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David Carr, Ventriloquist

Why he was a great boss.
David Carr, 1956-2015. Photograph by Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times. Courtesy The New York Times.

David Carr hired me as a writer for Washington City Paper in the fall of 1997. I was 24, with goody-goody academic credentials and not much by way of actual life experience. He was the opposite, with a legendarily checkered back-story and some evident delight in getting to supervise a DC newsroom’s overachieving Ivy babies. “I’m giving you the worst seat in the house,” he said, pointing out my tiny cubicle. “Because I never want to see you. Go out and report. There are no good stories in this building.”

That wasn’t quite true. My JV-sized cubicle had one journalistic advantage: It was right outside his office. Which meant I’d get to overhear a lot of the boss’ conversations.

By then, stories about the Carr style were legion. He had a quirky cache of phrases that sounded like they were common expressions, but in fact may only have been used by him: “out here on girl island” meant confidential; “faster is better than better” meant hurry up; “low, sloping foreheads” meant…well, I never did figure that out. More entertaining were the times he used his voice to stand up for his paper and his staff. I’d heard tales before I started: There was the guy who’d been called “asshole” in a story. When he phoned to complain, things got heated. Carr got the last word. “You know, Stu,” he said. “You really are an asshole!” Or the city council guy who was irate that we hadn’t noted the many sacrifices he made for public service. “Then quit!,” Carr thundered. And the community activist who said something along the lines of “you can’t say that.” Carr: “Well, I just did.”

Because it was an alt-weekly, it’s easy to look back on this kind of stuff like campus high jinks—the irresponsible fun you don’t get to have anymore once you grow up and start working at a paper where the editor doesn’t cram staff into the wayback of his Ford Explorer to drive to Virginia in search of Pho. And because we were all so young, it’s easy to cast Carr’s role in writers’ lives as merely Hollywood city-editor tough-love schtick, hazing us by hollering about errors, clichés, or, in my case, “Schaffer, you’ve never met a dependent clause you didn’t love!”

When I look back, there was a lot more going on. I’d overhear Carr’s reporting calls, too. The way he worked them—cajoling and arguing, but also playing it straight and letting people know it might be a tough story for them—sank in. Ditto Carr’s editing sessions. For all of his ambitions (“make a paper people talk about,” it said above his door) the conversations I’d overhear tended to be sober and cautious, teasing out truths hidden behind opaque word choices.

The most brutal call I overheard was on my very first day. The guy on the other end of the phone had been a contender for my job. When he didn’t get it, he also abandoned a story right before deadline, blowing a hole in the paper. Carr’s fury was impressive, and kind of horrific, but the moral of the story was clear: Honor your commitments or you’ll make an enemy. As a proper little overachiever, I’d internalized the first half of that lesson. As a sheltered little kid, I’d never heard the second part made so clear.

Carr got out of the editing business when he left City Paper, writing at a couple of places in New York before landing at the Times. He became a star in Manhattan, one of a long line of ambitious strivers from the boonies who fell in love with the emerald city and managed to bend it to their will. It was, in a way, a more natural fit than Washington, where credentialism ran stronger and the path from being a nobody to being a somebody is different. But as he became a big deal, a lot of the things we knew about Carr in our little Adams Morgan office back in the day became clear to the wider world: He was hilarious, shrewd, a great reporter; had a sharp sense of what was about to happen in culture and business; was wide open to new platforms even when he was in a position to celebrate his reputation on existing ones. In Washington, his media beat got him into conversations with the great and good of Beltway journalism, and his editing responsibilities put him in contact with low-level Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. I never heard him act too impressed with, or too good for, any of them.

But what’s been less talked about it what I and the rest of our cohort at City Paper knew: Carr was a great boss. He assembled an amazing bunch of people, emphasizing diversity, celebrating quirks, demanding excellence. He could scream and kick ass and terrify, sure, but also had this very deft sense of what would motivate each individual. He bought us books. He gamed out careers. He forged bonds. And he usually made it home for dinner, too, to the family life he’d reassembled out of chaos. It worked on me, and on the old colleagues who spent last night grieving, too. When a prominent editing job came open last year and I told him I thought he should do it, he told me he was glad to no longer be fielding dog-ate-my-homework excuses about blown deadlines, and added—in media-wiseman style—that in 2015 it’s better to be a brand. Maybe. But a glance at Twitter last night made it clear the mentor gene was still strong in him, whatever his title.

A little less than ten years after Carr left City Paper, I took possession of his old office. His folders were still in that file cabinet marked “personnel,” except now I had the key and got to read them. What jumped out from the files—other than the astoundingly dull language I used in my initial cover letter—were all the notes he’d taken: Things he wanted to talk about with so-and-so, or ideas for such-and-such, or precisely what one particular staffer had to fix in order to not get fired. I have no doubt those demands were articulated fully in person. But Carr’s crazy-Midwestern-outsider affect obscured how seriously thought out they’d been in advance.

“Editing is an act of ventriloquism,” Carr told me when he promoted me to an editing job. He meant that, now that I was allowed to bloody other people’s copy, the goal was getting people to use their own voice. But when I look at all the old Carr tricks in my personal tool-kit, the metaphor gets richer. He’s gone, and I miss him, but my voice still speaks so many of his words.

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Editor

Michael Schaffer has been editor of Washingtonian since 2014. A former editor of Washington City Paper and editorial director of The New Republic, Michael is also the author of One Nation Under Dog, a 2009 book about America’s obsession with pets. A DC native, he currently lives in Chevy Chase DC with his wife and their two daughters.