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David Carr on alt-weeklies, phone apps and all things media

The New York Times’ culture and media columnist has a particularly acute radar for shifting currents in the news game.

David Carr: "People don’t care about newspapers. I write about newspapers all the time, and if I put the word 'newspapers' in the lead of a column, that thing dives like a rock."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

A lot of ground has been covered since David Carr and I first met at the alternative weekly Twin Cities Reader (RIP) back in the early ’80s. Now the New York Times’ culture and media columnist, with arguably the most influential voice on the media in daily journalism, Carr, 56, has a particularly acute radar for shifting currents in the news game.

While in New York recently, and before we met up with our wives for dinner, we talked in the Times’ bright and spacious cafeteria.

Days earlier, the iconic Boston Phoenix had shut down after a 50-year run. It was one of the standards for the alt-weekly sensibility now in evidence everywhere on the Internet. I asked Carr if he saw any new portents in the collapse of a publication with such a deep-rooted heritage, or if it was the same familiar death spiral?

David Carr: It’s all about the bundle, in that game. The sex ads go with the bar ads. We found this out in punishing ways when I was at the Reader. The big and little all go together. The story is familiar. Craigslist wipes out the rental ads. The snark overlay on current events is now ubiquitous. You see the arms getting torn off. The legs getting torn off. And look at the distribution categories. They’re given away at record stores. Oops.

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Jack Shafer had the piece you want to read. It was beautiful. But a guy at the Nieman [Journalism] Lab took a shot at us for playing it down at the bottom of page one, and I said, “Get real. If people really cared about that newspaper it wouldn’t be dying.”

The sort of semiotics of what you signal when you’re walking around with a weekly has gone from, “I’m a hip cat, to … “

MinnPost: “I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do with my weekend.”

DC: Yeah. [Laughs]. I’m not looking to see what I’m going to do. This is what I’m going to do.

MP: Carr has covered the devolution of Village Voice Media, which owns City Pages in the Twin Cities. I asked how this boded for them.

DC: Their hair is on fire. They’re glad it’s not them and they’re worried it is them. Their attempt to leverage all these disparate brands [VVM operated City Pages-like papers in 13 different cities] into a national ad network has not worked out. It’s too late.

But there are papers that are starting. There’s a new good weekly in Tulsa, called “This Land.” So it’s not completely over. And I think there’s a countervailing impulse to get into books and magazines as sort of artisanal efforts … .

MP: Is that why the Phoenix [competing with Boston Magazine] went glossy? For the “artisanal”?

DC: I thought it was a terrible mistake. People want something beautiful. but they don’t want glossy. I think that puts you in league with … other things. But look at what Dave Eggers did with Panorama. They also did a food magazine with David Chang from momofuku that was absolutely beautiful.

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MP: One of the takeaways from Shafer’s piece on the collapse of the Phoenix is how virtually all local publications are left chasing the restaurant scene for ad dollars.

DC: And those people are “no pay” and “slow pay.” Plus, here at the Times we were sitting on the biggest and richest data base about food in New York and New York magazine beat us to the punch in terms of organizing the information.

It isn’t about the manufacture of information, it’s about making it scalable and about organizing it to meet consumer needs.

One of things we did with our food that I thought was really smart was “The Sifty 50.” What 50 restaurants should you go to right now? I don’t want the universe. I don’t care if you’ve got the one where cross-dressing roller skaters serve you … whatever. I just want to have an answer when somebody asks me, “Where do you want to eat?”

MP: MinnPost is one of the few experiments in non-profit journalism demonstrating some legs. There’s also the Texas Tribune in Austin …

DC: I was just down there. I did Evan [Smith’s] TV showBut the thing they have that others don’t have is John Thornton. He’s the guy who came in on the white board with a business plan that works.

MP: And you believe it’s sustainable?

DC: Yeah, absolutely. Their conference business is significant and they made common cause with the dailies, so they’re doing well on distribution. They’re the only weekly we continue to do business with. Their early emphasis on databases was smart. That stuff is actually kind of sexy. People are constantly searching to find out how much their school superintendent makes, how much the bus driver makes.

MP: The conversation turned to AOL’s hyper-local Patch venture. (Carr remains unimpressed). Then to local dailies’ “local-local” push, seen by some, amid radical down-sizing of reporting staff, as a transparent ploy to grab local retail ad dollars.

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DC: The point is how do you deliver “usefulness.” [He pulls out his rubber-encased, hard-traveled iPhone]. How do you end up as a button on this phone? That is where we’re going. I pay for a lot of things on this phone. I have Spotify. I have Pandora. I have an app that’ll make the phone spin around by itself.

MP: You got to have that.

DC: You do.

MP: What happens when you put it in your pants? 

DC: I don’t want to go on record about that.

MP: The Pew people served up their annual State of the News Media survey and one of the things that stunned me was where they said 60 percent of the people surveyed said they’ve heard “little or nothing about the financial problems besetting news organizations.” 60 percent! Haven’t heard anything …

DC: I’m not surprised. Brian, I don’t get that. People don’t care about newspapers. I write about newspapers all the time, and if I put the word “newspapers” in the lead of a column, that thing dives like a rock. I’ve got to put Jesus, a gay dinosaur and puppy into a lead about newspapers to hold their attention.

MP: All I’m saying is that that, a) I was startled that 60 percent had no awareness of the problem and, b) that among otherwise smart, serious-minded, generally well-informed adults I know, they go glazey-eyed at the topic of the health of newspapers … . Complete indifference. Has no relevance for them.

DC: Well, I got to be honest. It bores me as well. If it’s what you want to talk about, fine. But it’s not what interests me.

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MP: I tell Carr the story about my oldest son, working for a TV station here in the Twin Cities and serving on a committee culling through scholarship applications, applications asking about the future of news. Only one of the pack of a couple dozen even mentions reaching outside traditional (diminished) news for new sources of credible information — the blogs of respected scientists and professors. Everything else is all about … the delivery. Via Twitter, via some app of some sort.

DC: My kids [he has three daughters] are always in narrative about what’s going. They don’t know how they know what they know. But they know what’s going.

I think the air has become ionized with information. It may not be as efficacious or as deep, but people know stuff, whether it’s the checkout line at the grocery story or a Facebook feed. It’s just that the harder stuff, about governance or state spending, where half our money goes, now has about half as many reporters covering it.

David Carr and Jill Rooney
MinnPost photo by Brian LambertDavid Carr on the subway with his wife, Jill Rooney.

MP: But is there a comfort level within traditional news organizations to reach out to credible sources like, as I say, professors, bona fide experts, to fill the gaps in serious news? Or is there another idea?

DC: A lot of the gaps are starting to get filled in. By public radio, by blogs [like MinnPost], by blogs that were only concerned with silly things in the past. Now you’ve got Grantland. You’ve got Gawker. There are serious sources of information in the vertical of almost any topic you want. Some of it is very well done.

The worry is as we go to more and more paid media models [via “pay walls”  and such] we are going to have more of the news elites, people who are really into and then everyone else who only deal in commodity information.

MP: In the documentary about the Times, “Page One,” in which Carr was a distinctive presence, his editor defends him to a PO’d subject of one of Carr’s stories, (in that case his semi-classic takedown of Sam Zell and the frat-boy executives of the Chicago Tribune company), by calling him “one of the most-fair-minded people I know.” So what, I asked Carr, does “fair-minded’ mean to him in journalistic terms?

DC: People in your stories shouldn’t be surprised by what pops up. There should be a congruence between your reporting and what you type. You worked with young writers, as did I, and you know that’s a challenge where they’re being all sweet and nice on the phone then go snakey at the keyboard. You have to give people an opportunity to defend themselves. When people are reluctant to talk, you have to call them and say, “You better put the nut cup on, because this is coming whether you want to … .” A lot of it is as simple as, “Could you justify this to your Mom?” You know what I mean?

MP: But it’s kind of the reverse that interests me. “Fair minded” has a primary obligation to the truth, which may require a level of aggressive questioning, even impertinence that I don’t see enough of. I read a lot of stories, and so often I wonder if the reporter even asked the basic, tough question I want answered?

DC: Well, I’ve certainly failed that test before, and I know what you’re talking about. The dilemma is always serving as a proxy for the people while you maintain access on the beat. Part of that is talking to flaks. I don’t want to hear their bullshit. I’m working on a story now about military courts in the context of this Bradley Manning stuff and tomorrow I’m going to have to make calls and listen to a lot of boilerplate; I don’t know if I see a point to that.

MP: In that vein I mention a piece John Reinan did recently here at MinnPost, on the startling run-up of public relations personnel “marketing” “news” and “messaging” simultaneous with the dramatic decrease in actual journalists, trying to cut through all the artful flak.

DC: It’s not just that there are more flaks managing fewer reporters it’s that the flaks themselves are becoming sources of information. Many brands are trying to go directly to their audience, which means wiping out the middle man, which is me and you. And it’s working.

MP: One of my favorite Carr conversations was a few years ago talking about the importance of journalists having “a High-Low game.” The gist of it, and I’ll hear from him if I get this wrong, is that coincidental with respect for the noble standards and aspirations of the trade and the folkways of the powerful and influential, is the need for a very real and current touch for the street and the way the greater public thinks and hears things. There are a lot of reporters who would be way beyond their comfort level in the back room at the legendary Moby Dick’s, much less able to have an informative dialogue with the clientele there.

DC: Hey, a lot of what happened to the alt-weeklies is that that kind of thing got baked in to places like this. They essentially won the battle and lost the war. So-called mainstream media outlets are like daily magazines now. The analytics are all baked in, they’re very conclusive in their writing. It’s a lot like we used to do.

MP: What I’m getting at is that there’s been a generational evolution in, well, vernacular, in the manner of presenting information. The ear of the consuming public today is geared for a different style of delivery, whether it comes off a smartphone, a newspaper or television, and it’s a mistake to consciously avoid it, to be too high-minded to accept it.

DC: I couldn’t agree more. Every time I write I’m trying to meet people where they live. I’m not trying to demonstrate the value of my indifferent education, and that I’ve picked up some five-dollar words along the way. I very much want to be on and about the conversation that’s going off right now. And yes we hold to the standards that have always applied.

MP: Outside the Times building, as Carr has a smoke, I tell him my most recent “Give Me a Damn Break” moment. This one is just the day before as I checked in at Gawker to see his photo, with film director Judd Apatow, under a headline trumpeting him, David Carr, the pride of Irish Hopkins, as “the daddy” of the hit HBO series, “Girls.” The story lays out his log-rolling service on behalf of the show’s young creator Lena Dunham, including linking her to Apatow. Carr is semi-chagrined.

DC: I am not the daddy of “Girls.” Like many people I am a huge fan. Brian, that was not a good moment.

MP: Really?

DC: Yeah. All the fanboys’ sycophantic tweets? You think that was good for me upstairs? Look, Gawker’s always working on how Lena Dunham got luckier than them, and they’re always going to point at me or some other schmuck as the one who made it happen.

I sent the guy who wrote it a note and said, “Here’s a theory of how she made it. She made something cool that people like and because of her age you guys can not get over it. It drives you insaaane!”