David Carr’s golden age of journalism

A golden age of journalism? It’s not how some would describe newspaper closures, reduced print schedules and job cuts in the thousands. But to David Carr, it makes sense.

A golden age of journalism? It’s not how some would describe newspaper closures, reduced print schedules and job cuts in the thousands. But to David Carr, it makes sense.

“Depends on where you’re looking,” The New York Times media and culture reporter said. “The column I’m working on this week about packaging quotes, I Twittered out what I was up to, I set up a separate Gmail called quote approve, I sent emails to 40 of the best reporters I know … I’m going be able to check what people say against all known thought.

“I’ll probably make a video about it when I’m done and then I’ll Twitter out my column, I’ll have a chat with people about what’s doing, I’ll put a nice bad picture on my Facebook with, you know, a hundred thousand subscribers, I’ll carve my own route to the ocean, and so, I don’t know, that seems sort of golden to me.

“Right until I don’t have a job. Then that part’s bad.”

Carr was in Toronto Thursday night to speak with Michael Enright, host of CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition, at The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s J-Talk, “Yes, Genius, the Sky is Falling. So Now What?

Carr’s repeated references to Enright as “people like you” signified an optimism about new media that is more in line with the attitudes of younger, new-to-the-biz journalists who have grown up with these technologies and to whom multitasking is second nature.

Enright wondered about journalists’ ability to bring context to a story when they are constantly hammering out new content, and Carr called this “the hidden cost of the sort of media age that we live in.”

“What the editor wants to know is, ‘Can they crank? Can they crank on a variety of platforms? Can she get on the camera without projectile vomiting, can she type in full sentences, does she have a Twitter following?’”

Carr has immersed himself in these different platforms – joining Twitter (he now has more than 380,000 followers), producing a weekly video series called The Sweet Spot with the Times’ chief film critic A. O. Scott and writing for the Media Decoder blog.

But constantly being plugged in can wear down even the most experienced journalists.

“I’m really tired. I’ve done a good job of keeping up with the variety of skills that you need to be a journalist, but I’m not a digital native. I don’t consume and produce media at the same time,” said Carr, who has also worked for The Atlantic and New York Magazine and was featured prominently in the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times.

There are major differences among what you can do in digital and print, he says. “Again and again, in digital realms, it’s ‘iterate, iterate, iterate.’ Try stuff; see what works.”

For example, he initially set out recording a daily video in the basement of his house, but they just didn’t have the desired effect.

“I was looking into the camera, and you can almost smell the dead bodies in my basement,” Carr joked. “So we did it for 30 days and everyone who looked at it said, ‘These really suck.’ So we moved on.”

The point being, you can experiment with the Internet in a way you can’t with print products.

“We don’t ‘give it a whirl’ in the print version [of the Times],” Carr said.

Carr sees The Sweet Spot as a way to broaden the Times’ audience and reach people who may not be readers of the newspaper.

Enright questioned Carr on this – what about loyal readers of Carr’s print work who don’t care what he’s doing online (like Enright himself)?

“If all we do is satisfy your interests, we’ll be out of business when you die,” Carr said. “To say, ‘Yeah, let’s just feed people that look like me and you and see how that goes,’ that’s not going to work out very well.”

And, though it’s a golden age in his eyes, Carr acknowledges that there are still risks facing journalism.

“My kids know everything right? … If I tell them that our ambassador to Libya is dead, they’ll say, ‘I know.’ How do they know that? Did they get it off a zipper in Times Square, did they get it at grocery checkout line, did it come from the elevator, was it on their Facebook feed?

“There’s this whole burbling mass of news that’s like an ionized atmosphere that we move through,” Carr said.

“One of the existential threats to journalism is the fact that people don’t really care that much about where stuff comes from.” 

One of the tools responsible for this mass circulation of information is Twitter. Up until 2009, Carr didn’t use the site or hold it in much regard. That all changed when he went to South by Southwest in Texas.

“The entire sort of news platform was Twitter, and it was all just zinging over my head. And I thought, I have to enter the narrative, even if I don’t tweet, I have to listen and I have to follow.”

He calls it a “human-enabled RSS.”

“People on Twitter are constantly finding and pushing stuff, so instead of having RSS, I have all these humans out there searching. The best tweeters … are people who are tweeting out links over and over.”

In a Q&A with The Globe and Mail’s senior media writer Simon Houpt, Carr calls himself both “an old media grampy pants” and “a new media avatar.”

Fittingly, that description also applies to his anticipation of where media will go from here.

“Somebody has to make the phone calls. Somebody has to put in the shoe-leather. Somebody has to do it,” Carr said, though he added that he didn’t believe the future of journalism should be placed solely in the hands of old or new media.

“Old media is adopting the tools of the insurgency and moving more toward them. New media is beginning to get into the business of fact-checking, of thinking before they speak, of actually making phone calls,” he continued. “We’re moving toward a hybrid media that will be enabled by all these tools that we’re talking about.”

“The tougher part is: what’s the business model that will go with that?”

And to this dismay of anyone in attendance who hoped David Carr knew the secret to this 21st-century journalistic Holy Grail, the question remained unanswered.