Documentaries of the Week – Media & Journalism 3: Publishing

In the final post of my three-post series on documentaries covering the media and journalism, here are two documentaries dealing with magazine and newspaper publishing.

Anna Wintour. Image © Roadside Attractions

The September Issue (2009)

RJ Cutler‘s documentary goes behind the scenes at Vogue magazine, following its formidable editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (pictured above) and her team. Wintour and her staff clearly care passionately about fashion and about the magazine. Vogue‘s position as one of the most prominent fashion magazines is something which is clearly taken very seriously by everyone involved.

As the title no doubt tells you, Cutler focuses on the creation of one issue of Vogue. There’s a particular focus on the often tempestuous relationship between Wintour and her creative director Grace Coddington. Both women want to produce a great magazine, but they often have different ideas of how to go about it. Ultimately, the quality of the magazine is maintained and improved by this relationship. This documentary is a great example of how, in publishing, creative tension can produce great results, as long as everyone is working towards the same broad goal. Even if you don’t read Vogue, by the way (I have no interest in it or in similar magazines), I still highly recommend this documentary for its view of the social dynamic within a successful publication.


New York Times headquarters. Image © Haxorjoe

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)

Andrew Rossi spent a year watching the New York Times staff in action, as well as interviewing them on the work they do and the the future of their industry. It’s this discussion of the future of newspaper publishing which is the most interesting aspect of Rossi’s documentary.

Familiar issues behind print versus web (or print with web) publishing predictably get an airing. But broader questions such as the purpose of newspapers and the consequences of their demise are covered.

Naturally the newspaper people see the traditional press as a vital weapon against lies and cover-ups; a vital component of a vibrant democracy. Rossi does try to get a different perspective by interviewing Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, a popular news blog whose office features the ‘Big Board’ – a monitor displaying the most-viewed stories on the site. Gawker‘s emphasis on maximising views is contrasted with the New York Times and its traditional emphasis on stories seen as important for its readers to know about. Denton is joined by other online media proponents such as Clay Shirky and Jimmy Wales.

Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are used as examples of the benefits of traditional investigative reporting, with Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate scandal with fellow reporter at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward) giving his view of this sort of investigative work. This is contrasted with the rise of WikiLeaks, and the New York Timescollaboration with the whistle-blowers on the publication of leaked documents.

Though Rossi seems broadly sympathetic to the Times, the plagiarism and fabrication of Jason Blair’s stories for the paper does get a mention. Seth Mnookin – whose book on the scandal was said by a Times reviewer ‘to relate Blair’s story at tedious length’ – discusses the issue.

While this documentary attempts to cover a lot of ground, it doesn’t feel like issues are being skimmed over, though it’s impossible for Rossi to go into too much detail on any one topic. Plenty of food for thought for those who care about newspaper publishing.

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