Joshua Davis, who now runs Epic Magazine with Joshuah "Argo" Bearman, had this idea on his back burner for the better part of a decade. It was only a seed, but JD could see the potential. In early 2014 he asked if I wanted to take a stab at it. I said sure. I also decided to team up with Julian Smith, a longtime friend and gifted writer.
We started hanging out at Ice Cream Express in southeast Portland, hoping to learn more about the trade and poking around for people to feature. We even drove a truck for a day and made a surprise stop at my son's summer camp to hand out free ice cream. But after a few months of research, I began to doubt whether we would ever find a real story--a rivalry that amounted to far more than two vendors coming to vehicular blows over a parking space. Then one day John Spitulski at Ice Cream Express mentioned a big guy in Salem named Dennis.
Our first meeting was over lunch at an old Portland diner called My Father's Place. Dennis started telling me about his life, his previous job selling mortgages, his family, and why he got into the ice cream business. Then this: "In 2009 my enemy first reared his ugly head." Soon after that, something about a "four-truck gang bang." I nearly choked on my barbecue sandwich--and instantly knew I had my story.
My latest story is about the mind-bending science of timekeeping and the protracted debate over the innocuous-sounding-but-potentially-devastating practice known as the leap second.
To report the story, I traveled to the birthplace of atomic time, the National Physical Laboratory outside London.
Just got some awesome news: "The Aftershocks," my story for Matter about the infamous trial of Italy's earthquake scientists, has been picked for the 2015 edition of the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. I'll be joined in the table of contents by slouches like Atul Gawande, Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Specter, Burkhard Bilger, and Seth Mnookin.
The book comes out in October, but you can pre-order now over on Amazon.
This is awesome. Best wishes to my friends in the land of "fintech where it's needed."
Just over a year ago, I flew from Oregon to New York for a few days of meetings. I was staying in Montclair, New Jersey, and my hosts happened to mention that Carr lived across the street.
Half of the Times staff probably lives in Montclair, but this was still a coincidence. I had recently been compiling names of people who cover the business of journalism so that I could tell them about an online project I was working on, the details of which are not important here. Carr was, of course, at the top of my list.
The project wasn’t quite complete, but because I was staying so close by, it would have been silly not to reach out. He wrote me back 90 minutes later with an invitation to join him for morning coffee at his place.
When I got there the next day, Carr was finishing a cigarette. Then he toasted bagels for the two us. We sat down at the breakfast table and, after a little small talk about his dinner the night before with Matthew McConaughey, Carr listened quietly to my quasi-pitch. When he did speak up, it was to say how impressed he was with The Atavist, the digital publisher that I had been collaborating with, or to mention that he had read my coverage of Egypt’s revolution, which made my day because he wasn’t a bullshitter. I gave him a brief digital tour of the unfinished work, and he charitably didn’t snicker when the program froze and I had to explain how things were supposed to look on the screen. Embarrassing.
Then he told it to me straight. He liked the idea. He was a fan of upstart ventures like Atavist, and of publishing tools that make online reading more and more enjoyable. Who knows? Maybe a new (read: better) economic model for writers not named Michael Lewis really is possible. But the battle for people’s attention, he said, is more ruthless than ever. Carr was skeptical that I could reach enough readers to make any real money. As he put it: There is so much interesting stuff that I want to read and would likely enjoy reading. But I also really want to watch the next episode of “True Detective.”
And that was about it. We both knew that if he were to write, or even tweet, about my project, that might have given it a significant visibility boost. But we both also knew that he couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t do that. He was an analyst, not a catalyst. Before I left, he urged me to stay in touch and to keep him posted. (The jury is still out on that project.)
What remains so memorable about that meeting is not what was said or what he couldn’t do to plug my work. It was the zero-hesitation response to my request for a conversation, the automaticity of his graciousness. That is what I will always recall about David Carr—and do my damnedest to emulate.
Supercool news to share: The powers that be at Amazon selected FIRSTHAND for a Kindle Big Deal promotion. Until Dec 21 the book will be discounted to $1.99. How strange is it that a volume of my best work can be purchased for half the price of a latte? Very. But not as strange as feeling upbeat about it.
Happy reading, Kindle Nation!
To build his argument against the L'Aquila Seven, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti performed some remarkable pirouettes. Here's one detail from the trial that didn't make it into the final draft of my story.