Somewhere around the middle of this past decade, the New York Times suffered a near-death experience.
The paper’s finances were shaky in the usual ways: print income was falling, digital revenue failing to compensate. A Mexican telephone tycoon lent a lot of money in exchange for an uncomfortably large stake in the company. Magazine profiles openly disrespectful of publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s abilities began appearing. Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal and declared war on the Times’ hold on New York.
And what happened? No newspaper dependent on those dropping print revenues is out of the wood yet, but things have looked up. The Journal has not broken through in New York and Murdoch and the News Corp hierarchy have phone-hacking lawsuits, trials and revelations to worry about. Reporters from the New York Times made a significant mark on the phone-hacking disclosures.
The paper was at the centre of the Wikileaks revelations in the US. It has appointed its first woman editor. The Mexican loan is due to be repaid early. Perhaps best of all, the online “metered” paywall seems to be working.
This is quite some turnaround and the paper’s renewed jauntiness is well caught in an enjoyable documentary, PageOne, which reaches British cinemas next month. Two things lift the film beyond the normal newsroom documentary in which journalists talk at tiresome length about the indispensable importance of their work and how brilliant they are at doing it. The first is the film’s star and the paper’s media columnist David Carr.
Croaky-voiced, hunched, trenchant and with a personal backstory of hell-raising and heroin, Carr is about as untypical of New York Times journalists as it is possible to be and still be employed there. But some people are magnetic when there are cameras in the room. Carr is one of them and he is hugely entertaining to watch. Be alert for the scene in which Carr goes to interview (aka berate) online “citizen” journalists who have been blundering around in African wars.
PageOne’s second distinguishing feature is its refusal to settle for being fly-on-the-wall and to keep asking: how are newspapers going to survive? This theme gives the film some intellectual clout, even if the question isn’t fully answered by anyone.
With that movie trailer, this blog is going on holiday until early September. If you happen to be visiting for the first time, here’s a brief selection of greatest-hits posts from the past few months to give you a little background:
- This blog’s little crusade: to persuade news websites of quality to use footnotes in order to reassure readers where material has come from.
- What I’ve discovered about blogging so far. Entirely thanks to thebrowser.com, this is the most widely-read post I’ve written.
- The “Filter Bubble” and public reason.
- Who should be allowed to own what in the converged media and how much of it. Boring but important.