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Sundance doc: Stop the press? 'Page One' explores journalism's last stand

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Image Credit: TURE LILLEGRAVEN FOR EWSundance has a history of turning unlikely true-life topics into crowd-thrilling documentaries: the tuxedoed ice-dwellers of March of the Penguins, Al Gore’s climate-change lecture in An Inconvenient Truth, the massive faults of the U.S. education system in last year’s Waiting for Superman.

This year, one unexpected gotta-see doc turned out to be Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, which explores upheaval throughout the entire news business through the Times media reporters who are covering the shake-up — as they’re being shook up themselves.

“If you write about media long enough, eventually you type your way to your own doorstep,” says the opening narration by David Carr, the combative, compassionate, crushed-glass-voiced media columnist for the Times.

Documentarian Andrew Rossi (who chronicled the workings of the al-Jazeera network at the start of the Iraq War in Control Room) spent 14 months with a video camera, recording the paper of record as it covered the collapse of several big-city newspapers, the rise of Wikileaks, and the upstart websites that loot old-media content as they boast about killing the institutions that supply it.

Carr has covered Sundance for his newspaper. Now he’s on the screens of the festival and standing alongside the director he might otherwise be interviewing, while the EW studio’s photographer Ture Lillegraven hovers around, snapping shots. It makes him grimace to be considered some creature from ancient Greek mythology: part journalist, part subject. “Okay, so I’m kind of a hyphen,” Carr says, holding up two Sundance access badges: one for press, the other for cast and crew of a featured movie. “All I really did was get filmed while I was doing my job.”

While covering media, Carr has also become a media star — often dispatched to discuss (and frequently defend) the Times at conferences and in the press. Carr, who wrote a book (2008’s The Night of the Gun) about his rise from a one-time cocaine dealer and thug to a respected reporter and modest New Jersey dad, has become the face of the newspaper. Carr growls: “Well, it’s a pretty ruddy, messed up face then.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s it like being on the other side of journalism and being on the other side of Sundance?

DAVID CARR: (gesturing to Rossi) I didn’t think he was going to get access. When he did, I thought it was problematic. You know what a newsroom looks like, you know what the activity is like. And I would see him camped for hours and hours and just think, ‘Oh you poor schmuck. This is never, ever going to work out for you.‘ (Rossi smiles. Carr doesn’t.) He fought through all that. And regardless of your specific opinions, it’s a real movie. It’s got characters, and it’s got narrative, and it’s got drama and all that stuff. Now, if I did that, I’d be here fronting like crazy. I would be unstoppable. But in the movie, all I did was my job.

This movie distilled that reporters, in general, believe what they do is a calling, and is important, beyond just the money they get. But it’s the money part that’s killing these businesses.

ANDREW ROSSI: That point is really driven home (in the movie) by Sam Zell (a real-estate billionaire who took over Tribune Company, which runs the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) whose only interest is the bottom line, and really distinguishes himself: “I’m not a newspaper man; I’m a business man.” The practice of journalism is just inherently different from that of a commercial enterprise.

DC: And if you’re focused to a fault on the (profit) margins, then you’re really missing all the fun.

People had predicted doom for journalism, but there seems to be a recovery now. Where do you think media is going?

AR: Even if somebody told me what they thought, I don’t know that I would buy it.

DC: I smell a Golden Age. We got all this technological leverage, and also expertise and curation is coming back. You see reporters in New York getting poached for 300 Gs. A year ago, people would have said it was of no merit, but the killer app going forward is news. That’s the only way to break through the clutter, and you can’t do that without hitting the phones.