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Former student remembers David Carr as ‘upbeat oracle’

When I receive career advice as a print journalism student, it’s often “give it all up and go to law school.”

This guidance is offered incessantly, and on a few occasions I have considered following it. We are in an age where legacy news organizations are losing ground to sites offering aggregated news for free. Foreign bureaus are dissolving, good reporters are losing jobs, and, on occasion, a newspaper shuts down. It’s a daunting industry to enter.

So for the young generation of journalists who are so often barraged with bad news about the industry, David Carr, who died Thursday night, was the upbeat oracle who always offered a bright forecast. His career advice was “keep typing,” and his unwavering hope for news pushed journalism students to forge ahead.


“David, despite his many years of experience in what we think of as Old Media, would tell people that he believes today is going to be the golden age of journalism,” said Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, where Carr taught. “David’s view is that we are now in an era where technology enables every individual to have an impact if they have something worthy to say.”

When it was announced last winter that Carr would teach a media criticism class at BU, he received a rockstar response. A satirical news story in the April Fools’ edition of the student newspaper depicted students on their knees in front of Carr’s office, praying for a seat in his class.

The caption under the story’s photo read: “College of Communications students pay homage to the legendary, exemplary, divine, groovy, remarkable, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, electrifying and super cool New York Times columnist David Carr.”

Students also flocked to Twitter to announce their excitement after the announcement came. Chelsea Diana, a BU journalism alumnus, tweeted “BU’s J-students are reacting to [David Carr] teaching at [Boston University] like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. And I love it.”


The comparison rang true; we were all Beliebers. Or Carrpenters? Maybe Carrolers?

I applied to be in Carr’s class in the fall, but didn’t get in. I appealed the decision, and petitioned to audit the class, but never got a seat.

Though I wasn’t his student, I often visited Carr in his office to talk, sometimes about movies or the news. I once told him about my interest in covering politics, and he suggested I start blogging about an interesting candidate running in 2016.

He sent me a nice e-mail after one of our talks, reiterating the advice that I keep a political blog. At the end of the e-mail he wrote, “Let me know if I can help your plot to take over the world.”

While critic Carr sometimes had a prickly demeanor, these nice notes were commonplace from professor Carr.

In one class, Carr asked his students to describe the most interesting thing about them. When her turn came, Emily Overholt disclosed something deeply personal in front of everyone. But after other students weren’t as frank in their revelations, Overholt said she felt a bit shaken.

“The next morning I woke up to an e-mail from Carr with the subject line ‘Yesterday,’ ” Overholt said. “He wrote, ‘I thought what you did was brave and smart yesterday, but then, I would, wouldn’t I? Good for you.’ ”


Clinton Nguyen, who took Carr’s class in the fall and became his teaching assistant this spring, said Carr was always pushing his students to take risks and make mistakes.

“With every piece of advice he gave, there would be a story to accompany it — usually one where he made the mistake and had to prostrate himself,” Nguyen said. “You knew he came from a place of complete understanding.”

Carr was full of journalistic mantras and rules of thumb he followed. While discussing investigative techniques, he once told the class, “Just wait for your moment. Then clobber the hell out of them. Then take a nap and do it again.”

I was accepted into Carr’s class this semester, but because of the record-breaking snowfall, only one three-hour lecture took place. He spent the class asking students about their favorite piece of media. If he hadn’t heard of the book or show, he made a note to check it out later.

He told a few great stories about his days pounding the pavement as a young reporter. He said he thought the Times put him on the Academy Awards beat partly because his disheveled appearance was a comical contrast with movie stars.

He made us immediately comfortable, and he made us laugh. After a short break in the class, he entered the classroom with freshly baked cookies.

Shortly after he began teaching last fall, Carr hosted a talk for WBUR with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. In the interview, he acknowledged that he had not fully acquiesced to the role of teacher, but said he was already smitten with the job.


“The thing that has been stunning to me is the level of seriousness that my students are bringing to the work at hand,” Carr said. “There’s a lot to worry about in the world — maybe some of it overhyped — but I think worrying about this next generation is a waste of time. I think they got it going on.”

Jasper Craven can be reach at jasper.craven@globe.com