Behind the Scenes

Slate Remembers David Carr

The Times media reporter had an outsize influence in the lives and careers of many Slate staffers.

David Carr
David Carr, Aug. 15, 2012.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images.

David Carr, the media reporter and constant ambassador for the New York Times, died Thursday night after collapsing in the newsroom in Manhattan. Carr never worked at Slate and, as far as we can tell, hasn’t written for us since participating in a Breakfast Table in 1999. (It’s mostly lost to CMS evolution, although you can still see his old bio: “David Carr is the editor of the Washington City Paper.”)

Nonetheless, Carr had an outsize influence on the lives and careers of many Slate staffers. We’ve collected a few memories of the man here at Slate Plus.

* * *

In 2011, I moved to Los Angeles to take a job at a small magazine. A year later, the staff threw a party to celebrate the latest issue of the magazine, and the operations staffers got drunk enough to let slip to the edit staffers that we were all going to be fired the next day. The paperwork had already been signed.

I had to go into the office early to get canned because I was leaving for New York that morning, on a trip I had planned as a vacation but instead turned into a week wearing out my cheap flats running between skyscrapers, looking for work. When my plane touched down, I had an email in my inbox with the subject line: “carr here.” He told me he’d heard, through an editor we both knew, that I’d been “dislocated by those evil economic forces that take out the Good with the bad” and invited me to coffee in the New York Times building. The elevators were so fancy I didn’t understand how to use them. I was so out of my element I didn’t know what to expect, but I guess I was preparing myself to absorb some grizzled old Times-man advice. Instead he just chatted with me about Girls and told me how much he admired my work. Since Thursday night, I’ve heard from many more young journalists who had similar encounters with David Carr. He gave us something more valuable than advice: the feeling that we belonged at his table. —Amanda Hess, staff writer

* * *

I remember Carr telling me about the book he was writing about his crackhead past. Instead of conjuring up those desperate days as a memoirist, he was taking trips back to Minneapolis to report on them. He’d show up at the doorstep of people who hoped never to see him again and vice-versa, to ask about the asshole he used to be. The book that came out of those encounters, Night of the Gun, was an unflinching performance of his personal integrity—a ruthless search for the truth about a self he’d finally sloughed off like a ratty overcoat. If you knew David 2.0, it was hard to accept that the guy he wrote about in that book ever existed. Addicts are self-centered; David was focused on others. In his second life, the good one, he committed himself to what he’d decided mattered: his family, his newspaper, the craft of journalism, and the dozens of younger reporters he discovered and helped on their way. Though he talked and wrote like a Raymond Chandler character, David was soft-boiled at heart. He believed in redemption, in second chances, and in the core values of our profession: getting it right, saying it first, and sticking up for the underdog. I feel like journalism just lost its best friend. —Jacob Weisberg, chairman, The Slate Group

* * *

I got lucky with an assignment when I was a junior reporter at the New York Observer, when Peter Kaplan, the editor of the paper, asked me to write something about David Carr’s Night of the Gun. Kaplan had a feeling this was going to be an important book—not just a memoir about Carr’s wild youth, but a sharp-elbowed provocation to a reading public that had grown unsure about whether “the truth” always had to mean “things that really happened.” The idea behind the book, which you should read if you haven’t, was for Carr to carry out a massive reporting job on his own life. He didn’t trust himself to remember how things really unfolded, so he did what he knew how to do: He asked everyone who crossed paths with him to walk him through the experience from their perspective. He talked to exes, old bosses, people who used to work for him. As far as I knew, no one had ever done that for a memoir before.

Kaplan, who was captivated by Carr, wanted me to talk to him and find out exactly what he’d been hoping to achieve. But Carr wouldn’t respond to my emails. I tried him probably a half-dozen times while reading the book, which was invigorating and original and stylish. I ended up just writing a sort of “reported essay” on it, with quotes about the nature of truth from Errol Morris and James Frey’s editor, Nan Talese. After it was published in the Observer, Carr finally dropped me a line. “wow, don’t I feel like a prick?” he wrote, before explaining that he’d stiffed me “on orders based on some goofy press rollout from my publishing overlords,” and thanking me for writing a positive piece anyway.

The kind things he said about my story made me proud, and getting his email—so friendly, so conspiratorial—made me feel like I had been blessed with the personal attention of someone at the very top of his game. I will always be grateful for crossing paths with him, even if I didn’t get to interview him. —Leon Neyfakh, staff writer

* * *

Carr was the first person I ever followed on Twitter. I’m not a journo, but I’ve always been a hopeless journo wannabe. In the early days, a lot of folks were quick to deem Twitter a distraction unworthy of a true journalist’s time or attention. Carr took one of his deep dives and engaged with the medium and everyone on it, even the byline-bereft wannabes. His tweets were pointed and funny and full of evidence that he was paying attention. He democratized the way we consume news while still maintaining the highest professional standards and didn’t condescend. He set a high bar in 140 characters. He set a high bar in a lot of things. —Ava Lubell, assistant

* * *

In my first journalism job, I was the editor of a baby blog, Vulture, at New York magazine, and a few months after launch I felt as though no one was reading us or even knew we existed. But David Carr knew. In the Carpetbagger he mentioned, charitably, a stupid post I wrote; eventually, he invited me to lunch at the Times building. I misunderstood the invitation, I know now: I thought he was reaching out as a representative of the Times, feeling me out about a job. As a result, I went into the lunch overexcited, guarded, and terrified. But Carr immediately embraced me, told jokes, put me at ease, and—most importantly to a deeply insecure new writer—treated me like the work I did mattered, that it existed in the same universe as the work he did.

That’s because Carr wasn’t talking to me on behalf of the Times. He was talking to me on behalf of himself. He was simply being nice to a writer he thought was interesting, as he did for hundreds, maybe thousands, of younger writers over the course of his career. That’s why media Twitter was overstuffed Thursday night with testaments not only to Carr’s work but to his kindness. Yes, he actively mentored dozens of great writers and editors, many of whom have written wonderful, heartfelt testimonials to him. But his reach and influence might be even greater in the lives and careers of people like me: people who held no particular hold on Carr, whom he remembered kindly at parties and occasionally talked to on the telephone—but who, at crucial moments in their career, got an email from that reminded them that someone liked what they did.

In the years to come, we’ll remember David Carr as a really terrific writer, a dogged reporter, a social media personality par excellence. But I think his influence will really be seen in the way an entire generation of journalists learned, at David Carr’s hand, that a crucial part of being part of the “caper” that is life in the media is performing acts of kindness to those who are just starting their careers. This morning I showed my daughters Carr’s photo on the front page of his beloved New York Times, and told them about him. I told them that he was kind to me when he didn’t need to be; that he did this for so many people I know and respect; that I hope I, and they, can live up to his example. —Dan Kois, culture editor

* * *

David Carr’s legacy loomed large over Washington City Paper, whose newsroom he’d led from 1995 to 2000. I arrived at the paper close to a decade later, and like a lot of young staffers I felt, or at least really wanted to feel, that I was working in a tradition he had exemplified—one that was dogged and fearless and could still capture the attention of a media-saturated city. He had mentored our mentors there, and so we felt in some small way that we were his pupils.

At the very least, I wanted to come up with headlines half as good as “I’m OK. Eurotrash.,” the immortal title of a 1998 cover story.

Last spring or so, when I was still working at City Paper, David was in town and stopped by our office to say hi to the publisher, Amy Austin. I popped into her office; we’d been talking about rebranding a seasonal blog we ran each year that coincided with the Capital Fringe Festival, which features scrappy theater and performance art. I was stumped on the new name. David volunteered to think on it, on the condition that if he nailed the pun I would mail him $1. Seemed fair. I returned to my desk and whatever I had been working on, at which point it came to me: “Fringeworthy”—like cringe-worthy, and maybe a little bit like Upworthy. A few minutes later Amy walked by, escorting David to the elevator, and I mentioned that I’d nailed it. David pivoted, slammed a dollar bill on my desk, and left without another word. —Jonathan Fischer, senior editor