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The Theory of Internet-Based Information

Watching and reading about the recent film, Page One: A Year The New York Times, is a strange experience.  To be sure, its subject matter is gripping; newspapers are suffering from the public’s ever-increasing dependence on internet sources—which range from common blogs to sources like Wikileaks (which offers absolutely stunning footage to the public).[1]  The nature of media coverage is changing, and The New York Times (NYT) has finally resorted to charging its online customers for accessing newspaper articles through the website.  As made clear by Page One, even a longtime institution like NYT is struggling for its life.

But I want to return to my opening point, that watching the documentary—as well as reading the reviews—is a “strange experience.” Let’s begin with the reviews.  There appears to be a split between those reviewers who focus on the documentary’s subject matter, and those who focus on the film itself (the coverage, the quality of the insights, and so on).  Roger Moore, of The Orlando Sentinel, describes the movie as “a colorful ‘how the news is made’ movie capturing some very smart, very committed reporters and editors adapting to the changing rules in our brave new online news world.”[2]  Here, the issues at hand are privileged; the documentary is understood not so much as a film but as a (cinematic) argument.  In a frustrating, and mostly empty, blogpost by Paul Krugman (of NYT), Krugman writes that the film is “Anyway, interesting,” and has little to say about the documentary’s quality as a film.[3]  These reviews highlight the unquestionable importance of the subject matter, and suggest that something about NYT—as a symbol for the shrinking print industry—is irreplaceable.  This I agree with.

Some of the more substantial critical reviews bring attention to the weaknesses of the film.  Roger Ebert remarks that “the film lacks the skill of that staff in covering the Times.”  More pointedly, “the doc doesn’t have or find a theme,” and simply moves through the media section of NYT in a somewhat rhapsodic, uneven manner.[4]  Throughout the review, we can feel Ebert struggling to keep his eye on the film, though the desire to rave on about the increasing illiteracy of the American public is undeniable.  Sam Adams, of The Los Angeles Times, calls Page One “a sporadically engaging but largely flaccid portrait of journalism done right.”  He also writes, “By treatise the Times as a valuable rather than an adaptive organism, Rossi [the director] does his subject a disservice.”[5]

Now that I have heaped up a sufficient number of responses to the film, I can talk about what to do with them.  I have already remarked on the split between subject matter and film quality, and this is especially important for understanding the stakes of the documentary.  To be blunt, and to throw my own voice into the mix, the subject matter is compelling; the film itself is mediocre.  We are told that NYT is adapting, but we are given very little information about how it is doing it.  To be sure, we get some glimpses of NYT writers using Twitter and blogposts to further journalistic inquiry, but this is not enough.  I have to agree with Adams that the film shows NYT as a “valuable rather than an adaptive organism,” which ushers NYT into the realm of the past.  In such a way, the documentary seems to further the basic goal of the opposition—to push aside print newspapers as antiquarian and increasingly irrelevant.

To the subject matter.  I am completely onboard with NYT, and think is not only a valuable but relevant institution.  Web-based sources cannot replace it.  The strongest moment in Page One is when David Carr, a reporter for the media section of NYT, makes the point that online sources do not do their own reporting, and the vast majority of websites simply recycle stories that were covered by NYT very recently.  Print enables the internet, and printed news is far from eradicable.  And the more web-based we become, the less culpability there is for our reporters.  Good luck cutting down on sloppy, even dangerous reporting, when it is performed by an unnamed writer (probably a 12-year old looking for something to do).  The increasing availability of information is not always a good thing, and this is not an anti-democratic statement.  What is to be gained by having more stories if they are not authenticated, besides an almost indecipherable difference between gossip and information?  At a certain point, a crowd of voices prevents ANYONE from being heard.

I hope NYT makes it, and I hope that people will learn to question the informative impulse, which is creating not informed citizens but a deafening amalgamation of voices when people are yelling at each other irrationally to the point when voices cannot even be attached to persons.

JASON GULYA


[1] The most disturbing of these videos that I can find, and one that was featured in Page One, is the video of the U.S. helicopter, Apache, shooting down several supposed “insurgents” in Iraq.  See   <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0>.

[2] Roger Moore, “Movie Review: Inside the New York Times,”

<http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_movies_blog/2011/07/movie-review-page-one-a-year-inside-the-new-york-times.html>.

[3] Paul Krugman, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” <http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/02/page-one/?scp=1&sq=page%20one&st=cse>.

[4] Roger Ebert, “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times,”

<http://www.rogerebert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110628/REVIEWS/110629979/1023>.

[5] Sam Adams, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” Los Angeles Times.

<http://www.citypaper.net/movies/2011-06-30-page-one-inside-the-new-york-times-review.html>.

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