May 5, 2011
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Veteran journalist and writer Pete Hamill fondly remembers the nearly 40 years he spent working in the newsrooms at the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
“[At the Post,] We had Murray Kempton [on staff,] who wrote like an 18th century restoration dramatist. We had Nora Ephron, who was a brilliant writer when she was a kid, walking into the city room. We had William F. Buckley in the paper,” he tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “These were not people who thought the audience was stupid. They thought the audience was smart and they wrote up to the audience instead of down. I think that’s the kind of paper that’s rapidly fading.”
Hamill’s latest novel, Tabloid City, is a thriller that partially takes place in an old-school tabloid newsroom, where a gruff editor-in-chief named Sam Briscoe is struggling to keep his print paper afloat amidst rapid digital changes. Hamill says going digital has changed the makeup of newsrooms, which used to be noisy, smoke-filled dens filled with reporters and editors typing away under deadline.
“More often than not, the city room now resembles an insurance company,” Hamill says. “It’s not that old-raucous, bawdy, yelling-over-somebody — the obscenities, the casual bad language, the urgency of people’s speech. The new technology is not noisy. You don’t hear the printing guys one floor down banging away on lead type on the stone. But I think the passion is still there — I think people work on newspapers not to get rich, God knows, but because they believe in the craft.”
But Hamill still thinks the edgy bloggers of today differ tremendously from the columnists of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I was a columnist in a period of [Jimmy] Breslin and Mike Royko and others, and we came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the opinions were based on the reporting. We had been there, whether it was Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, or the wrong part of town.” he says. “Now, to me, there’s too many columns that are just based on reading The Washington Post that morning — and not going anywhere — and they have a different texture. Doesn’t mean they’re not good, but they have a different sense, a different feel to them.”
Hamill received his first professional journalism job in 1960, after writing letters to an editor at the New York Post. Five years later, the scrappy young reporter became a columnist, where he covered sports, movies, the war in Vietnam and the daily ups and downs of ordinary life. He also started writing fiction. His first novel, A Killing for Christ, was published in 1968 and he has since published several more novels and short story collections. It was his journalism career, he says, that helped propel his fiction career forward.
“As a reporter, going around, you hear stories you can’t prove, which means you can’t put them in the newspaper,” he says. “But they’re good stories and I would jot them down thinking maybe one day I could write that as a short story. I got the bug to really write novels … in the 60s, when there was so much turmoil — so many things going on and such a great sense of change in the air — that I could record for a newspaper column, but I knew there was something else going on, something deeper, and I needed a way to write about that.”
Hamill says two things have helped him become a better fiction writer — frequent naps, which give him both energy and ideas — and putting away his typewriter in order to write out his stories by hand.
“At the beginning of writing fiction, too much of the newspaper style was getting into the prose so I thought, ‘Gee, I should try writing longhand. Maybe I can tap something that goes back to the point before I could type,'” he says. “I’ll write five or six pages in longhand on a yellow pad and then take it to the computer and type it out, which gives me a second draft right away. And if there’s momentum from then, it gives me another four or five pages and off I go.”
Pete Hamill received the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 2005. He is currently a Writer in Residence at New York University.
Excerpt: ‘Tabloid City: A Novel’
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt includes language that some readers may find offensive.
12:02 a.m. Sam Briscoe. City room of New York World, 100 West Street.
Here comes Briscoe, seventy- one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty- six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and MSNBC. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn’t look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty.
–We got the wood yet? Briscoe says.
Logan smiles and runs a hand through his thick white hair and gazes past Briscoe at the desks. Briscoe thinks: We live in the capital of emptiness. Logan is fifty-one and in some way the thick white hair makes him seem younger. Crowning the shaven face, the ungullied skin.
–The kid’s still writing, Logan says, gesturing to his left. Maybe you could remind him this is a daily.
Briscoe grunts at one of the oldest lines in the newspaper business. Thinking: It’s still true. He sees the Fonseca kid squinting at his computer screen, seeing nothing else, only the people he has interviewed hours earlier, far from the city room. Briscoe leans over Logan’s shoulder, glances up at the big green four-sided copper clock hanging from the ceiling, a clock salvaged from Pulitzer’s World. Thinking: Still plenty of time.
–What else do we have? he says, dropping coat and jacket over a blank computer monitor. The early editions of the morning papers are scattered on the desk, the Times, the Post, the News. Logan clicks on a page that shows four possible versions of the wood. The page 1 headline. Briscoe thinks: I’m so old. He remembers seeing page 1 letters actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf- mutes, signaling to each other by hand. Paul Sann trimming stories on the stone counters beyond the Linotype machines, his editor’s hands using calipers to pluck lines of lead from the bottom of stories. Everybody smoking, crushing butts on the floor. Hot type. Shouts. Sandwiches from the Greek’s. All gone forever.
One possible front page says Jobs Rising? With a subhead: Mayor Says Future Bright. New unemployment numbers are due in the morning. The AP story will lead what they now call the Doom Page, always page 5, the hard stuff about the financial mess, with a sidebar trying to make the recession human. Names. Faces. Losers. Pain. If they have jobs, it’s a recession. If they don’t have jobs, it’s a depression. Foreign news is on page 8, usually from AP and Reuters, no overseas bureaus anymore, plus features bought from a new Web service that has correspondents all over the planet. Obama Mourns Afghan Deaths. Plus a thumb-sucker out of the one- man Washington bureau. The problem is that most readers don’t give a rat’s ass. Not about Iraq, not about Afghanistan, only about whether they can still feed their kids next week, or the week after. Two more suicide bombings in Baghdad. Another bombing in Pakistan. A girls’ school. More stats counting the dead, without names or faces. It has been months since foreign news was used as wood.
–What else ya got? Briscoe says.
Logan picks up a ringing phone, whispers to the caller, but keeps clicking on the various page 1 displays. BLOOMIE’S LAMENT. All about more city job cuts, the need for a fair share of the stimulus package, the crackdown on parking permits for well- connected pols, the assholes in Albany grabbing what is not nailed down. And closing libraries while heading for the limousines. News should be new. This is all old. With this stuff, Briscoe thinks, we might even achieve negative sales. Logan gets off the phone.
–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he’s shot dead in the street.
Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing at a framed letter.
–That’s the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.
She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.
–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.
–Yeah. We don’t have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that’s the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.
Logan points to a young man’s body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.
–Then he’s dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.
–The usual shit, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there’s a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They’re gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.
–Put that in the lede. If it’s true.
–I already told Fonseca.
Briscoe glances out the window, where he can see Stuyvesant High School in the distance, across the footbridge over the West Side Highway toward the river’s edge. The school where all the bright kids go, a lot of them now Asian. The lights are dim, the kids slumbering at home before Friday’s classes, the school corridors inhabited by lonesome watchmen. Briscoe sees the running lights on a solitary black tanker too, moving slowly north to Albany on the dark river. Delivering pork to the pols, maybe. Which way to the river Styx, Mac? Most of the river is dead now. That pilot who landed his plane in the river? Ten years ago, he’d have smashed into a freighter. Now it’s nothing but sailboats and ferries. Briscoe exhales slightly. Another dead kid. How many had there been since he started in 1960? Five thousand dead New York kids? Twenty thousand? More than have died in Iraq, for sure. Maybe even more than Nam.
–Anyway, it could be wood, Logan says. Depends on the story.
–It always does, Briscoe says, in a hopeless tone.
He turns and sees Helen Loomis three empty desks to the right of Fonseca. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was shy then too, and what some fools called homely, long-jawed, gray-eyed, bony. Down at the old Post. She sat each night with her back to the river, smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew that she was the best goddamned rewrite man any of them would ever know. Later, the language cops tried to change the title to “rewrite person.” It didn’t work. The rhythm was wrong. Too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man. In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper. Finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips from the morning papers, files from the Associated Press, and yellowing clips from the library. She was the master of the second- day lede, so essential to an afternoon paper, and she often found it buried in the thirteenth graf of the Times story, or in the jump of the tale in the Herald- Tribune. Or, more often, in her own sense of the story itself. When her questions were not answered, and the reporter had gone home, she made some calls herself. To a cop. A relative. Someone in a corner bar she found in the phone company’s immense old street index. Her shyness never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at ten after three in the morning. She was always courteous, she always apologized for the hour, but she worked for an afternoon paper. That is, she worked according to a clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at eight. Now, fuck, everything has changed, even the hours.
Briscoe waves at Helen Loomis. She doesn’t see him. Doesn’t respond. She is wearing small reading glasses, her body tense behind the computer, peering at the screen, nibbling at the inside of her right cheek. Her helmet of white hair doesn’t move in the old bobbing style. Briscoe long ago realized that she hadn’t looked loose, or in rhythm, since cigarettes were banned from all the newsrooms in the city. But she comes in every night, always on time, always carrying a black coffee and a cheese Danish, always ready to work. And once an hour, she moves to get her coat and goes down to smoke in the howling river winds.
In addition to a few breaking stories, she writes the “Police Blotter” now, made up of two- or three- graf stories of crimes and misdemeanors that don’t deserve to be blown out. Cheap murders, usually at bad addresses. Assaults. Rapes. In the city room, they used to call the column “Vics and Dicks.” A young female reporter out of Columbia objected, and it was renamed “Bad Guys” for the reporters and “Police Blotter” for the readers. There was, alas, no music in these tales, no way for Helen Loomis to turn them into haiku or a blues riff. Most of the dickheads now were robbing techno- junk: cell phones, iPods, digital recorders. A digital camera was a big score.
Briscoe knows in his heart that it wasn’t the end of cigarettes that took the music out of her. Not really. With Helen, it was the final triumph of loneliness. Young Helen Loomis was only one of many great reporters he’d known who were drawn to the rowdy newspaper trade because of the aching solitude in their own lives. Their own pain was dwarfed by the more drastic pain of strangers. As bad as your own life might be, there were all kinds of people out there in the city who were in much worse shape. Their stories filled the newspapers. And for a few hours, the lives of reporters and rewrite men. Until the clock ticked past all deadlines. And the profane, laughing city room emptied. Helen Loomis was now a straggler at a late- night party that was already over. When the deadline was gone, she had nothing left but cigarettes and loneliness. The music of her prose was gone forever.
Or, hell, he thinks: Maybe it was just the cigarettes.
Now he glances around the room again.
–Let me know when the Fonseca kid finishes, he says to Logan.
And carrying coat and jacket he walks to his dark office at the far end of the city room. Thinking: The kid, that Bobby Fonseca, has loneliness in his eyes too. Except when he’s writing. Briscoe unlocks the door. Flicks on the lights. Hangs his garments on a gnarled coat tree he carried away when P. J. Clarke’s was remodeled. On his desk, there is a wire rack holding folders. One is marked “Newspapers.” Full of dismal news clippings or printouts about shrinking circulation and shrinking ad revenues and shrinking page sizes and rumors of extinction. Layoffs, buyouts, furloughs. The papers themselves were a subset of the main story of Doom, everything that had followed the obliteration of Lehman Brothers that day in September 2008 . In the newspapers, everybody was hurting. The Times. The Tribune Company. McClatchy. The Boston Globe. Gannett. The San Francisco Chronicle. Briscoe didn’t know if anybody really cared, except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind’s eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news. Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe. But one man certainly did. The man they all called the F.P., the Fucking Publisher.
Another folder is marked “Love.” Filled with absurdity and betrayals and homicides. Wives killing husbands. Husbands killing wives. Mistresses killing men and men killing lovers. The endless ancient tale. Almost always at night. After two in the morning. When Cain whacked Abel, it was almost surely two-thirty in the morning. Just as surely, it had to involve a dame. If I live long enough, Briscoe thinks, I’ll write a book about it. At home, he has two entire fi le cabinets heavy with folders that are also marked “Love.” Enough for twenty books. If I live, he thinks, I might even write one of them.
Romantic love isn’t part of the deal much anymore. Now the clips are full of assholes coming home loaded, going for the gun, killing the wife, the three kids, themselves. Iraq War vets. Or gas station attendants. Or men who can’t pay the subprime mortgage. Guys whose wives weighed 108 when they got married and are now 308. Or God guys, listening to the Lord’s whispered commands in the men’s rooms of saloons or the front rooms of churches. They don’t often strike in New York. Usually it’s in what is laughingly called the heartland. Where there is always a handy gun. When these great Americans are finished with their bloody farewells, some cop stands before the house of the freshly dead and says: “They had issues.” Like what? Global warming? Nuclear proliferation? The stimulus package?
Fuck. Stop. His mind is always wandering now, he thinks, like water in a stream that pauses in tiny coves and eddies.
Excerpted from Tabloid City: A Novel, by Pete Hamill. Copyright 2011 by Pete Hamill. Reprinted by permission from Little, Brown and Company. All Rights Reserved.