David Carr: A passionate professor, shaping the future of journalism

David Carr was known at The New York Times as a supreme talent scout, a mentor to young reporters and a harsh critic of those who didn’t measure up. He was a natural teacher, and right up until the day he died last week, he was bent on minting the next generation of journalists. Last fall, David joined the faculty at Boston University’s communications school.

“I love the current future of journalism we are living through and care desperately about getting my students ready to prosper in this new place,” read the quotation below David’s portrait in a photo gallery at BU, where David served as the first Andrew R. Lack professor.

The class he taught offered a window into the journalistic future he was trying to shape. His course, called Press Play, focused on the cutting edge of media and was about “making and distributing content in the present future we are living through.” David cared deeply about nurturing reporters-to-be - college students who felt the calling and were looking for a spiritual guide to help them navigate the rapidly shifting media landscape.

The syllabus for Press Play, published on the blogging platform Medium, is perhaps David’s most succinct prescription for how to thrive in the digital age. It is also David in his purest form - at once blunt, funny, haughty, humble, demanding, endearing and unique. And although David did not write his curriculum as a column, it has all the essential ingredients of one. So here it serves as the final Media Equation under David’s byline.

David was interested in people, not their résumés. He didn’t care where someone went to college or who their parents were. So instead of giving his students a standard biographical blurb (graduate of the University of Minnesota, editor of The Washington City Paper, media columnist at The New York Times since 2005), David told them this, under the heading “Not need to know, but nice to know”:

“Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.

“He has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, some of which are good. We will figure out which is which together. He likes being challenged. He is an idiosyncratic speaker, often beginning in the middle of a story, and is used to being told that people have no idea what he is talking about. It’s fine to be one of those people. In Press Play, he will strive to be a lucid, linear communicator.

“Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.”

He encouraged teamwork.

“While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people,” David wrote, adding, “Evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out of the people around you.”

David warned there would be a heavy reading list.

“I’m not sliming you with a bunch of textbooks, so please know I am dead serious about these readings,” he wrote. “Skip or skim at your peril.”

Each of his classes and reading assignments spoke to very specific pieces of his vision for the future.

As forward-thinking as David was, he also revered great journalism in the traditional sense. Sprinkled throughout the course list are stories that have nothing to do with content management systems or multimedia packaging. He asked his students to read, before the semester began, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” the provocative essay published last year in The Atlantic describing how blacks should be financially compensated for having been handicapped throughout U.S. history. For the second week, he assigned “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival that considered whether it was “all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure.”

And as an exceptional writer with a unique voice, David did not forsake the opportunity to share those gifts. In a class called “Voice Lessons,” he sought to teach students “how to quit sounding like everyone else and begin sounding like … yourself.”

“From asking me about my personal experiences and things that had happened in my life, he would give me advice specifically geared to me,” said Prim Chuwiruch, who is originally from Thailand and was a graduate student in David’s first class. “He would say, ‘These are things that you have that no one else does, and you should channel that.’”

In the curriculum David said: “Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only. We will talk about the uses and abuses of a writer’s voice, how to express yourself in copy without using the ‘I' word and why ending stories with a quote from someone else is often the coward’s way out.”

If his students put in the effort, he made himself available.

“When class ended, it didn’t mean that he went back to New York and stopped being our teacher,” said Brooke Jackson-Glidden, 20, who credits being a student of David’s with helping her secure her current spot in The Boston Globe’s co-op program. “He understood that I cared about this,” she added, “and that’s all that really mattered to him.”

David exuded confidence but was also humble. As he dove into his new job last fall, he acknowledged that the professor himself had a lot to learn. He cautioned the students that his classroom would be a work in progress.

“The good news is that this is the first time that I have taught this class, so boredom will not be an issue. It’s also the bad news, because even though I have done a great deal of teaching over the years, it’s the first time I’ve been an actual professor and have had to string together an entire semester. You are a beta, which means things will be exciting and sometimes very confusing. Let’s be honest with each other when that happens. If you don’t get where I am going or what I want, say so. I care deeply that I do a good job in all endeavors, especially this one.”