David Carr is a likeable guy. That might come as a surprise if you heard him describe tracking sources. "I got this guy surrounded and I just started," he said, sounding more like a hunter than a writer.
That might appear to be a strangely violent way for a journalist to talk, but Carr, a media columnist for The New York Times, said it so good-naturedly that it was difficult to feel anything more than a warm regard for him, especially for an admitted fan. As for the man surrounded, Carr was speaking of a subject of a piece he had written recently, who he had been able to extensively research in less than an hour, all because of the internet.
Carr spoke during a conversation with Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery for the Chicago Humanities Festival Wednesday evening entitled "Mother Jones: New Frontiers." He's the perfect example of an old-guard journalist who has embraced the internet in a way that has made him relevant to an entirely new audience, a topic explored in the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. He described his backpack, full of video equipment and his trusty iPad, as having "more firepower than the newsroom I walked into 20 years ago." (Full disclosure, I've freelanced at the Times).
That doesn't mean his age hasn't gotten to him (Carr is 55). When asked how he does so much in a day, Carr joked, "I'm very tired." He's an avid Twitter user; to Carr, the value of Twitter is that you can curate information from people, not RSS feeds.
But as someone who has struggled with addiction problems, which are all shockingly laid out in his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, Carr explained that the line between enough and too much media isn't always clear.
"Isn't it addictive?" asked Jeffery. "As a crack addict, more is always better right?" quipped Carr.
Carr, who writes about cultural matters, in addition to his work for the Times Media Decoder blog and the business section, touched on recent issues as well. He joked that he single-handedly ruined the 2012 Oscars because of a blog post he wrote Wednesday morning on producer Brett Ratner ("a rough cat"), who was fired from the show for using a gay slur. The news was announced, Carr wrote about whether or not host Eddie Murphy should be fired as well for previous jokes he had made along the same lines; that evening, Murphy had also dropped out of the show.
Carr also dropped references to media controversies near and dear to those in Chicago media. When asked by Jeffery if the Times, which has very publicly struggled with financial problems in the past few years, should switch over to a not-for-profit model like that of National Public Radio, Carr said, "I don't think dot-org life looks all that grand to me." Though he complimented the work produced by NPR, Carr said that he didn't like that they have to "kiss up to Congress."
To Carr, the inherent value of Times lies in its business model; as a for-profit model, he believes they don't have to answer to anyone, and because of that, they "will look after their own."
On the Chicago Tribune, which he wrote a 4000-word piece on at the height of its controversy in 2010, Carr merely said, "Those guys...", before trailing off to audience laughter (That piece was partially based off of work done by WBEZ's former blogger Robert Feder). He voiced concerns about the tactics of news organizations like the Tribune to "roll bodies out the back of the truck" when faced with financial strife, instead of cutting spending elsewhere.
And despite the fact that his own paper has introduced a paywall, Carr was less than enthusastic about the idea being implemented by smaller papers, like the Daily Herald. Throughout the recession, he said he has seen community papers continue to do well and national papers survive, while the middle-sized media organizations suffer. For these smaller papers, creating too many paywalls divides the world into "information haves and have-nots", argued Carr.
Ultimately, Carr was optimistic about the future of media. He talked about his kids' use of the internet ("I don't know how they know what they know, but they know a lot"), and said that though newspapers have gotten dumber, "there are many exceptions."
"We're all in the content business," said Carr, to whom there doesn't exist a line between radio, television and print. His only truly negative comments? Towards aggregator sites:
"[They're] a pilot fish on this whale. Why would you wish for the death of the host? You'll have to make some phone calls."