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.