers start to drift inexorably away. If you haven’t seen it already, do.
Now you won’t need me to tell you, of course, that The Times isn’t universally appreciated. Or that for every elitist coffee-supping member of the urban intelligentsia who daily devours it, there’s doubtless a dozen gun-totting rednecks who’d just as soon use it as kindling, each and every time it strays someplace too ‘gay,’ liberal, un-American, or foreign.
But maybe, just the same, Page One is as good a place as any to keep on bearing in mind that, whatever else it is, the Gray Lady is also hardworking, diligent, and smart. It’s not in the business of taking journalistic shortcuts (and will flagellate itself mercilessly whenever one of its number has the temerity to do otherwise), and is staffed by people well-schooled in the dying art of talking quotably and fast.
Just listen, indeed, to the rat-a-tat-tat of their newsroom chat, and the clickedy-clack of their note-taking keyboards – and you won’t have to strain long to summon the old sounds of Citizen Kane, or the reams of quippy dialogue Cary Grant gets dexterously to deliver in that other old classic newspaper film His Girl Friday.
As with The West Wing, more recently, Page One offers the chance to hear lots of clever people say lots of clever things. It’s a whole lot of fun and, unsurprisingly, illuminating too. How does America’s paper of record regard low-budget ‘news aggregators,’ like Gawker, and their seemingly parasitic grabs for the same market share? How does it battle back and manage layoffs and lawsuits; the twin threats of reverence and hubris; and the ever-shifting demands of a “general interest” audience in the digital age of Tweets, ‘instant experts,’ and unfiltered WikiLeaks?
If these aren’t, by any means, questions easily answered, at least Page One persuasively shows that many bright minds are asking. Embattled pressmen and partial onlookers alike. (Including – a nice surprise for me – David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and the man who wrote Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire: a bloody and brilliant book I’m three-quarters through reading right now, and, as written under the auspices of The Washington Post, itself a monument to quality, old school journalism).
Plus, I ought to add, throughout Page One it’s quite the thrill to be taken so extensively inside Eighth Avenue’s massive New York Times Building. Right across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and just a few blocks from Penn Station, it’s long been one of the most noticeable of Manhattan’s otherwise inaccessible landmarks. Seeing it, you realize ‘that’s where a formidable thing happens every single day; where a mighty institution lives.’ And now, at last, we visitors can easily step inside as well (beyond, that is, its street-level Schnipper’s Quality Kitchen – a fine old place to have a sloppy-Joe, some fries, and a shake).
But what, as the final credits role, of our inky, much travelled, and even more widely distributed, subject? What, when all the talking heads finally finish talking, should we ever make of that?
Well, for me at least, The New York Times is so very much like New York itself. It’s stupidly big – and an island we cannot help but clamor to. It demands attention and then nearly always deserves getting it. It’s smug, but with every reason to be. It will leave you wanting to wash your hands… But, my God, there’s nothing else on earth that’s quite like it – and we’d never stop missing it were it one day to vanish.