“Cut Through the Niceties and Just Be Real”: Younger Journalists on What They Learned From David Carr


David Carr, the media columnist, heart and soul of The New York Times, and symbol of all that is great about journalism, passed away yesterday at 58 years old. He had just finished moderating a panel on documentary Citizen Four in Manhattan.

In the many tributes that have followed his death, certain words keep cropping up repeatedly. The most important one is “generous.” In his writing for the culture section, his creation of The Carpetbagger (the only time Oscar reporting has felt charming and fun), and his Monday column, “The Media Equation,” Carr’s work was notable for its vitality and its passion. He was engaged with everything, and if he cared about something and wrote about it, you cared too.

That generosity extended to younger journalists. At a time when “advice to young journalists” often amounts to essays about how the sky is falling, Carr was always willing to mentor and advise younger journalists, collaborating with people from all walks of life and creating a world in which new voices were heard. His own advice to aspiring writers, as evidenced in a Reddit AMA, was practical:

You have to make stuff. The tools of journalism are in your hands and no one is going to give a damn about what is on your resume, they want to see what you have made with your own little fingies. Can you use Final Cut Pro? Have you created an Instagram that is about something besides a picture of your cat every time she rolls over? Is HTML 5 a foreign language to you? Is your social media presence dominated by a picture of your beer bong, or is it an RSS of interesting stuff that you add insight to? People who are doing hires will have great visibility into what you can actually do, what you care about and how you can express on any number of platforms.

Journalism in the 2000s suffered from the industry’s indifference to and ignorance about the Internet, and newspapers hemorrhaged readers and market share as a result. Carr was never too good to engage directly with the world (a prolific tweeter, his voice surely helped cement Twitter as an important tool for journalists and the wider public alike), even from his perch at the place he helped to preserve as the paper of record.

He was a role model for many journalists, and he left a mighty wake. Considering his huge impact on the generations that followed him, it seemed appropriate to ask younger writers what they learned from Carr. Here is what they had to say:

As a media reporter, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the really granular, incremental, inside baseball. David told me to stay focused on the bigger picture. Good advice that will stick with me.

Joe Pompeo, Senior Reporter at Capital, where he covers media

Something I’ve respected is the way he treated the rising class of journalists coming up after him. Carr always seemed like a teacher — he wasn’t the sort of journalist who would tell younger generations that the job was impossible for them, he had an optimism for young journos that was realistic but exciting to hear.

Hazel Cills, freelance writer and Rookie staffer

Most days, I look back on my first few years as a reporter with a deep sense of head-grabbing, stomach-clenching shame, because I hadn’t yet learned what David Carr would eventually teach me: That the act of reporting was not about me. It was not about how smart and capable and competent my subject thought I was, nor was it about being some kind of robotic cipher who used “objectivity” to shield cowardice. Reporting, the way David Carr did it, was human and real. The man had strong opinions, and he didn’t hide them, but he always listened to people. Really listened to them. He didn’t care about “angles”; he cared about getting it right. More than that, even, he cared about moving through the world as a decent human being. That came through in every article he ever wrote. “Historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about,” he told NPR in 2011. “[As journalists], we’re people who just show up and declare ourselves instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very blunt-force guess about what’s going on, and I think it always behooves us to ask the people, especially if you’re aspiring to do something good, ‘What do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?'” I never met David Carr, and I am so sorry that I will never get to thank him for being a journalist who made me proud to do this work.

Bronwen Dickey, Contributing Editor at the Oxford American

Maybe one of the most important things I learned from David was not just about journalism but about character. He believed that the best way to help a young journalist grow was to cut through the niceties and just be real — though he was never so harsh to crush your spirits but gave a fair enough assessment to give you a reality check. He was the kind of person who didn’t have to help no-name journalists out but he did. Having him believe in you was one of the coolest feelings. I think one other thing I learned was that it is possible to be great and respected and even legendary without having an ego, and maybe that is the measure of being truly accomplished. Also, not to joke about being homeless or broke.

Nikki Layser, Assistant Professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and the author of Making News at the New York Times

David Carr’s work taught me that it is possible to exist within a very powerful institution while remaining skeptical of them.

Jenn Pelly, Associate Editor at Pitchfork

I first encountered David Carr’s work when The Night of the Gun was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine — though I just discovered that I’d inserted my sense of astonishment into the wrong time and place in my memory. (Let’s call that an ironic homage.) What amazed me was the work David did investigating himself, because he demonstrated, I think, the possibility of seeing one’s subject fearlessly and clearly without those qualities turning to a hard pitilessness. I think it’s easy for that to happen when we write about others and when we examine ourselves. (Neither resolves well.) I struggle to bring that sort of integrity and grace to both kinds of work — to hold that gaze, but with deep empathetic imagination. I’m so sorry he’s gone.

Jacqui Shine, Chicago-based writer and historian.