New York Times journalist David Carr, a beloved figure in the media world, died Thursday at the age of 58. Carr was a media columnist at the Times. But even as he wrote about writers, he was one of the best reporters and prose stylists of his generation. His work ranged from true crime to memoir to media reporter, but always held his trademark wit, style, and empathy. Here are five stories that show the breadth, depth, and consistent quality of his work in journalism.
"At flagging Tribune, tales of bankrupt culture" (October, 5 2010)
Ask anyone in the media to name a Carr story, and this is likely the first one they'll mention. It managed to be, simultaneously, a defense of the craft of journalism mounted through an incredible feat of journalism. The reporting from inside billionaire Sam Zell's takeover of the Tribune Company was amazing in its detail. Carr revealed the lewd facts of how Zell's pick to run the Tribune Company, Randy Michaels, created a "poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company." If you want to know what an excellently-reported, inside-the-room yarn looks like, this is it.
"Me and My Girls" (July 20, 2008)
This is an excerpt from Carr's memoir, The Night of the Gun, which delves into his history of drug addiction — and the birth of his premature twin daughters in the midst of that. It is a difficult story to read; Carr's daughters end up in foster care while he is in detox. He doesn't spare his readers his pain, nor his daughters':
One day in the summer of 1989, I showed up at her house and the twins were wet, hungry and wailing. We went to the nearby 7-Eleven on Penn and Dowling Avenues in north Minneapolis. I waited until the spot right in front of the door opened up, and I went and quickly bought diapers, milk, new bottles and some bananas. While I changed them, they ate the bananas and drank the milk with an animal intensity.
"Me and My Girls" is an an honest and searing read, both on the real struggle of addiction — and the possibility of recovery in the aftermath. "Everything good and true about my life," Carr writes, "started on the day the twins became mine."
"Citizen Trebtoske vs. The Police vs. The Mayor vs. The Council" (February 4, 1982)
This is the story that Carr has described as his first big break, an investigative piece in the Twin Cities Reader. Part of what's so amazing about this story is the backstory: Carr was a student at the time, not a working journalist. Here's how the Minneapolis City Pages writes about it:
Carr, now a media columnist for the New York Times, was wrapping up a seven-year track at the University of Minnesota when he heard about a guy who had taken a beating from a pair of the Minneapolis Police Department's finest thumpers. Carr decided he'd investigate it, and try to sell the story to the since-defunct Twin Cities Reader. It was an ambitious endeavor.
And then, there's the actual story itself, which is chock full of detail about an arrest gone wrong and the consequences of one man speaking up against it. City Pages luckily found a print copy of the piece that its posted as a PDF here.
"Abramson's exit at the Times puts tensions on display" (May 18, 2014)
If there was a trickier column to write than this one about his editor-in-chief's involuntary departure from the newsroom, its difficult to think of it. But Carr delivered, with a column that made clear exactly how he saw Abramson's departure:
I have witnessed some fraught moments at The New York Times. Jayson Blair was a friend of mine. I watched Howell Raines fly into a mountain from a very close distance. I saw the newspaper almost tip over when the print business plunged and the company had to borrow money at exorbitant rates from a Mexican billionaire.
But none of that was as surreal as what happened last week. When The Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., stood up at a hastily called meeting in the soaring open newsroom where we usually gather to celebrate thePulitzers and said that Jill was out, we all just looked at one another. How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of "Game of Thrones"?
It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day. The lack of decorum was stunning.
"The fall and rise of media" (November 29, 2009)
In media circles these days, there is absolutely no shortage of doom and gloom predictions about the future of journalism. It's common to hear wizened vets warning the young to steer clear of the profession altogether.
This wasn't Carr's view, and he made it so beautifully clear in this column. Carr recognized that being a reporter is a ridiculously thrilling, exciting job to nab — one that was worth the chase. It's these two paragraphs that capture so well much of the excitement I feel about journalism right now, at a moment when excitement isn't a word that comes up too much:
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.