Interview: David Carr

David Carr helmed alternative weeklies in Minneapolis and Washington and wrote for various magazines before joining The New York Times several years ago.

David Carr helmed alternative weeklies in Minneapolis and Washington and wrote for various magazines before joining The New York Times several years ago.

Today, he reports and writes a weekly media column, in addition to the "Carpetbagger" blog, which covers the movie industry's awards season.

PRWeek: Why did you get into journalism?

David Carr: I thought it sounded cool. And I turned out to be right.

PRWeek: How is it working at the New York Times versus at an alt-weekly? Can you still express yourself as much?

Carr: I think I express myself far too much. I don't feel limited by the bandwidth of discourse at the New York Times. I think it's made me a better writer, a more serious writer. Between doing general assignments, culture writing, a business column and doing a blog, I get to write a bunch of different ways. My editor in culture is out of alt-weeklies—Sam Sifton, he's from the New York Press… there's been a rolling, sort of organic development of what constitutes a New York Times writer, and thankfully it's expanded enough to include the likes of me.

PRWeek: How well do you think the newspaper industry, and the Times in particular, is adapting to the current economic situation?

Carr: A couple years ago, [Times publisher Arthur] Sulzberger started talking about secular change in the industry, which is sort of ‘secular as opposed to cyclical.' That's the kind of stuff CEOs say, but as it turned out it's true in profound ways. I think print, because of its file size, was the first to be disrupted in a real basic way by digital media, with music following with the fatter file, and video with still fatter files. The only difference, at bottom, for most industries is the size of their files. [As far as] the overall [newspaper] industry, I was looking at Romenesko yesterday; I find those headlines frightening. It's different than covering other sorts of industries that are going through these tectonic changes, because I know a lot of these changes are landing on people that I know. And young journalists that I trained at the Washington City Paper confront the kind of career uncertainties that I never did. There was always one more job. And when these large media organizations, whether magazines or newspapers, start cutting from the bottom based on seniority, they're going to end up turning out a lot of the next generation of talent. And I find that frightening.

The newspapers operate with two pedals: one is consumer revenues, one is advertising revenues. And historically, newspapers, and especially the New York Times, have been able to push on those levers. When ad dollars were slow to get more out of the consumer on the circ side; or, leave circ alone and push the ad rates a little bit. Those pedals have lost compression, so there's far less operational stability.

What I've noticed in magazines is that the magazines that are in the middle—that deal in information that can be easily replicated and put online, or replaced by unbranded content—are in a lot of trouble. [But] if you look at, I don't know, Condé Nast, it's doing pretty well. I would hate for publishing to be a business built on a niche called ‘Rich people who read.' But there is a segment of the population that requires a corporeal artifact of branded journalism. And the Times—I guess on a stock level it hasn't performed well, but on the circ side, it's done pretty well, and maintained ads pretty well—and I'd like to think that if the leadership makes the right move, they'll figure out a niche business that just happens to number in the millions.

PRWeek: Do you think all the print jobs that are disappearing will get picked up on the web side, or do you think those jobs will disappear for good?

Carr: I can't tell. I would really like to know that, because I have a daughter at Madison, and she brought up journalism school the other day. And I thought, ‘what advice am I going to give here?' Obviously I want her to pick up all sorts of skills, and be able to report and create information in all sorts of different ways, but I just want to make sure that there's going to be a place for her to land. So I do not know the answer. As the industry reconfigures, I know that there'll be some significant frictional pain. Does that end up being a much smaller business? Probably, but I was talking to Floyd Norris, who's a business columnist, [and] his theory is that in order for us to have a robust, well-staffed Baghdad bureau, which is a very expensive thing, that the consumer has to participate on some level. And going forward, is that micropayments [on the website]? Who knows what it is? Others disagree, but I do think Floyd is onto something.

PRWeek: So they have to find a way to get money off the web that's comparable to the money they're losing from the web these days?

Carr: I guess so. To me, there are models out there. I think that iTunes was an example of a simple, easy user interface, combined with payments that people find easy to digest, and a device that makes that media easy to access. I lost any interest in stealing music the minute I could pretty much get what I wanted on the web, and pay what I viewed as a legitimate fee. So I do think that that's something worth looking at.

PRWeek: In terms of political reporting, do you think the rise of blogs and Fox News have changed the way the Times approaches it?

Carr: I gotta say, I think that stuff is good for our business. Because it's this endless sort of viral marketing, whether people are taking a stick to our reporters or defending them. Our political coverage is the subject of constant discussion, annotation, promotion. You see it everywhere out on the web. And our own political blogs [are] fairly robust. I just think that's a space we're going to continue to play in, and play well in. The web, when it comes to politics, is such a polarized place, that third-party information, information independently gathered and reported to a certain standard, I think has real and enduring value.

PRWeek: Do you think that journalism's economic hard times mean that the PR industry stands to gain more power in the media equation?

Carr: Journalism and advertising are a little more out of position than PR. PR is about being in the conversation, and as long as PR firms stay nimble enough to know where the conversation is occurring and where the touch points are for being part of that conversation, it's a little easier to adapt.

As, metabolically and functionally, [journalism] changes, the chances of either error or getting spun, I think, increase.

PRWeek: Do the new blogging and video tasks make your job harder, or are you enthusiastic about them?

Carr: I'm very enthusiastic about having a job. And I mean that. I'm really grateful to be working…in the union terms, they would say it constitutes a ‘hurry-up,' and in technical terms, I suppose it is. None of it cash-flows, none of it means more money. But when it comes to us, our newspaper being there for whatever the future ends up being, I'm totally into that. I'm happy to get in the boat and row. I don't feel like I'm getting duped. Everybody is having to work really hard, and think in remarkably different ways—on the marketing side, on the circ side. I'm not being asked to do anything different than anybody else in the organization. And the editors are really thinking about this stuff. I got a note from leadership this week about the videos, and I just thought, ‘Oh my god, they're actually looking at this stuff and worrying about this stuff.' So it doesn't feel marginal. And the thing is that, at a place like the New York Times, almost everybody works really hard all the time anyway. When I first went to work there, I asked the guy who hired me, ‘What are my hours going to be like?' And he started laughing! He said, ‘You're going to work a lot. That's what your hours are.' And he was right.

As a media columnist—and I was reluctant to take on a media column, just because I'd been writing about media for a long time, and was doing general assignment reporting and enjoying it a lot—as it turns out, no better time to cover media. And it's not because of deal flow, it's because of platform flow. You have networks coming up off of 15-year-old business models; radio's being challenged by non-broadcast alternatives; movies wondering if their files are going to be shrunk to downloadable size, and whether they should look at [different release models] as a result. These are incredibly dynamic times, and as a media columnist, it's not like ‘Oh, what am I going to write about?' There are targets of opportunity everywhere you look. Of course, I inhabit that industry, and I've got to try to hop from lily pad to lily pad until I'm done. There's a lot of pain and misery out there, and some of it's being felt by people I know. But the story itself—and as journalists we always go with the story—it's a great story. It's an epic story.

PRWeek: Any words of advice to PR people?

Carr: A fax is a very reliable technology. To call me and say, ‘Did you get my fax?' The answer is always yes. E-mail, same way. Very reliable technology. The PR people that do best with me are the ones who don't call about the misdemeanors. I understand that people are paid for the number of times and the number of contacts they make. But if I don't hear from somebody for a while, and they call me and say, ‘I've thought about this, and I think that this is something that will work for you,' I'm always going to listen to them, as opposed to the person who's calling me every time there's a new EVP at Schmeckler Inc.

I think, given the velocity of our business, moving on busy media people with some sort of strategic sense is all the more important. Everybody's hair is on fire. Don't put up a bunch of clutter there, just so you've got billable hours. Every industry that I've covered, I've always ended up having a couple of flacks that I come to rely on and trust. And they share the same characteristics: they never lie; they don't just call you when it's about them; they're interested in seeing their business covered in comprehensive ways. In other words, they'll call you about a story that may or may not intersect with their client's interests. And when a tough topic comes up—and it always will—they never duck. They go right at it. There's just as happy to hear from you when things ain't great as when it's a nice friendly story. They don't change. [Others], the minute they have some tough information to deal with they go fetal, and don't return your calls back.

You know, life is long. I'm still dealing with people I was dealing with 12 years ago. And so having transactions that have integrity on both ends makes a difference.

The same for reporters; if you're the type of person who does a story and is happy to throw a grenade over your shoulder, pretty soon, you're not going to have much room to work.

Name: David Carr

Title: Media columnist and reporter

Outlet: The New York Times

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