This is the first time I’ve met David Carr, the weathered and worn, witty and sometimes caustic media critic for The New York Times. But he greets me like an old pal as he slides into a corner table at Casa Nonna, an elegant Italian joint a couple of blocks from the Times where he’s welcomed as a regular.
Mr. Carr doesn’t do lunch much these days – “it’s sort of a lost art for reporters” – but he comes here for the tables, he says, as we settle into “the corner shot,” both of us facing out at other diners around us. In New York, a good table can be hard to come by. “It’s a good gangster table. You’ve got your back to the wall. At least if someone’s going to kill you, you know who it is,” he says.
Mr. Carr is no gangster. Nor is the 58-year-old Minnesota native unfamiliar with drugs, guns or the sensation of finding oneself on the wrong side of the law. The darker chapters of his life are plainly detailed in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun. In its 385 pages, he reports on his descent into an all-consuming cocaine addiction that derailed his journalism career, left him struggling to care for twin daughters born prematurely to a previous partner amid one of many binges, and ultimately sent him to six months of in-patient rehabilitation.
He has emerged from it all feisty and sober, although a permanent stoop to his body betrays a life lived the hard way. His devotion to his family is evident – wife Jill, daughters Meagan and Erin, 26, and Madeleine, 17 – and he seems to be relishing what might seem an unlikely second chance chronicling the turbulence in his trade from a perch at the world’s most renowned newspaper.
It is mid-August when we meet, and after ordering an iced latte and glasses of “New York tap” to combat the heat, Mr. Carr launches into a primer on the restaurant’s menu – top of the list, the meatballs – before asking where I’ve eaten while I’m in town. I describe an out-of-the-way dim sum spot on a skinny Chinatown street once known as “the Bloody Angle,” where local friends had taken me.
“Okay, I’ve gotta write that down. How jammed was it?” he says, tapping the restaurant’s name into his iPhone. “I keep a list of restaurants, um, because it’s always embarrassing in New York when someone says, where do you want to go? You can have friggin’ dinosaur eggs served by cross-dressing lawyers, if you want, but you’ve got to know where they are.”
We settle on sharing the meatballs and a Caprese salad and order a pasta each as the conversation turns to Mr. Carr’s busy schedule, which is about to get busier. It is mid-August when we meet, and he has recently added an endowed professorship at Boston University to his day job at the Times, and will begin teaching his course – on making and distributing content, dubbed “Press Play” – in just a few weeks.
“It’s going to be like a bomb going off in the middle of my life. I’m terrified,” he says. He’s done guest teaching before, “but to take custody of young lives like that is …” he says, trailing off.
Since the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times made Mr. Carr something of a rock star in media circles, he has had no shortage of job offers. But Boston U has an added perk: His youngest daughter Madeleine is to start there as a student.
“You’re a news man so I think you can probably imagine what kind of economics are under way,” he says. Writing his book helped pay for his elder, twin daughters’ educations, but they still graduated with hefty student loans. He tried to get his youngest to look at Montreal’s McGill University, where fees are “more reasonable,” but she settled on Boston.
His trips to Massachusetts are motivated partly by family for now, but Mr. Carr expects that “long-term, [teaching is] going to be part of who I am and what I do.”
“It was Jill Abramson” – the newspaper’s executive editor, ousted very publicly just three months earlier, who approved the teaching gig because she had taught at Yale, he explains.
When we meet, the dust is still settling after Ms. Abramson’s sudden dismissal, and my query about the atmosphere inside the Times newsroom is met, at first, with a long pause.
“Um, one of the primary lessons of being part of The New York Times is the organism supersedes any one individual. So we were taught that lesson anew,” he says.
Reports suggested Ms. Abramson had clashed with Times executives, who were concerned about her management style and brusque manner, over hiring decisions and her own pay. Mr. Carr doesn’t think most reporters found it hard working under her – “Jill was and is a very good newsman,” he says. Rather, it was those working most closely with her who “found it difficult to make a paper in an ongoing way.”
That her successor is Dean Baquet – “known far and wide as a great dude and also a great newsman” – has eased the transition. And where Ms. Abramson blazed a trail when she was hired as the Times’s first female executive editor in September, 2011, Mr. Baquet is the first black man to hold the top job, “so you pivot from history to history.”
Still, the shift in power has strained the newsroom and few people within it had a more uncomfortable seat to survey the fallout than Mr. Carr, who wrote a column likening Ms. Abramson’s undoing to “a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones.”
“It was incredibly unseemly how it all happened,” he tells me. “And it was a very difficult topic to cover from inside the paper.”
Mr. Carr would just as soon have kept the topic out of his column, “but we just thought, optically, that would be too weird. So, I wrote what I thought, including being fairly critical of our publisher [Arthur Sulzberger Jr.], and I saw him the next day. He came into the media editor’s office. We don’t see him much on our floor, and we both kind of sucked in breath. He said: ‘I want to thank you for the story you did yesterday.’ I said: ‘I’m glad you feel that way – I think it was a little rugged, saying you had failed in your choices.’ He said: ‘I don’t care. Good for the readers, good for the paper, I’m happy you wrote it.’”
Mr. Carr describes his position as “kind of complicated.”
“I mean, I play for the Yankees, or the Red Sox. I cover baseball.” But he insists he’s been allowed to dispense his pointed views free of any meddling. “At our shop, I mean, I’ve never once felt – and I can say this – the cold damp hands of ownership up my skirt.”
One of the reasons Mr. Carr seems sanguine about his job is that he treats it like a happy accident. When the Times first came calling in 2001, it seemed to him “the most preposterous thing I had ever heard,” as he writes in his book. He had never envisioned himself as “a Times guy.” Even the beat seemed sleepy to him, and he didn’t really want it.
“My friends just said, dude, they’re offering you a column at a big American newspaper. How many columns do you think they’re going to offer you?”
He knows now how good he has it. He has been fired from a magazine for refusing treatment, slapped in handcuffs, and laden with guilt for years of tightrope fatherhood when drugs consumed him. And he has worked less-rewarding jobs, including at restaurants, for less pay.
At Casa Nonna, he is unfailingly polite. Not just to me – when the appetizers arrive, he serves us both, and when we tuck into our pasta course, he shovels a couple of his gnocchi onto my plate, unprompted – but also to the waiting staff. He repeatedly stops mid-sentence to say, “That’s lovely, thanks so much,” or “everything is lovely, thank you.” And it’s more than common courtesy.
“I waited tables for seven years, so I really care about stuff like that. It’s [expletive] hard. I had a waiter dream last night. It was like: ‘Table Four’s been here a half an hour and they don’t have any [expletive] water, what is going on?’ Still. From the old days. That’s stress, man,” he says, “that’s real stress.”
At the forefront of an industry dealing with a massive decline in advertising and readers’ shifting media consumption habits, The New York Times can claim its fair share of stress in recent years. Its head count has bobbed up and down amid a series of cuts and the launch of a digital paywall in 2011. Just six weeks after our lunch, the paper announced it would eliminate another 100 positions – about 7.5 per cent of the newsroom – through buyouts and layoffs, as the paper tries to adapt to new digital imperatives.
Mr. Carr has leaped feet-first into journalism’s evolving digital playground. His chatty Twitter feed ranges from news to life at home and has amassed, at last count, nearly 462,000 followers. He reads long-form stories on Gawker and BuzzFeed. The course work for his class at Boston U is done through Medium, a collaborative website for writers, and students are evaluated “as much by what you put in the margins of others’ work as you are for your own.”
Yet, he has also felt the “whooshing” of the online “info stream” and the danger of drowning in it. A day earlier, he had rescheduled our lunch and stayed home after falling ill. “All I did was lily-pad from one thing to another to another to another. And just vast reaches of my day disappeared. And did I work yesterday? I guess I did. At the end of the day, I felt a little bit like I had been looking at porn all day.”
Daily print newspapers, which even he had once abandoned, have returned to his table. He gets The New York Times and Wall Street Journal delivered to his home in Montclair, N.J., and spends an hour with them each morning. He worries about print’s “continued dominance” at the Times but still sees a future for it, if a more limited one. “I think we’re going to enter a time where a great deal of attention will be paid to the printed artifact and there’ll be an almost artisanal quality to it. You’ll charge a premium for it,” he says. Subsistence for newspapers – even the venerable Times – will likely mean finding new revenue sources, including from native advertising, and in some cases require the backing of wealthy owners with strong stomachs. But Mr. Carr is And he’s emboldened by the success of the the paywall, which had 875,000 subscribers at the end of October.
“We’re making a club, that’s what we’re making. This mass niche called people who read. It’s a weird, kooky activity. We could have annual conventions, like the Shriners, with go-karts and clowns,” he says.
More seriously, he adds: “I think the fact that The New York Times makes more money off consumers than advertisers” – a recent phenomenon – “is definitional, and it points the way forward.”
Mr. Carr thinks the recent media upheaval has hit bottom. The bounce back to prosperity is less certain, but the experiments at adapting can be fascinating to a media reporter.
“We were in one room where we put white paper out on the street, people gave us green paper back. Now we’re trying to get to another room where we provide information on all kinds of platforms and people give us money back – it might be Bitcoin, for all I know. We’re in that long, dark hall, still. And you know what? I like it in here, because it’s cool,” he says. “It’s just, like, unexpected.”
We decline dessert – it’s getting late, and Mr. Carr has writing to do. His phone trills and, apologetically, he answers it. Daughter Madeleine is heading to the airport, then to Europe, before school starts. A nervous parent, he finishes his call while we stroll back to the Times headquarters.
Outside the building, as Mr. Carr puffs on his second Camel cigarette (one habit he hasn’t left behind), a passerby approaches. Star-struck, he asks for a picture together then explains he teaches media in French. “Does that thing do video?” Mr. Carr replies, pointing to the man’s phone, then records a message for the man’s students – even managing a word or two of American-accented French. After a quick tour of the newsroom, he sees me out with a wave.
“Okay boss,” he says as we part.
Media writer for Inside.com, editor of the D.C. weekly Washington City Paper (1995-2000); editor of Minneapolis alternative weekly the Twin Cities Reader (1993-1995). Contract writer for Atlantic Monthly and New York Magazine.
Mr. Carr is a middle child from a family of seven children who grew in suburban Minneapolis. He married his wife, Jill, in 1994. They have one child together, Madeleine, born in 1997. His twin daughters, Meagan and Erin, were born in 1988 to his previous partner, Anna.
BIO, AS HE WROTE ON THE SYLLABUS OF HIS BOSTON U. COURSE “PRESS PLAY”
“Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly, and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.”
SELECTED READINGS (AND ONE PODCAST) FROM THE COURSE:
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.
“At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture” by David Carr for The New York Times
“Dr. Glimer and Mr. Hyde” by Sarah Koenig for This American Life (audio).
Glass, a blog on Quartz by Zach Seward (read a few days’ worth).
“The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze and Maybe Infuriate You” by Maria Konikkova for The New Yorker.
“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace for Gourmet.Report Typo/Error