The Fourth Estate shows how far The New York Times has come

Image by Anthony Quintano, via Flickr

Imagine the first year of the Trump administration without Maggie Haberman embedded in the West Wing. Without Michael Schmidt breaking open the James Comey saga. Without Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor and Emily Steel reporting on sexual harassment. Without The New York Times.

That’s the worst version of the future envisioned by 2011’s Page One, a documentary that captured the nation’s paper of record at a time of transition, shaken to its core by the financial crisis, and uncertain how—and if—it would continue.

Now, seven years later, Showtime is set to debut a new documentary about the paper, a series that is Page One’s unexpectedly upbeat, unofficial sequel. After a cavalcade of scoops by the Times during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, a year that also saw subscriptions surge as readers proved willing to shell out for real news, the existential concerns of the earlier documentary have, at least for the moment, faded. Page One now has the feel of a time capsule of an unusually dire moment for journalism.

In the new Showtime miniseries, called The Fourth Estate, director Liz Garbus chronicles the inner workings of the Times newsroom during 2017. The first episode of the four-part series debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, offering a behind-the-scenes peek at the characters who defined the paper’s coverage of Trump’s first one hundred days. The film shows that the “daily miracle” of the Times is an enormous undertaking. And pairing the new documentary with a rewatch of Page One makes the paper’s survival, much less success, all the more impressive.

In March of 2010, Page One Director Andrew Rossi followed David Carr to South by Southwest, where the late Times media critic appeared on a panel called “Media Armageddon: What Happens When The New York Times Dies.” The title captures the essence of Rossi’s depiction of a paper struggling to adapt to the digital era. The documentary opens with a montage of reports on the demise of newspapers. The Rocky Mountain News had recently closed up shop, The Philadelphia Daily News and Minneapolis Star Tribune were in bankruptcy, The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle were losing $1 million each week. Carr, the first Timesman to appear on screen, says in the film’s opening minutes, “Lately when I finish an interview, most subjects have a question of their own: What’s going to happen at The New York Times?”

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Brian Stelter, then a reporter on the Times media desk and one of the stars of Page One, says the documentary accurately depicts “the fear and anxiety of that time.” He remembers that “it felt like was the Times was shrinking. And it was harder to see a path to growth.”

The paper had seen a 30 percent drop in print ad revenue the previous year, and had been forced to accept a $250 million investment from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Then–Executive Editor Bill Keller admitted that management had considered “every conceivable model” in a scramble to shore up the Times’s finances. This was an era before the paywall, when newspapers across the country were reeling, and smart money was on relative upstarts like Vice and The Huffington Post. Carr blamed “decades of organizational hubris about our own excellence” for leading the paper to the precipice. “In a matter of 18 months the air ionized,” Carr said. “And everybody started asking a question: Could The New York Times, like, go out of business?”

That question now seems ridiculous. The Fourth Estate, which debuts Sunday, provides a fly-on-the-wall view of Times reporters going about their work, focusing on the extraordinary challenge of how to cover an unprecedented presidency. There are, of course, the major scoops, like Emily Steel’s reporting on sexual harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly. But the heart of the series is in Washington. Haberman and her colleagues on the Trump beat are the stars, but what emerges from the first three episodes, beyond amazement at how much we’ve forgotten about the first year of the Trump presidency, are the small moments of newswork, like the disgusted sigh emitted by Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller as the New York office rewrites one of Washington’s stories.

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Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, was Washington bureau chief during the filming of Page One, and remembers that period as one of profound uncertainty. “Everybody was really nervous,” Baquet tells CJR. “In newsrooms, there was this lingering fear that the changes necessary for the digital age would somehow hurt the news report.” The paper cut 100 jobs from a newsroom of 1,250 in late 2009, with Keller remarking that he felt he should be walking around the building “wearing bloody butcher’s smocks.”

 

It turns out that good, serious, expensive journalism—people want it. People need it.

 

Bumiller, the current Washington bureau chief, was a Pentagon correspondent in 2010. She says that she always believed the Times would survive, she just wasn’t sure how. “We were still spending money on important reporting. Nobody told me don’t go on trips, don’t go to to Afghanistan. There was never any question of spending money on reporting,” she says. “But there was a great feeling of uncertainty.”

Eight years later, despite additional rounds of layoffs and buyouts over the years, the Times’s headcount is approaching 1,400. Baquet credits Keller and Jill Abramson, who served as executive editor from 2011 to 2014, for “cutting in a way that preserved the soul of the place.” The Times now boasts a growing video operation, the largest White House team it has ever had, and an audio unit responsible for one of the world’s most popular podcasts.

“The newsroom of today is completely embracing of change, and in fact understands that change is actually a good thing, that we’re better for it,” Baquet says. “There’s a much more upbeat sense, partly because our economics are better, partly because—remarkably—the newsroom is actually a little bigger than it was in 2010.”

The scope of the newsroom’s reach is evident in the way Garbus hopscotches among Times reporters on various stories, from New York to DC to Montana and Ohio. A pulsing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sets the tone early, matching the beat of the frenzied news environment. That the paper could send three reporters on a special investigative team to stake out different locations on the day Paul Manafort was indicted might surprise those predicting its diminishment less than a decade ago. The Washington bureau, comprised of about 70 staffers on election day in 2016, now numbers around 100.

Page One ends just before the Times instituted its paywall. After a faltering start, that experiment has resulted in more than 2.5 million digital subscribers, whose monthly payments account for more of the paper’s revenue than print advertising. Though the model has been a success, Baquet says it wouldn’t have been possible if the paper hadn’t remained “big and ambitious and good.” He says that by the time it became clear that news organizations were going to have to rely much more on readers, most newspapers had already cut themselves to the bone. “They weren’t offering things that people were going to be willing to pay for,” Baquet says. “The LA Times went from a staff of 1,200 to a staff of less than 500; it’s still a great paper, but it’s hard to do that and then go and say, ‘We want you to pay a lot more than you were paying before.’”

Watching the two documentaries back to back, it’s nevertheless striking how many of the problems facing the industry are the same today as they were eight years ago. Print advertising is still shrinking, regional outlets are still in trouble, and no one seems to have a systemic answer. Though the Times and a revitalized Washington Post are experiencing something of a golden age, the vast majority of newspapers haven’t found answers for the questions Page One raised.

“The fundamental difference between the New York Times and everybody else—and the Post is starting to see this, too—is that it had to keep producing stuff that people are willing to pay for. That’s the primary thing that made it a unicorn,” Baquet says. The scope and ambition of that production is evident throughout The Fourth Estate, and the paper’s future, very much in doubt earlier this decade, is on steady ground.

“I’m much more positive [about the future], obviously.” Bumiller says. “I’ve seen it rise and fall over the many years I’ve been here, so we’re cautious about the future, but I feel really good about it. It turns out that good, serious, expensive journalism—people want it. People need it.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.