Media Monday: On Creating a Legacy and David Carr

Carr in the Page One documentary. Picture is from the New York Times.
Carr in the Page One documentary. Picture is from the New York Times.

The recent loss of David Carr has gotten me thinking about what it takes to make a legacy in journalism (or anywhere for that matter). Journalists have been the news lately, as I mentioned last week, both positively and negatively. I’ve been reading a lot about Carr and I think I have picked up on some interesting tips on how to leave a legacy as a writer/journalist/media person.

  1. Be Fierce. The first time I was introduced to David Carr was through the Page One documentary about the New York Times. I was watching the documentary on Netflix in the middle of the night during a break from college. I’m pretty sure this was during my stint as Editor-in-chief of my tiny college newspaper and I remember thinking I could never be him. He had, as many have described since his death, a hard newsman persona exactly like you’d picture in a black and white movie about getting the hard hitting story.  He told sources off and swore like a sailor in his raspy voice. To make it as a writer of any kind, you have to get a little rough- roll  up those sleeves  and get in the mess of it all. Perhaps it was because Carr had been in the mess personally, that he does it so adeptly. But if you read anything about Carr, you get the sense of his fierceness. So take a note out of Carr’s book and experiment with fierceness. Defend what deserves defending. Be bold.
  2. Be Honest. I think something that makes Carr so appealing to a wide audience of journalists and readers was his honesty. He was honest about his story and honest about the stories he told. As a journalist this is wonderful. He didn’t seem to be at risk for the sort of thing we’re blaming Brian Williams for. How do we know Carr was so honest? For one, he wrote a memoir about his rough past as an addict that relies, like his articles do, on research and tracking down sources. This honesty helps me relate to him, but somehow, it doesn’t seem to take away from his reporting on other stories. If you can tell your own story honestly,  you can tell anyone’s. He was also incredibly humble about where he came from and where he is. I read an excerpt/adaptation of his book and it ended with this quote that summed it up for me: “ I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
  3. Be Kind. Carr was a professor to many students and a mentor to even more young journalists. For all his hardened exterior and sharp edged back story, he was known as a generous encourager of his coworkers and young journalists on the rise. According to his students he gave much of himself to them, spending time giving personal advice and criticism and really encouraging them to find a voice and use it. He described himself in a syllabus by saying “Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.” I think most human beings could benefit from this sort of kindness to ourselves and others. Especially in a world where we are often expected to be cutthroat  to succeed, we can take a lesson from Carr on the value of caring and nurturing people.
  4. Be Innovative. Carr was also known for embracing technology and all that it could mean for journalism. He was an amazing, strong writer, but he didn’t use that as an excuse to avoid the other aspects of producing journalism in the modern age. He was an early adopter of Twitter and live blogging. One of his last projects was analyzing pop culture, media and technology in his series The Sweet Spot. Keeping up with the times is an important part of journalism, obviously. What’s even cooler is that  Carr viewed the relationship between journalism and technology as a fundamentally positive thing. It’s usual to hear veteran reporters looking at technology as the thing that is killing their beloved medium, but Carr didn’t fall into that trap. He viewed technology as a way to improve the medium; growth with the times is a positive, rather than negative thing for journalism.
  5. Keep Writing. Daniel Carr was writing journalism in college. He was on and off with careers during his drug use, but he kept writing. The Washington Post’s article about Carr and addiction quoted him saying “Regardless of what happened to me, I rarely stopped typing . . . Perhaps I was worried I would disappear altogether if I did.” Being a writer is competitive and emotionally exhausting and rife with fear and sometimes self loathing. It’s easy to stop sometimes. It’s easy to lose one’s identity. But Carr’s example helps us to remember that we need to keep writing. Carr also gave advice on what to write about: “. . . go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it . . .”

This man clearly left a powerful legacy. He also left an amazing body of work that I need to start reading. What do you think makes up a journalist’s legacy?

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