Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Old Gray Lady Ain't What She Used to Be

I was told that the Landmark Bridge Theater on Geary Blvd. would close soon. I don't know if that is true or not. I should see more films at the Bridge. Parking was plentiful when I went there for a 9:30 screening on a recent Tuesday night. I was able to park on Geary and on the same block as the Bridge.

There were 13 people in the audience for the aforementioned screening. I also saw two mice scurry across the floor or maybe I saw one mouse scurry twice across the floor. Of the five existing Landmark theaters in San Francisco, I have been to the Bridge the least. I notice that someone from the staff always introduces the film and thanks the audience for attending. It's a nice touch. I seem to recall that occurring infrequently at the Opera Plaza but definitely not at the Embarcadero or Lumiere. I've only seen festival films at the Clay so there is almost always a pre-film announcement.

The Bridge is showing its age. The stage curtain was torn in a few places. It was also rather stuffy in the auditorium considering it was foggy and chilly outside. I guess good thermal insulation is a positive. For the gentlemen, the Bridge has the wildest looking urinals I've ever seen.

I had been planning a trip to the Bridge for about a week because they were screening Page One: Inside the New York Times.

Page One: Inside the New York Times; directed by Andrew Rossi; documentary; (2011) - Official Website

Page One: Inside the New York Times is a wide ranging documentary that is about the New York Times as well as the state of affairs in print news business. For approximately one year, the filmmakers follow a handful of staffers at the NYT. Most notable among them is David Carr, a former cocaine addict cum rumpled newsman who seems as though he stepped out of a Damon Runyon story. During the filming, Carr breaks a story on malfeasance and sexual harrassment at the Tribune Company who subsidiaries include the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Beyond the intriguing Carr, the individual staffers held little interest to me.

The film is more interesting when it focuses on trends in the news media. The film states that most blogs and website are either aggregators of hard news stories produced by old-school newspapers like the Times or commentators on stories originated by the Times. In essence, the Times provides the content (for free) which other websites repackage or critique. The expensive part of running a newspaper is not so much the ink and paper but rather the staff. To report the news, you need boots on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. You need reporters who adhere to journalistic standards. Finally, you need editors to give direction to the reporters. All this costs a lot of money which was being recovered in the old days when a newspaper relied on advertising revenues and subscriptions.

However, those days are long gone. As noted in the film, a dollar in advertising revenue in a print ad translates to 10 cents or a penny on-line. Advertising revenues are down as advertisers shift their spending to cheaper on-line venues. The Times (along with other newspapers) gave their content away for free on-line. Initially, on-line newspapers were meant to funnel readers to print editions. Print editions have been steadily declining for years and readers have been conditioned to expect free news content. When the Times instituted a fee structure for their on-line news, several readers revolted. The imminent demise of the Times was being openly predicted. In the epilogue it was revealed the Times had instituted further pay-as-your-read fee structures. As a NYT staffer said, the newspaper business had long established that advertising revenue and subscription fees were necessary to keep a newspaper afloat. Those twin pillars have been undermined on-line but organizations like the Times have no choice but to reclaim some of the subscription revenues.

The film touches on a lot of other topics - the iPad's potential role in reinvigorating the newspaper industry (I notice the Times have a iPad subscription option), Carr's various battles against pretenders to the news throne and inside baseball looks at how Page One stories written and decided. The biggest star of the film is not a person at all but rather the Times' snazzy newsroom and office space in their Midtown headquarters. A red banistered stairway figures prominently in many shots. The open layout, natural lighting and (faux?) wood finishing made this cube dweller envious.

The film wears its emotions on its sleeve. It's clear that director Andrew Rossi is in love with the Gray Lady as is Thomas Carr, who gets the most screen time. Carr, who survives a round of layoffs during the film, considers it a fantasy come to life to work at the Times. After surviving his drug addiction and other associated troubles, a little thing like layoffs or cost cutting is not going to damper his enthusiasm and employee morale. The feeling is infectious as I started rooting for Carr and the Times during the film.

If the Bridge closes, I'm glad I bid my adieu with Page One. If the Bridge stays open, they may want to invest in some Victors.

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