David Carr Goes Hollywood in Page One

New York Times media reporter David Carr may joke about “looking homeless,” but he’s the breakout star of Page One, the new documentary about the paper. He tells Lloyd Grove about his one stab at acting, troubles downloading The Daily, and new boss Jill Abramson.

Stephen Chernin / AP Photo

David Carr—by his own account an ex-crack addict, onetime jailbird, formerly abusive boyfriend and neglectful parent—hardly fits standard notions of a movie idol. He’s an even more unlikely candidate for premier media columnist at The New York Times.

Yet the 53-year-old Carr is both—the widely read byline on the Media Equation, his influential Monday business column, and the breakout star of Page One, a surprisingly gripping documentary, opening June 17, about the legendary newspaper coping with omens of imminent extinction in the age of the Internet.

“I’m not what you would call the classic Timesman,” Carr tells me in a rare stab at understatement. “It’s sort of a contextual thing: You have this button-down ivy growing everywhere, and this oddly shaped tumbleweed comes rolling through the middle of it. I joke about looking homeless, but my neck is bent, my voice is torn up, and there’s always schmutz on my shirt.”

Sitting across the table in a Manhattan watering hole popular with journalists but allergic to publicity, Carr actually looks pretty well put together in his crisp shirt, dark tie, and blazer. We’ve known each other for years, and I tell him that since he once wrote a story about me—when my gossip column was canceled by the New York Daily News—it’s only fair that I return the favor.

“It’s a little meta,” Carr observes. “You’ve got the media guys who write stories about people who write stories about people who actually do things.”

Given Carr’s outsize personality and prickly eloquence, it’s no mystery why director Andrew Rossi would want to focus the film on him alone, saying, “Let me film the media meltdown over your shoulder.” Carr demurred, agreeing to let Rossi’s camera follow him around the newsroom and points beyond only if he first secured the approval of executive editor Bill Keller (who last week announced he’s stepping down in favor of managing editor Jill Abramson) and also featured such colleagues as media editor Bruce Headlam and reporters Richard Perez-Pena, Tim Arango, and Brian Stelter.

At first Rossi, who also acted as producer and cinematographer, was following Carr to his interviews with sources, but Carr put a stop to that “after having the third interview subject freeze up when I walked up,” he says. “If you want to signal what a jerk you are, having a guy trail you with a camera is a pretty good way to do it. I said to Andrew, ‘You might get your movie, but I won’t get my story.’ ”

Carr adds: “When you meet him, Andrew is super-lovely. He’s very low-key. He’s the ideal fly on the wall, sort of short and unassuming. You wouldn’t know he’s a Harvard-educated Skadden, Arps lawyer. That is the trick of documentary independent filmmaking.”

Weaving strands of archive footage with cinema vérité, Rossi ultimately pulls off a miracle of synthesis, capturing media reporters as they chronicle the often frightening transformations of their own business from traditional dead-tree journalism to the brave new world of WikiLeaks and Twitter. Obviously, it’s not a movie for everybody—it helps if you like to read newspapers—and Carr was a skeptic from the get-go.

“I thought the movie would be shite—a bunch of doughy white guys typing on terminals. This is the least cinematic environment he could possibly conjure. This could be an insurance company. And Andrew turned us into Batman!” he marvels. “As someone who writes about newspapers, I covet his ability to make it seem interesting through the magic of storytelling or whatever, I don’t know. I thought it’s pretty cool.”

Carr—who at one point is shown wearing a ratty woolen scarf, sitting on his porch in Montclair, N.J., and typing on his laptop with the family Labrador at his feet—stars in countless memorable scenes. With deadly derision, he scolds an editor of Brooklyn-based Vice magazine (about which he’s writing a Media Equation column) who has the gall to belittle the Times’ Liberia coverage; during an Intelligence Squared public debate on the future of newspapers, he annihilates the glib arguments of self-styled media guru Michael Wolff, who rewards Carr with an expression evoking a boxer who’s just been cold-cocked; and while reporting his impressive October 2010 investigative series on the turmoil inside Sam Zell’s financially failing, sexually hostile Tribune Media Co.—a Page One story that resulted in the abrupt departure of Tribune’s top executives—he has a tense phone conversation with a corporate flack.

“I think you know I’m terrified at that point,” Carr tells me. “I am really frightened about this call, with the spokesperson just saying, ‘You’re really going to say my boss is getting a blow job on the desk?…’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ That’s the only real acting I did in the film. You look at it and I’m just completely confident, and meanwhile I’m crapping my pants the whole time on I’m on the phone.”

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Carr says he hopes Page One instills in its audience a renewed appreciation of newspapers and the valuable service they provide. “I think the film is going to do pretty well, partly because the Venn diagram intersect between The New York Times in a given town and the indie movie audience is heavy. If it does business, I’d love to see an ad saying, ‘If you like the movie, buy the paper.’”

Does he hope that, at a moment where readers are accustomed to getting news and information for free on the Web, that some of them might actually consider paying for it?

“It sounds entirely fatuous, but yes I do,” he tells me.

Carr tells me he was ready and willing to pay for The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s vaunted iPad newspaper that launched in February with great fanfare. “I was a huge advocate,” he says. “But the day after The Daily came out, it was 9 o’clock and it was time to load it up to the iPad.” The process tried his patience. “And I said I wouldn’t do that again if it ended world hunger. That’s not a business!”

I point out that in the movie, the hopeful arc of Carr’s life story—from addict and alcoholic to productive citizen—seems an optimistic metaphor for the troubled newspaper industry, particularly The Times.

“I’m not student of Times history, but I don’t think the paper was ever actually a crack addict or an alcoholic,” Carr retorts. He adds that he is occasionally mystified by the jeering of bloggers and aggregators who make their living by lifting content from traditional news outlets. “People forget that there was this period where some people were not only predicting that we were going to fall down, they were actually rooting it on,” he says. “And I think to myself, why would people who often act as journalistic pilot fish on the host root for the host to die? Do they really want to make their own phone calls?”

Carr credits Keller, who is handing the top editor’s perch to Abramson in September, with keeping the paper journalistically sound while publisher Arthur Sulzberger has found ways to keep it afloat financially. “We borrowed $250 million at usurious rates from a Mexican industrialist [megabillionaire Carlos Slim], but we’re paying it back early, and the capital structure seems stabilized.”

Carr says he was surprised by the timing of Keller’s departure, though not that Abramson is his successor. “She is—forgive me for putting it this way—a newsman to her core. There just seemed an inevitability to it… And the cool thing is that the baton she’s being handed isn’t on fire. She has the time to figure out where she wants to run with it.”