Future tense 

New York Times columnist David Carr on changes in the media

It's not news that the media landscape is changing rapidly. Major consolidations of newspaper and broadcast ownership, the reliance on the internet for news: what will we end up with? And what impact will the changes have on democracy?

Among the writers exploring those questions is New York Times media critic David Carr. A veteran of the alternative press (he edited alt-weeklies in Minneapolis and Washington, DC), Carr writes the Times' first-ever blog, Carpetbagger, in addition to his job as the paper's media scribe. Carr --- who'd written media columns for Washington's City Paper and Twin Cities Reader --- says he almost passed on the chance to be a media columnist with the Times.

"Although I was reluctant at first, because I thought I was pretty much done with media, I eventually came around," he says. "And I'm glad I did, because the sky actually is falling right now, and it's fun and interesting and scary all at the same time to watch the ways in which media are atomizing and becoming commoditized."

Media consolidation has even reached the world of alternative journalism. Late last year, the two biggest alt-weekly chains, the Phoenix-based New Times and Village Voice Media, announced they were merging to form a mammoth (by alt-press standards, at least) new chain of weeklies.

Issues like these will be on the bill of fare February 15, when Carr speaks at SUNY Brockport's downtown MetroCenter, and he discussed some of them in a recent interview. Here's what he had to say:

On the role of media in a democracy:

Part of the miracle of American democracy has always been based on the robust press, and I think that the press --- regardless of what platform you're speaking of --- has been able to bring accountability at certain points in the nation's history that were absolutely critical. Whether it's the Teapot Dome scandal or Watergate or the nexus of money and politics, I think that you can't really have a great democracy without having a great or at least good press.

On how technology will affect newsgathering and news consumption:

I think people assume that, "Oh, we'll be able to use the web to assemble a portrait of the world beyond our town," and the fact is that Google News or whatever RSS feeder you've got, most of it is just annotating coverage. Somebody has to make phone calls somewhere in order for news to function.

Where are the data inputs coming from? Where is the information coming from? In other words, who is making the phone calls? Who is sending the emails? You cannot have a robust discourse without a database of current information. And if the information that's being culled through is just government-issued data without a critical eye or editing, then you're going to end up with a fairly dumb republic.

There's a conceit that young people get their news from the Jon Stewart show or get their news from the web, but there was a study not long ago at Ball State, and if you're talking, say, 18 to 24, young people just don't get their news. That's all there is to it. They don't have a strong interest in it. So there you have a very attractive advertising demographic where there's no upside in serving them with that kind of information, because they have no interest or need. There's not much news on a Playstation, man.

On Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (whose free classifieds seem to have everyone in media complaining):

He's a smart guy and a person who is true to his values, and he believes that what he's doing is good for both media and democracy.

I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, and he struck me as a very sincere person. Classifieds are bedrock revenues that don't change much. For weeklies and dailies, they've always sort of been there. And he's really going at a core franchise. I think he represents a significant threat to papers like yours. I was out with Michael Lacey last night, the New Times guy who just bought the Village Voice, and they certainly are paying attention to what he's doing.

On the Village Voice-New Times merger:

Well, I'm a fan of the New Times version of newspapering. They do very robust, city-oriented coverage that I think is a force for good, or at least accountability in the cities that they do them in. So I'm not up in arms about the fact that they bought that paper, I don't think the Village Voice is anywhere near the paper it once was.

The Village Voice is fairly tendentious in its coverage and is very interested in "progressive" sorts of things. And you know what? I newspapered in WashingtonDC at the Washington City Paper, which was nothing but Democrats and allegedly progressive Democrats, and the city was a complete basket case. So how you gonna root for that? It tends to rub out ideological approaches to coverage.

Newspapers should be in favor of competence. That's what they should root for. And I think that to the degree that newspapers or the media in general are perceived as being down on this administration, a lot of it is less about policy and more about execution. I mean, these guys seem to like war pretty well, and they're not very good at it. If you're going to be aggressive, there's a lot of execution risks that goes with that, and it behooves them to go and plan well and give our folks the equipment they need to do the job they've been asked to do. I think that's where a lot the sort of negative coverage has popped up.

On the future of alternative journalism:

I think that there's sort of a multi-part thread, in that you've chosen to work in printed media, but a lot of the more talented young people involved in media and in journalism are heading toward the web. You need to keep refreshing that sort of children's crusade of talented young reporters to make alternative newspapers vital.

Some weeklies have done a really good job with their websites: the Weekly Dig in Boston... MinneapolisCity Pages has had a robust, very interactive web site for a while. Some people are doing a better job of putting their brand into digital realms than others.

Just look at some of the fundamental assets of alternative journalism: it's lippy discourse plus culturally literate recommendations plus listings. That list of assets has become somewhat unbundled and is available on the web, and it's far more searchable in that form.

If you want to read some smarty-pants writing, you don't have to go down to the coffee shop and get the weekly. Just open up Google and type in smarty pants, and it'll pop up everywhere.

Now that consumers can time and platform shift, I think media companies have to be very, very nimble in terms of making their product available in the way that people want it.

And there are many large stories that are being covered in significant ways: the fact that significant parts of our manufacturing infrastructure are moving offshore, and now some of our intellectual infrastructure, software infrastructure is moving offshore.

I do think that people are going to realize, Well, we have to be in the business of something; we can't just give the world Jennifer Lopez and King Kong and expect that to fuel an economy of our size.

One of my 17-year-old daughters asked me not long ago: "Do you think that China's going to end up running the world while I'm alive?" And I said, "Yeah, I think there's a pretty good chance of it." And I'm pretty sure she didn't get that off of MySpace.

So as the stakes of the story increase, I think that people might reindex into news. When people are working off their part of affinity groups in MySpace, or they're working off RSS where they're getting information pushed to their desktop, they tend to sort of self-select into non-news categories. And you have to find a way to break through that.

David Carr speaks on "The Role of Media in Strengthening Democracy" at 7 p.m. February 15 at SUNY Brockport's MetroCenter, 55 St. Paul Street, downtown Rochester. The event is free and open to the public. www.brockport.edu.

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