By David A. Andelman
Late in the evening of October 25, 1970, George Barrett, the magisterial, white-haired night metropolitan editor of The New York Times, approached my desk in the last row of the rewrite bank and intoned, “Mr. Andelman, how would you like to be signed?” For this fledgling 26-year-old writer, his words amounted to the laying on of the hands, the arrival in a very special place in the pantheon of journalists. I would have my first byline in The Times. And on Page One.
The story was quite unremarkable, but I still have a small, table-top reproduction framed in my apartment: “2 Policemen Are Shot Critically By Brooklyn Robbery Suspect.” It barely clung to the bottom left of the front page. And, since it made just the one-dash (“final replate”) edition, it would be seen by only a few tens of thousands of readers closest to Times Square. Still, it was my first. And because it was on the front of the final edition that evening, it would remain forever engraved in the paper’s archives, which date back to 1851.
My shift ended at 3 o’clock the next morning. Before heading home, I stood for a long moment at the loading docks on 43rd Street to watch the heavy bales of papers, bound by wires, shoot out of the mailroom and into the waiting trucks, carrying them to newsstands and doorsteps—to readers I would never see, but with whose lives I would somehow intersect, at least for a moment. Every now and then in the coming years, I’d genuflect at the same altar from time to time. Indeed, at 9:18 every weekday evening, even in the third floor newsroom, as I hunched over my upright typewriter, carefully rolling the ten-part books into the platen, I could feel the deep, throaty vibrations through the soles of my feet as the huge presses started up. None of this would ever lose its magic—across the 12 ensuing years and four continents I covered as a Times reporter and bureau chief.
All of that, and much more, flashed before my eyes as I sat in a screening room last month and watched the remarkable documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times—a chronicle of at least one corner of the vast and miraculous enterprise that produces (in my book) the world’s single greatest newspaper publishing today. It has many peers I follow on a daily basis—The Guardian, The Times of London and the Financial Times; Le Monde in Paris; The Wall Street Journal. But none consistently interests, informs and excites quite the way The New York Times does. And some, though helas not all, of the clues to its success are contained in the 91 minutes of Page One, effectively a modern parable of today’s media industry.
The Times has changed quite a lot since my early days in the newsroom. And when the documentary turned suddenly to grainy black-and-white footage of the paper in its pre-computer days, I was instantly transported back to the first moment I walked through the large swinging doors into the newsroom and saw before me a sea of shirt-sleeved copy editors, a few still wearing the tell-tale green eyeshades, each clustered around a succession of circular desks, surrounded by paste-pots, scissors and a clutch of stubby black pencils, working their magic on dispatches from Times correspondents around the world.
Today, however, as “Page One” chronicles, the paper has decamped from its old headquarters on 43rd Street to a new, glass and steel tower three blocks south and a half block west. The presses have long since departed—during the last days of my tenure there—for Queens, New Jersey and other points with lower real-estate values across the nation and around the world. But the debates over what should go into its pages, what should be displayed on page one, setting each day a unique global agenda, is all there. We enter the inner sanctum of the page one meeting where executive editor Bill Keller, managing editor Jill Abramson and all the various desk editors gather each day at 5:30 to hash over events, large and small, and pass judgment on their relevance, their significance and, ultimately, their historical value. Their placement in the paper—and especially on the front page—can, and often will, transform their role in history. I am reminded in such circumstances of a key axiom of quantum mechanics called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which broadly stated suggests that the act of observing an event inevitably transforms the very event being observed.
Page One, the documentary, chooses to follow the reporters and editors on one central desk—the only recently-constituted media desk—a device that also allows its producers, Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack, to assemble a group of non-Times media heavies: David Remnick, Carl Bernstein, new-media guru Clay Shirky, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, ProPublica chief Paul Steiger, and of course Gay Talese, whose The Kingdom and The Power first launched the genre of insider exegesis of this remarkable institution. Each was enlisted to comment on the many issues raised in the course of the 14 months the filmmakers spent inside The Times newsroom. Many of these topics inevitably swirled around the media desk, and especially its brilliant, curmudgeonly columnist David Carr, and cerebral editor Bruce Headlam, the individuals who Rossi and Novack have chosen as the vehicle to tell their story. “I saw the Media Desk as a prism through which to look at journalism at a moment of great peril, but also of great opportunity,” says Rossi.
Indeed, it is an often sad and poignant story of the survival of a great newspaper, but the death of any number of careers of the very individuals who devoted their lives, their talents and, of course, their careers, to making it great. Many of these individuals—centuries-worth of collective institutional and global memory—lose their jobs in the course of the year. We watch as 100 or more of them pack lifetimes of memorabilia into cardboard boxes and trundle them out of the building. Others fare better, like Tim Arango, a valued member of the media desk, who heads off to Iraq, where he will quickly rise to bureau chief in the waning days of the war.
At the same time, we also are witnesses to the exhilarating debates over WikiLeaks; how to handle the plunge toward bankruptcy of another great newspaper empire, the Tribune Company; the real or imagined “withdrawal” of the last combat troops in Iraq (a made-for-TV-moment is the conclusion); Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad—an event that leads Carr to observe with characteristic wit, “You know what this reminds me of? A newspaper.” There is also a nod, of course, to past embarrassments—Judy Miller and Jayson Blair, to cite two.
Page One is flawed in only one, quite minor respect. By focusing on the media desk, it’s not quite able to give a sense of the truly great majesty and sweep of The Times—its vast and all but unparalleled network (yes, even in these days of deep austerity) of foreign bureaus, its ability in its myriad of sections, features, columnists, experts on even the most trifling of matters, to shine a light into the most remote corner of society, politics, business, culture, sports, style—indeed the entire spectrum of human imagination and endeavor. Some may question the long-term viability of the very model of a newspaper. Yet as one who has spent his career in virtually every known medium, I am confident that there will always be room (in one form or another) of what I like to call mediated news—that is, reportage and commentary that passes through the mind of at least one (and preferably several) other sentient human beings before it sees the light of day. This is the enduring value of an institution like The Times in a world where the cacophony of tweets, instant messages and ephemeral blogs so often now tries to bury the intelligence and energy of "real news." So I have every confidence that a generation hence, The Times will still be finding a way for the next generation of young, curious and enterprising reporters to bring such gems to the breakfast table—or iPad. For if there is one market that I am confident will still be in demand, it is fair, accurate and compelling reporting by the world’s most accomplished professional journalists.
Page One will debut in New York on July 17 at the Lincoln Center Theaters, just after Public Affairs Books issues its print counterpart, Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism, edited by David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR.
At the end of the press preview, as the lights came up in the screening room and we turned to leave, Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker, a friend and colleague since our days together as young student journalists at Harvard in the 1960s, turned to me and asked, “So, do you regret leaving?” I thought for a moment. “Even if I did,” I replied. “I wouldn’t be there now anyway. I can’t think of a single colleague of mine from that day in 1980, when I walked out the door the last time, who is still there.”
David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.
(photo courtesy of Magnolia pictures)