Dumenco's Media People

'Media Has Become a Kind of Reverse Roach Motel ...'

And Other Thoughts From New York Times Columnist David Carr on the Pursuit of Truth ... and What Happens Next

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In the New York media world, just about everybody knows New York Times media columnist David Carr. In a city, and a profession, filled with oddballs, well, I've never met anyone quite so odd. He's this intense, deeply charismatic, heart-on-his-sleeve sort of guy prone to initiating bear hugs and tossing off salt-of-the-earth bon mots that can feel like lost dialogue from "Fargo" (he's originally from Minnesota, dontcha know). He is, quite simply, lovable.

David Carr
David Carr
Which is why the release of his memoir, "The Night of the Gun," last summer came as something of a shock. Sure, lots of people who know David knew that he had a sketchy past replete with drug abuse (crack addiction), recovery, relationship troubles, etc. But "Gun" tells in brutal detail just how improbably ugly (and even violent) his dark years had really been (complete with arrest record). What makes the book particularly fascinating, though, is that it's not only an addiction memoir, it's something of a treatise on the very nature of reporting and the pursuit of truth. It's tantalizingly subtitled "A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own." David went back and interviewed all the people who knew him in his wild years so he could piece together his own story not from memory but from actual reporting.

I've known David since 2001, when we were co-workers, both writing about media at Inside.com. (After Inside.com folded, he briefly became a contract writer at New York magazine, where I was also on contract, so we nominally became colleagues a second time.) Our friendship is what's kept me from writing about David and his book until now. (Before it was published -- when it was still a Microsoft Word document -- David asked me to read it and give him my thoughts.) But this week "Night of the Gun" has been released in paperback -- and I thought it a good time to revisit the book and the media world's reaction to it, and also to talk with David about what's been happening to media in general and specifically The New York Times.

In this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People -- a regular series of interviews with media grandees -- I conducted an early-morning interview, via Skype, with David, who was still at home in Montclair, N.J. We could see each other in grainy Skype video, and for the first minute or so of our conversation, I feared that David was foaming at the mouth. But it turned out to be scallion cream cheese from the bagel he'd been chomping on.

Simon Dumenco: So you've got the paperback right there?

David Carr [holds the paperback of "The Night of the Gun" up to the camera]: Yeah, and there's a Stephen King quote. He says it's beautiful and horrifying. [The blurb in full: "Anyone who knows now or ever has known the addictive and ultimately deadly affections of booze and dope will be moved and shaken -- as I was -- by this beautiful, horrifying memoir. David Carr has summoned everything that matters about the loaded gun of substance abuse."]

Dumenco: Oh, wow, that will give you a nice sales kick right there. That's awesome. OK, let me ask you this. Last time we actually talked about the book it was maybe a month before the hardcover was coming out. We talked about it over dinner. I remember your nervousness about how the book would be received, just in general but also specifically by your colleagues. How did it change your relationship with people at the Times, if at all?

Carr: I think everybody did really well with the book except me. I mean, if you remember, Simon, it was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine [the magazine ran a long excerpt before publication] and it was six of my mugshots, and so that did make for, like, a tangy elevator ride the next day in terms of, like, the people in that elevator knew more about me than I knew about them. But my friends remained my friends, my frenemies remained my frenemies, and if I have any enemies, they haven't declared themselves. The weird thing is my bosses didn't seem to care that much. Jill Abramson [managing editor of the Times] was the only one I talked to a bunch about it, and she told me that the book and the process of going out on publicity would make me a better reporter, and she turned out to be right.

Dumenco: How so?

Carr: There are two kinds of reporters that I experienced. One was people that just showed up, asked a lot of questions, wrote down what I said, and then went and wrote a story about my answers and what they knew. And then there was another version of reporter that showed up, made a speech about what my book was about, made a number of assumptions about why I wrote it, asked me a few questions and then went and wrote what they thought. And I've always, I think, had tendencies toward the second kind of reporter. The people who just came and asked questions, their stories were 10 times better, and I gotta say that had a profound effect on me. I don't need to make a speech before I start in on a story. I don't need to explain what I think. I need to find out what the other person knows and then write it up. I need to show more curiosity about the matter at hand, and less authority.

Dumenco: You know, my feeling about your press coverage is that everybody was so transfixed by the basic storytelling -- the basic narrative arc of your life -- that I felt like the "meta" aspect of it sometimes got a bit lost, by which I mean: Here is this guy who's a newspaperman at one of the world's great journalistic institutions, and he's written a book about how tricky the pursuit of truth really is.

Carr: The thing is, I think it's always remarkable to cut to the tape and see what people actually said. Yesterday I interviewed four people together about the same event, and you could tell they all remembered events very, very differently. Reporters get stuck on the idea that there is a single, objective truth. As an editor I always knew better. [Carr was editor of Washington's City Paper, among others.] Once you're one step removed and you're not the eyewitness, then you understand that things wobble and segment, sort of, according to their own agenda, and it doesn't necessarily reflect what actually happened.

Dumenco: The reality is that you did a lot of sketchy things in your past. So of course you were nervous about how your present-day friends and colleagues would react.

Carr: I had reason to be nervous. A lot of people did not like the guy in the book, and even though he ended up like getting custody of his kids and taking care of them, they were sort of focused on, um, how absolutely horrible I had been to everybody in my life -- and I'm not used to that. I think of myself as a nice person.

Dumenco: Let's segue a bit to the larger media world, and your reporting on it, and the nature of truth -- perception vs. reality -- in the media world itself. Because just over the past year or so, it's been amazing how much your New York Times column has changed, how much your beat has changed. Like the whole death-of-newspapers thing that's become a recurring theme in your column.

Carr: Well, if you're asking if I was surprised, the answer is yeah. In terms of the wholesale collapse -- the combination of secular and cyclical changes, to the point where the question is not who will survive but will the whole thing burn down and be replaced by something else? -- I did not anticipate that. I find it shocking.

I think one thing that people do not understand is, as recently as four or five years ago, to be a member of Manhattan media, you weren't rich, but you lived as a rich person might. You went to the parties that a rich person would go to, you ate the food that a rich person would eat, you drank the vodka that a rich person would drink, and you'd end up in black cars, and you'd end up sometimes on boats and in helicopters. We lived as kings, and it convinced us, I think, that there was a significant underlying value to what we did. And I think we're finding out now that the real, actual value of journalism in the current economy is not that high, and that what the dot-com bubble did and Tina Brown and others did to boost the value of journalism and writing to the point where some people were being paid $5 a word -- well, I think there are a lot of people right now, really talented people, who are working for 50 cents or a dollar a word, and you know what? It's pretty hard to make a living doing that.

So that's one tier, and the other tier is I feel as if media has become a kind of reverse roach motel, in that once you're out, you're probably not coming back in.

Dumenco: Talk to me about the Times' new Media Decoder blog.

Carr: We took Brian Stelter's TV Decoder and made it Media Decoder. We don't need more blogs at The New York Times. We need -- this is just my opinion -- fewer blogs that are denser. I didn't want a new blog, and I didn't want a blog under my own name, and I just think Brian Stelter is such a remarkable example of a sort of new breed of reporter.

Dumenco: I love Stelter. When he started at the Times, I took him out for a beer because I admired what he was doing, and I remember saying to him that he should get to know David Carr. I remember saying something like, "Don't be intimidated by David Carr," because there's always the Legend of David Carr that precedes you. Stelter's sort of a freak of nature in terms of his productivity, his output, isn't he? He has the metabolism of a blogger, but he has kind of the professional chops to be an actual old-school newspaper guy.

Carr: He's industrious, but a lot of it is about durability. I just went through a cycle of Oscars with, I did the Monday media column, I did a Friday thing on the Oscars, I did some Arts and Leisure stuff, I made daily videos, weekly videos, and then I did occasional news coverage. I got done with Oscar season, I'm 52 years old, and I don't think I really did anything good or important for like three weeks or a month afterwards. I was exhausted.

Dumenco: You had to recover.

Carr: But everybody is having to move into sort of campaign metabolism. Have you ever worked on a campaign?

Dumenco: No, but I know what you mean.

Carr: All they do is wash their clothes and plug in their equipment and occasionally sleep with each other. That's it. And drink a lot. But they're go, go, go, go, go, and it seems to me, going forward, a lot of it is gonna be like that.

Dumenco: When you talk about your down period of recovering, post-Oscars, well, [Gawker Media chief] Nick Denton would have fired you by then, if you were working for Denton instead of the Times. I mean, if your page views were down that much for three or four weeks, if you weren't keeping up.

Carr: I think that's a great insight on your part, and it would have been nothing personal, but he would have said, "Look, that's not built into our model to have you go and do a little walkabout to get straightened out." So that's what great about The New York Times, but that's what makes Nick very difficult to compete with.

Dumenco: To bring this back to your book, you're in this surreal situation of being this guy who's documented in book form, you know, the multiple, improbable acts of your life. And now you're a columnist who writes about the media, which sort of forces you to contemplate additional acts. I mean, do you feel like you're a guy who's writing his own obituary, professionally?

Carr: If I didn't fundamentally believe in The New York Times building and leveraging its way through, I couldn't stick with it. I think the fact that we've got 20 million uniques, 3 million of whom are there all the time, that's gotta be a business. Part of what I wonder about is people keep saying, "Well, when things get better ..." What if the combination of secular and cyclical change that we have -- what if this is normal? What if all the money that was sloshing around was in fact from the housing bubble, from easy credit, and that credit does not return? I think that's a much more difficult and scary problem. I haven't seen the money coming back yet.

Dumenco: Yeah, I don't think it's coming back. Certainly a lot of the sloshing within media was just the pure, unadulterated monopoly money -- monopoly-power money, which is gone or going away.

Carr: Who benefited from that monopoly? It wasn't just the owners. I do think that it turned journalists -- I mean, we're basically, at my level, I mean, there are artists of the craft at the place I work, but I'm basically I'm a really hardworking hack. And I think that there's a question about whether, in the period going forward, whether I get to live in Montclair, whether I get to help my kids go through college, whether I get to drive the Ford Explorer. If I don't work for an organization that has some monopoly power to leverage pricing, maybe I end up not having all this.

Dumenco: Do you see yourself retiring as a Timesman?

Carr: [long pause] I could answer that question a lot better, like, three years ago. Now I can't predict.

Dumenco: David, that was a really long pause.

Carr: Yeah. It's like, what will The New York Times be? Will they need me? Will they want me? I just think things are gonna be shifting rapidly. They make it clear that in the current paradigm they value what I do, but I think things will change very rapidly.

Dumenco: It's grim. OK, David, let's stop talking about this.

Carr: Don't do super grim. Get some light notes in there, baby.

Dumenco: Of course. Through the miracle of editing, I will make it sound like we still have a reason to live.

Carr: Yes, please. You know what, though? I gotta say, you've gotten better looking as the interview has progressed. Is that because you're waking up?

Dumenco: How's that?

Carr: You're cute now.

Dumenco: I looked like hell earlier?

Carr: You did look like hell.

~ ~ ~
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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