New York Times Grapples With David Carr's Legacy

The paper seeks fellow in honor of late journalist, but high-profile column remains unfilled.
The New York Times has yet to decide on a columnist replacement for the late David Carr, who will also be honored i
The New York Times has yet to decide on a columnist replacement for the late David Carr, who will also be honored in a new two-year fellowship. 

NEW YORK -- On Feb. 21, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said replacing star media columnist David Carr, who died in the paper's newsroom nine days earlier from complications of lung cancer, “is not something we can do overnight.” Carr, he noted, is “a tough act to follow.”

Indeed, Carr wasn’t a mere columnist, but occupied a unique space as the Times’ grizzled media sage, a champion of both old school journalistic values and new media upstarts, and a fierce advocate for the paper. The 2011 film "Page One: Inside the New York Times" showcased Carr firing back at critics who suggested the Gray Lady’s best days were over. And of course there's Carr’s backstory, rising from Minneapolis crack addict to chronicler of New York's media titans -- an un-Timesian trajectory that only added to his mystique inside and outside the paper.

On Thursday, The Times updated its criteria for a two-year David Carr Fellowship aimed at up-and-coming journalists, but the search to fill the late writer's old Monday morning column, perhaps the loftiest perch on the media beat, remains in limbo. 

The Times approached several journalists in the spring and sources familiar with the process expected a decision to be made during the summer. When Baquet was asked in mid-September about the search, he said a decision was weeks away. Now more than nine months since Carr's death, the process continues. 

Times editors declined to comment for this story, but sources familiar with the columnist search offered several theories as to why management hasn't yet made a decision.  

Some sources suggested a kind of paralysis has set in, with top Times editors so excessively concerned with not making the wrong choice -- one not befitting Carr's legacy -- that they've been unable to settle on anyone. The decision has only become more weighted as the months go by.

It's not that Times editors haven't had impressive candidates to consider. In May, Variety reported Vanity Fair contributing editor Sarah Ellison, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and Times media reporter Jonathan Mahler were in the running. None have been ruled out, according to sources. 

Times editors also spoke with veteran media reporter Gabriel Sherman, who withdrew himself from consideration in April after New York magazine promoted him to national affairs editor, according to sources. Management has also considered Sarah Lyall, a former London correspondent -- who has more recently been writing book reviews and features for the Times -- and Jim Rutenberg, the Times Magazine's chief political correspondent and a former media reporter.

Despite plenty of options, Times editors have to consider whether a strong writer would make the ideal "Media Equation" columnist. Would a presumably more independent magazine writer shift to a weekly schedule and occasionally pitch in on daily news coverage? Would a beat writer adopt a more voice-y, less neutral tone and take positions? And most importantly, what should the next columnist focus on. Business of media? New technology? Journalistic controversies? All of the above?

There's also the outsize role Carr played as the paper's biggest cheerleader, a believer in Times exceptionalism and public face of the brand. Of course, Carr didn't fulfill that role at the start of his Times tenure, but grew into it. In other words, David Carr wasn't always David Carr. 

Some sources suggested to The Huffington Post that the columnist slot hasn't been filled primarily because management prioritized other positions. While top editors reached out last spring to potential candidates, they put the process on the back burner to focus on hiring new book and TV critics and making changes in the Washington bureau, needed more immediately given the election season. The columnist search also may have taken on less urgency once the Times announced the fellowship as a means of honoring Carr's legacy. 

The Times first announced plans for the fellowship in September, describing it as the opportunity to “spend two years in The Times’s newsroom covering the intersection of technology, media and culture."

On Thursday, The Times published six journalists' remembrances of Carr as a mentor in promoting the fellowship, extended the deadline to Dec. 1 and tweaked some language on the application. Now the fellow "will spend two years at The Times doing work in the spirit of David’s." He or she, however, "need not be limited" to covering technology, media and culture. 

A Times spokeswoman told HuffPost that management tweaked the language because “some candidates had interpreted the fellowship as a position for a beat reporter” covering similar ground as Carr.

“We always viewed the Carr Fellowship as a role with an expansive remit,” she said in an email. “We focused in the initial announcement on a role that would sit at the intersection of technology/media and culture and that remains true, but it was never intended to be a ‘media desk,’ job. We're looking for a big talent, someone like David, and the best candidate might very well be someone interested in a wide range of coverage areas."

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