The man who outsmarted the journalism world without meaning to

by azaleon

I remember two things from the Indiana University School of Journalism’s alumni panel discussion on Nov. 15, 2011:

  1. Chad Millman, then the editor-in-chief of ESPN the Magazine and now ESPN’s vice president and editorial director for domestic digital content, made a R-rated joke that got a lot of laughs
  2. I sat next to Dan Carson, who I was surprised even attended

It’s not that Dan was a bad guy or that I had anything against him, but he just didn’t seem like the type of journalism student who would go the extra mile to show up for these sort of things. This was the guy who wrote humor columns for IU’s Greek student newspaper, The Odyssey, which was even made fun of by Greeks as a glorified coloring book. This was the guy who wrote a column in The Odyssey about his favorite bathroom stall on campus.

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Yes, that’s the picture that ran with the column about his favorite stall.

In the vain, competitive world of student journalism, Dan wasn’t even on the radar. He wasn’t up for any of the awards we coveted because he wasn’t part of any on-campus student media organization (well, except for The Odyssey). I pegged him as a “public relations job in Chicago living in Wrigleyville after college” kinda guy. Dan breaking into journalism after college would be like attempting the black diamond course without knowing how to ski.

Earlier this year, Dan Carson was hired at Fox Sports as a senior writer.

He has never worked a day of his life at a newspaper (unless you count the Odyssey).

He never slaved away in some podunk town for meager pay, hoping for his big break.

He didn’t take the usual career route, perhaps cheated the system, and is probably better for it.

“I skipped some steps,” he said. “A person who went a much more traditional path might ask how this happened.”

So I did.

Hell, I can put crying Jordan on anything you want

The best thing that happened to Carson was not getting a job.

Coming out of college, the only internship he had to his name was a marketing one with the Big Ten Network. His skills were a hodgepodge; he took a Photoshop class because he needed the credits, knew a little iMovie, made a Twitter account because a professor told him he needed to and enjoyed to write.

“I was wondering if journalism was for me,” he said. “The formulaic news writing classes turned me off to it. I was discouraged. It wasn’t me. Then I took a literary journalism class and it opened my eyes. I was reading W.C. Heinz, Tom Wolfe, these are respected journalists who were throwing these rules to the wind. There’s personal, informal writing to be done that’s considered journalism. I take that idea and use it now. I’m trying to make things my own.”

(Wait. The web guy who prides himself on making GIFs is romanticizing the work of famous writers? We’ll get to that later.)

So why not work for the student paper?

“I didn’t feel like I belonged with the IDS crowd,” he said. “I saw the cliques. I was in a frat, I wasn’t supposed to work for the IDS. By the time I realized I should have done the student paper, it was my junior year and too late.”

After graduating in 2012, Carson went through the usual song-and-dance of most journalism grads by applying everywhere and getting continually shot down.

“I applied to a newspaper in Alaska being a wildlife/sports reporter and didn’t hear back,” is the one he said stuck out.

A few more frustrating months passed when he happened upon a “vague” listing for an internship with Bleacher Report.

“I was frustrated and just thought, ‘whatever, let’s just do this,’” Carson said. “I was going to wing it.”

He started a three-month internship with B/R, where Carson said he learned to thrive in the digital world (or “how to internet,” which I like better).

“In school, they don’t teach you all the things you can do from your desk,” Carson said. “They don’t teach you how to search somebody’s mentions or look at their favorites. There could be news in there. Like the Knicks coach favoriting Asian porn. He wouldn’t tell you that if you interviewed him.

“I didn’t know how to do things like GIFs, how to manipulate Vines. I did learn how to Photoshop in J-School and that’s taken me so far in ways I wasn’t supposed to use it. I can recast Game of Thrones with athletes and put Gronk’s head on Hodor. Hell, I can put crying Jordan on anything you want.”

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Just as Carson was finding his niche and skillset, B/R was evolving from a slideshow factory to a more reputable site. In August 2012, it was bought by Turner Communications. With B/R expanding, Carson found a fit as a trends writer.

“I would write about UFC one minute and the next hour I’ll be writing about Gronk ripping his pants and spiking a bouquet of flowers,” he said. “It’s representative of where this industry is going in general. It’s about viral web hits and that’s how I make my living.”

He thanks God Alaska never called.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I got a small newspaper job,” Carson said. “I probably would be stuck there.”

Dan loves GIFs and longform and that’s OK

At this point, I was ready to dismiss Carson as just another aggregator extraordinaire- some faceless blogger that rips the same stuff as everybody else, adds a couple grafs of background and calls it a day.

I can hear it now: He’s the guy killing journalism.

But Carson brings up a point that stops me in my mental tracks. A counter that leads to me rethinking the whole idea of producing digital content vs. traditional journalism:

“If I was doing the same thing as everybody else, how did I make it to Fox?”

Carson explains that he takes the same principles of some of his favorite writers, applies them to a modern-day context (making visuals or other creative content) and sets himself apart that way.

“What we have is getting clicks, but is the writing good? Can we elevate it? Can we make it better?

“You want to get steak, but you can’t afford steak. So there’s taco trucks. It’s just all these taco trucks and that’s the internet. What’s the sauce that you’re putting in your tacos to set them apart? That’s how I approach my job. My product got so many more eyeballs because I could do these creative visuals.”

Dan is telling me these very true, very profound things and yet, I’m still bothered by preconceived notions of a “web guy” versus a traditional writer. The dude that prides himself on putting crying Jordan meme on just about anything…

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…is also the one romanticizing longform journalism to me.

“I used to be all about writing for Grantland,” he explains.”There’s so many writers I envy and think are so good. Look at Danielle Paquette, she’s on the front page of the Washington Post.”

And then there’s this:

“My heart really is embedded in journalism and writing,” Carson said. “Whatever I create has that at heart.”

I still don’t get it. How can he talk about loving journalism when he “hardly ever” interviews subjects for his job? So I keep pressing:

Dan, if I told you that I wanted to offer you a job writing sports features with a decent (journalism) pay at a reputable newspaper, would you take it?

“I don’t think I would,” Carson answers. “I’ve seen what’s possible with the form I have. People will give you more opportunities with that. If you’re not moving toward social platforms and your digital presence, you’re going to be in trouble.”

I’m finally starting to get it. Carson always loved creative, free-spirited writing. But he noticed it was 2016 and that this whole internet fad isn’t going away. He kept the creative and free-spirited, but substituted “writing” for digital content creation.

I ask Carson what classes he would offer in a college curriculum that fit the needs of today:

  1. Photoshop
  2. Meet your elders (read Lars Anderson, Spencer Hall, Brian Phillips)
  3. CMS 101 (short for content management system, duh)
  4. Twitter ethics
  5. Writing for the digital world
  6. How to stick up for yourself financially (young writers just get used and abused)

In Nov. 2011, in a lecture hall full of journalism students, I thought I was lightyears ahead of Dan Carson.

A little over four years later, I’m the one playing catch-up.

“People tell me they can’t believe somebody gave me a journalism degree,” Carson said with a laugh. “This is a big industry change. People want internet content and they want it on-demand. It’s a drastic change. Because I do what I do there can’t be good journalism in the world? I think they can coexist.”

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