Muckrakers, Inc.

image by imp kerr

The New York Post hired me when I was a little less than a year out of college, working an unpaid internship for a prestigious but tiny magazine. I went into the interview in my only real work-appropriate outfit, expecting an assessment of my journalistic talent. In fact the personnel director asked me almost no questions, instead delivering a long monologue on the meaning of an “office gopher.” As she spoke, she picked up a series of pairs of decorative reading glasses, licked them, and polished them on her sweater. Her salient characteristic—at least to me, later moored far outside her office in the city-room section—was an unnatural love of Butterfinger bars.

The job itself was simple. Copy proofs. Ferry them from editor to editor. Answer the phone if you have to. Work a shift on the phones or one on the copy desk. Bide your time until something happens, something off-hours or big enough that they need an extra reporter—a double homicide, a scandal, a celebrity meltdown. In the age of digital journalism, it sounds unbelievably anachronistic that there might still be a job where twentysomethings run pages from floor to floor, waiting for their big break. Even the job title was something out of Newsies: “Copy Boy,” or, as my boss would correct, “Copy Person.” Everyone else yelled for a “Copy Kid,” or, if things were particularly tense, just “Copy!”

My fellow kids and I dubbed the city room—the area of four or five open cubicles in which the kids hung about, waiting for a free computer—the copy corral. The best shifts for copy, meaning the ones during  which you were most likely to be sent out on a reporting gig, were the night ones, 4:00 p.m. to midnight and 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. After the proofs were out for the first edition of the paper, most of the head editors would shuffle home. The floors of the office would empty, leaving little colonies scattered around the cubicle floor, in business, in sports, in layout or art. But we at the city room were the allnighters. We batted around headlines with the copy desk, vetting puns that were too groan-inducingly awful or just plain dark to run. We joked with the editors. We scanned the yellowing guidelines pinned above the city desk that informed reporters what to do in the case of Osama bin Laden’s capture. We fielded phone calls from anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, and Long Island natives convinced they had caught aliens frolicking in their backyard. We wished, fervently, for the misfortune of others—a five-alarm fire, perhaps—so that we could leave the office. And the man in charge of our fates, Sunday through Thursday, the editor who could dispatch us to the fires or the red carpets or the weather incidents, was ******* * ********.

To work at the New York Post, you need both boundless optimism and boundless cynicism, qualities ******* has in spades. Drunkdriving mothers, cheating celebrities, boozing municipal politicians: This was the fodder of the daily grind for the year and change I spent working at the country’s oldest continuously publishing daily.

If you think about hardcore newspapermen, the kind of His Girl Friday–ish guys who live off greasy food and fresh leads, full of stories of their time at the AP or the Daily News—that was and is ******* * ********. (A good reporter, like any decent magician, doesn’t reveal his secrets: ******* declined to be interviewed for this article. All the incidents relayed here are purely my personal newsroom experience.)

By the time I met *******, he was in his mid-60s, and had been at the Post for more than 20 years. Long before the Murdoch takeover in 1993, ******* had been clattering away on the night shift. Head editors came and went, reassigned to other parts of the empire or hustled out by new administrations. But ******* stayed, arriving at 4:00 p.m. and leaving at 2:30 a.m. sharp five days a week. He tuned into the radio news after the television news every night, just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

Before he started at the Post, he had been a reporter for the Associated Press, where he once had to tail one of Rockefeller’s mistresses. Before that, he had served in the army during the vietnam War as a combat typist, where, he would joke, he “defended Staten Island against the VietCong.” It was a habit of his to use radio operator’s code to spell out names and addresses. He found it unfathomable that no one else was equally as well-versed in this alphabet. Once, after a particularly contentious night meeting, a fellow editor handed ******* a printout that read “******* * ******** is an Alpha-Sierra-Sierra-Hotel-Oscar-Lima-Echo.” ******* tacked it up to the wall.

In the relatively brief time I worked for *******, I learned how to sweet-talk my way past a police barrier. I learned which photographers were the best to get stuck with on a long stakeout and how to avoid bothering the editor-in-chief as he sat studying proofs at his desk. I learned the intricacies of three different copy machines. I learned how to follow a story until it yielded something juicy or burned out into a two-line police blotter item, how to eat soup while jotting notes, how to cold-call a dozen grumpy Lower East Side residents who had no idea that there had been a stabbing in the Chinese takeout downstairs. I learned how to watch all three local news stations on television at once, and when to distrust various meteorologists. I learned a new monosyllabic vocabulary:  perps, pervs, and pols. I learned how to approach basically anyone, from the District Attorney to a man who kept pythons at his Queens laundromat to a homeless man who called himself “the Tiger Woods of Central Park.” I learned that a headline is almost always funnier when a dollar sign replaces an s. Every day the tiny tragedies and triumphs of the city filtered through the city room, some sticking to the page and others relegated to indifference—or to the Daily News.

For the first few weeks, I felt as if I was working at the Daily Bugle of Spiderman fame, or lost in the plot of a Cronenberg film. The News Corp. building, decorated with a never-ending red LED ticker above the door and enormous portraits of Fox News personalities, was a vast, interconnected media galaxy. Odds were good that you’d bump into a pre-show Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck while hurrying into the elevator. The Post was spread over several floors, fields of cubicles separated from the editorin-chief ’s office by a vast glass wall. The chief appeared at random, muttering. Often he paced around his office like a shark in an aquarium. He was known to routinely make copy kids cry. There were no typewriters, and aside from the occasionally toner malfunction, the ink-stained-wretch part was mostly figurative. But I swear the computer keyboards were bought particularly to make a typewriter-like clacking sound when you hit the keys. *******—the wise-cracking seasoned editor with a soft spot for rookies—was part of the mystique.

My first reporting assignment came in about a month after I started working at the Post. Many copy kids were college students who didn’t particularly care about journalism so much as appreciated an easy job with weird hours. It took a few weeks for ******* to remember your name and to respond to your repeated, unsubtle hints that you could totally handle that rape scene. The first story I went out on was a bum one—a possible hitand-run, with a lead cold enough that most of the veteran copy kids rolled their eyes and went back to flicking through MySpace. I actually jumped up and down to volunteer, I was so green and eager. ******* looked me up and down and shrugged. “All right. you know how to take a quote? you know to write down exactly what they say?” he asked. I nodded. “So go. See if it’s anyone we care about.”

It wasn’t. It rarely was. But I went anyway, tramping out to Prospect-Lefferts Garden or Bushwick or Chinatown, bothering deli owners and jaded onlookers for reaction quotes. I started a photo collection of Mayor Bloomberg looking awkward at public events. The Sanitation Union never talked, firefighters almost always did. drunk Yankees fans were the most eager, but people would regularly narrow their eyes when I told them where I was reporting for. In the office, ******* gave out advice and anecdotes: Forward all queries about scintillating op-eds to legal, and never lie about being a reporter.

******* is a public transportation obsessive—he named one of his cats MaBSTOA, after the Bronx bus line, and the other Metrocard. When it was a slow news day or the first few stories on Channel 7 were weather-related, he would quiz reporters on the sharpest bend in the subway system and the number of abandoned elevated train stops. “Cats are best in pairs,” he lectured in his thick Brooklyn accent. “One, they bother you. Two, they bother each other. Three, you’re a cat lady.” Once I asked him what his college mascot was. “I went to Brooklyn College,” he said. “So, the gefilte fish.”

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Whatever your politics—and mine, I admit, aren’t in line with Rupert Murdoch’s—it’s hard to deny the gritty glamour of working at a big city tabloid. Most of the regular cogs in the paper’s machine weren’t thrilled about their Australian overlord’s policies either (and I left well before the phonehacking scandal broke). They just wanted to report on crime or dig through the City Council laundry or earn a decent living. In some ways, the Post was the best working environment I had ever had. Instead of writing passive aggressive e-mails, people yelled and then apologized. you were, for better or worse, in the thick of it. No national newspaper comes close to caring about the ins and outs of the New York Metro like the Post (except, yes, the Daily News. I guess.). Late at night, if there was no news, I split beers with the night editors and listened to war stories. It was like being privy to the oral history of the metro area, as cobbled together at bars and sports stadiums. We shared a collective sense of being the underdog in a continuous media battle, and an undercurrent of black humor worthy of any Lynch project.

To me at least there was a sense that the Post is a dying art form. It’s a paper already nostalgic for itself: The headlines, the blotter,
all touch back to the days when Hearst and Pulitzer duked it out for circulation numbers. ******* would often wish out loud that he had been born earlier, in the days of real, serious newspapers. The beat reporters of his youth had disappeared along with the corner boys shouting “Extra!” to advertise a special issue.

It’s no secret that the tabloid is Murdoch’s pet project. It hardly makes enough to cover its expenses. But the garishness of the copy, the willingness to be rude, the refusal to tiptoe (at least, sometimes) keeps the Post honest. At the Thanksgiving table, the Post would be your lovable, doltish uncle—a little embarrassing, but someone you can count on to keep the conversation going. (The Times, meanwhile, would be your prissy aunt who insists on proper cutlery usage. Metro is that weird cousin who puts ketchup on everything and never stops yelling.)

*******'s favorite game to play was to compare ledes with the New York Times. One Times story, about a hero who had rescued someone off the subway tracks, took almost eight paragraphs of musing and throatclearing before it got to the facts. The Post’s lede was in the first sentence.

I came into the Post as an urban studies major, with vague plans about social work or non-math-related architecture. I left a journalist. When I told ******* that I was leaving to go to graduate school—a program in cultural criticism, no less—he frowned. “You know who journalism school students are, don’t you?” I shook my head, though I already knew this one. “They’re the people who go to the scene of a fire and ask what the big red things are.” He paused and looked at me for a minute, considering. “But that won’t be you, right?”