In these days of double dip recessions, newspaper closures, lay-offs, pay freezes, plummeting public trust – I could go on – journalists need heroes.
And documentary: Page One – Inside The New York Times – provides a great one in the guise of media columnist David Carr.
The film, on limited general release in the UK from today, tells the story of a year in the life of the New York Times – starting in 2009 – at a time when the future of America’s greatest journalistic institution looked in peril.
Carr provides a wonderful antidote to the many new media true believers who seem to delight in watching the demise of big media while at the same basing their parasitical businesses on big media’s content.
In a Q and A after a screening of the film in London last night, Carr – a former jailed drug addict and single father who knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity – was on irascible form. Talking about aggregators like US-based Newser (run by Michael Wolff) he said: “People like Michael Wolff call for the death of the whale that they are the pilot fish on. But what if the whale dies? Then you’ll have to go do some work.”
In the film he says: “The New York Times has dozens of bureaux around the world and we are going to toss that out and see what Facebook turns up – I don’t think so.”
The film has a happy ending of sorts. The New York Times metered paywall model appears to be gaining some traction – it now has 224,000 paying subscribers. But the future for it (and the rest of us) obviously remains uncertain.
A good UK parallel for the predicament of The New York Times is The Guardian in the UK – losing sales at a rate of 10 per cent a year and money at a rate of £38m a year, while maintaining an awesome journalistic operation. It seems to me increasingly clear that they have to radically change their business plan if they are to survive in anything like their current form.
Unlike the New York Times, The Guardian has a financial comfort blanket – albeit a rapidly depleting one – which could be worth as much as £1bn. That’s if you tot up the potential value of its holdings in Emap, Trader Media Group, its investment fund and the cash it has in the bank.
Without that, I think they would be taking a far more pragmatic approach to charging for content online.
The New York Times appears to have proved that a metered paywall model can work for a general news site (as it has done for years at the Financial Times). So surely that must now be the way forward for the likes of the London Times (with its all-or-nothing Berlin-style paywall) and The Guardian (with its fill-your-boots-for-free-online while squeezing ever more cash out of a dwindling number of print readers strategy).
But back to the film. The New York Times newsroom will probably seem pretty tame to a lot of UK journalists (there was a distinct lack of door-slamming, shouting and calls to hold the presses over the 14 months that film-makers hung out there).
But David Carr will be familiar to anyone who has worked in journalism for a long time – an inspiring example of the bloody-minded, blunt, awkward and dogged hack. One reason that newspapers (or their digital equivalent) have to survive is that I couldn’t imagine forces of nature like him doing anything else.