There are many reasons, I'm sure, that readers and colleagues of David Carr are grieving his unexpected death on Thursday at the age of 58. When Facebook had a silly little place to name your heroes a couple years back, I listed him there alongside Ira Glass and David Foster Wallace. Why? Because, for me, he represented the idea that writing could still be informed and provocative -- even about things like the media, especially about things like the media. He represented to me that quality still matters.
I had a professor in college that liked to say: "Writing is hard because everyone thinks they can do it." His implicit challenge was to overcome low expectations and pen something worth saying, even as "journalism" gets more and more democratized.
Let's be clear about my usage of quotation marks there: David Carr wouldn't dismiss, with a singular swipe of his hand, society's migration toward blogs and Twitter as somehow indicative of journalistic standards going downhill. He didn't just write about new media, he embraced it. Even as a New York Times columnist, his reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman's death wasn't in black ink, it was on Medium -- just like the rest of us who have a random spurt of inspiration in the middle of the night. He was also a real personality on Twitter, even as late as five hours before the Times broke news of his death. I followed him closely on Twitter. Last year, feeling inundated by listicles and fluff pieces, I tried an experiment where I just followed writers, not publications. And that's when this ex-cynic finally understood Twitter's power. Some of the best cultural responses to everything from Girls to Benghazi are happening in 140 characters or less -- all you have to do is follow the right people. David Carr was one of those people worth following.
But it's not just a matter of embracing new media that made Carr so invaluable to his colleagues, readers and the culture at large. It was pairing technology with that criticism so often cited as digital media's vice: quality. He proved you could talk about media -- anything from Arrested Development to Gawker -- with the same intelligence a foreign correspondent would take in approaching the conflict in Egypt. And why not? Does media not represent the shifting paradigms of our culture?
Carr just proved that writers had a responsibility in how they led that discourse. In the documentary Page One, a look inside The New York Times (which co-stars fellow media critic Brian Stelter), there's a great scene where Carr sits across the table from a cocky blogger who thinks the NYT has run its course as the primary source of news -- fresh voices can tell it like it really is and they can do it without the hassle of getting through the copy desk. But Carr wasn't having that. He lifts up a printout of the guy's website with all the articles cut out that had original reporting by the Times. Let's just say there was less paper than holes.
That's the thing. That's why it hurts to lose a man like Carr. Because, sure, there are no shortage of opinions or recent grads who can rewrite a news brief with a SEO-friendly headline. But there aren't many people who will do the grunt work of real, honest reporting, especially on topics the culture at large is lagging to take seriously. When people complain about a change in Netflix's policies, Carr was the one on the phone with their CEO getting the real story -- before writing 900 words on its implications. On his obituary, a commenter said, "It's not just that I loved him. I trusted him." That says it all, doesn't it?
I hope his legacy will be twofold:
1. Don't be afraid when things change. The guy was 58 and more active on social media than most of the people in my graduating class (I graduated college in 2012). Attempting to not just understand change -- but to distill it for those people who aren't prone to early adoption themselves -- is a public service all in itself. Great thinkers can tell us why change matters while it's still happening.
2. Don't give up on original thought. Do the research. Say unpopular things. And don't worry too much about whatever irrelevant nonsense Facebook's algorithms choose to prioritize. There are still plenty of people out there wanting to discuss ideas. And, thanks to the Internet, the scope for who can take part in those discussions is far, far larger than it has ever been. You don't need to write for The New York Times to care about things enough to write. Carr, as he illustrated in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, took longer to get it together than most people (the book recounts the tale of shaking a life-defining cocaine addiction). But when he got straight, he took a bulldog approach to getting the facts, and that ambition doesn't require a byline under a fancy masthead. Take Carr's own advice:
"Perpetrate journalism often, on as many platforms, for as many people as you can. Don't wait for permission -- find your story and prosecute to the fullest."