David Carr on newspapers, Twitter and citizen journalism

New York Times writer David Carr may not want to admit that he is a kind of rock star in media circles, but judging by the sold-out crowd of media types who showed up to watch him be interviewed by CBC radio host Michael Enright in Toronto on Thursday night, he definitely fills that role for many. The topic of the discussion wasYes Genius, The Sky Is Falling — Now What?” and it saw Carr hold forth on a variety of topics, including the rise of what some like to call “citizen journalism,” the internet’s ability to self-correct and the valley of despair into which he thinks many newspapers have fallen. Despite all of the doom and gloom in the industry, however, Carr said that he feels we are currently experiencing what he called a “golden age for journalism.”

Enright started the event, which was put on by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, by asking Carr what he thought about the coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign, and how he would handle it as a journalist if he was reporting on a speech by a politician like Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and he heard something that was obviously a lie. Would he challenge that claim in print? Although Carr didn’t say specifically what he would do in such a situation, he said that in his view the internet and social media in general do a pretty good job of correcting mistakes and false information, and used a metaphor coined by New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones:

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Carr talked about the impact that “citizen journalists” have had during events like the Arab Spring, where live reports from Egypt and elsewhere were available to anyone — and were verified in real time by people like Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, who became the go-to source for information about the revolutions — and Enright asked whether citizen journalism wasn’t a little like “citizen dentistry,” a common criticism levelled by anti-social media types. Carr scoffed at this idea, however, and argued that if Enright were living in a place without dentists and had a toothache, he might not be so scornful of having a neighbor down the street who was “pretty handy with the pliers.”

The New York Times writer and author of the memoir “Night of the Gun” said that he wasn’t predicting some kind of utopian future where professional journalists were replaced by the crowd, since he expected society would always need someone to make the phone calls and put a little “shoe leather” into their reporting — something that not everyone would want to do, especially for free. But Carr added that alternative media and digital-native media were adopting the attributes of traditional media (such as investigative reporting and fact-checking) a lot faster than the mainstream was adapting to digital, and that a kind of hybrid of both seemed to be emerging.

“Old media isn’t adapting to the new tools of the insurgency”

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Carr, who once reported from the red carpet during the Oscars and has also tried to do his own video broadcasts in the past, said that one of the most promising aspects of digital media is that almost anything is possible — and it doesn’t hurt to “give things a whirl.” This kind of approach doesn’t work for the print version of the newspaper, he said, but the best quality of digital is that it is always “iterate, iterate, iterate.” The videos he recorded in his basement didn’t really work, Carr said, so they killed them and moved on to something else that his audience might want more.

Carr also talked about how so much of the news that traditional media outlets used to rely on as their bread-and-butter, such as the death of someone famous or news about a disaster, has become a commodity. When his children mention that they heard or learned something newsworthy, Carr said, he has no idea where they got that information — whether it was from a news crawl on a screen in Times Square, or from Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or from a text message or a Digg headline. One of the biggest threats to the traditional media business, he said, is that “most people don’t really care where the news comes from.”

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Both during his interview and in a discussion afterwards with local journalists such as the former publisher of the Toronto Star, the NYT writer also described the painful transition that many newspapers — particularly the medium-sized metropolitan papers — are having to go through as their print advertising revenue declines and digital fails to make up the difference. He said that more papers will likely have to restructure themselves the way that Digital First Media has with the Journal Register Co. (which recently filed for bankruptcy for the second time), in part because of their looming pension obligations, which he said even the NYT is wrestling with.

The future looks fairly bright for smaller newspapers that are intimately connected with their communities, Carr argued: If someone wanted to buy a newspaper company, the best way to figure out which one to buy would be to ask whether “a picture of some kid’s football team would make it to the front page,” he said. If the answer was yes, then the paper would likely do well, simply because the connection between a newspaper and the lives of small town residents is much tighter than for larger newspapers. And while major international brands like the New York Times might prosper thanks in part to paywalls, he said, “the whole middle of the newspaper business is just gone.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hoggarazzi and Petteri Sulonen