The Verge interview: David Carr on curation, crowdsourcing, and the future of journalism

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David Carr has written about media for over 25 years, from his early days in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C., to his current post at The New York Times, where he’s been for almost a decade. His weekly column, "The Media Equation," covers all aspects of journalism and culture, especially the always-evolving world of online news; his recent work has questioned the rise of Twitter activism, investigated the failure of Tribune media, and mused on Louis C.K.'s successful experiment in self-distributed comedy. In 2008 he published a memoir, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life — His Own, in which he meticulously excavated the facts he'd forgotten about his years as a drug abuser and single father. These days he lives in New Jersey and tweets frequently as @carr2n (read it aloud). Our conversation touched on everything from the future of The New York Times, to political secrecy in the age of WikiLeaks, to why he no longer bothers with the web.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Let’s start by talking about the Curator’s Code. This was introduced by Maria Popova as a way to standardize attribution in content aggregation. You were at South by Southwest when she introduced it and you later wrote about it. Why do you think something like this is important, as far as defining some rules when it comes to content aggregation?

I paid attention to it, number one, because of who was proposing it. Maria has got some of the best eyes on the web, and she is continually digging up stuff. She’s kind of an archaeologist and a futurist combined. She’s just got a way of digging stuff out of the far corners of the web that I find absolutely riveting, whether it’s on Twitter (@brainpicker) or on her blog, Brainpickings. So that’s part of it.

The other thing is, people generally talk on backchannels: ‘Oh, I had that first,’ or ‘That guy ripped me off,’ or ‘She’s always picking my pocket.’ Instead of engaging in that smacktalk, she came up with a way of defining terms and providing symbols. It was the starting point of a discussion, not the end of one. And the discussion actually got pretty heated — and sort of mean toward her, with people saying, ‘Oh, who are you to decide.’ But all she was saying was, ‘This might be an idea’ and putting it out there.

I just think that people seem less and less concerned about where their information comes from at a time when I think they should be more and more concerned about it.

Do you consider that lack of concern about where content comes from a problem because it means fewer clicks for people who do create original content — or is there some more abstract sense of community that gets lost when we forget where things come from?

I think the primary concern is consumer literacy. Over and over, I think you should look at the source of information. There are lines sort of evaporating between what is marketing content and what is editorial content, what is government content — that all gets flattened out on the web so it all sort of looks the same, and the trade dress disappears. So are you reading news from a verifiable, reliable source, or are you reading propaganda? I think it’s sort of important to know where stuff came from.

I do think authorship in a pure sense and curation in a practical sense — credit where credit is due. In part because that’s often the only compensation that’s out there. That ego compensation or artistic compensation. When you rub that out and say, ‘I’ll rip you off whether you’re a company or some kid working in a dorm room’ — the web is a friction-free environment where it’s easy to produce content, but it’s a little short on incentives to produce content. Getting credit is one form of compensation.

"What there’s a shortage of is people like Bradley Manning: people who are willing to risk their freedom to dump closely held documents."

You often emphasize the importance of editors in shaping both writing and writers, helping to guide and professionalize the work. In Page One: Inside The New York Times [a 2011 documentary about a year at the paper], then editor-in-chief Bill Keller says that, for example, WikiLeaks doesn’t need The New York Times, implying that a info-dump publishing model could be some version of the future. Do you think that’s true?

I don’t think either Bill or Julian [Assange, editor in chief of WikiLeaks] believes that anymore. Julian initially believed that ubiquity of content would drive demand, when in fact it’s scarcity that drives demand. When he began partnerships with Der Spiegel and El Pais and The Guardian and us, it engaged the competitive instincts of journalism and increased pickup — not to mention had various news organizations applying muscle to that information and making it both more efficacious and safer to publish.

I do think that at the time it seemed true. And WikiLeaks has been tangled up in Julian’s legal battles, but really, what has popped out since? What there’s a shortage of is people like Bradley Manning: people who are willing to risk their freedom to dump closely held documents. There’s never been a shortage of whistles; there’s always been a shortage of people willing to blow them. WikiLeaks was a new kind of whistle, but I think looking back the historic figure to emerge from all that will be the guy sitting deep inside a federal prison: Bradley Manning.

Unfortunately for journalists, he’s not the only one feeling the pressure. You’ve written about political pressure coming from various sources —

Oh, the Obama Administration — "the most transparent administration in history" is how they came in — turns out to be one that’s been extremely aggressive in going after public employees motivated by nothing more than shedding light on what they felt were bad decisions. The administration had been prosecuting them in a criminal manner. I think it’s incredibly incongruous for an administration supposedly built on transparency and accountability to let the Justice Department run hog-wild and prosecute whistleblowers like they’re spies. Like they’re working for some foreign agency because they called The Baltimore Sun or whatever.

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Do you think that’s a response to the kind of access that Wikileaks provided, or is that more a reaction to the political circumstances the administration imagines itself in?

I find it completely and totally mysterious why this administration would be as secretive as it is. I mean, there’s been a general movement toward secrecy. If you look at how war is prosecuted, it’s now a far more private matter. Now you’ve got drone operations that we have no visibility into — unless they take out a "high-value target," and then of course it’s made public — you have contractors working on government behalf who have no requirement for reporting out their activities. As war becomes a more mechanized and privatized affair, it necessarily becomes a less knowable activity.

Historically, public awareness about conflicts has been a driver of those conflicts and how they end. I think when you take public accountability out of wars — all of which seem undeclared; many of which seem under-covered — you create an environment where people can engage in acts of war however they want and expect that it will be virtually impossible to cover them.

It’s remarkable to have to say something like that at a time when there’s a parallel story running in which, given the internet, given the amazing tools of content distribution at our disposal — we still have these black spaces from which no one can get any information.

I could not agree with you any more. The promise was that the reduction in friction and how information moves would lead to more openness, but I think it’s sparked institutional responses in creating artificial sources of friction to keep information from flowing too freely.

"As war becomes a more mechanized and privatized affair, it necessarily becomes a less knowable activity."
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"You cannot replicate somebody who’s opted-in to The New York Times."

Speaking of institutional sources of friction, The New York Times is now tweaking its paywall. There will be fewer free article views per month. What do you think of that?

I’m not super excited about it, because as I writer I’m always going to be arguing in favor of the greatest available visibility into the ecosystem of news and information. I would have rather had them move on price as opposed to frequency. But I’m really reluctant to land hard on that, because I think these guys really threaded an impossible needle with a model wherein what seemed like flaws were really features; what seemed like a really dicey pricing question got settled pretty well, where it came in at or above expectations.

So I don’t want to act like I know better than they do, because god, they already pulled off what I think is an amazing feat — and one that’s going to be very important to us going forward. I’m comforted by the fact that we maintained visibility in social media, in Twitter, by providing the first link free.

If you’ve been watching what they’ve been doing at The Guardian, where they’ve more-or-less been putting up the whole paper for free and letting people share it in a friction-free way — that’s never going to be a model that we’re a part of. We’re not going to create a site where you can make your own version of The New York Times for free, because increasingly consumers are willing to pay for it.

And it’s not just that we’re getting money out of them. We’re getting a new ad business out of people who’ve opted-in to The New York Times. That audience can’t be replicated in the way it has in the past, where we become just a part of commodity sales, where people can just reproduce our reader demographic. You cannot replicate somebody who’s opted-in to The New York Times. That person has expressed a desire to be there and spend precious, hard-earned money on it, and they should be very valuable from a CPM [costs per mille, the advertising cost per thousand impressions (or views)] standpoint.

Again it seems as though there are two contradictory movements in tension here. One is that news is becoming completely commodified. It just goes out and becomes part of the ecosystem, which allows people to create their own personalized, curated experiences that have their own built-in dead spots. But at the same time, the second movement is people wanting to buy back into institutionally-produced, authoritative news, because it feels like there’s a common ground there. You know if someone’s reading The New York Times, then they have a similar ecosystem of facts and understandings as another reader.

It’s a weird sort of evolution. I will admit that this Guardian experiment, where social caught up with and overtook search in a matter of weeks — that really got my attention. But it does run the risk that the meaning of sharing could become demeaned over time. It becomes a passive activity.

And if you’re putting all your stories out there and they’re being spreading frictionlessly on social, the hierarchy of importance among various stories is being settled democratically — or algorithmically, with people attached. Except we’re sort of in the business of creating hierarchy. When I first got here and was watching the page one meeting, I’d watch them decide what were going to be the six most important stories in the western world for the following day’s paper. Meanwhile the web’s above their heads, where all stories are becoming interchangeable. I thought, ‘Oh, this is so silly to blow a whistle and say, "Stop! These are the stories worth your attention.'"

But now that I’m bathed in information every single day and stuff is wooshing by me, I kind of love the full-stop arrangement of stories on The New York Times. A lot of times I wake up and think about the day that’s just passed and wonder, ‘What was that? What happened?’ A lot of stuff, and I can’t really tell which part of it was important.

And I’m not saying that these guys are some kind of wizards and they always get it right. But they’re pretty good at picking stories. And it does as you point out, create a kind of village common where I feel like I’m part of a community where everybody’s not lost down their own vertical, behind their own filter bubble, and that we have some stories held in common.

I think within the last month the implications of social over search have really become more apparent to me. With search you’re pulling stuff in, and with social you’re pushing stuff out and sharing it. You’re developing an intellectual and social identity in doing so. You can depend on the wisdom of crowds to do so, to set up your media streams — but in my experience? Crowds: not that wise. I wouldn't want an informational diet that depends on what’s trending on Twitter.

In the past week I have been looking at something called PostPost, which data-mines the people you follow to see what are the most persistent topics. That I’m interested in, because I’ve already picked those guys to iterate the web for me. I don’t like keeping an eye on Twitter all the time, so I like that PostPost can pull down what the people I follow have been discussing.

That goes back to what you were saying at the beginning. Looking to know where things come from: that’s one kind of media literacy. Knowing the conversation among people you've chosen as your community is another kind of media literacy. It adds another layer of information.

Plus those people are vetted, and if there are people in my feed who are constantly tweeting out bullshit or self-promotion or promoting what their kids do, then I don’t really care what they think. So I try to keep my feed down to people who sort of know what’s going on. It’s not like I don’t look at RSS still. But what I don’t look at is the web. The web has kind of gone away for me.

"You can depend on the wisdom of crowds to do so, to set up your media streams — but in my experience? Crowds: not that wise."

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