We Need a David Carr Portable Companion.
Here’s the first draft. Who’s in to publish the best of our greatest media writer?
It’s been just about three months since @carr2n — the legendary New York Times media writer David Carr — left us, and I fervently hope somebody or other has already begun to put together an anthology of his work. But if not, consider these suggestions as a starting point for all that could go into one.
David was a stellar reporter, a savvy observer, and always a great read. His take on seismic changes in the news business, the media-industrial complex and the red carpet were not only must-reads; they are the gold standard for reporters and opinionators now working, and those coming up. And his personal writing was a beautiful thing.
Besides his wonderful and considerable body of work, David was a boon companion. Let’s make a David Carr Portable Companion to approximate his spirit: knowing and curious, worldly-wise, generous and always fully formed. It should be available in all formats and on as many platforms as he enjoyed. He liked Medium, he was a master of Twitter, and he sold more than a few copies of his remarkable memoir. His video appearances are numerous, so let’s not skimp on those in the digital version. He even told a story at The Moth. And now we know he was a 2015 Pulitzer finalist for commentary.
So publishers, take note: We want to — need to! — see David again in full frolic, as he liked to say. The list that follows calls out some specific pieces, but also links to whole categories such as his Monday column and his Times video appearances. Editorial types, start digging into this partial list of what might go into our Companion — and you’re welcome to provide your own additions and comments by responding at the end of this story.
In this MediaBistro video, David describes his plunge into first-hand reporting, about police brutality in Minneapolis in 1982. His effort became the cover story in the Twin Cities Reader. (Here’s the backstory.) A decade later, he was the editor of the Reader.
David eventually moved from the Twin Cities to Washington to run the alt-weekly City Paper, where he made his mark on a town not known for tolerating rebels and misfits — and in the process, fostered a generation of talented journalists. Calling on this crowd, what are your favorites among his pieces? What are the back stories?
From City Paper, he made what turned out to be a short stop at Inside.com (here’s Ken Auletta’s take on that dot-com bust) before landing at the New York Times, where he first covered (print!) magazines, and then, more broadly, media. Of that beat, in a 2003 interview (shortly after he’d landed there) he observed: “…thankfully my beat is full of needy gossipy people who are in the media business. They’re not in the media business because they’re good at keeping a secret.”
A classic Carr investigation ended up contributing to the takedown of the Tribune’s executive management. “At flagging Tribune, tales of a bankrupt culture” (October 2010). His investigation was also featured in the (terrific) 2011 movie “Page One”.
Just last summer, his face-to-face interview with Glenn Greenwald at his home “in the jungle-encrusted mountains above Rio” captured the man and the web of issues he — and we — face:
William Blake suggested that the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom, so maybe Mr. Greenwald is on to something. It is a measure of the oddities of the current media age that part of the road to the future includes many switchbacks up this mountainside and the dogs that bark endlessly and ferociously, deep into the night.
I admit to a special fondness for his early love note to Twitter, “Why Twitter Will Endure” (January 2010):
By carefully curating the people you follow, Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people in their respective fields, whose tweets are often full of links to incredibly vital, timely information.
Further re Twitter: I hope his colleagues and family already have access to his entire Twitter archive, as it will undoubtedly yield many gems. Let me know if you need help getting that — hey, I know some people there.
Every week David rustled up a fresh take on an industry heaving, as he might say, under new and immense pressures. His columns were imperative reading for people in the business and media watchers in every corner. The bulk of his Times output was most recently in his Media Equation column; prior to that, he wrote for Dealbook. He also wrote short(ish) posts on the Media Decoder blog.
A few personal favorites:
Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.”– “Print is down and now out”, August 2014
“In the past, great shows, entire seasons of them, used to go whooshing past me. Now they are always there, waiting for me to hit play. Like my dog, they are friendly and tend to follow me around seeking my attention.” - “Barely keeping up in TV’s new golden age”, March 2014
Mr. Sulzberger, working with Mr. Baquet and Mr. Thompson, may have failed to understand the impact Ms. Abramson’s firing would have, both internally and with the public. Planning went into immediately erasing her name from the masthead, but not so much into the splatter it would create. … The current mayhem aside, Mr. Sulzberger’s real failing has been picking two editors who ended up not being right for the job. - “Abramson’s Exit at The Times Puts Tensions on Display” — May 2014
Late in the evening, Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, came down looking for Sergey Brin, who had left for the evening. He walked out onto the patio and surveyed all the corporate might arrayed before him — and then chose to plop down with a group of workaday reporters and photographers. It was the journalistic equivalent of DefCon4. - “Late night with Eric Schmidt”, July 2007
Earlier in his Times career, David honed his media sensibilities by creating The Carpetbagger to observe the goings-on during movie awards season, culminating with the Oscars. His observation about the pomp and circumstance (and comic aspects) of it all surely speaks for many:
“Like most Americans, like most of the planet, I am a sucker for this over-inflated attempt to summarize and recognize the year’s movies. It almost never works and I almost never care. It’s always good enough to be good enough to spend one night a year with.”
David was in his first year as the Andrew Lack Professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. Even his syllabus, Press Play, is classic Carr, and a wonderful state-of-the-state on the bumptious media biz.
Just last May, he was the commencement speaker for the UC Berkeley journalism graduates. His generous spirit toward the grads was showing:
I reviewed some of the work of the 51 people sitting up here and it’s an honor to call them colleagues. I am stunned by their ambition, their execution, their willingness to load up a tool belt with every manner of storytelling, and go forth and bring those to the world.
…a bunch of old, crusty white guys who looked a lot and talked a lot like me, they decided what the news was. It’s not really up to us anymore. It’s up to you. It’s up to your audience. Deciding what is important, judging by the work I’ve seen from you guys, is not going to be a problem. (Transcript by Matthew Keys)
Personal and travel writing
A favorite of mine is his story about leading bike touring trip, in Bicycling Magazine “All That You Leave Behind” (September 2013):
Today’s ascent back up the mountain would be ugly and wobbly, but I’ve done plenty of long climbs out of low places — so much so that I feel like the odds are in my favor when they’re against me.
He had personal and compelling thoughts about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Wrestler,” February 2014):
I have no certainty about what went wrong, but I can tell you from personal experience that what happened was not the plan. I have been alone in that room with my addled thoughts, the drugs, and the needle. Addicts in the grip always have a plan. I will do this, get this out of the way, and then I will resume life among the living — the place where family, friends and colleagues wait and hope. He didn’t make it back to that place.
He wrote a few travel stories for the Times:
- “My Own Private (Rental) Island, in the Bahamas” (Nov 2010)
As someone who shares New York City with a lot of other humans during the day, I didn’t really anticipate how luxurious it would feel to see no one. The beach at Cancún is great and all, but not having to spend your vacation asking permission, directions or help is a freedom that cannot be underestimated.
- Summer on the Jersey Shore, After the Storm (August 2013)
- “Villa de Leyva, a Graceful Window on Colonial Colombia”, May 2009
- “36 Hours in Minneapolis-St Paul” (September 2008)
- “The Family Ski Trip: Why Do We Do It?” (December 2011)
- “View, Interrupted: The Spoiling of Manhattan’s Skyline” (May 2014)
After a day of fighting for a place to stand on the island to get business done amid a thicket of self-important people in a hurry, we are again back in the queue, waiting our turn. But halfway up the helix, the city we just left roars into view in side profile. Big on top (Midtown), thinner in the middle (Chelsea and Greenwich Village) and big on the bottom (Downtown), the city is irresistible, a sexy colossus in Rubenesque recline. For a few brief seconds, we all stare at what many believe is the greatest city in the world.
David tells the story of his first (self-assigned) investigation for MediaBistro (“My First Big Break”).
Who’s got more examples of his Twin Cities oeuvre to share?
Here he is working out a seminal scene at The Moth StorySLAM that would appear in “Night of the Gun” (May 2006).
He was also a guest on various public radio shows and podcasts like these:
Dinner Party Download, re his prowess at table tennis.
David’s foray in front of the camera in the still see-worthy “Page One” brought him into focus for many who read him already (and featured the somewhat jarring line “starring David Carr” in the film’s promo materials). He was also an unlikely but willing star of quite a few videos shot at The Times or for “Times Talks” (including the one with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald on the last night of his life). The Times’ video site has gathered them all.
After his Carpetbagger days, he and A.O. Scott starred in a wide-ranging (and fun) series called The Sweet Spot about movies and the media business. These are as informal, smart and good-natured as you’d expect.
His first appearances on video were probably on “The Facts as We Know Them,” a Minneapolis public-access show, where he and other media-watchers talked local news and politics in the mid-80s.
And then there’s music. David was a deep and passionate fan. I’ve found some writing, a few mentions of his favorites over the years, and some playlists here and there. Here’s what I’ve found:
• Pitchfork, “David Carr on Music” — A nice selection of his riffs and takes on The Replacements and Neil Young.
• His posts from the 2008 Bonnaroo Festival. One gem:
Les Claypool has a big old crush on the bass and he likes to spread it around. As the four-string warrior with Primus, he puts the beef in its bottom heavy sound. All by his lonesome, or actually surrounded by other accomplices, he perpetrated the very rare extended bass solo–with syncopated vocals–that held the audience rapt, although Bonnaroo does love its jams in all flavors, including the thumped and plumped.
Do you know about more music picks or his music writing? Let’s pop those into the Companion for a full-on Carr experience.
If you’re wondering why I compiled all this, over the past few years I was lucky enough to be among his legion of friends. Occasionally in my professional capacity I debunked a rumor or steered him to people in the know at Google and more recently Twitter. Beyond that, our closeness in age and shared passion for media led to a lot of conversations (and dish) about all the heave-ho happening around old institutions and new upstarts. As resident “olds” of our respective institutions we traded notes on what we were watching, reading, seeing, using to get news.
In the days since his death I’ve found myself wondering about David’s take on this or this that new development. What would he make of Meerkat and Periscope for newsgathering? We would surely savor his view of “instant articles” on Facebook; Verizon buying AOL; and the demise of the proposed Comcast/Time-Warner deal. I think he’d have something to say about the media overlay that led a print veteran whose work became a Broadway musical. Even though he wasn’t always a fervent theatre fan (we saw “Lucky Guy” together; he hated it), his passion for music might have led him to admire Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius genre-mashing in “Hamilton”.
More broadly, his comments last year about the growing tension between what’s public and what’s private, and who gets access to what, is going to hold true for a while:
As a society, we’ve traded our privacy and independence for a bag full of apps, utilities and functionalities on the web. Most of the time, the services are free, which means, of course, we are the product…. Americans need to understand every time they push or send an e-mail, download an app, pick up a cookie while surfing — that when everything is free, there’s a hidden cost, and as I’ve said before, someone should do a story about that.
And his smart observations earlier this year on the continuing shift from Big Media to what’s known as “UGC” (surely he made fun of that silly acronym) are going to be in play for some time to come:
The tendency to listen to the holy music of the self is reflected in the abundance of messaging and self-publishing services — Vine, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Apple’s new voice messaging and the rest — all of which pose a profound challenge for media companies. Most media outfits are in the business of one-to-many, creating single pieces of text, images or audio meant to be shared by the masses.
But most sharing does not involve traditional media companies.
Though he wasn’t the sort to pontificate on his own legacy, when you take a look across the Carr output, what he said — and what he preached to journalists wherever they were gathered — will surely stand the test of time.
…ultimately, who we work for is the people who tell us their stories. We’re to deliver. We’re sherpas. We’re bystanders to people’s stories.
So consider this is a rough guide to the Carr archives. I continue to check Twitter for mentions of @carr2n and re-read his work. And along with many others, I won’t soon forget what a gent and a character he was.
Fans, friends, editors: what would you like to see reprised or released to the world so that we continue to appreciate — and learn from — David? Publishers, aggregators, mashup makers: let’s see what you can do.
Cover photo: courtesy Nick Bilton
What are your favorite Carr pieces that should go in this collection? Please respond here to share more greats.