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NY Times’s David Carr: Never Been A Better Time To Be A Journalist


Two years ago the dramatic decline in advertising revenue and the ascent of online media combined to create a financial maelstrom that brought down one regional newspaper after another. Across the board, the situation for newspapers was so dire that the inconceivable began to seem highly plausible: That the New York Times might actually fold. Criticizing the Times establishment is a fun and important American pastime, but with so many other newspapers crumbling, the Times has increasingly become the nation’s most robust and important investigative news organization. But in 2009 the Times was acutely imperiled, and filmmaker Andrew Rossi (Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven) just so happened to be inside its costly new offices with the cameras rolling. (Check out the trailer below.) Gaining unprecedented access to the Times’s editorial process, Rossi followed around a group of reporters covering the media for the paper. If you’re at all curious about how the New York Times newsroom functions, Rossi’s film, calledPage One, is an immersive ride—and one that takes place during a critical moment in the institution’s history. Rossi’s willing subjects included David Carr, a veteran reporter and author of Night of the Gun, a brutally honest memoir about his journey from drug addict to Times reporter and devoted father. We recently spoke with Carr about the film (which opens at Angelika and Lincoln Center tomorrow), journalism, and blogging. So, I saw Page One and I found it very interesting! I assume you’ve seen it too? I’ve seen it a couple times, once when Andrew [Rossi] showed it to us and then I sat through at either Sundance or South By Southwest. I haven’t watched it since, but yeah, I know the movie. Did you have to think twice about letting a camera crew into your work process? It’s weird, we were at Le Cirque the other night and Le Cirque is where it started, because Andrew was making a movie about Sirio Maccioni and the Maccioni family reopening Le Cirque. I was there doing video and a story, so I ended up with a bit part in his movie. We started to get to know each other and then I saw him at whatever big documentary fest in Raleigh-Durham—the biggest one, Full Frame. We got to be kind of friends, and he was interviewing me for a web 2.0 or 3.0 doc; I think it was something he was gonna do for HBO. And he decided, “I want to do the media meltdown and I will do it by shooting over your shoulder while you do your job.” And I said, well, that’s fine, Andrew, why don’t you ask my bosses about that, thinking that they would say no right away. And they didn’t. I don’t know how he got by them. Then he was with me full-time for like 4 or 5 days and I was like, “You know what, I am gonna lose my marbles if you are with me all the time. Why don’t you see if you can get other people involved on the media desk?” Then he branched out and it was easier. When he was with me all the time, it was like, “You’re going to get your story, but I’ll never get mine.” If you want to signal to people that you’re a jerk, just have a camera come in behind you. It’s just not conducive. He is a very good person, and a very serious journalist. And I knew I wouldn’t like everything that was in the movie and I don’t. What was one thing you didn’t like? When we were in Minneapolis, he talked me into doing a something on this bar where I got busted a hundred years ago for coke. I would’ve never showed him that. We were eating dinner with a friend of mine and my friend said “Hey, you know David, he got busted right over there. You should make him show you that.” And, like all filmmakers, he just has a way of kind of nudging you and talking you into stuff that you wouldn’t want to do. Did you or anybody at the Times have a final veto on anything? Nope. He said he would have a discussion with us afterwards, but we had no approvals. I had some legal concerns about names that were visible on my Tribune reporting and he addressed those. But, I gave him a few of my ideas for what I thought would help this thing a little bit, and he happily ignored them along with every other suggestion he got from the Times. What is your general reaction to the film? I can’t believe how good it is. I write about the media all the time, and it seems like such a worked over, sort of boring topic. The weird thing is he is filming in an office with people typing on computers, wearing headsets. What about that says movie? Nothing. I didn’t think it would be a very good documentary, let alone…I think he turned it into kind of a movie movie. It’s exciting to watch. I would have never predicted that. I don’t know how he did it. I wish I could do it with the media writing I do. We screened it at UCLA a couple weeks ago, or for a UCLA audience, and the kids were so into it. And I thought, well, god, none of you even read a newspaper, why would you care about a movie about a newspaper. But they did! I don’t know, it surprised me. I do like how episodic it is. There are these little stories that make up a bigger picture. You either buy into that or you don’t. He has gotten epic, really good reviews but, some people said he tried to cram 10 lbs. of flour into a 2 lb. bag. I like that it jumps around. I like that it doesn’t follow continuity. I like that you’ve got Arango going to Baghdad and Stelter doing Wikileaks and NBC turning in a non-story. It very much reflects newsroom culture. It’s more exciting than what I do, but, my favorite part in the movie is when Stelter is typing away on his Wikileaks story and Bruce [Headlam, media desk editor] says, “You sent this story?” And Brian says, “Yeah I sent it.” You can see him typing while he’s saying that, he’s typing his ass off, “Yeah! Yeah, I sent it!” And Bruce just pivots and says, “He’s lying.” I think that embodies newsroom culture, which is one guy, Stelter, is trying to make it as good as he can as fast as he can and the other guy is trying to make sure that it ends up in the paper in an efficacious way. And, it gets at the tension and the glory that a newspaper occurs in the space between people. What is the value that the New York Times brings in a very speeded-up web age? It’s that we don’t just push the button, that we do pause that we do discuss. So, the fact that editors have a significant role in the film is reflective of what I experience every day at the paper. I am a reporter with a lot of ideas. Some of them are good, other ones… I just think that something that points out the value of editing in this media age is cool. It’s a smart way to go. The cameras are rolling during a particularly turbulent time for the newspaper industry and the New York Times. And people are freaking out. What is your sense of the health of the Times now, compared to when Page One was shot? I think it is a lot calmer. That’s part of the reason why Bill Keller decided to step down when he did. I wrote him a note and told him of all the things he accomplished—and they’re significant. He pulled us across kind of a Death Valley, business-wise. He maintained the footprint of the newsroom. He expanded the reach on the web. He prosecuted two wars that were extensive to cover. The fact that he stepped aside when he did was really smart. Because, you have to think, that when he got handed the baton it was on fire. Editorial credibility of the paper was in question. And then almost immediately, very significant business stuff happened. I am not saying that, oh everything is going to go tickety boom now. But we’re paying back Carlos Slim early. Our quarterly numbers seem decent, not great. And the pay wall seems like it is sort of on plan. It’s a nice place to go to work right now. It’s not juicy. We are watching expenses really carefully, and you have to get all kinds of approvals. It’s not like the old days when it’s just a chocolate factory and you did whatever you want but it’s not so grim as the newspaper you see in the movie. When you were just mentioning that you don’t just push the button, it reminded me of the part of Page One when Nick Denton [Gawker publisher] is talking about the “monolith,” and he relates this anecdote about the time he told an Albany reporter how the board emphasizes page views above all else, and the Albany reporter was mortified. And my question is, do you think Gawker’s extreme focus on page views is something that the Times could benefit from? I do think that there has been a sharing of best practices across old and new media. Gawker has learned over time that news is what moves the needle. We’ve always had our own version of the big board: most emailed, most blogged, most viewed. But it’s a little different than Gawker’s. Nick has sort of re-programmed his site, and I see this on HuffPo now, where it looks a little more like TV. There’s one great big image, the primary story, then other stuff underneath it. I don’t think that would be a good way for us to go. I do think that you’re always going to see some kind of ordered hierarchy of 7 to 10 stories, either in the newspaper or on the front of our front page and that we end up serving a different purpose in that way. If we turned out into that sort of heat-seeking missile and followed audience wherever it went, it probably wouldn’t be the best use of all the reporters that we have. We have always sort of mixed the brussel sprouts next to the ice cream. You want something sweet and something nutritious. I read a story on the Sudan this morning. I don’t really know much about the history of war in the Sudan, but I think it was important and good that I read it and that I am not completely stupid on the topic. As you may recall, my boss was getting ready to participate in a panel discussion on new media at the Times, around the beginning of 2010. And he wrote a statement about a lot of things, but one was this concept of blogs curating news and information. Do you think there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the New York Times and blogs? Or are blogs seen as really parasitical by the Times? It depends on the method and style of aggregation. For a long time, the Huff Post grabbing the four most relevant paragraphs from our work and putting it out there and putting a link, at the time. I think they have improved over time. I think Gawker and Gothamist have always been a lot more fair in terms of adding some thoughts on top of a thought or a link from our place. But I did think that Jake is being… I mean, if you go back and read what he wrote, all you gotta do go through Gothamist and look what would happen if we didn’t have a City Room bumping out stories for him link to, he’d be screwed. Some of the reporting on Gothamist is original, but there is an ongoing negotiation that is all part of the ecosystem of news and I think we are finding more common ground. I think that the dichotomy between old and new media is sort of a false one, especially if you start to look at stuff on an iPad. Everything sort of looks the same. The BBC looks like Reuters looks like NPR looks like the Times looks like Gothamist. Everybody’s got some video, everybody’s got some audio, got text and pictures. I think the days of when we think about ourselves as competing with the Wall Street Journal are over. There’s this trans-media that is just a big blog of media and we are trying to fight through that clutter along with everybody else. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to have a career in journalism at this point? Yeah, that it’s never been a better time, actually. If you look at the tools that get put in your hand… You’re writing a story and I say that I think our quarterly numbers look good, you say, ‘I think I’ll check that out,’ and you can do so in 10 seconds. If you don’t remember the vibe of the movie, you can immediately dial up the trailer. If you chose, you could end up putting up this conversation in MP3. Those are all things that were not happening when I came in. I have more firepower in my backpack in terms of technology than the first newsroom I walked into. It depends on the training they’re getting, but the guys at the CUNY school, the entrepreneurial journalism school, they are building their jobs as they go. To me, there is an ad problem on the web. So much of the advertising looks so crappy and it’s so cheap. But I think that is going to get figured out over time. My advice would be you’ve gotta make things. You’ve gotta build things. You can’t say, I’ve got a clip from my college newspaper. There’s gotta be a travelogue that you did with your pals from Bonnaroo. There’s gotta be an audio file that you made. I used to hire people all the time when I worked at weeklies, young people, and if they were coming now I would just say, well, show me what you’ve made with your own two dirty little hands. I don’t really care what you say, I want to see what you’ve done. It’s a time when you can make stuff so much more easily. Now, getting that stuff to rise above the clutter, and getting it seen is a battle, getting paid for it on top of it, yeah, that’s another battle. But, if you look at the version of the New York Times that Bill Keller handed off, the paper has probably never been better. The depth and texture of the reporting, a lot of it has been enabled by technology. We can see and hear things in a way that…even conflicts that we are not right up on, we can listen in on Twitter, we can find people that way. I think it’s a pretty good time to be in the business.
Contact the author of this article or email tips@gothamist.com with further questions, comments or tips.


By John Del Signore in News on June 16, 2011 12:55 PM 1View