In the tiny, navel-gazing world of media coverage about media, David Carr is a rock star: As the media columnist and culture writer for The New York Times, he was unlikely on-screen catnip for viewers of the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times . He now has more than than 380,000 followers on Twitter. When the Canadian Journalism Foundation announced that Carr would appear in Toronto on Thursday evening for a discussion with the CBC’s Michael Enright, the event sold out within minutes. He recently spoke with The Globe and Mail. This is a longer version of the Q&A published in the Globe’s Thursday print edition.
Is now a good time to talk?
Sure. Could you fix my iTunes while we’re at it? I have a magazine story due, and suddenly my iTunes and my lawn – everything needs attention except what I have to do.
When is that due?
It’s due on Friday, it’s 3,500 words, there’s two books involved, a record – and a big long interview and – yeah, I’m a little intimidated, to be honest. I did an Arts & Leisure story this week, so at least I’m into stepping up to it – I get so habituated to Twitter and the column, that thinking a long thought is just very daunting to me. I mean it. Anyways. What are we doing today?
Talking about you.
You know, historically, when I came to the Times, which is 10 years ago, the thing was to blend in, not stick out. I worked really hard on that. Then, probably because I cover the media, I started to stick out, and that’s well and good, but it’s really important to remember that – whatever minor Web famousity that I have, it’s because of this Venn diagram intersect between me and a large institution, and that’s where the power comes from. If my name was David Schmeckler and not David “New York Times,” I don’t think people would care all that much what I had to say.
That depends on whether David Schmeckler would have the same access and do the same work. But you’re suggesting it’s the platform and not the content that’s made you who you are …?
I think when you work for the Times, you should never get confused about why an event sells out, or why people race to pick up your phone calls. Certain people have left that gravitational pull – like Frank Rich is Frank Rich, no matter where he is. But in general – we may have our own lustre, but we get the actual voltage from being attached to The New York Times.
Okay, we’ll get to that, but first a non-media question. You tweeted recently about the Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards. When did you become a fan?
Um, I think it leaked into my life through hockey. I don’t play hockey, but I covered hockey, I worked for the Minnesota North Stars. I worked for Norm Greene. I did the game program for the Minnesota North Stars and worked for Bob Gainey and Bobby Clarke. I’m absolutely terrified of Bobby Clarke. One time when I screwed something up in the game program, I went in to see him, and he hadn’t put his teeth in – it was like – Oh my God, I don’t know if I’m leaving this office alive, or not.
I don’t think you included that story in your book (Night of the Gun).
Yeah, that was when I was getting back into journalism, that was a really important gig for me, I didn’t really know or understand hockey, I thought it was sort of boring. And the guy who hired me took me to the press box, where you’re sort of up really high, and explained to me how goals take a long time to score and how if you can notice the rink tilting, much as you do in soccer, that the underlying narrative of the game becomes apparent. I was a skier, not a skater when I grew up, so I didn’t know a lot about the game of hockey. But I enjoyed very much my time in hockey, and I was a newly single parent at the time, so work was just super-important to me. I put out their game program, and it was mostly standing elements that I would refresh with new elements for each home game.
And Kathleen Edwards came in – how?
Um – Maybe because he’s a fan of Marty McSorley and so am I? There was a song that name-checked Marty McSorley. Upon listening I thought, Who the heck is this? She is amaaaazing. And she is.
So we have to talk about journalism. It occurred to me that when I interviewed you back in ’08, you scoffed about Twitter – and so did I. But you’ve really come around. What changed?
South by Southwest [in 2009] it was the main news platform of SXSW and I felt as if the primary sort of information stream of where I was, was going off without me being able to see into it. So I lurked for a while and then started tweeting and – I do think it’s very helpful in terms of having a human RSS – 600 people I follow, at least half of them I have intersecting professional interests, and I do think it puts me on tempo, in narrative, in a really important way. That explains why I’m on Twitter. The fact that I’ve tweeted or retweeted 20,000 times – that’s a source of shame to me. I mean, what did I tweet last night?
Something about the Minnesota state fair.
Oh yea, Melena Ryzik, my colleague, had found some seed art. And I don’t know, I think seed art is something people should know about. And I was listening to Gang of Four. Like – blah blah blah. Ha ha ha! I was writing, so it’s a way to, like, get away from that. I think the person who actually originally talked me into tweeting was Kurt Andersen, and he said: It’s like, you’re working on something and you need a break, and wanna’ have a cigarette and you do a tweet instead. And given that I have been and for the most part am an avid smoker, I got the metaphor very well.
I try to be equitable and I think at least half of my tweets carry at least some meta data, some kind of link to a story or a picture, something like that, and I think there’s gotta be nutrition involved beyond what you’re eating, and I try to be equitable – if [Dow Jones reporter] Peter Kafka does something that I think is amazing, or the Guardian breaks news, or whatever – you can’t just go on and relentlessly promote the whole music of self. If you look at Martha Stewart’s Twitter, she’s got a lot of followers but all she does it talk about how great she is. I don’t think that works.
I think it’s really important in terms of persona that you tweet the good and the bad. It’s okay to tweet that you just had a cigarette with Kate Winslet – because that’s a moment, that’s great, that’s cool. But yeah, you should also tweet that you took a bus home to New Jersey after doing that, and you went through a bridge and tunnel, so that people don’t get the impression that you think you’re All That.
I don’t want to be seen as some gossamer creature of Manhattan media life – because I’m not. I’m really worried about my lawn, there’s a big weed problem right now. And iTunes is baffling me – that’s a big part of my life. And I think, to the extent that people follow you and are interested in you, they want a well-rounded portrait. But it is driven at bottom by narcissism and egoism, and my wife thinks it’s completely appalling.
So let’s put Twitter aside for a second. You are, as I mentioned, a bit of a rock star. The CJF thing sold out within minutes. In our world, you’re like U2.
It’s sort of a tallest leprechaun thing.
Okay, but you’re well known and followed closely. It seems to me to say something about what’s going on in the world, and it’s not just uncertainty.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re thinking.
It seems that, amid all the noise and the high-velocity change – and it’s not just being a media reporter, but someone who works in the business – some days it seems that all you can do is hold on for the ride, for dear life. And once a week we get to check in with you – and if not be told everything’s going to be okay, at least there’s a very intelligent person figuring it out for all of us.
Oh, I’m completely flattered by that, I like that a lot. Well – a couple of things are going on. The column-left space on the Business pages of the NYT hosts Andrew Ross Sorkin and Gretchen Morgensen, and used to host Joe Nocera.
So there’s a conferring of authority that occurs in that space, and I benefit from that, so that’s one. Two is, I made a very conscious decision that – Am I an old media grampy pants or a new media avatar? And the answer is: I’m both. Three is, a story that you and I covered for many, many years up until 2005 – ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling’ – nothing fundamentally changed. The sort of pie chart that drove the ad business remained the same. And the, right when I started doing the column, everything changed.
And most of the money in media, a lot of the money in print media went first to Craigslist and then to Google. The subtraction of revenues led to deal flow and dynamism and lots pratfalling and lots of scrambling around. And probably news began to occur on the media beat, so it took what had been a very meta, sort of Boswellian – I write about people who write about people who write about people – into something that seemed to have stakes and implications. And in essence we moved into the middle of our own story, so it became interesting.
And the other thing I think that’s going on is – This week is a very good example of what i think my job is. Let me back up one second – on Thursday, the Yahoo guy [at the Democratic Convention] gets canned for a hot mic error and so: Is my thing, ‘Was that a fire-able offence?’ I don’t do that, I’m not much of a Church Lady, I don’t decide up and down, but I did do a blog post about – ‘When it comes to feeding all these platforms, you can fall into these crevasses between them. Who ever thought someone at a website would get canned for a hot mic error?’ So that sort of pull-back is important. I’m not very good on the news. I can remember when it became apparent that there’s something going on with bin Laden – had bin Laden been captured, or shot? And then I realized it’s blowing up on Twitter, and about that time I started to think – God, there’s a media component to this story, and I finally get around to opening up our blog, Media Decoder. Well, Brian Stelter already had 900 words – and it’s just, I got my nose broken. I had the right impulse but it’s like I was moving through Jell-O.
[So this week] the President talks to Reddit and in the context of NYT Monday biz section, even though Reddit is where a lot of the Internet lives, where much of the conversation goes on, there’s not a lot of visibility for my audience, so it becomes an opportunity for an explainer why the leader of the free world would deal in a social media platform they hadn’t heard of. And then: drop down – by the way, what VC or shiny web kids own this? Condé Nast – Advance Publications, and the intersect between old and new and the fact that Advance Publishing, in this instance had bought something and not engaged in the usual ritual sacrifice of turning it into something unrecognizable from what they bought – that’s a good Monday column.
I’m dumb enough to ask the right questions, which is – Why is the President talking to Reddit? Well – ‘Everybody knows why he’s talking to Reddit.’ Mmm, I don’t think everybody knows – and then smart enough to go and find the right answer. That’s – I don’t work from inside some smartypants new media bubble. I’m 55 yrs old, still get the daily paper – all that stuff.
Are you concerned you’ll be taken to task by those within the bubble who will say – you idiot, of course everybody knows why he’d talk to Reddit.
Oh yeah, I get a lot of that, I could care less. My main job is to be of service to readers of the NYT, and I don’t mean that in some crunchy do-gooder way. That is how I eat. So compared to cred on Twitter – I could care less, that’s how I get hamburgers. If I serve as an explainer – I went on Reddit where I’m a reader not a user and said: Explain this to me, explain – I don’t care. I think generally our job is to find people smarter than we are and ask them what they think.
I fight with Bruce Headlam, who’s my top editor, I’m always dumping quotes into my column and he says, ‘People care what you think,’ and a lot of times what I think is what they think. I’m not the kind of person who can just watch things going by and put a little extra sauce on it. I mean, I think I’m a good writer and a good thinker but my stuff always gets better with phone calls.
I think everybody’s does. Especially in a large and confusing field like this one. So, a few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria ran into some problems – because, it appeared, he was just too busy, spreading himself too thin, on too many platforms. But you seem to be managing just fine. You’ve got the Sweet Spot, which probably takes much more time than it appears. You’ve got the column, you tweet, you’ve got the occasional hit on the Media Decoder blog.
I’m on the front of Sunday Arts & Leisure, which is very important to me – that I’m seen as someone who can do that. And I’m working on a magazine story that we will only hint is about a famous Canadian.
Okay, so this is going to sound like I’m being a lifestyle reporter but: Is it too much sometimes?
Everything suffers. Everything suffers. My magazine story will not be as good as if it was written by somebody who is only doing magazine stories. The Arts & Leisure story, it involved going to see Errol Morris – could I really afford to go to Boston for the day, or not? I used to be blogging a lot more than I am – now I’m in there, I try to be in there once, sometimes twice a week but have it mean something. But – the Yahoo item. Right when it came down, I walked by [Brian] Stelter and he said, ‘Well that’s a three-minute post,’ and I thought: Not in my hands it’s not.
And the intrusiveness of the multiplatform existence, in terms of concentration. I think there’s going to be an erosion over time in your ability to think long thoughts.
I’m totally grateful I have a job, but when the way you’re judged on your job changes from quality and efficacy to durability and chronicity, I think that that’s sort of scary, especially for journalists like me who are sort of on the back nine of their professional life. Even if I’ve done a good job of adapting. Friends of mine who are not on Twitter, who turn down all manner of public speaking, who don’t go video – I never argue against them. I think that’s completely understandable, and you could say: Well, they won’t last long. But maybe I won’t, either.
Sure, but they’ll be thinking deeper thoughts than I do. So, when you come up to the CJF, people see you as a real insider. A few months ago there was a blog post which suggested you’re the ultimate insider who, as this writer had it, may have lost a sense of true north.
I think it was [Columbia Journalism Review] – ‘The two David Carrs’? That thing? Yeah, it was one of those moments: Was it worse that they said it, or worse that part of it was true? The case-building that went with it – the one thing in it that got me going was, the writer said I didn’t even try to find out if Huffington Post made money and that’s a dead-wrong assumption.
But the other part about knowing people is great for getting your phone calls picked up but when you can picture somebody, when you picture their face and that’s a face you’ve air-kissed or hugged or clinked glasses with, do you swing less hard, do you swing less ferociously? Yeah, I think so.
I can remember, I wrote about Tina Brown in my first column, ever – not a very kind column. And then I wrote about Tina Brown lately, and two things make me less prone to gratuitously or appropriately go after her: One is, I know her as a hard worker, somebody who’s, like – she is trying really hard to make it better, that is over and over, and that is an impulse in journalism that I respect and regard – so I’ve gotten to know her well enough to know that about her – and then the other thing is – she’s aggressively moved to continue to produce journalism in sustainable ways, and what would people have her do? Would they have her go away and sit at a table at Michael’s and talk about the days back when she ruled the world? No, she’s in there and she’s working.
Every once in a while I’ll read something by Hamilton Nolan in Gawker. Hamilton goes to nothing, or goes to very little – he will just step up and fill somebody with ack ack – and I think to myself: Hmm, whether it was true or not, it was executed with a great deal of vigour, in a way I probably do not do any more. When you work for a big institution and you have the same job for a long time, are you in danger of becoming what you once assailed? Absolutely.
So: The Sweet Spot [this weekly video on the Times website] that you and A.O. Scott are doing. It’s confusing me because you seem to be trying to make the point that smart video can make it on the Web, and I almost thought: How dare you? The conventional wisdom is: 1, 2 minutes, say something funny and be gone.
I began [developing the Sweet Spot] with the thought exercise of: What would it take to get me to watch a six- to eight-minute video of two white people at a table talking? The answer is: Nothing, there’s nothing in the world that would make me do that. So then I thought about: Okay, what can we do in short format that will be not just interesting to the audience and interesting to me? And the answer to that was: Nothing. Nothing would be interesting.
I put a full day if I count the hours Tony and I trade off production of the show, and the show. And the discussion that would occur in two minutes it’s just of no interest to me. So what we’re doing instead is we’re doing what we want – within reason. I mean there’s a lot of oversight on video matters and attention being paid to video matters right now – and then hoping that the spins grow.
I’m gonna predict that if we stick with it, in format, and start to do maybe a little more in the way of packaging in the middle of it, we will eventually get to six figures in terms of the numbers of spins on it, and that we’re gonna muscle it through.
What I like about the show and think is working: They had us on a desk – we have this studio in the newsroom, and I fought long and ferociously to get off that desk, and so we moved up to the [Times] lunchroom. You can see New York out the window. Very important – like, Purple Mountain Majesty, there it is, Gotham City, out the window. One.
Two is, you can see people moving around in the background. Three, there’s food on the table, I’m often eating it, Tony is not – we have very different dietary choices. And to me, verisimilitude and authenticity are extremely important.
I was impressed by the launch of HuffPo’s video – behind that beautifully rendered little studio that they have – they have a camera behind the camera to show you are somewhere. And I think the mistake that a lot of serious video people make is an attempt to ape the templates of television.
I think videos from newspapers should always look like videos from newspapers – and we have this gorgeous set from Renzo Piano, that he built us, so the fact that we roam around and do interviews and always get people in their cubes, that we do it in the lunchroom, that to me is a very important part of the DNA of the show.
If I have any gifts in video – and I’m certainly not one of the first people you’d put on video – I’m very good with other people, whether it’s man on the street or Tony, I think he’s one of the best working critics in America, and I think the stuff he talks about is interesting. The fact that we genuinely like each other – one thing that does travel across platforms, on Web and television, I think chemistry is really important. And we’ve had disagreements about this or that, but we like each other and that’s visible and palpable. So I think that matters.
Whether it’ll continue to be a little curio that we do or will aggregate an audience around that – don’t know. But I think the video realms, it’s very important – right now the WSJ has a video blog where people are just doing little feeds off their phone, and people are going: What is the purpose of that? And I think, just giving it a whirl over and over again, the endless iteration and trying out stuff – that will be answer in video realms, because nobody has solved the math. I had lunch with Peter Kafka the other day and we talked about: Where is the good video on the web? And the fact that the Journal is trying stuff, you’re trying stuff, we’re trying stuff – eventually something’s gonna work. And I’m very bullish on NYT’s video prospects, partly because – if Israel took action against Iran tomorrow, I think you should be able to turn us on. I think we know more than almost anybody and I think you should be able to switch us on, and I can see a time within the next 5 to 6 years when signal events in global or United States culture happen, that you’ll switch on your television or whatever it’s called, your phone or your tablet – and the New York Times will be there, talking to you. I have every confidence in that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.