David Carr Died the Death of a Journalist

The same week The Irish Times announced their paywall, the man who was instrumental in me subscribing to the digital edition of The New York Times died. David Carr, media critic for The Times, collapsed and died on the newsroom floor on Thursday February 12th.

He died at the age of 58 of complications from lung cancer and heart disease. A huge loss to the world of journalism, he was a much beloved character in the prime of his career who chronicled the interface between print and digital media.

Earlier that day he had poignantly wheezed his way through an hour-long panel talk with Edward Snowden, Jordan Poitrias and Glenn Greenwald about the film CitizenFour (2014), a documentary thriller about the National Security Agency’s privacy leaks which won best documentary at the Oscars. He also tweeted to his 400,000 plus followers about the naffness of picking up a voicemail, labelling himself ancient. His idiosyncratic self to the end, David Carr died the death of a journalist.

That his story will be cherished in journalistic circles is one thing, but that it will also be told outside of them is a measure of a reporter who exemplified and embodied the virtues of print media in a world that tried to forget the old agenda setters.

Each Monday I read his Media Equation column and watched and listened to his Times Talks where he distilled new media, technology and pop culture for us all. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing him talk live in Dublin. Afterwards I went up to him, shook his hand and mumbled my gratitude for his work; I’m glad I did.

***

Last November as part of a fringe event of the Web Summit, Le Cool and Pilcrow hosted a get together of ‘media nerds’ called Spiel: Breaking Story in a basement on South William Street. Guests David Carr and Contently CEO, Shane Snow, talked about the future of media, branded content and gave some sage advice for students and practitioners of journalism.

Here’s what Carr said on that evening about media and its future, a topic on which he was an expert, but sadly, now, will not live to see develop any further.

He started with “Dia dhuit, or however you say it in Irish” before ridiculing us for choosing this basement talk over the charms of Grogan’s and “one of the most glorious cities in Europe.”

Since the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times aired in 2011 Carr has been the public face of The Grey Lady (as The Times is known), however it was not love at first sight. Initially he was bemused with some of the archaic practices at the paper,

“I used to laugh when I first came to the Times and they would be having the daily news meeting at four o’clock to decide what were the seven most important stories in western civilization right now that we’re going to put on the (front) cover.

“And I’m like, look at the web above you – and it’s literally above you on a board – it’s morphing and writhing and pivoting the whole time they are talking. I just thought, this is preposterous: that you are going to call a halt to the news section, swish it into the paper and fucking throw it in people’s yards. That’s crazy.”

The place took a while to grow on him but inevitably the magnetism took hold,

“Then after a while, like everyone else, just the whooshing by of everything and at the end of every day we just know stuff. We know what happened. Now I like that hierarchy. Now I like, ‘Oh that’s above the fold, column right.’

“The other thing I like is then I turn the page and there is international news. I would never look at that on the web. I would never self select into that. I really wouldn’t know what was happening in Syria.

“And you know in reading The Irish Times today did I have a perfect idea of what exactly was happening right now in the world? No, but I got a feeling and a mood.”

***

Journalists are often thought to be professional cynics, where deadlines, demanding editors and unsympathetic subs are constant gripes. Carr, despite being amongst all of that, seemed different. About his work he used to say it was much better than getting a real job.

Why this sunny disposition? Well his story, which is rigorously examined by himself in his memoir The Night of the Gun, is of a recovered addict who pulled himself up by his boot straps and took his place at the top table of journalism in a Horatio Alger fable to beat them all. This is the great American story which happens all too rarely: a single parent on welfare, he raised his kids after battling through crack cocaine and alcohol addictions and earned his place at The New York Times, before becoming its greatest modern ambassador.

His new life was fuelled by memories of the depths of his old and his advice was always coloured with his belief in our ability to change. He tells of being sent to the Supreme Court and having to do his utmost not to hold his editor’s hand and cry, “Whoppee!” such was his delight at the opportunity to cover one of the keystones in America’s separation of powers.  In everything he did his adopted New York scepticism was tempered by his Midwestern enthusiasm.

For Carr it didn’t take empathy to relate to the difficulties that people went through; his past was a constant reminder of hard times.

***

The New York Times is a truly global media brand and when it moved behind the paywall in 2011 it set a precedent for other media companies in the future. It operates a metered or leaky paywall that prompts users to subscribe once they’ve read their quota of free articles. What was his view on this transition?

“The Wall Street Journal paved the way. Rupert Murdoch changed his tune on paywalls too when he saw how much loot was there.

“We as a company have gone from zero to over 800,000 [digital subscribers] very quickly. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. We’ll probably do ok. It’s the guys in the middle that I worry about. The reason media companies don’t go with the paywall is because they don’t want to find out what they’re worth because the answer is sometimes not very much.”

“We’ve never claimed to cover all the costs with subscriptions. If we could be a pure digital player, we would be. But we can’t.

“People always say, ‘Why do you print that nasty paper, it just stacks up?’ and I say, ‘Well we put the white paper out and people give us the green paper back.’ It’s a terrible habit but it pays the bills.”

The Irish Times, just this Monday, put a metered paywall up on their content. They modelled it on The New York Times. Soon they will find out whether people are willing to pay for their journalism and in what numbers. As Carr said you pretty quickly get a picture of your worth to your readers and all those millions of page views and unique users become quantifiable.

***

Carr knew papers were imperfect, slow moving machines with their faults but he also knew that what had seemingly replaced them hadn’t satiated our desire for news and features. Most of the aggregated content that we read on the web usually comes from big media companies such as The New York Times – places with the resources to do the editorial work that distinguishes a newspaper from mere online content. Once live, these stories are repurposed and churned on thousands of sites, it often happens that the originator of the work is not properly acknowledged or remunerated commensurate with the number of readers,

“In the future news is going to be a list. It just is. It’s going to be your Twitter feed, it’s going to be your Facebook feed or it’s going to be something like The New York Times Now app. It’s going to be curated by your friends or by my editors.

“The problem with that is that each of those is an atomised piece of news and if they get atomised and sent into various social feeds without any return to the place they came then that is a major problem for funding journalism. If media companies knew how much of their traffic that Facebook owned they would flip out! The decline of the homepage is a big deal too. It’s scary. Like the decline of print, the homepage is where we’ve stored a lot of our money and it’s going away. It’s frightening.”

***

Carr loved reportage. What drove him was hard news stories which relied on good sources and deep digging. It took time, phone calls and diligence. He himself was unafraid to turn his gaze at media targets: his 2010 story on the newspaper group The Tribune Company highlighted the disgraceful behaviour of a previously great American media institution and contributed to the demise of those responsible. He could also write on the downfall of colleagues and even bosses as he did when Jill Abrahamson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, was fired.

Big media personalities living off their fame like Piers Morgan at CNN were treated with the same straight courtesy and decisive dismissals as any.

He summed up his career once by saying, “I hunt elephants, not mice”. A journalist’s responsibility, in his eyes, was to hold the big guys to high standards while allowing the little guys some scope, at least at the start.

Now that his witty quips, straight up advice and encouragement are finite it’s important that we echo his words. Here was how he ended the talk in Dublin:

“I was thinking what would it take for me on a nice night in Dublin to go into a basement and listen to people talk about journalism and my answer was nothing. Nothing would work.

So what I decided was that some of you must be on a career path of journalism and I’d just say this to you guys. I’ve been teaching a (journalism) class in Boston University one day a week and I say to my students, this whole thing of bitching about the man or waiting for the opportunity is just bullshit. The tools of the insurgency of production are at the ends of your hands and it behoves you to make things.

“The solution of writer’s block is to continue the activity until it’s good.”

“What you’re doing is not always what you’re going to do but you should continue to do it. It’s the activity that matters. It’s chronicity that matters. It’s the application. There is not a lot of genius floating around. What will set you apart, I think, is industriousness and a willingness to stick to it.

“Journalism is like housekeeping. It is a series of small discreet acts, performed over and over.

“That’s my sort of old man talk right there.”

For an introduction to David Carr watch the Page One documentary in which he stars. Then trawl through his Media Equation column on The New York Times.com and when you reach your limit of articles you should subscribe to read more. He was a journalist worth paying for and if media is to succeed at a time when attention is so fleeting and we are saturated by the printed word it will be on the back of reporters and story tellers like Carr who capture an audience with their distinctive voices. What a nasal voice indeed.

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