The two takes
Saturday, February 14, 2015
A video of the late David Carr smacking down an impudent editor from Vice showed up in my timeline at least a dozen times before 9 a.m. yesterday.
The clip, taken from the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times Newsroom, seemed to be a lot of folks’ favorite remembrances of Carr. It did capture his hard-hitting incisiveness pretty well.
Granted, I have a skewed sample in my Twitter feed. I follow a lot of journalists and people in the news industry on Twitter.
I’m also someone who thinks the entire newspaper industry needs a good Augean Stables-style cleaning to ever get over its dislike of the internet. I was struck quite differently by the video than most.
As one not shy to risk having a wrong opinion that I share immediately with the world, I fired off a snarky tweet.
Journalists jizz themselves over the clip when David Carr tells off the guys from Vice. But Vice is growing and the NYTimes is stagnant.
He wasn’t talking about growth. He was talking about quality. He was talking about roles. Guy admitted, “I’m not there to report.” – Jim Gilchriest
The 140-character limit of Twitter doesn’t allow nuance, so I thought I’d flesh out my idea a bit more. I’m less interested in parsing the video for deeper meanings than for people’s gut, immediate reactions to it.
I’ve been involved in consumer research lately, and one of the more interesting aspects is studying how people react to situations emotionally first and then come up with intellectual justifications later. A person might say, for instance, that they bought a new computer because they could use it for work and it was an investment in their future.
But if you question them properly you find out their old computer kept dropping its wi-fi connection and the battery died during an important meeting. In other words, it was an emotional purchase, one made in anger and frustration, not an intellectual one.
Our own brain actually lies to us.
When people say they love the video it isn’t because he made such a great intellectual case for the importance of the New York Times’ reporting. That’s the higher brain explaining the lower brain reaction.
The reaction is Sick burn, dude.
It’s because an old-media guy smacked down a new-media guy. Smacked him down hard. Some snotty little internet shit – who do you think you are? – had come into the most celebrated temple of American journalism and failed to show sufficient deference.
Here’s a re-enactment of the Carr vs. Vice scene using a cat and a dog.
But, fact of the matter, Vice and its ilk are straight-up murdering the New York Times. Vice just closed $500 million in VC funding and is growing like crazy. The NY Times is deeply in debt to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Its stock is in the basement. Its debt is junk status. It’s dependent on print to survive. It’s selling off assets at fire-sale prices. It may be sold itself.
The NYT Now app aimed at young readers had a “Hey hep cats, we hear you kidz all want to buy some news, daddy-o” feel about it. And Vice certainly isn’t writing innovation reports about itself saying it needs to figure out the internet.
Whether Vice is a credible, hard-hitting news org is beyond irrelevant. Whether the Vice guy was patronizing is also irrelevant. What is relevant is that the NY Times needs people who read Vice to read the NY Times. They have no idea how to do that.
In addition, the New York Times as an actual company is going to have to operate more like Vice – be a lot smaller, a lot faster and a lot more in tune with readers – if it even hopes to survive.
Being the New York Times isn’t enough to save the New York Times. I genuinely believe that people involved in the news industry don’t get that fact.
I will shamelessly quote an earlier piece I wrote:
Perhaps it’s unimaginable that venerable news organizations could vanish. But because something has been doesn’t mean it always will be. In 1145 A.D., the largest city in the world was Merv, Turkmenistan, a major stop on the Silk Road. It’s now gone, except for ruins.
Newspaper leadership can content themselves by saying that people like and desire what newspapers do. But it’s worth noting that the world didn’t stop wanting silk and spices and perfumes from the East. It just stopped needing the Silk Road and the residents of Merv.
The ability to vanish from the landscape is much easier than it might seem.
If your gut instinct is to revel in a new media guy getting his, I suspect that the existential crisis of the legacy news business has not really sunken in.
That said, the guy from Vice was being really smug and patronizing.
“Being the crusty old-media scold felt good at the time, but recent events suggest that Vice is deadly serious about doing real news that people, yes, even young people, will actually watch.”
Carr concluded by noting:
When I was bumping bellies with Mr. Smith over whose coverage was worthier, I failed to recognize that in a world that is hostile to journalism in all its forms, where dangerous conflicts seem to jump off every other day, you can’t be uppity about where your news comes from.
Journalists really loved David Carr for moments like that. They saw him as a living embodiment of their romantic notions about journalism.
He was a tough-minded crusty old guy who spoke his mind and wrote like an angel. He was someone whose insight and story sense came from hard living and deep experience. He was a man who looked aged far beyond his years.
Perpetrators of journalism love its rough-and-tumble tumble image, a bottle of whiskey in the bottom desk drawer and men in fedoras trading barbs with Hildy Johnson while banging out a story on an Underwood manual in time for the city edition. Copy!
But people like Carr are outliers in the industry. They’re almost gone from newsrooms these days.
The crusty, hard-bitten bear of a night metro editor who terrorized 23-year-old me during a summer reporting internship retired from that newspaper at least a decade and a half ago and died a few years back. He wasn’t a college boy; he’d started as a copy boy and worked his way up.
Newsrooms these days are more likely to have an NPR tote bag, yoga mat and keys to a Prius in the bottom drawer of a standing desk than a bottle of cheap rye. The best way to get a job at place like the Times or the Washington Post or the Boston Globe – where I worked – is to not have the type of background that Carr had.
It’s all Ivy and elite journalism schools these days.
It’s no surprise that newsrooms write for people like themselves. And they do it in the most boring golf-announcer fashion possible. Blogger Mickey Kaus notes this phenomenon when he cites his Law of Curated Humor: “… whenever the MSM offers up examples of celebrated wit, they will not be funny.”
It’s just across-the-board sameness. Reactions to the departure of Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show” – an often controversial and deeply political show – were boilerplate praise and and “Jon Stewart is this generation’s Walter Cronkite” blather.
They didn’t even bother fact checking to find out that the show’s audience is much more Gen X than Millennial. Or that more young people watch the nightly news than Jon Stewart. Or that the show’s ratings weren’t that good and were falling.
I also doubt everyone loved the show. I know didn’t.
Newsroom monocultures beget news monodailies that publish monostories that are dull, dull, dull, same same same. David Carr stood out because he wasn’t dull. He had a voice. He said truly contrarian things. For that he will be missed.