A sold-out room full of media managers, working journalists and lesser mortals gathered on Sept. 13 to hear the musings of one David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times and author of the harrowing memoir The Night of the Gun.
The event was headlined Yes Genius, the Sky is Falling. So Now What? The format was a discussion between Carr and CBC Radio host Michael Enright, who called Carr’s book a master class on how a journalist should write about his or her own life.
The Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt had a lengthy Q-and-A with Carr that ran before the event – David Carr and journalism: old-media grampypants vs. new-media avatar.
Carr began working the media beat in 2005, about the time when advertising revenue started to seriously dry up for newspapers and new upstarts for the time and attention of the audience started appearing — Facebook and YouTube, to name two.
At 58, Carr admits he’s no digital native, but he’s personally taken to the tools of social media to build out his audience. He made that decision after attending a SXSW conference in which the news platform conversation was mainly taking part on Twitter.
“It was all just zinging over my head. And I came to believe that even if I don’t tweet, I have to follow,” he said.
He has more than 384,000 followers on Twitter (his handle is @carr2n — get it?) and another 100,000 subscribers on Facebook.*
* Carr likes Twitter more than Facebook because it doesn’t require reciprocity. Carr only follows 621 accounts on Twitter.
It is the flowering of digital media that had Carr arguing this is a “golden age” of journalism — despite the economic travails being suffered by such legacy brands such as the New York Times and the Guardian in England.
“The Internet has become a self-cleaning oven and mis-statements gradually move to more and more truth about them over time,” Carr said.
But paradoxically, he said earlier in the talk that while people watch signal events such as the recent Republican and Democratic political conversations in the United States, they quickly assemble back into “verticals of interest,” leading to a loss of a village common.
Another way to describe those verticals would be as quagmires of poisonous partisanship.
“If you want to go out on the Web and find out that our president is a Kenyan, you can find that out.”
The recent picture of U.S. President Barack Obama being bearhugged by a Florida pizza shop operator triggered some nasty comments, such as one person saying the pizza shop owner should have popped Obama like a zit.
“The comments, you have to wear goggles to go in there,” Carr said, adding this happens with any story he does that has vaguely political overtones, such as Fox News or Jon Stewart.
The lies and prevarications don’t just come from the netherworld of the Internet. They also come from from politicians and other public figures.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan came under scrutiny for some of the claims he made during his nomination acceptance speech.
Enright asked Carr if he would report a lie as a lie.
“Did people come away from the Republican convention unclear that some of the statements that Mr. Ryan said didn’t reflect a full engagement with the truth? No they did not,” Carr said.
Some want reporters to jump up in the middle and say “That’s a damned lie!” — but only do it to one side, he said.
The truth still requires amplification, and it must also be believed.
During the question-and-answer period, I asked Carr whether “believability” (see this Aug. 26 post, ‘Hive minds,’ partisan audiences and newsrooms) was a good metric for a news organization’s credibility, given that people are free to find nonsense believable.
Carr said many people feel entitled to their own facts. “They’re always sending you links to these nutter websites and saying, ‘See: It’s true. I found it on the Web,’” he said.
“I’ve never seen a time … where people are more willing to go and to find their own truth.”
This reinforcement of personal belief has driven some people so far down the hobbit hole of their own belief system that new information can’t reach them, Carr said.
Well, that would dispense of the need for mainstream journalism then, wouldn’t it?
Other notable points
Here are some other utterances and points of discussion and insight that came up during the session and that I noted on Twitter. You can browse the hashtag #cjfjtalk for more:
- Carr said one serious threat to established journalism is that people aren’t worrying about where they get their news from. Friends are becoming increasingly important news editors.
- “We don’t ‘give it whirl’ in the print edition” of NYT. Online, it’s about iterating, he said.
- Newspapers are packages: Of civic & social moments, and some that are just fun.
- We’re moving to a hybrid journalism model where both pros and amateurs will be both be contributing journalistically. The trick now is finding a business model, especially for regional newspapers, he said.
- The hidden cost of the always-publishing age is losing the time to think. Carr admitted he’s getting tired of constantly publishing to multiple platforms (video, print, blog, Twitter, Facebook)
Carr, like Internet thinker Clay Shirky, thinks the current downdraft in the newspaper business could mean grim times for accountability journalism.
“I live in New Jersey. We’re a game preserve for corruption,” he said, adding that buses are needed to haul off the officials accepting graft.
The local Star-Ledger newspaper will likely be coming out three days per week in the coming year instead of publishing seven days, he said.
“Pretty soon, who’s going to tell you about the school system? … The loss of accountability reporting, independently funded, I do think is going to create a need in people to where they’ll be willing to pay for that information.”
He noted that the NYT has a metered paywall and that the Globe will be launching one this fall.
But the numbers of people willing to pay will be smaller and therefore the resources available for accountability reporting proportionally reduced, Carr said.
“There’s going to be a huge dip and there’s going to be some misery” before sustainable models emerge, he said.
And if you don’t like that answer, go to another Carr talk in six months. As he noted, the answer to the question about the Future of Journalism is always changing.