David Carr Did Not Give Up the Secret Sauce

No silver bullet but NY Times guy still a helluva spokesman for new media

David Carr in the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times
David Carr in the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

New York Times media reporter David Carr is that rare bird: an old-school journalist who’s adapted with relish to the new media landscape.

He was on the University of Texas campus yesterday to deliver the 2012 Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture in Journalism, speaking on the subject of “Hitting the Reset Button.” The setting was fitting – the brand-spanking-new Belo Center for New Media on Dean Keeton. “Can you feel that new building smell?” he begun. “You don’t get that a lot in journalism.”

Carr brought his signature media savvy and salty-dog eloquence to the talk, which charted his transition from editing at alt-weeklies to reporting at The New York Times, where he first made a name as the Oscar season’s color commentator the Carpetbagger, further gained acclaim with his addiction memoir The Night of the Gun, became a sort-of new media don (bolstered by appearances at SXSW and in the doc Page One: Inside The New York Times), and, oh yeah, continues to produce incisive, insightful copy about media – old, new, and the hybrid many journalists are now settling into, sometimes uncomfortably.

He recalled the kind of magic he felt, in the old New York Times building, how his “butt would vibrate” at 10pm nightly when the first edition began to roll out three floors down at the printing press. But the old model is gone, along with romantic (or stale) notions of rough-and-tumble reporters huddled over a Selectric in the newsroom, a bottle of hooch at the ready. For starters, reporters don’t drink on the job anymore: “You open up their drawers, it’s actual office supplies in there,” he joked.

Logistically, he argued, the idea of the newsroom – of editors and writers physically grouped together, around the metaphorical “campfire” – is outdated. What should matter to an editor, he said, “isn’t how often you see [reporters in a newsroom], it’s how often you see their copy on [a variety of] platforms.”

And besides, he said, writers are so busy producing and consuming content – hour to hour, minute to minute – that “I’m already at work when I’m not at work.”

Of course, the very notion of a print product is increasingly seen as a dry rattle away from the autopsy table. He cracked wise, imagining describing the paperboy system to future generations:

“‘Used to take ‘em and just wing ‘em in people’s yards. And that’s how we got the news!’”

The Times has had its hiccups making the transition from exclusively print to a mix of print and online content, but it’s also been an innovator. Across the board, advertising revenue is down, and subscriber revenue is where a lot of prognosticators see the purse plumping. Carr talked about the Times’ initially controversial switch to paid subscriptions for web content. According to Carr, detractors said they were “drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat.” Instead, with the switchover – crucially coupled with a multimedia embrace of enhanced content (video) and platforms like Twitter and Facebook – the Times “isn’t drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat – we’re installing a new engine.”

He pointed to the online-only, Austin-based Texas Tribune as evidence of “green shoots,” applauding a three-year business plan and coordinated attack of sponsorships, events, and partnerships. Next, Carr singled out The Austin Chronicle, and here’s where I leaned in close, pen poised, thinking, This is it – he’s gonna cough up the silver bullet – how free alt-weeklies can monetize the web, too, without a subscription. But in citing our relationship to SXSW, which shares cofounders with the Chron but operates physically and financially as a separate institution, he seemed to share the popular misconception that SXSW sends buckets of money down laundry chute-style into Chronicle coffers. ‘Fraid not. (But we do happily let South by use our volleyball court.)

So, yes: No silver bullet forthcoming, but Carr did have plenty of sage observations about the changing climate: How the distinctions between a daily paper, a weekly, a monthly magazine, and a radio station are eroding, because they all live – and function – on the web in essentially the same way. How if home pages are no longer destination spots – and analytics have proven the majority of traffic comes by way of referrals, or “side doors” – then the ever-adapting newspaper must produce “sticky” content to keep readers bopping around the website, in the so-called rabbithole effect. (Carr cited the Times’ use of “related story” links, as well as embedded videos such as The Sweet Spot, a culture-cast he does with film critic A.O. Scott.) And how new media upstarts are filling their (metaphorical) newsrooms with seasoned reporters while old media is adopting the “tools of the insurgency.”

In short, the new hybrid. So often these talks amount to “old vs. new and never the twain shall meet.” Dispiriting stuff, usually, but Carr’s talk – even absent that ever-elusive silver bullet – was a cheering thing. Vive la revolution, eh?

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David Carr, new media, New York Times, Hitting the Reset Button, Belo Center for New Media, Night of the Gun, SXSW

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