Carr (whom I employed six years ago at Inside.com) is a quirky, entertaining, singular writer. I was pleasantly surprised when the paper of record hired and then promoted him to media columnist. But I was flabbergasted when they gave him a movie-awards blog (the Carpetbagger) and—the Times!—let him invent a weekly Web-video spot as a goofy man-on-the-street and celebrity-on-the-red-carpet interviewer. He’s produced three dozen so far.
There’s nothing else like them in mainstream media. He is preternaturally perfect for the Web—a friendly, wisecracking 50-year-old character with a Minnesota rasp, the very opposite of self-serious. His years at alternative weeklies make him “predisposed to try whatever. ‘Video would be nice,’ they said,” when the blog started. “And I thought, In for a penny, in for a pound. I said, ‘I’ll go around in Times Square and hop around like an idiot and that should be sufficient.’ ” His videos are an alt version of the Today show out in Rockefeller Plaza, or as if Tom Waits had Ryan Seacrest’s job.
“This isn’t TV,” Carr says, “this is Web TV—that’s what we always say when we go out to make it.” Does he … prepare, hit marks? “Nothing. Ever. The first take is almost always the take.”
Outside the SAG Awards, he went to talk to the throng, “and I turned to the [camera] guy and said, ‘Follow me.’ There was a low velvet rope, and I tripped, almost fell down. I really think that’s part of what people want. They want to see the process. That’s what gives me joy. The mistakes being part of the narrative. It’s about a journalist being out of his depth, making sure the wires are not only visible but crossed.”
For one video, he asked colleagues about the Oscars, and went unannounced into the office of the executive editor. In a broad aside to the camera, with his boss sitting in the background, he said, “We’re here in the office of Bill Keller, who will seem like a real nice, friendly guy. [But] one false move during this interview, and he’ll snap my career in half like a twig.”
Last year at a staff meeting about the future of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, showed a Carpetbagger clip. Carr says, “I could just see people going, ‘This is “the plan”? Some homeless guy in Times Square?’ But Arthur,” he says, semi-ironically, “is part of my fan base.”
I asked Carr if he planned to extend his video brief beyond movies. “Yes,” he answered emphatically. “Given the direction of the New York Times, me and a bunch of other people will.”
The Washington Post’s Travis Fox, 31, is the opposite kind of natural-born Web-video genius, a globe-trotting hard-news yin to Carr’s rowdy, grinning Times Square–and–Hollywood yang. Fox has made ambitious, subtle, tough, and remarkably beautiful Web docs about a man who lost his son on 9/11, the anti-government opposition movements in Egypt, the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Last fall, his Katrina coverage won the first Emmy in the new Web-video category. The recognition is slightly ironic, since Fox didn’t come up through TV news or documentaries, and defines himself and his work entirely in opposition to the TV M.O. Some newspaper operations, he thinks, “are replicating the [TV] model too much. A lot of times when people think of video on Web they think of TV—which I don’t think works at all.”
For one thing, Fox rarely appears in his pieces. “At the beginning, I was adamant about never putting reporters in front of camera. If a reporter wants to be on camera, that’s probably a good reason not to put him on camera.”
Although he sometimes works alongside Post reporters, as a video journalist he’s a one-man multimedia operation who edits his pieces in the field. “I can’t imagine doing this with a crew. I get better access, and move quicker—it’s cheaper to send me alone, so I get more time.” He’s currently post-producing a piece he shot in Chad, and at the beginning of March he’s off to China. Only an institution like the Post—or the Times, or The Wall Street Journal—has the wherewithal to underwrite and give serious play to such expeditions. Fox sees himself as a sort of quiet revolutionary, eager to overthrow the ancien régime: “The possibility to replace television is in sight.” Ann Derry, the Times’ video No. 2, enthusiastically but very calmly says, “We are reinventing journalism.”
The passionate, improvised, innovative reinventings, as opposed to the final, fully professionalized reinventions, are often the coolest moments in cultural history. Think of movies in 1920, TV in 1955, or public radio in 1980. When the Carpetbagger was born, three Timespeople attended the meeting about it. This past fall, Carr says, there were thirteen people at the equivalent meeting. “The agenda was, ‘Where can we take the Carpetbagger?’ I said, ‘I think you “improve” the Carpetbagger at great peril.’ ” It’s true. And this very moment, before anyone professes to know much more than anyone else, is probably the beginning of the new medium’s great golden age. Enjoy it while it lasts.