Page One: a Year Inside the New York Times (15)

This documentary is a hymn to newsprint, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Page One rehearses familiar arguments about the death of newsprint and the advent of new media. You have to marvel at the director Andrew Rossi's fortuitous timing in stalking the offices of the New York Times just as economic crisis strikes, advertising plummets, Twitter rises and WikiLeaks comes calling. If only phone-hacking had made an appearance, the film could have boasted a full house for 21st-century upheavals in media.

Certainly the film does not want for incident. Balance is another matter. From the reverential opening shots of whirring printing presses, there's about as much impartiality here as there are exposés about celebrity cellulite in the New York Times. Most of us are willing to overlook any bias that coincides with our own, so as someone convinced intellectually and emotionally of the enduring necessity of newspapers, I'm brooking no argument with the picture on that score. Rossi can throw in the all shots he wants of Times delivery vans lurching onto the blue dawn streets. He can scurry along behind reporters like a pooch hoping for choc drops, or insert close-ups of editors knitting their brows under the bright wash of unflattering office lighting. I won't complain.

But the movie's fluent organisation of intersecting stories should connect even with viewers unsentimental about inky fingers. As print journalism comes under attack from its digital equivalent, Rossi shows the wagons circling. Steve Jobs unveils the iPad to Rupert Murdoch's delight. Venerable newspapers start folding, and the Atlantic predicts bankruptcy for the New York Times. The Times faces the dilemma of how lean an organisation can become before it qualifies as enfeebled and requires the artificial bulking-up of paywalls. Heavyweight panels convene to debate the industry's woes. The Times's prickly-faced media columnist David Carr vows to "vapourise" the arguments of any would-be pallbearers. His visual riposte to the rise of news aggregator sites is definitive and too choice to spoil here.

Carr is the closest thing the film has to a narrator. Rossi was interviewing him about a separate project when it struck him that Carr would make a scintillating subject in his own right. His instincts were correct. The reporter sounds like he's been gargling iron shavings; he's been around the block, sometimes on his knees or in handcuffs (his former drug addiction is covered in his memoir, The Night of the Gun). He's a skinny man who comports himself rather grandly: he seems to be reclining, gazing at the world over invisible half-moon spectacles, patting a belly that he doesn't actually have.

The film puts its strongest defence of print journalism in the scenes of Carr preparing a piece on the demise of the Tribune Company. He walks into his editor's office and delivers a line that will resemble sacred poetry to creatures of print, and gobbledegook to most people who were born blogging: "I'm doing two more weeks of reporting on this, then it might take a week to write it and show it to you."

Not that the division between different species of media is absolute, as the film demonstrates by exploring the paper's recruitment of the blogger Brian Stelter ("I still can't get over the feeling that Brian was a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy me," chuckles Carr), or its fluid relationship with WikiLeaks. For all this, it is the tactile, quietly bustling thrill of the newsroom that gives Page One its particular charge.

I was struck by the elegant design of the Times offices, where each room has a different image from the paper's archive framed outside, and staff members have their names embellished on grey panels next to their work stations. Then again, I'm easily impressed. When I first worked at a national newspaper, it was an occasion for rejoicing whenever you found a computer terminal with its keyboard still attached.
Another quirk of design provides a symbol of resilience in Page One for those who want one. That striking red staircase, rising from the middle of the office floor and bridging its two levels, looks in long shot unmistakably like the jagged line on a graph indicating steeply escalating fortunes.

“Page One" is released on 23 September

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister