The newspapers of yore

I love newspapers. When I was a kid we got two on weekdays — the Detroit Free Press and the Lansing State Journal — and every morning I started off with the comics (the Free Press was way better in this regard, and many others, than the Journal). On Sundays, once they finally began delivering to poor, benighted East Lansing, we got the New York Times. It was such a big, glorious paper! And, especially because my parents were displaced New Yorkers, it was a tantalizing glimpse of New York culture they’d left behind. It’s no surprise, then, that when I moved to Philadelphia for college, I nearly immediately subscribed to the New York Times. There was a college discount that made it affordable, and I was living the sort of student life where I could devour the whole lot of it every day. And it wasn’t that weird, skimpy national edition. We got the full glories of the New York edition. I’m still the sort of person who gets two newspapers — two print newspapers, that is. The Washington Post is my local weekday paper, the Times is still my Sunday joy. I probably encounter the papers equally online as opposed to in print, but I love the experience of reading the print paper. I love getting it online, too; it’s two different ways of reading that answer different needs.

Having said all that, Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) should be the movie for me. It’s a documentary about the Times, filmed in 2009 and 2010, when the paper and the news industry as a whole was in the midst of struggling with economic upheavals of the growth of the internet both as a competing source of news and as an advertising engine that was taking away revenue. Director Andrew Rossi focuses on the Media Desk, following editor Bruce Headlam into meetings where he pitches stories for Page One and reporters as they track down stories about WikiLeaks and the demise of the Tribune. But I didn’t love the movie. It took too long to find its focus, and the initial conversations about the relationships between print news and new media felt under thought and too lopsided. But the movie picks up steam when it starts spending more time with reporter David Carr, who is fascinating both for the glimpses we get of his life story (former crack addict, single dad on welfare) and for his irascible love for the Times and righteous indignation about the value of newspapers. Brian Stelter is the counterweight to Carr: new media transfer to legacy news, Stelter was still an undergrad at Towson University when he caught the eyes of the industry with his blog TVNewser and he’s now still a young ’un, albeit one who works for the biggest newspaper in town. The intellectual arguments about the future of the newspaper industry are fascinating, but this is a movie best approached as about how these individual reporters are navigating it.

If you can’t get enough of the New York Times, you might also want to watch Bill Cunningham New York (2010), a documentary about the 80-year-old bike-riding fashion photographer who loves street fashion as much as (or even more than) high fashion. Cunningham is just wonderful, and while the film is primarily about him, you get glimpses inside the Times newsroom as he and his editor work through the layout of his pieces. If you’re not interested in clothes, you’ll still like the movie: it’s full of information about publishing and life at Carnegie Hall and keeping the world at arm’s length.

And if you need some fictional newspaper stories to get your proper fix, Absence of Malice (1981) is finally back on Netflix Instant. You all already know how I feel about Paul Newman and he’s in fine form here. But you also get a searching look at the ethics of reporting as well as lots of newspaper technology porn, with lots of shots of presses in action and typing on computers and hidden microphones. If you want to get a feel for the changing technologies of reporting, this is the perfect companion to Page One.

Sarah Werner has two sons, at least one job, and too many books to read. As a result, Netflix Instant is her constant companion. She blogs about books and reading and is known to a corner of the twitterverse as @wynkenhimself.

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