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Summary:

Despite all the gloom in the newspaper business, which he says will likely still have to suffer more pain and possible bankruptcies, New York Times media writer David Carr says he believes that thanks to the internet we are living in a “golden age for journalism.”

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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:

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”

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.”

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

  1. Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    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 was “Yes 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.”

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  2. Greg Golebiewski Saturday, September 15, 2012

    What’s with the tweets, Mathew? Are they your “sources” of what David said?

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    1. I guess they are like that, yes — I was sort of taking notes by live-tweeting the talk as it was happening, so I thought I would include them as evidence of some kind. Plus I thought they broke up the wall of text a bit :-)

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      1. Hence why content=king, therefore Twitter is requiring it (their tweets) to be treated as such.

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      2. Greg Golebiewski Saturday, September 15, 2012

        Or, did you try to “engage” David Carr and get some feedback?
        Sometimes I send such “engaging” but well-intentioned tweets to people outside my own circle, including one @mathewi, but it never works. Twitter circles (or echo chambers, if you will) are tight and hierarchical.

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        1. Did I fail to respond to a question or comment you sent me on Twitter, Greg? If I did, I apologize — things move pretty quickly in my stream and I don’t always get a chance to respond.

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      3. Greg Golebiewski Monday, September 17, 2012

        No need to apologize, Mathew. No one has an obligation to respond to unsolicited mail. But, I do have some comments and propitiatory data on paywalls/other content monetization solutions I’d like you to review. You are very much involved in a public discussion on these subjects; I follow your comments closely and respect them — still, I find the discussion often unsupported by any data, and these (the data) can be surprising.

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  3. Yeah, the public will always need someone to make the phone calls, and take the photos, but they wont care when that someone increasingly is unpaid and unrecognized for their work.

    Professional journalism, especially at newspapers, is suffocating. It’s locked itself inside that self cleaning oven to escape the media house fire caused by self publishing services on the web.

    Those of us locked out of the industry while they wait for print revenues to return on their own, or be replaced by digital ad revenues, are evolving into our own clans of independent press, and ever day we shift a little further away from wanting to be involved in mainstream media, and a little closer to wanting to help upend it.

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  4. This is about some of the things I was talking about. This person is being interviewed on CBC radio at 9:30 am, Sunday on either CBC Victoria or Vancover.

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  5. Michael Tippett Sunday, September 16, 2012

    Hey Mathew, The ‘citizen dentist’ analogy was something I coined when we were running NowPublic. I stand by my claim. People posting photos on twitter are not doing the same work as journalists. Citizen reports when combined with real journalism provide us with something new and better than straight journalism but the two things are two completely different. — Michael Tippett, co-founder, NowPublic.

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    1. Thanks, Michael — I’ll take your word for coining the phrase, but I’ve heard the same criticism from many others, and I still think it misses the point. You are correct that people posting photos on Twitter are not doing the same work as journalists, but plenty of non-professional journalists are — and dismissing that phenomenon with phrases like “citizen dentistry” or “citizen brain surgery” is a mistake. Dentists and brain surgeons do something that is complex, scientific and regulated — journalism is none of those things, for the simple reason that anyone can (and often does) do it. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Thanks for the comment.

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      1. Michael Tippett Monday, September 17, 2012

        In theory I agree with you but in my experience it is rare that regular citizens are able to produce the kind of work that professionals do. A front page article for the NYTimes costs an average of $40k to produce. You’d have to be very wealthy to take on that cost as a citizen. Also a professional institution affords reporters a level of protection that you may need when reporting on contentious issues. We had reporters at NowPublic who received death threats from gangsters when reporting about local crime. We had others who got heat from their neighbours when they reported on environmental waste near their homes (toxic waste is not good for resale values). Professional news organizations can protect their reporters from these influences in ways that can save the story. The BIG opportunity for CJ is not to replace these functions but rather to augment them.

        Best, Michael.

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  6. Bah – citizen critics, citizen thinkers and citizen skeptics.

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  7. In my view, the “citizen dentistry” analogy is dead on. The “complex, scientific, and regulated” aspect might make the DIFFERENCE between professional and pretend dentistry more obvious more quickly, but the difference between professional journalists and someone whose qualifications ended at penmanship in the third grade is equally large and important. The problem is that the low-attention-span, follow-the-Kardashian mindset of too many precludes serious thought and analysis, and accepts everything at face value. A blog post equals a New York Times cover story. Words is words. On-the-scene reports from brave citizenry, a la Arab Spring, are certainly valuable. But it is no more journalism than the interplay with a local TV weatherman saying,”Hey, tweet us if it’s raining out by you yet!” Obviously everything is changing, and we all need to embrace a new reality. But the playing field is not level yet, and shouldn’t be. I can throw a football,so my son thinks I’m Aaron Rogers. But Darrelle Revis might not be so easily impressed.

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  8. Michael Tippett Friday, September 21, 2012

    Here is a perfect example of how citizens are using the internet to mess with / augment journalism:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/yang-dacai-fired-after-accident-smirk-2012-9

    This is not journalism in it’s traditional sense. It is even bigger than that. It is totally revolutionary.

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  9. Tell it like it is Tuesday, October 30, 2012

    David Carr is wrong!

    Alternative media and digital-native media are NOT adopting the attributes of traditional media a lot faster than the mainstream is adapting to digital. Nope.

    Since when??? Have him take a brief peak at citizen journalism on Topix, and get back to us.

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