For any alt-weekly journalist who attended an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference over the last decade or so, a few truths were certain: too much alcohol would be consumed, and David Carr's talk would be the highlight of the weekend.
I first met Carr at one of those conferences (which one eludes me), and had the privilege of hearing him talk at several during the 10 years I was editor of SFR, as well as chair, for a few years, of AAN's editorial committee. In the rush of smart and heartfelt tributes written about Carr following the announcement of his death on Feb. 12, Gawker's story, "David Carr, Your Best Friend," which described The New York Times media writer as someone who "had the rare emotional capacity to make each of us his favorite, one by one by one" struck me as imminently true.
Like the hundreds of journalists who met David Carr, I also felt when I talked to him that he was truly listening, was on my side and wholly supported my work. He is also, to this day, probably the only person I would have agreed to dance with to "Brown Eyed Girl" in a hotel lobby way well past the witching hour.
The day before his death, as it happened, I had invoked his name in my classroom at Santa Fe University of Art and Design and asked my students to write a response to one of Carr's statement in his book The Night of the Gun: "Memoir is a very personal form of creation myth." I often use Carr's book and his personal reportage in the classroom as a way of talking about the gradations of the search for the truth. Carr's book, of course, was the perfect journalistic response to the blurriness of the memoir genre: rigorous. Carr's search for truth about his own life using the tools of reportage made his memoir a unique amalgam of fact and perception. His work for the Times brought the same type of strange lens to the world of media, and his ability to bring clarity to the murkiness that is the media landscape is—was—rare.
Mark Zusman, editor of Portland Oregon's Willamette Week, and a co-owner of the Santa Fe Reporter, spoke with Carr earlier in the week, securing a tentative agreement for Carr to speak at the newspaper's annual tech fest. Zusman noted that while Carr was always a big draw and a great speaker, he also brought a quality to the discourse about media that it's hard to imagine replacing.
"Not to compare him to Jon Stewart, but one thing when great people move on by death or move in their careers, there is this feeling that he is leaving a professional hole that can not be filled," Zusman said. "It really feels like no one else had a handle quite as sophisticated as he did about the disruptive influences that are changing our business. That's why I think so many journalists felt so strongly about him, because he wrote about us with nuance and sophistication. I can't even think who's in second place in terms of understanding what's ahead of us."
Carr's career began in the alt-weekly ranks (he was a former editor of The Washington City Paper, as well as the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader), and he always seemed, at AAN conventions, a bit like a returning hero. Here was a journalist who had taken the particular bent of alternative journalism, with its snark, point of view and love of long-form journalism, and trained it on the overlapping industries of media, technology and celebrity. As former SFR writer and current The Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Frosch noted on my Facebook page in response to the announcement of Carr's death: "The fact that an alt-weekly guy had become such a powerful, important voice at the NYT was always a source of inspiration."
Indeed, Carr's presence at conferences never disappointed. Richard Karpel, who served as AAN's executive director from 1995 to 2009, describes him as a "beloved figure in AAN-land. He was incredibly generous with his time and continued to present at conferences years after he left the alt-world for greener pastures. He was a brilliant, funny, inspiring speaker and a PowerPoint artist to boost. He worked hard at being good and was always thoroughly prepared regardless of the size or make up of the audience."
The analysis Carr brought, whether it was a scathing critique of the covers of recent alt-weeklies or a shout-out to a particular story or website, was authoritative and often very funny. But what I always took away from his talks was not a specific mandate for a particular approach to journalism but, rather, a sense of mission to do more and to do more better. This was particularly needed during the strange early portion of the "Here Comes Everybody" decade, when the call to convergence journalism often felt less like a rallying cry to forge ahead and more like a warning to go hide under the bed. No matter what he was talking about, David Carr always seemed to be having a good time, to prize journalism no matter what form, and his unceasing good will toward the profession was contagious.
Anne Schindler, who served as Folio Weekly's editor from 2002 to 2012, was hired by Carr for her first journalism job at Twin Cities Reader. She wrote a remembrance for Folio this week, which she shared with me, about how Carr, "...after receiving the package of poorly written, sloppily edited college papers that served as my 'writing sample,' he asked if I could at least type. I could not. 'It's going to be difficult to explain to anyone in this newsroom why I would hire you,' he confided, 'if you can't even type.'"
Schindler spent the summer learning to type and was eventually hired.
"It was the most determinant event in my professional life: inspiring, humbling and—more than once—physically menacing," Schindler writes. "Like when he would line-edit stories and write, 'I will physically menace you if you ever again [insert journalistic trespass].' He made good edits. He made me cry. He made me better. He made everyone better. If there's one thing that the Cult of Carr will tell you—and we are legion—it's how inspirational he was."
Schindler begins her piece by noting that "David Carr loved a good story, and it was part of his natural generosity that he left everyone he came into contact with at least one good story to remember him by."
It is true, that while I had numerous talks with David at various locales over the years, and certainly continued to read and admire his work from afar after I left SFR, the one “good story” that remains vivid to me—at least today—is of his face in that hotel lobby in the early morning hours. I don’t know why a hotel band was still playing at that hour, or why the prospect of dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl” caused David’s face to light up like he’d just hit the proverbial jackpot, but dance we did. Were we in San Diego, just back from Tijuana? Mostly I remember thinking we must have looked ridiculous (at least that particular night, Carr’s dance moves were...energetic and unique, shall we say), but who would have said no? In the myth-creation of memoir, I do wish my memory of him was a bit more profound. But it is, at least, true and funny and unforgettable, as was David Carr.