It’s no secret that print media has been in trouble for some time. Newspaper sales are declining, and more and more people are getting their information for free from the internet. As a result mainstream news outlets have been cutting costs and journalists in an effort to remain profitable. This has seriously undermined their ability to perform their core functions of informing the public and holding institutions to account.
The key question seems to be: ‘will traditional media die out, or evolve to meet the demands of a changing commercial and technological environment’? The documentary Page One attempts to answer this by covering a year in the life of the New York Times, arguably the largest and most prestigious newspaper in the United States. Once dominating all it surveyed, it’s increasingly under pressure due to a collapse in advertising revenue and a scandal where a journalist was caught making up stories. That and their enthusiastic support for the invasion of Iraq has significantly eroded public trust in the company.
The focus of the documentary is David Carr, ex-drug addict and New York Times media correspondent. He comes across as a ferocious defender of print media, and many of the best parts of the film feature him ripping to shreds anyone who claims that it’s dying. He makes a good argument when he demonstrates how many websites, especially those beating the drum for new media, are reliant on old media to provide them with content.
We see most of the years events through his eyes. This includes his own story about the collapse of the Tribune media group, the supposed end of the war in Iraq, and the release of the Wikileaks papers. The fact that Wikileaks did this in partnership with the New York Times suggests a potential new model for the future; old media working hand in hand with the new. As Julian Assange admits in a phone conversation with a Times reporter, you can’t always square the circle of being an activist and a journalist at the same time. We also see the rise of Twitter as a social media platform and the release of the first iPad. This poses yet further questions for the NYT’s staff and owners. They have a webpage, but is charging people to visit it the best way forward?
I feel I have to make a confession here; I like technology. I use Twitter and obviously I’ve got a blog. I’m equally aware that there are many benefits to the growth in citizen journalism. That said I’d be very sad to see old media die out. I think they perform a role that simply can’t be matched by talented amateurs relying on advertising revenues from websites. As one reporter points out, newspapers cover a lot of things that are not necessarily commercial or sexy, but people need to know. While newspaper ethics are by no means perfect, I at least know who I should complain to or sue if I’m libelled. There also seems to be the mistaken assumption on the part of the new media that newspapers going ‘online only’ means the death of traditional media. I’d argue that this isn’t the case at all. In a world increasingly reliant on information, high quality information is a very valuable commodity indeed. The idea that we can get it for free is an incredibly worrying one. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always has to pick up the cheque later down the line.
Ultimately Page One makes the case, intentionally or not, that old media survives on more than just nostalgia. While newspapers may end up changing platforms in order to survive, they’re not going to go away any time soon. The documentary also illustrates why properly trained professional journalists are still so vital to the process of news gathering and distribution. The film ends with the editor announcing that the paper has won yet another Pulitzer Prize for exceptional reporting, and I suspect that the rumours of the death of traditional media may well have been exaggerated.
Here is the trailer for Page One – Inside the New York Times: