The death of David Carr—most recently the media columnist for The New York Times, but also so much more—has not yet sunk in. I know I’m one of countless young journalists with their own David Carr story.
He was a great champion of us—or maybe more like a gruff guardian angel, smoking outside the Times building, offering counsel to whomever was bold enough to approach him. That will be a great part of his legacy, beyond his incredible archive. As generous as he was with us, it’s a wonder he had any time to write.
In 2009, as I was wrapping up a graduate degree in journalism at the City University of New York, right next door to The New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, I hadn’t yet met Carr when I read one of his Media Equation columns. It painted a particularly shit-strewn picture of the field I was about to step into: “Pages are down, spending is down, revenues are down, and the biggest feature of this holiday season in the media kingdom has been layoffs and buyouts at Condé Nast, Time Inc., The Associated Press, and yes, The New York Times,” he wrote.
It went on like that, with talk of a coming sunset, carnage, and web crawlers dragging in a dark era for journalism. But I kept on reading, and toward the bottom of the page, he wrote this:
So what do we get instead? The future, which is not a bad deal if you ignore all the collateral gore. Young men and women are still coming here to remake the world, they just won’t be stopping by the human resources department of Condé Nast to begin their ascent.
For every kid that I bump into who is wandering the media industry looking for an entrance that closed some time ago, I come across another who is a bundle of ideas, energy and technological mastery. The next wave is not just knocking on doors, but seeking to knock them down.
Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful. They are jaded in the way youth requires, but have the confidence that is a gift of their age as well.
For them, New York is not an island sinking, but one that is rising on a fresh, ferocious wave.
Anyone with a ferocious wave rising beneath them knows they better paddle hard if they don’t want to get pummeled. Five years ago, Carr’s writing motivated me to do just that—and then in person, he gave me a last hard push, and helped me get safely in front of the swell.
Soon after I read that column, he sat on a panel at CUNY that was considering my grant application. I wanted to use the money to buy myself some time and to pay a small web and video production team to help me create multimedia stories about the origins of our clothes.
I was awarded a sizable check—$9,000—and I later learned that Carr was the one I had to thank for it. He fought for me in the deliberations when others said I just needed an agent and a book contract, because he understood young journalists had to write their own tickets. (Later, we would laugh about the buzzy term, “personal branding,” which we both found nearly as excruciating as the actual branding of one’s flesh might be. He may have had grand ambitions for us all, but Carr kept things wildly funny and real.)
And then, he was always around for me. At a time when I really needed it, what David Carr gave me—beyond that grant money—was hope. I’m lucky to be among the young writers and admirers who felt his warmth, even when he was smoking outside the Times on the coldest of New York winter days.