Page One

Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism


By David Folkenflik

By Participant

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The news media is in the middle of a revolution. Old certainties have been shoved aside by new entities such as WikiLeaks and Gawker, Politico and the Huffington Post. But where, in all this digital innovation, is the future of great journalism? Is there a difference between an opinion column and a blog, a reporter and a social networker? Who curates the news, or should it be streamed unimpeded by editorial influence?

Expanding on Andrew Rossi’s “riveting” film (Slate), David Folkenflik has convened some of the smartest media savants to talk about the present and the future of news. Behind all the debate is the presence of the New York Times, and the inside story of its attempt to navigate the new world, embracing the immediacy of the web without straying from a commitment to accurate reporting and analysis that provides the paper with its own definition of what it is there to showcase: all the news that’s fit to print.


Also in Collaboration with Participant Media:
Food, Inc.
Cane Toads
Waiting for "Superman"

Andrew Rossi
Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi
Josh Braun, David Hand, Alan Oxman,
Adam Schlesinger
Daniel Stern, Daniel Pine
Keith Hamlin, Luke Henry

In 2007, The New York Times moved into a soaring modern glass tower sheathed in heat-sensitive ceramic tubes on the west side of midtown Manhattan. The building stands a couple of blocks from the tangle of avenues and streets that was called a square and was named for the paper more than a century before. The paper's old newsroom, despite the elegance of its Gallic facade, was a romanticized warren of cluttered desks, narrow hallways and stained carpets.
At the new headquarters, technological and environmental advances abound—automatically controlling, for example, the level of the window shades shielding cubicles from bright sunlight streaming in from the west.
In the lobby, dozens of small vacuum tube screens project snippets of articles culled from the paper's archives by an algorithm designed by an artist and a statistician. The phrases wash over the screens and then skitter away, to be replaced by a new batch. The exhibit is called Moveable Type, an inventive homage to the paper's traditions.
The airy new headquarters represents the twin concepts of transparency and light. The building was—and is—intended as a statement. The Times was shedding its skin as an old-line newspaper company and proclaiming itself a confident, even a defining, player on the modern media stage.
Within two years, however, amid shifts in the news industry and a collapsing economy, the Times Company appeared to be listing, not towering. Its parent company's debt was valued as junk by the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's. So the company borrowed $250 million from Mexican billionaire and telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helú. The Times Company also entered into a so-called sale-leaseback agreement—it sold its share of the brand-new building for $225 million, paying its new landlord for occupying its floors. It retains the right to buy back the property in 2019 for $250 million.
All of this would have been just one more item of corporate consternation during an economic downturn were The Times itself not a key part of an industry that, on its better days, makes a credible case that it is indispensable to the functioning of democracy in the United States.
In recent years the paper has revealed a massive wiretapping program conducted by the federal government; has documented the unraveling of the subprime mortgage market; and, despite claims by some critics that it fails to hold local or liberal politicians accountable, has doggedly reported scandals involving New York's two most recent governors and its most powerful congressman—all Democrats.
It has also embraced the new forms of journalism allowed by new technologies, adding audio, visual and graphic forms of storytelling that have only enhanced the richness of its online report.
Yet increasingly, news coverage is being treated as a commodity—another information stream that can course through any number of channels. At the same time as fewer people are willing to pay for the print edition of The Times and other papers, online readers have not proved willing to pay significant sums to read general-interest news online. Advertisers refuse to pay more than pennies on the dollar to reach digital readers compared to what they pay for print ad rates.
In March 2011, the Times Company responded by charging frequent readers of articles and features on The Times Web site or on other digital devices, such as the iPad. The cost of journalism has to be borne, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said.
In so doing, The New York Times was seeking to remain the leading American exemplar of that peculiar hybrid of commercial enterprise and public service. The deep recession notwithstanding, the paper's journalists periodically still risked legal penalties, their readers' goodwill and, at times, their own safety. Times reporter David Rohde was held captive for seven months by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Photographer Joao Silva lost two legs after stepping on a landmine in Kandahar province. Several Times journalists were held for days, beaten and assaulted by Libyan authorities during the uprising there early in 2011.
The Times's problem, shared by battered news organizations serving communities large and small across the country, is the unraveling of the decades-long marriage that knit significant profits to service for the public good.
In early 2009, I undertook a thought experiment: What would happen to a city if its primary news source simply went away? I visited Hartford, Connecticut, on a bitterly cold winter morning amid the depths of the current financial crisis. Hartford made sense because it was a poor city in a rich state, the seat of state government and the home of three of the nation's largest corporations.
The Hartford Courant, the dominant local daily, is America's oldest continuously published newspaper, since its founding as a weekly in 1764. By 2009 it had suffered rounds of debilitating layoffs. The Courant was owned by the bankrupt Tribune Company. Although it was in no immediate threat of shutting down, the thought sent shivers down the collective spine of many people there. "Even a bad review is important to us, frankly," said Julie Stapf, marketing director of the respected Hartford Stage, "because it still brings awareness to the community about what we're doing here at the theater."
Over at the State House, an experienced local television reporter said no other outlet generated as much news as the Courant, even in its diminished state. Mark Pazniokas, the Courant's senior political reporter, warned that the loss of the paper would mean the loss of a sense of shared belonging for people there. "If everybody is looking at dozens or hundreds of different news sources," Pazniokas told me, "you don't have the common point of reference that—not to be corny—[is] an important part of democracy and community."
As I wandered around the press room at the State House, mail was piled high on what was marked as the desk of The New York Times. The Times had abandoned its daily coverage of Connecticut state politics the year before.
A new generation of national news powers has emerged. Some cover specific niches: ESPN for sports, Politico for horse race politics, Fox News and MSNBC for ideologically driven talk shows leavened with some news coverage, Bloomberg largely for business and finance developments (though its general news coverage is impressive).
Others are either relatively new or newly consequential players on the American media scene, such as the BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The Week.
Under its new controlling owner, Rupert Murdoch, The Wall Street Journal has altered its focus and mix of stories to challenge The Times's title as the nation's leading general-interest paper instead of remaining the nation's preeminent financial publication. NPR News, for all its stumbles, has enjoyed years of growth in the scope and depth of its reporting reach and the size of its audiences.
But The Times has few other national peers that match its aspirations. The audience for the nightly newscasts of national television networks has withered remarkably and enterprise reporting is rare. The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Time, while each capable of illuminating work, have been forced by fiscal strains to make tough choices and scale back elements of coverage. Tens of millions of Americans continue to rely on The New York Times in print and online every month for writing of grace, wit and insight, as well as photography of beauty and haunting pain.
And yet there is no shortage of Times critics, some of whom appear to be rooting openly for its demise. The paper has committed enough missteps to offend readers of just about any creed, faith, hue or ideological stripe. Recent years have seen the fundamentally flawed coverage of claims before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the credulous and extensive front-page coverage of allegations of rape against Duke University lacrosse players who were later exonerated.
The Times can no longer stand imperiously above the fray, if it ever truly could. The instantaneousness and ubiquity of the flow of information on the Web allow readers, bloggers, sources, competitors and rivals to challenge the paper's work and even fire back.
Some new ventures do so in constructive ways. PolitiFact, an offshoot of the St. Petersburg Times, evaluates the claims of politicians, government officials and, occasionally, media outlets with scrupulous research. MediaBugs advocates on behalf of angered readers seeking corrections, posting an online account of the contested claims and the results. NewsTrust provides people with social media tools to gauge the trustworthiness of specific news outlets and individual stories.
Others, on blogs, cable news and talk radio, take aim at The Times with less genteel intentions. But why wouldn't they? Democracy has always been a boisterous, brawling affair. These days, The Times's executive editor Bill Keller sometimes punches back.
Yet for all its projection of confidence, The Times confronts the future with a hint of fragility.
A profound appreciation for the role of The Times and an almost equally profound fear for its fate sparked the curiosity of the filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack, as they explain on subsequent pages. Times Company executives now say that they expect to pay off that debt to Carlos Slim with a check on the very first day the agreement allows. But as Rossi and Novack set out in 2009, disaster did not seem so remote. Several major newspaper companies had declared bankruptcy. The Newark Star-Ledger had, just a few months earlier, bought out more than 40 percent of its newsroom on a single day.
The filmmakers were guided by the talented, profane and charismatic David Carr, The Times's media columnist and reporter . The resulting film, "Page One: A Year in the Life of The New York Times," explores the viability, mission and achievements of the paper through what Carr calls the "keyhole" of the media desk—the reporters assigned to cover their own ailing industry and, on occasion, their own institution.
Rossi and Novack won extraordinary access and witnessed a singular newspaper struggling with the economy, its finances, and the news itself. Never in recent history had the paper been more threatened. And yet as fewer news organizations sought to match its ambitions, never had The Times been more vital in covering the confusion of war, local corruption, environmental catastrophe and financial fraud.
This book takes the movie as a starting point; among the essays readers will encounter are those written by Carr, by one of The Times's lead reporters on the WikiLeaks cables of 2010, by a former Times reporter who was one of its first bloggers and by a journalism scholar who wrestles with the implications of The Times's arrangement with WikiLeaks. The book also considers other issues confronting journalists more generally, drawing on leading thinkers, practitioners and innovators in the field from all over the country, from the Northeast to D.C. to California to Florida to the Pacific Northwest—and, for that matter, from across the Atlantic. This collection also reflects the eagerness among many journalists to seize the opportunity afforded by technological breakthroughs and to shatter journalistic conventions.
Among the voices in this book are two former top newspaper executives differing over who will pay for journalism; a digital entrepreneur who says The Times should make peace with news aggregators such as The Huffington Post; a journalist and book publisher who argues for the often-ignored importance of public radio; the former top editor at The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, who chronicles those newspapers' declines; an innovator who asks whether the news focuses too much on the new; former journalists championing a new movement teaching students to think critically about the news; an editor who contends collaboration is replacing cutthroat competition in the news business; and the nation's leading journalism philanthropist on what he's learned from investing his foundation's money about what lies ahead.
This book capitalizes on the energy of the film "Page One" to offer an inside look into America's newsrooms of today and of the future. It is a tale not just of anxiety but excitement. It is, as one of our contributors writes, one hell of a story.
New York, NY


The Back Story to "Page One"
Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi
The husband-and-wife documentary team of Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack are best known for their films about food. "Eat This New York" captures the challenges of two best friends trying to start a restaurant from scratch in Brooklyn, while "Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven" portrays the struggles of an Italian American family seeking to reinvent a famed but fading high-end Manhattan restaurant. Rossi, trained in law at Harvard, came by his interest honestly: his parents owned an Italian restaurant in New York City. A curiosity about the news business might not seem as obvious.
Yet Rossi was an associate producer on the documentary "Control Room," about the Al Jazeera satellite television news service in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And Novack was previously a reporter covering arts and media for Time magazine. Both were already invested, personally and professionally, in figuring out more about the modern media age. Yet as the two filmmakers explain below, they did not initially set their sights on The New York Times.
On a frigid night in February 2009, more than 10 stories above Park Avenue in the New York City apartment of Strauss Zelnick, a fierce debate about the future of media was in full swing. Zelnick, the media industry investor and occasional host of salon-like dinner parties, had convened a group that included older lions of the content economy like Norm Pearlstine, late of Time Inc. and now chief content officer at Bloomberg News; early-stage financial backers such as Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures; and young Web entrepreneurs such as Ricky Van Veen of College Humor.
Andrew, in developing a documentary commissioned by HBO about the young guns of Web 2.0, had tagged along with Ben Lerer, the 20-something founder of a digital tip sheet for urban hipsters called Thrillist. Over fried chicken and ice cream sundaes in the wood-paneled dining room, the conversation started with the decimation of the advertising market and wound its way to the challenges to news reporting looming ahead. It was a feisty debate: Can marquee journalists leave their legacy media homes and make it on their own with tumblr and Twitter accounts? Should opinion and news gathering be disaggregated to save money? Does anyone still look to newspapers as the supreme authority? And, finally, on the heels of Carlos Slim Helú's loan to The New York Times Company and its $57.8 million losses in the past year, the question arose, "Will The New York Times survive?"
It was a question that Michael Hirschorn had dared to ask publicly just weeks earlier. "What if The New York Times goes out of business—like this May?" he wrote in a provocative Atlantic magazine piece ominously entitled "End Times." "It's certainly plausible," he posited. After all, financial industry stalwarts Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns recently had met a similar fate. Why not The New York Times?
It was during this seemingly vulnerable moment for the paper that Andrew met with David Carr, The Times's media columnist who would eventually become the breakout character of "Page One." But the goal that day was to interview Carr for the Web 2.0 project. The idea was that after all the excess and froth of the first Internet boom 10 years earlier, there was a new breed of start-up that was leveraging social media, emerging technologies and stringent budgets, and we wanted to follow them on the path to success as a sort of sequel to the 2001 documentary—and cautionary tale—""
In his trademark gravelly voice, Carr talked about the rise of geo-location services like Foursquare, and the perils of mapping tastes and preferences in a project like Chris Dixon's But the conversation kept circling back to the appropriate role for the legacy media in this changing universe. Meanwhile, The Times's cavernous newsroom, with its three floors linked by a series of fire-engine red staircases, beckoned as an ideal cinematic backdrop. And as Andrew listened to Carr, he thought, I want to make a movie about The Times instead. We imagined chronicling the paper during a time of transition in the way that Gay Talese had in his best-selling book "The Kingdom and the Power" in 1969, a period of record profits for the company, when The Times stood as "necessary proof of the earth's existence."
"Go talk to my bosses," Carr told Andrew. (He has since admitted that it was the most polite way he could think of to make Andrew go away.)
The one question audiences always ask is, Why did The Times let you inside? It took about six months of conversations and meetings with editors and reporters inside the paper before the project was green-lit. In hindsight, though, The Times probably opened its doors because of something executive editor Bill Keller told Andrew during one of those meetings: "I'm proud of my journalists and I'd like the world to see them."
In the newsroom, Andrew worked as a one-man crew. Having a boom operator and a field producer hovering over a video screen would have compromised the intimacy we were trying to achieve. In the first weeks of filming, Andrew often would sit for hours on the low filing cabinets that the writers have next to their cubicles, mainly just watching. The goal was to become part of the furniture and to give the film a naturalistic vérité feel of a movie by, for example, D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmaker behind "Don't Look Back" and "The War Room," and one of our heroes.
We are both regular readers of The Times, but we didn't want this to be an exercise in Times worship. We knew that if Andrew was going to be "embedded" in the newsroom for more than a year, we'd need to step outside its walls throughout the process of filming. So Kate began wading through the countervailing perspectives on the future of news—from Marc Andreessen, the cofounder of Netscape who once called on The Times to stop publishing on paper or perish (and who gently turned us down), to Elizabeth Eisenstein, the academic behind the classic "Printing Press as an Agent of Change." With a cast of cooler talking heads, we would create, we hoped, a counterpoint to the intimate, direct cinema inside the newsroom.
One of our first interviews was with Kurt Andersen, who'd written for Time and The New Yorker and edited New York magazine. He was also a cofounder, in the '80s, of Spy, which had a column devoted entirely to critiquing The New York Times. We'd recently heard Kurt compare The Times to the Vatican, which intrigued us. Did the paper really still hold such sway?
"In the secular church of establishment opinion and press, The New York Times is where the encyclicals come and where life is organized and ruled. You know, it's the great position of authority," Kurt told Kate in an interview. "What The New York Times thinks, says, does, is," he continued, "doesn't quite have the power of infallibility of the pope." Then he stopped and caught himself: "Of course, the pope doesn't anymore, does he?"
The notion of The Times as an influential institution during a time of turmoil, somewhat like the Catholic Church itself, stayed with us. This was not a story of continuity of authority but of disruption and transformation.
Perhaps no one had been more outspoken on the disruption occurring in media than Clay Shirky, the New York University new-media professor. Shirky had been a mentor to Dennis Crowley, the student who went on to start Foursquare. He was a folk hero of sorts for the crowd-sourcing camp. He'd been comparing the advent of the Internet to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, before such talk was stock book party banter. We went to see him just before commencement, when the students in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program were exhibiting their thesis projects. As we wound our way through the show to get to Clay's small office in a downtown loft building, we wondered if one of these seemingly quaint projects might be the next Foursquare.
In Shirky's view, the erosion of the mainstream media's authority was less of an explosion than a slow burn. "When they buried Walter Cronkite, it was a funeral for a man, but it was also a funeral for a role, that Platonic ideal of the authority figure, the deliverer of truth," Clay told Kate. "Cable TV, then CNN and the spread of everything from Fox to C-SPAN—every one of those—was a ratcheting up of the amount of discourse available to the public and then suddenly the Web goes mainstream and The Times is now one of many, many, many voices in a marketplace."
Whether the loss of authoritative media figures was a good thing or a bad thing was another question. "I go back and forth," Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, would later tell us. "Sometimes I think the voice of Walter Cronkite, the three broadcasts bringing you the news every evening, was very important, and sometimes I think it's too nostalgic to think of that as a great thing."
After the interview with Clay, he walked us to the elevator. "So who are the key newcomers to watch?" Kate asked as we stood waiting for the doors to open.
"Julian Assange," he replied immediately.
The name Assange was already creeping onto the mainstream radar. Weeks earlier, Andrew had arrived at The New York Times building to find Brian Stelter, the former collegiate blogger who now covers media for the paper, hunched over his laptop.
"A former hacker with a whistle-blower Web site"—whom we now know as Julian Assange of WikiLeaks—had posted a chilling video of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter shooting down two journalists and several Iraqi civilians. Reuters had been trying for two years to obtain the footage through traditional, legal channels, and somehow Assange had managed to get his hands on the video and post it on YouTube. The talk that day at the Media Desk was about how the leak was a modern-day Pentagon Papers. No one needed to drop off thousands of pages of secret documents to reporters for The New York Times, as Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, did decades ago. When we interviewed Bill Keller later that week, he explained. "The bottom line is Daniel Ellsberg needed us. WikiLeaks doesn't."
What struck us most that day wasn't Keller's candor. We'd been impressed with the newsroom's openness ever since the paper's editors agreed to let the camera in months earlier. What really surprised us was how clearly something fundamental was changing—not just in the news business, but also in how we as a culture access and interpret and internalize information. Suddenly, The Times and other institutions like it seemed—to borrow a line from David Carr—"like trains whose cabooses have square wheels." Months later, after The Times had published several stories based on information originally obtained by WikiLeaks, we sat down with Susan Chira, the paper's foreign editor, in her office. "I think we're all much more humble about what we think we can control," she told us.
In the last scene of "Page One," the journalists gather in The Times's newsroom like crew in the hub of a luxury cruise ship. But it's not the Titanic. The apocalyptic vision of Michael Hirschorn's "End Times" did not come to pass.
Keller has assembled his staff to announce the paper's Pulitzer Prize winners for the year. Reporters are unusually relaxed and the paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who's rarely in the newsroom, surveys the scene with a smile.
But the questions that prompted the film more than a year earlier linger. Will The New York Times survive? Will newspapers? Some industry watchers give newspapers just 10 more years. Even inside The Times, the idea of the single all-powerful arbiter of authority, the Zeus figure throwing thunderbolts from the sky, seems a relic of a pre-digital era.


  • Philadelphia Review of Books
“Folkenflik’s book brings important topics like digitization, collaboration and new economic models to light.”

On Sale
Jun 28, 2011
Page Count
208 pages

David Folkenflik

About the Author

Award-winning journalist David Folkenflik has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004. He previously covered media and politics for the Baltimore Sun and edited the 2011 book Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism. He has covered Murdoch and News Corp extensively and has been a frequent commentator on the hacking scandal in both the US and the UK. Folkenflik lives with his wife, the radio producer Jesse Baker, and their daughter in New York City.

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About the Author

Karl Weber is a writer and editor whose work focuses on social, political, and business topics. He has worked with Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus, former president Jimmy Carter, and secretary of defense Ash Carter. Weber is also the proprietor of Rivertowns Books, an independent publishing imprint.

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