If all traditional journalism disappeared for a week—daily and weekly newspapers, online and print magazines, TV, radio—what would happen? Where would Huffington Post and other aggregators get their content to rewrite and then fail to attribute? What links would we share on Twitter? Would we just wait for new war footage from WikiLeaks?
The blogosphere and citizen journalists would likely step in to report the quotidian happenings in their slice of the world. But by Day 3, when that 166-page Government Accountability Office report on Medicare is still waiting to be read and the cops still haven't returned your phone calls about a shooting in your neighborhood, well, at the risk of sounding like a histrionic teenager threatening to run away from home, then you'll miss us.
The question of whether the venerated national paper of record, The New York Times, could feasibly close was the impetus for the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times. The film focuses on the media desk and three main characters: media editor Bruce Headlam, whose keyboard is always flanked by a bottle of Excedrin; the irascible, unflinching reporter David Carr and former blogger Brian Stelter as they report on the demise of their own industry and the rise of free online models of information dispersal.
This free fall includes massive layoffs at Tribune Company papers, under the chairmanship of real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who views newspapers and journalists as little more than Monopoly game pieces. The attrition happens at the Times itself, where, ironically, among the casualties is a longtime obituary writer. It's as if a group of mountain climbers became trapped in an avalanche and only a handful were left to write the farewell note, knowing their own fates lie next to them frozen in the snow.
While some cranksters have complained the doc is essentially an homage to the Times—true, director Andrew Rossi clearly loves the paper—it also explores difficult economic and philosophical questions: How do we monetize the migration of journalism, which is expensive to produce, to the Web? What is the level of accountability, not just for old-school journalism but for blogs and nontraditional media such as WikiLeaks?
Maybe what the cranksters are grouchy about is that the film stands up for journalism. For example, Carr meets with the swaggering editors of Vice magazine, who boast of their reporting scoops on cannibalism and feces-strewn beaches in Liberia. Carr cuts to the quick: "Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do ..."
Sometimes we journalists and the Times get it wrong, Exhibit A being the Times' Judith Miller, whose false and reckless reporting in her stories about Sadaam Hussein's (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction has made her radioactive (she left the paper). The reason her articles were so damaging is that for all the scuttlebutt about the fading power of journalism, the Times still significantly influences public opinion and public policy. The Times' credibility is also why WikiLeaks' Julian Assange needed it to report on his War Logs, a cache of classified government documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The glut of online information, which is just as vulnerable to the sins of omission and commission as its traditional journalism counterparts (WikiLeaks has selectively edited war footage and changed important context), hasn't made us more enlightened. Our media diets are generally narrow—the information equivalent of fruitarianism. We retreat to sources that reinforce our political beliefs. Keith Olbermann has that effect on me, typically eliciting a fist pump and a cry of "Yes!" during his special commentary. But each morning, I also hold my nose and peruse the electronic version of the uberconservative Carolina Journal, whose worldview is drastically different from mine. If CJ associate publisher Don Carrington and I were trapped in the aforementioned avalanche, he would write a story characterizing our dead, snow-covered companions as sleepy vacationers relaxing on the white sands of Hilton Head beach.
Page One ultimately makes the case that whether it's printed on dead trees or digitized on the Web, shoe-leather reporting is worth paying for. When the Times parked some of its content behind a pay wall, I initially settled for the offer of 20 free articles per month. I soon ponied up for the full digital subscription, which is cheaper than the print edition and allows me to read the paper on my iPad, iPhone and desktop computer. But here's the main reason I pay for the Times: I missed it.