Google? Evil?

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A few folks on Twitter have asked for my reaction to the accidental sharing of an FTC staff report on Google, wondering whether it will cause me to eat Crow McNuggets given that I am known to defend Google against some of the frequent attacks against it.

It’s difficult to judge the entire FTC report based on the excerpts and reports written by The Wall Street Journal. I figured the best I could do would be to ask myself where I draw the line between evil and good, illegal and legal in the behaviors alleged against Google.

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First, the coverage says that Google scraped content from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other sometimes-competitors. Well, of course, Google scrapes content everywhere; that its Job 1. Scraping is no more illegal or evil than reading, just a helluvalot faster. Any site can stop scrapers at the door with robots.txt instructions. Once scraped or read, information itself cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing evil or illegal about consuming, using, and repeating that information.

It does not violate copyright law to reuse the information itself so long as the use does not infringe on its creator’s presentation of it. In other words, I can read on Yelp that a restaurant is open until 10 p.m. and repeat that in a restaurant listing on my newspaper site without fear; it’s information. (Whether I trust the source of that information and whether I link to it are separate questions that are also worthy of discussion in regards to journalism, where we read and repeat for a living.)

I see nothing wrong with Google and other search engines scraping and retaining content from a site in their unseen databases for the purpose of analyzing that content to decide how to present links to it in search. It is in sites’ enlightened self-interest for that to occur.

I also see nothing wrong with quoting from these services’ content for the purpose of linking to them. I would call that fair use. This is the behavior at the heart of the fight with publishers in Germany, where the word “snippet” is now a legal term, though — like “fair use” — it is not and should not be precisely defined. This is also the behavior that is now being taxed in Spain — that is, those quoting and linking to sites are now required to pay those sites, whether the quoted sites demand it or not. This is what led Google to shut down Google News there. With this law, Spain has attacked the heart of the web.

Now here is where the line would be crossed: If Google republished these services’ content in whole and without permission, then that is a violation of copyright law and Google would be in the wrong. Google and Yelp have tussled over just this in the past; Yelp’s reviews appeared on then disappeared from Google’s Places pages. The Journal’s report says:

When competitors asked Google to stop taking their content, it threatened to remove them from its search engine.

“It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect,” the report said, “which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down.”

I can’t tell exactly what happened here. If Google did indeed threaten to stop listing Yelp in search if it stopped Google from wholesale republishing its content, then I would call that an improper use of its power: evil. But I am not sure that is what happened. Yelp disappeared from the Places pages (which since themselves disappeared) but Yelp stayed in search (that’s how I get to it all the time). So without more information, I can’t draw a verdict on this point.

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The next question is whether Google favors its own services in search. I’ve long found this allegation odd. First, publishers routinely promote their own services and fail to promote competitors’. When European publishers attacked Google, they complained that when searching on “running shoes” one finds Google’s ads for its own shoe advertisers and partners atop the page. But I have pointed out that if you go to the “Schuhe” link on Bild.com — the largest newspaper in Europe, owned by one of Google’s betes noires — one finds no promotion of competitors’ offerings. On Google, one does indeed find ads from its shoe advertisers and retailers, clearly labeled, but then on the top screen one also finds links to their competitors in shoespace, Zappos and Nike.

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And if one searches for “maps” one finds Google Maps first (they are the best) but then links to competitors Mapquest, Yahoo, and Bing. What publisher does that? Aren’t news organizations supposed to be impartial? Then under this doctrine shouldn’t People promote Us?

That’s an even odder expectation of Google: that it be impartial. I know of no law that decrees that search must be impartial. Hell, a U.S. district judge said that Chinese search engine Baidu had a First Amendment right to be partial and censor search results. I would find it even harder to define impartiality in search than I would in journalism. In fact, I want my search results to be partial, to favor quality, originality, authority, relevance (to my request and ultimately to me), and timeliness (when that is relevant). Impartial search would be noisy, spammed, useless search.

Also note that history’s first ads in search — on Bill Gross’ GoTo.com, which became Overture, which was acquired by Yahoo — featured paid placement in rather than merely alongside search. Indeed, Google had to pay Yahoo $300+ million in settlement for infringing on the patent for advertising in search from Overture. But along the way, it was Google itself that instilled in us the idea that ads should not appear in search and that one should not be able to pay for placement. So Google set that standard. Now it’s true that the FTC makes it living holding commercial entities to their own standards. But to be found guilty of such consumer fraud, Google must have made the promise to which it is now being held. Does it? In its principles, Google says ads should be relevant and labeled — and they are — but doesn’t say anything that I can find about impartiality.

Now if it’s true that Google purposefully and secretly downgrades competitors, I would find that to be a betrayal of the trust we hold in it: evil. I don’t know whether that’s proven here. If Google promotes its own sites without labeling that as promotion, I would find that hypocritical, but I also don’t know whether that is happening here.

* * *

The next allegation in The Journal’s report is that Google restricted advertisers from using data obtained while advertising on Google in campaigns placed on competitors’ services. I’m not sure precisely what this means but I will say that Google — a company that believes information should flow freely — should allow brands that have paid to advertise to use whatever intelligence they gain however and wherever they wish. More broadly, I have argued that point in posts about what both Google and Facebook could do for news, advocating a freer exchange of data about users and content. In any case, The Journal says Google revised its terms to “give advertisers more control over their own ad-campaign data.”

* * *

Finally, The Journal says (in an abbreviated graphic) that Google tried to restrict sites that did search deals from also doing deals with competitors, including Bing. I’d call that just stupid: a red cape for antitrust investigators. The Journal said one investigator cited a lack of evidence of this complaint.

* * *

Please keep in mind two things about this report. First, Journal owner Rupert Murdoch has what one might call in my impolite company a hard-on for Google. Second, a much more reasoned Washington Post report explains that the accidentally leaked report was from the FTC’s lawyers, who tend to itch for antitrust fights, while a separate report from the agency’s economists — who look for impact of companies’ behavior on consumers — argued against taking on Google.

Let’s also remember that it’s the market that made Google as big as it is. In Germany — the front line of the war against Google — the company has its second highest market penetration of anywhere in the world, 50 percent higher than in America. German consumers obviously use and apparently like Google and I must ask whether their media and government are in sync with them. Google argues — and I agree — that there are perfectly good alternatives for every consumer service it offers: Bing for search, Mapquest for Maps, Outlook for mail, and so on.

But — and this is a huge but — there is no easy alternative for advertisers. That is where I have long argued that Google is vulnerable to accusations of abuse of power. When it comes to which advertisers are deemed to be bad actors, Google wields the power of God. Some shopping comparison sites are pure spam and Google is right to ban them. But should we always trust Google to make that decision? I’ve suggested that Google should have a jury of commercial peers help with that judgment.

My bottom line: If Google secretly disadvantages quality — not spammy — competitors, that would be wrong. If Google presented others’ *complete* content without permission and ejected sites that resisted such wholesale copying from search, that would be wrong. But in the Journal report, I don’t see sufficient evidence of either act to definitively declare guilt. More to the point in the discussion of antitrust at the FTC and in Europe, I don’t see cause to break up the company.

The other day, I spoke at length with a European journalist who disagrees with me about Google, Silicon Valley, Eurotechnopanic, and regulation. She reflexively leapt to regulation as a necessary reaction to any company that grows “too big.” I asked her, as I ask many with whom I have this conversation, to show me the statutory definition of “too big.” The issue is not how big a company is but what it does with that size. The issue is not what a company could do with that power but what it does with that power. I also asked her to show me why I should trust government to do a better job managing these processes than the market. The market took care of Microsoft’s excesses, not the EU. And governments in Europe are doing much to damage the net, from the Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht to Spain’s link tax to the EU court’s right to be forgotten. I acknowledge that I sound like a libertarian when I say this but I will point out that I am a Hillary Clinton Democrat. But I do not favor regulation for regulation’s sake.

I sometimes wish Google would fuck up more so I could criticize it more often. I have criticized Google. But I have defended it because I generally find it to be a good company and because it is often the whipping boy for those who would attack not just Google but the net and its disruption as well as American technology companies. If on the basis of the Journal report you want to see me repudiate Google and call for its dismembering, sorry.

The crow flies. It doesn’t fry tonight.

crow in flight

Who needs edittors?

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I am editorially feral.

I got email yesterday from an editor at The Washington Post asking whether I wanted to write an opinion piece picking and debunking five myths about Google. Well, I love The Post, so sure. I was honored. I sent them five myths and left work to start work on it. Then the editor responded wanting to change my myths before I’d written anything. Change my opinion? No thanks. I said that I no longer live in the civilization of editors. I’m a blogger. I can write my opinion anywhere: here, on Medium, on Huffington Post, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Tumblr. The editor said: “We are the Washington Post, we believe in strong editing.” This was not going to work.

Of course, I can always stand editing. You know that if you read me here. My editor for What Would Google Do? and Public Parts did wonders for me. I sought editing from many colleagues for Geeks Bearing Gifts.

But for a simple little opinion piece about Google? Why ask for my opinion if you don’t want it? Anyway, my little opinion hardly seems worth the effort. Indeed, in a time of dwindling, precious journalistic resources, I’m not sure we can afford the effort to edit — let alone write — such as that. And besides, who determined that the world needs five myths about Google made up and debunked? Who in the public asked for it?

This kind of thing comes from our content mentality: We have a section to fill. We will come up with the ideas to do that. We will find somebody to write it. We will edit it. A day’s work. Tomorrow’s another day to fill.

A service mentality in journalism would dictate a different job: We observe and listen to what the public needs. We determine what will answer that need. We will measure our success by whether that need is met.

I’m just not made for the former anymore. Neither am I made for the idea that we are primarily storytellers whose job is to engage–nay, entertain–the public. I’m not criticizing The Post or the editor who contacted me. They are doing exactly what good editors do: edit. Instead, I’m starting to try to figure out new organizations, structures, tasks, roles, outcomes, and metrics for what we used to call newspapers and newsrooms.

When I talk with places like Vox or Facebook, I see entirely new–and still forming–job descriptions built around small teams made up of product developers, project managers, designers, and developers who build services and products. They don’t edit, not so much.

Am I killing all the editors? Of course, not. I am envisioning completely new roles for them. In my social-journalism and entrepreneurial-journalism worldview, editors and journalists become links to, advocates for, and servants of the public. They see and translate needs into products and services. They support platforms, systems, and networks that bring coverage from many sources in many forms: stories, yes, but so much more because now we can do so much more.

So I don’t fit in the civilization of editors. And they don’t know what to do with a mangy beast such as me.

feral cat 2

:LATER: I’ve heard from folks at the Post who took insult at what I said here. I just want to emphasize that was not my intent. I wanted to jump off this moment to reflect on changes in our trade — its goals, roles, and organizations — and in my relationship to it. I’m the odd one here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Advertising, the Myth of Mass Media, and the Relationship Strategy

OK, folks, now we are at the nut of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. This is where I begin exploring how the relationship strategy I advocate can bring business benefit to the news industry. Here’s the entire chapter, free on Medium. Here’s the start:

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The myth of mass media, lovely while it lasted, was this: All readers see all ads, so we charge all advertisers for all readers. The unbundling of mass media and the rise of endless competition punctures that myth and robs legacy companies of the pricing power — and monopolies — they had so enjoyed. Today, I believe we need to shift to a business built on the relationship strategy I began outlining in the first part of this essay. There, I argued that knowing people as individuals and communities — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services, and that, in turn, pushes us to develop new forms of news. Now I will look at how that relationship strategy can form the foundation of a stronger advertising business for news and media.

To start, if we provide our users with better relevance and value, that surely will build greater engagement, loyalty, usage, and attention, and that in turn will create more ad inventory to sell (though, granted, hardly any media company sells all the inventory it has today anyway). More important, the relationship strategy gives us the opportunity to increase the value of what we sell to advertisers. By knowing more about who our users are, we can sell and deliver more targeted advertising that is more relevant to their customers and thus more effective. Rather than serving only one-size-fits-all “impressions” to anonymous “eyeballs” by the thousands as advertisers and media companies do now, we can offer more productive measures of value like attention, engagement, action, impact, and even sales. We can serve specific groups of users to advertisers who value them highly. With privacy properly protected, we have the opportunity to become a trusted broker of data we gather about our users. And if we get good at the relationship business, we have a brief window of opportunity to teach and sell these skills to advertisers as a service — presuming they don’t wake up and learn them before we do. We also have the opportunity to move past selling advertising to selling products and services directly to users, venturing into commerce — which really is just a truncated form of marketing and advertising. The relationship strategy is one defense against the commodification of media’s old content business by new competitors and new technologies.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Business Ecosystems

Time for another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. In the last chapter, I wrote about beats as businesses and building blocks of a new news ecosystem. Now I write about the rest of the ecosystem. Vertically integrated companies, industries, and monopolies that dominated news are new replaced with messy, growing (I hope) ecosystems made up of many players operating under many different motives and business models.

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As specialists, beats are efficient. But they are hardly sufficient to meet the complete needs of the larger community. Other, larger entities are required to complement and bring quality and scale to coverage, distribution, and advertising. These additional entities can become efficient and sustainable because together, all these enterprises, large and small, can benefit one another — if they learn to collaborate. These entities can include new news organizations, reformed legacy institutions, not-for-profit investigative organizations, public media, specialists of various sorts, networks, and enterprises I’ve not yet seen or imagined. Together, they make up the new news ecosystem.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Beat Businesses as Building Blocks of News Ecosystems

The latest chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News is posted free on Medium. The topic this time, one of my favorites: beat businesses (hyperlocal, hyperinterest, vertical sites serving specific communities) as building blocks of a new news ecosystem. The opening:

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In research conducted at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center in 2009 and again in 2014, modeling the news ecosystem of a market the size of Boston and then of New Jersey, we found that beats can indeed be businesses. We found examples scattered across the country — and I emphasize the word scattered — of hyperlocal blogs covering towns or urban neighborhoods of about 50,000 people that were earning upwards of $250,000 to $350,000 a year, mostly in advertising revenue. It is grindingly hard work. To serve, attract, and maintain a loyal audience of sufficient size within the community, the blogger must feed the beast not merely daily but many times per day. She must constantly be out in the community, talking with people. She has to perform not just journalistic functions but also commercial functions, getting over the journalist’s common phobia of business — specifically of arithmetic, advertising, and sales. To do all that alone is nigh unto impossible, so the hyperlocal blogger often works with partners — sometimes spouses — and has to earn the trust and affection of members of the community as collaborators. She also has to grapple with conflicts of interest more easily compartmentalized in large news organizations with their still-sprawling organization charts and lawyers on call — namely, how to deal with a local merchant as a reader, a subject, a source, and often an official of the town as well as a customer, while maintaining her own independence and credibility. It’s tough. It’s exhausting. It defeats many who try it. But still, there are many examples of success — from Baristanet to the West Seattle Blog to Red Bank Green, from The Batavian to The Lo-Down to Watershed Post. These are people who care about their own communities, who want to serve them, who sacrifice their days and any prayer of vacations, who pour sweat equity into their enterprises with no hope of the exits that other entrepreneurs work toward. And thank goodness for them.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Efficiency … The Final Cut

Here’s the next free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts about efficiency and news and ask what of journalism we must fight to save and what isn’t necessarily journalism or at least journalism we can’t necessarily afford anymore.

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Most discussions of the state and fate of the business of news start with revenue and a search for the means to recover what has been lost to the internet so we can pay for and thus protect newsrooms as they were. Sorry, but I will begin on the other side of the ledger with the cost of journalism. It has plummeted, not just because we have less money to spend but because we can now spend less to get and disseminate the news. Thanks to technology, specialization, and collaboration, news can be much more efficient today.

After exploring the many ways in which technology has saved the news business money since the ’70s, I add:

Even with all that disruption and downsizing, still greater efficiency and savings have been brought to news by the internet — particularly the web and its essential invention: the link, which rewards both specialization and collaboration. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” is my most quoted, retweeted, and PowerPointed utterance (it helps that it rhymes). Out of that dictum flows a series of new efficiencies and necessities for news. The first is to specialize. There’s little sense wasting your time writing the 25th-best account of a story when it will appear on the third page of a search request and in only a few tweets; mediocrity and repetition don’t pay anymore, at least not for long. But there is considerable value in creating the best, for others will end up linking to you. . . .

The link forces us to reexamine the scoop culture of news — the belief that being first is always worthwhile. Today the half-life of a scoop is measured in the time it takes to click. It simply doesn’t pay anymore to be the first to report what will happen in a press conference when that will then be reported by hundreds of competitors, each a click away. Neither does it pay to “match” a competitor’s scoop, duplicating its reporting when linking to it will do — unless your reporting does take a story further. A true scoop, something that is worth our precious resources, is an investigation that breaks new ground or an insight from a reporter who knows her beat and her community better than anyone else. The rest is just the next minute’s fishwrap, digital dust.

After exploring various efficiencies and trying to cut journalism and our definition of it to its critical essence (in which, for the sake of illustration, I will piss off sports reporters and even some foreign correspondents and, God help me, copy editors), I come to this:

The news organization of the future should be specialized, expert, collaborative, efficient — and as small as it can be so it is sustainable. The bottom line: News enterprises that become profitable on their digital revenue are bound to be much smaller than their print forebears because, for all the reasons explored above, there’s simply less digital revenue to be had. This hard fact forces us to redefine the core of our value and to rebuild from there rather than trying to hold onto the functions we used to perform because we’ve always performed them. We must cut the waste. . .

What are we trying to save of journalism? . . .

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Digital First — What Then?

Here’s another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. Now we get into the business models and strategies for news companies, starting with the question many ask John Paton, who named his company with the phrase — “What’s digital first?” — and the question he asked me — “What comes next?”

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Here’s how I translate the catchphrase “digital first” into a business strategy for legacy media proprietors: They must transform their companies into fully sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. And for the most part, print will become unsustainable. I needn’t explore in depth the causes of death, as the essence of mass media’s plight is now apparent: Publishers as well as broadcasters controlled scarcities — limited space in print and time on the air, each in a closed distribution channel — which afforded them enviable pricing power. The net creates abundance — no shortage of content and no end of advertising availabilities, not to mention the opportunity for brands and merchants to bypass media altogether and build direct relationships with customers. That abundance drives the value of content and advertising toward zero….

The solutions for media companies may not be obvious, but the arithmetic of sustainability is: Start by reducing costs to their most essential and efficient level — assuredly a fraction of what they were for an old, vertically integrated monopoly. Then maximize digital revenue — advertising volume, yes, but I will also argue for building greater advertising value through deeper, richer relationships with consumers. Build new products and services appropriate to the new opportunities that technology presents: digital services for advertisers, mobile applications, newsletters, and so on. And explore additional revenue streams, including events, direct commerce, and consumer revenue via patronage or paywalls. Digital revenue surely will not cover the legacy costs of a deposed monopoly, but one had better see a path to digital profitability. The alternative is just to milk the old print cow until she keels over.

And one more snippet from this chapter about Paton and the genesis of this entire book:

Back to John Paton: I remember the day in 2012 when he charted for his advisory board — at the time, Jay Rosen, Emily Bell, and me; Clay Shirky joined later — his path to fixing Digital First’s corporate structure, reducing costs to the minimum (selling every printing press, fleet of trucks, and office building that was not profitable on its own), and driving maximum revenue to digital. He explained the dynamics of working with hedge funds — a crucial factor to keep in mind when we see later how his story ends. Paton drew his projections on the whiteboard and said: OK, let’s imagine that at a date only a couple of years out, we get there — the company will be substantially sustainable as a digital enterprise. Then what? he asked. What are we then?

That question inspired this essay. Trying to answer Paton’s question forced me to reexamine my own thinking about the future of news, to identify and push harder against my own assumptions that sprang from my experience in legacy media: the Gutenberg context, or pressthink, as Jay Rosen would call it. Paton was asking what news could be, what news should be. What is the strategy that takes us past mere survival to reinvention? Can we get there? I realized that until we reimagined our destination, we would be stuck recycling the past. What’s required to get to that goal is considerable imagination, experimentation, risk, failure, courage, and urgency — as well as patience.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

David Carr

I debated whether to write a tribute here to David Carr. There are many more who had the privilege of knowing him much better than I did. Though it is quite appropriate that, as Andrea Peterson beautifully phrased it, the “wired collective voice of Twitter howled ‘David Carr'” on news of his death last night, a tweet, ten thousand tweets seem too few and by all means too fleeting for the likes of him. I asked myself what I would want my friends to do when I go and I’ll put those few of you on notice now: I want more than a tweet. So here in this, my somewhat less fleeting home, is a moment for David Carr.

Here I want to remember just one aspect of David’s remarkable career, character, and life: his appreciation for the value of youth.

I loved the times when he would brag about his daughters’ accomplishments and his moments with them online. Of course, that’s every father’s joy. But David was proud of the accomplishments of young people around him in much the same way. Last night in Twitter’s howl, I saw many rising talents thank David for the moments of intense attention and encouragement he had given them. My heart goes out to his own children and wife, of course, and also to his extended brood, like his students at BU who were so privileged to sit in the class of the all too briefly tenured Prof. Carr. In his brilliant syllabus, he told them:

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.

I was lucky to snag David once to judge my students’ entrepreneurial ventures. As the other assembled experts debated this and that, David waited for his moment and then — and you must hear this in that voice of his, that of a badly tuned diesel engine struggling up a mountain against the wind — he said: “The journalist must go to the ocean.” The room was silent, heads cocked like confused German shepherds as if to say, “What the fuck does that mean, David?” He was used to that: the price of speaking in brilliant, unexpected flourishes. So he explained: He saw that now the journalist had to do it all, had to make all media, had to distribute, had to support her work as a business. David voted for a few of those businesses and then, indeed, quietly helped those students find their ways to the ocean.

I was most impressed with David’s much observed bromance with Brian Stelter. When Brian arrived at The New York Times fresh from graduation day, David joked about seeing this young man as a threat — in David’s brilliant, unexpected flourish, Brian was a robot built in the basement of The Times to destroy him. Of course, David took Brian under his wing. But he did something more remarkable: He simultaneously treated Brian as a respected colleague, an equal, often someone to look up to. He was proud of Brian’s many page one stories. There’s a reason they costarred in Page One.

David’s love of youth and inventiveness permeated his criticism and media worldview. He played the curmudgeon brilliantly. The voice and imposing glare helped. He held journalism to standards. He asked the hardest questions he could and kept asking past the easy answers. But at the same time he allowed himself the joy of discovery of the new. I’ll bet that’s why he liked young people so much. They brought the fresh perspective that challenged his own perspective. He was open and intellectually honest enough to change his mind.

Evidence of that was his changing relationship with those Vice whippersnappers. Here was David scolding them in Page One:

And here was David changing his mind about Vice. Last year, he wrote: “Being the crusty old-media scold felt good at the time, but recent events suggest that Vice is deadly serious about doing real news that people, yes, even young people, will actually watch.”

Now see Vice cofounder Shane Smith talk about those moments and his relationship with David:

“People like David Carr who speak their minds and tell the truth are few and far between,” Shane said, “and there should be more David Carrs.” True.