Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Newsroom Confidential: Macarthur Park

Curiously, I never covered sports, aside from a few freelance pick-ups here and there. This may shock you since I watch roughly 146 hours of basketball a week. Angelo Cataldi caused this. Angelo is best known for his work as the drivetime host on Philly Sports Radio 610 AM, America's Most Ignorant Sports Radio Station.

He also was an adjunct prof at La Salle. I had him in a Sportswriting class. The mission of this class: make talking about sports as painful a process as possible! Watch a big, dumb oaf brag ceaslessly about the nomination for the Pulitzer he got two decades ago! Watch your classmates mirror his every opinion on sports and sportswriting, even though just hours earlier in the Food Court they had the complete and total opposite opinion!

ASSIGNMENT: Bring in your favorite piece of sportswriting and discuss why you like it so much. (Essentially, a book report. I was a junior at a college charging nearly $30,000 a year.)
WHAT I DO: I bring in a copy of Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," which details the lives of four high school basketball players (one of whom is a 14-year-old Stephon Marbury) from the projects in Coney Island as they try to make it despite growing up in a culture of violence, poverty and despair. A truly amazing book in every way, shape and form.
WHAT HAPPENS: Angelo Cataldi cuts me off in the middle of my presentation! He dismisses my report. The reason? Because he never heard of the book, thus, how could it be any good?

Angelo Cataldi nearly made me hate watching sports. He DEFINITELY made me give up any aspirations of sportswriting, since people like him (or Steven A. Smith or Bill Conlin or Peter Vescey) seem like the ones who are at the top of the heap.

(Side note: I almost got sweet revenge on Cataldi. At the end of that semester in college, La Salle had an auction. One of the prizes was to sit in on the 610 AM morning show with Angelo himself. I won this auction and went down to the studio. My plan was to, if I was brought on the air, to tell everyone live and in person what an idiot Cataldi was. They never let me anywhere near the air, however.)

Most of the sportswriters I've worked with have been pretty awesome folks. I couldn't do their job. As much as I love sports, I have no idea how I could feign interest in a high school girl's volleyball game. At least with an incredibly boring zoning board of appeals meeting, I could pretend like someone gave a shit about what I was reading.

The sports guys at the first newsroom I worked with were pretty awesome. The captain of the team was Jim Jones, the so-called "Dean of North Jersey Sportswriting." When I started at the paper, Jonesy was in his 70's and had been covering local sports for close to 50 years. He was a great writer and more than willing to give his time to teach the ropes of different aspects of the business to a newcomer such as myself. He was also wickedly funny and great at pulling practical jokes.

Being of The Greatest Generation, Jonesy had some problems understanding computers. The Ridgewood News was filled with older folks doing random jobs -- typing in press releases and writing features, mostly. I frequently had to go to Jonesy's office and fix his computer for him.

One day, he came up to my desk and asked if I could help him with the computer. I said sure and ventured to his office (which smelled of a combination of stale beer, cigars and whiskey.) I ask him what's wrong with his computer.

"Do you know this Anna Kournikova?"

I, of course, know her intimately well.

"Can you help me find pictures of her on the computer? I don't know where to find them. I really want to find pictures of her."

I helped a 75-year-old man find pictures of a teenage Russian tennis player.

A few months later, Kournikova would play at a tennis tournament held in nearby Mahwah. Jonesy covered the event, and snapped over 100 pictures of her in action. Only her. Despite hours of tennis matches, he did not take one picture of any other competitor.

He also managed to figure out what hotel she was staying at and took a picture of her leaving her bedroom. That picture was on the front of his door the entire rest of the time he worked at the newspaper.

Jonesy was great. His assistant editor, Brian, was completely insane. When Brian was normal, he was a perfectly fine guy, very personable and nice. When Brian had a few drinks in him -- which, by 11 a.m., was the case -- he was completely insane. Brian always had a story about something going on in his life. At one point, his apartment (more like a room in a boarding house) burned to the ground. He would spend his days in the newsroom cornering folks about where they lived, asking them if they had any extra room so he didn't have to sleep in his car anymore. I don't believe anyone took him up.

I was working late with Tom, Jeff and Alex one night. We were doing our work when Brian came stumbling into our office. His eyes were completely dialated. I know this because he was staring right into my eyes. He wouldn't stop staring at me. He ended up standing two feet away from me, his eyes completely fixated on mine.

"Hey, Gregg." He said this, not even acknowledging the presence of three other people in the room.
"Uhm, hey, Brian."
"Hey, what's your favorite song?"
"Uhm... I don't know."
"Go ahead, give me your favorite song."
"'The Kids Are Allright' by The Who."
"I don't think I know it."
"Oh. It's a great song."
"Do you know what my favorite song is?"
"Uhm, no."
"Macarthur Park. Do you know how it goes?"
"Yes. I do."
"Macarthur Park is friiiiiightening in the dark.... someone left the cake out in the raaaainnnn...."

For the next five minutes, in a falsetto, boychoir alto, this grown man started to serenate me with Richard Harris' epic song. His eyes never left mine. He then left the office like nothing happened.

Newsroom Confidential: My First Murder

I got into work around 9:45 on Monday morning, about 15 minutes late, which was par for the course. Maria, the editor at Suburban Trends, literally through to me a copy of The Record, the daily paper which both covered our publication zone and also owned our publication.

The bottom front page had a big headline. "BABY KILLED IN HASKELL" it read.

Suburban Trends was my second newspaper. I had been there about four months, covering the towns of Wanaque and Ringwood. I had never heard of these towns until I started my beat, and I warmed up to them fairly quickly. Ringwood is located along the New Jersey/New York border, filled with a multitude of state parks, stunning views, expensive private lake communities and a very active (and downright nasty) political climate.

Wanaque sat to the south. The part of town closer to Ringwood was very woodsy, quiet and suburban. In Haskell, the other part of town, it wouldn't be shocking to see a pickup truck with a Confederate flag parked on a front lawn. It was dusty, in need of a major paint job, and a little bit frightening.

It was a great place for a young journalist to grab a story.

By that fateful Monday morning, I had already cut my teeth. I was about a year into my career, and had established a bit of a reputation in the North Jersey Media Group company. I was seen as a very strong reporter, a very quick learning, capable of turning out a decent amount of copy. I also had a reputation as being someone who wasn't afraid to yell at an editor, a publisher or a company higher-up -- putting me in the doghouse pretty much from day one.

(To re-up this back to The Wire: I have more than just a little McNulty in me, even though I do not drink or sleep around. I have a hard time keeping my opinions to myself. I enjoy pissing off authority figures, particularly incompetent ones. It took me a long time to temper the part of my personality requiring me to serve the role of the self-righteous center-of-attention. In short, I am an asshole.)

I had no idea what to do. I had already figured out by this point that pretty much everyone in the newsroom with me was completely worthless. My editor never left her desk, except when she had to go to our corporate offices in West Paterson for some prime ass-kissing time. The assistant editor was too busy scouring goth personal webpages. Most of the other reporters were a bunch of housewives who worked about ten hours a week, writing great stories such as "Bloomingdale BOE Votes To Hire Gym Teacher."

This place was not conducive to a young reporter who dreamed of making it to a big city daily newspaper one day. It was a place where the folks thought it was "cute" to have the title of reporter, something they could tell the other soccer mom's in their cul de sac about. My editor was also in grad school and a teaching assistant at the time. She used to grade papers while at work. The sports editor at the time used to show up once every two weeks and openly talked about how he wanted to get fired.

I had no idea what to do. I had covered a handful of decent stories -- a police stand-off in Midland Park, two teachers who ended up in a fist-fight at an elementary school in Wanaque -- but I had never covered an actual murder. And I knew everyone I worked with was completely worthless. So I had to concoct a plan on my own.

(It's a bit of a cliche for people to expect newspapers to have these grizzled veterans taking cub reporters and learning them a little bit at a time. I never met those people. I, and most other journalists, had to learn everything on my own. I had to learn what to expect at a council or board of education meeting. I had to learn how to cover a court case, where to find legal briefs and what to ask attorneys. I had to learn how to get police records. Learning on your own, and learning quickly, is a definite strength for anyone in the business and has its merits. But it would have been nice to have a little bit of help for really basic questions.)

First, I scoured the article in the Record. I learned the alleged facts of the case: a 20-year-old gave birth to her newborn baby, stabbed it to death, hid it in a plastic bag and left her son in a dumpster behind her trailer. Making it even more complicated, she had recently moved to Wanaque from Mexico, staying with her brother and sister, who claimed they had no idea she was pregnant. After she killed her kid, she went to work at Burger King where she started bleeding. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where doctors immediately knew she gave birth but didn't have a child with her.

From the article, I saw most of the information was coming from the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, who were now handling the case. I called them to get information as to what happened, and they sent me a press releasing with the basics of the crime. I had names, an address and the police version of what occurred. I now had everything The Record had already printed.

Many daily newspaper outfits own the weeklies in their same coverage area. This is who weekly reporters compete with -- someone who gets a paycheck from the same exact company. (Which I'll get into more later, because that creates many problems.) Our paper came out on Wednesday and Saturday. If something happened that made the Record on a Monday or Tuesday, I still wrote about what happened for the next issue. My strategy was to always try to put a new spin on a story or dig up new information.

There was one thing The Record didn't have with their story. And that was a quote from the family of the alleged murderer. And, having read The Record every day for that year, I knew their reporters were too lazy to try and talk to them.

Now, what I said earlier about that newsroom being filled with wastes was a bit of a stretch. There were two solid people who worked there. The first was Matt, a fellow Clash fan who fits an archtype all-too familiar at a weekly newspaper: the overly talented reporter who, for whatever reason, couldn't catch a break and end up at a newspaper which paid more than $28,000 a year in salary. Matt was always quick to provide me with a phone number or lead when I was stumped on a story. For this, he gave me the phone number of a few area attorneys who could help me figure out the legal system, since the only real experience I had came from watching Law and Order reruns.

The other was Andrea, a college intern who was working with us. Andrea was originally from Peru, having moved to America with her parents only a few years earlier. She was really pretty and she seemed, at first, as very timid and shy. I initially thought she would quit in a few weeks but she wrote a few decent features at the paper which impressed me.

And, most importantly, Andrea spoke Spanish. I guessed this was needed since the family involved in this murder were illegal Mexican immigrants.

I paired up with Andrea. She also read the story and agreed immediately to give me a hand. We came up with a list of questions to ask the family and discussed how to approach them. Luckily, we found a phone number for the family and Andrea gave them a call. They were happy to talk to us.

On our way up, Andrea and I talked about what could possibly cause a woman to kill her newborn child.

"Maybe she didn't know she was pregnant," I said.

"No, you would just know you're pregnant," Andrea replied.

"Well, maybe the hospitals in Mexico aren't so great," I said. "Maybe the doctors there had no way of telling if she was pregnant."

Andrea looked shocked.

"If you think hospitals are like that in Mexico, I don't want to know what you think they're like in Peru," she said. I started laughing, realizing how completely ignorant I was to anything outside of suburban New Jersey.

We drove up to Wanaque, behind a hardware depot, down this dingy dirt road littered with garbage. There, we came across a double wide. Police tape was all over the ground. Behind the house, there was a big dumpster which was also marked with police tape. In front was a bloodied plastic bag.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I felt nauseus. I knew the story was horrific, the latest in a long string of baby murders in North Jersey. But earlier, it was just another article in a newspaper. Now, this was something else. This was real. And this was awful.

Andrea and I approached the house. We knocked on the door. A Mexican guy in his late-20's came out in a wifebeater and jeans. Next to him was a petite woman in her 20's. They were both crying.

Andrea started talking to them in Spanish. They were talking back to her. I couldn't understand a word. Andrea was writing furiously, trying to translate to me what they were saying. But it was obvious. They had no idea their houseguest was pregnant, they had never thought she was capable of something so twisted, and they were scared shitless that they could also be arrested.

We spent about 30 minutes with them. We eventually thanked them and went back to the office. Andrea translated the notes and sat next to me and I started to write the story. It took us about two hours to finalize our copy, as we talked about how to shape every paragraph.

I then went home and started crying my eyes out.

The story had some legs, with The Record doing a few follow-up pieces. Ours ran that Wednesday. It was the only article to have a quote from the family.

Newsroom Confidential: Part One

It's easiest to start at the beginning.

It's my first day of high school, third period. The class I have signed up for is journalism. How and why I ended up in this class is beyond me. I walk into the classroom. A guy with a beard, around the same age as my parents, is sitting behind the desk. I sit in the back corner. He's soft-spoken, congenial and has a very quiet sense of humor about himself. His name is Mr. Ehrlich.

He goes desk-to-desk, asking everyone their name. He finally gets to me. He says something to me and I, now semi-comfortable playing the role of class clown, crack a joke. The class laughs. And so does Mr. Ehrlich. I immediately take a liking to him. I am very into the assignments given to us -- how to write a lead paragraph, how to write in the "inverted pyramid" style, how to brainstorm story ideas. Mr. Ehrlich also takes a liking to me. A few weeks into class, he introduces me to the senior editors of the paper. He tells them that one day I'm going to be editor-in-cheif.

It didn't quite happen that way. The top editor spots went to the best students in the journalism program. I certainly wan't that. But I was a loyal student of Ehrlich's for all four years of high school.

Everything I needed to learn about journalism, I learned in his class. It wasn't just writing, either. It was about how to take responsibility for what you produce. How to handle pissing off people who don't like what you write. How to completely immerse in yourself in a story and beat. What to do when you can't contact any of your sources. And, most importantly, how to deal with petty squabbles with shithead, know-it-all editors.

(The first time, but certainly not the last, I truly wanted an editor to die a fiery death came my sophomore year. Like many disaffected teens, I fell into the world of alternative music. One of my favorite bands of the era was The Lemonheads. They had released "Come On Feel The Lemonheads" which I reviewed glowingly for the paper. Our section's Entertainment editor -- an incredibly dorky immigrant from India who wore Mickey Mouse sweatpants. At the end of my review, she for some reason thought it was a good idea to write the following: "You should buy this album. It might just spit you in the eye!" She also added her by-line to my article for that one line submission. She later became one of 11 foreign-born girls from my class to achieve the status of valedictorian.)

I wrote a lot for the high school paper, most of it entertainment writing or bizarre first-person stuff. But I did learn how to write news (interviewing US Senator Frank Lautenberg when he came to our high school to trump The Brady Bill) and human interest pieces. But I, not-so-secretly, always coveted a spot on our high school TV news. I was never selected for a slot, due to my poor grades.

This decided my choice of major in college. I was a Communication major, specializing in TV/Radio/Film Production. I worked mostly at the TV station, editing sports pieces, and had a few radio shows at our decrepid radio station. Also, I was a lot more interested in drinking massive amounts of alcohol and smashing things that didn't belong to me. I didn't write much for the paper, just enough album reviews to qualify for the newspaper formal at the end of the year, one of the premier events on the La Salle social calender. Plus, I didn't really like the staff of our paper, filled largely with students from the honors program, most of whom artfully raised their hand to answer questions in class and had the fashion sense of TV's Blossom.

I learned the hard way (par for the course) that I hated Communication as a major. I had a particularly brutal TV Production class, where the final project was for our class to write and produce our own 30-minute TV show. I'll spare you the details, except we'll leave it to say I was referred to as "Little Hitler" by one of my classmates, a fraternity member I had nailed trying to plagarize old David Letterman bits for our project that he tried to pass as his own, and as a result more than a few of my classmates wanted to kick my ass.

I did have journalism classes in college. These were largely the biggest waste of time imaginable. Everything possibly taught in a journalism class I learned my freshman year in high school.

This steered me away from the thought of working in TV for a living. And then I graduated, armed with a 2.7 GPA, no marketable job skills and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

I eventually moved back in with my parents, after a tenure working at a supermarket, followed by a job selling makeup at a woman's cosmetics store. My dad is incredibly sensible, to the point where it's annoying. The first thing he did every day when he arrived home from work was to ask me how many resumes I sent out that day. The answer was usually "none, but I drafted Vladimir Guerrero in the first round of my ninth fantasy baseball draft of the season." But eventually, I started getting them in the mail.

I noticed in the back of our local paper that a lot of local newspapers were hiring for reporters. I sent my resume to a few of them. And, somehow, I landed two job interviews.

(This shocked me at the time, as I had no writing clips. Or experience. Or much of anything except a pathetic resume. But later on, I figured out how I landed the interviews. This was 1999, when there were still some remnants of the dot.com economy left. I had a few friends who, right after graduating, ended up working at some computer network thing doing about 10 minutes of work a day for about $35,000. These jobs don't exist anymore, meaning there is a lot more competition for a slot at a small, weekly newspaper.)

My first interview was for the paper in Montclair, where I used to purchase both comic books and punk rock albums. I met the editor, Mark -- a middle-aged guy who came off incredibly intimidating and pretentious. He interviewed me and asked if I had any writing samples. I told him I didn't. He then gave me an assignemt to write for his review, about a new shop opening downtown, and a bunch of phone numbers to call. I did just that and in about two hours I handed him a 400-word article. He told me he would talk to me if he had any interest.

Two days later, I had another interview, this time in Ridgewood up in Bergen County. I met Ellen, a woman in her 50's who was the editor of the paper. She explained to me the duties, asked me the standard interview questions, and then gave me a paper filled with paragraphs randomly picked apart from a news story. She told me to re-arrange the paragraphs and then to also critique the story. I did just that. She looked it over for a few minutes. And then she came back outside.

"If you're interested, I'd like to offer you a position here at The Ridgewood News."

I accepted on the spot. I literally ran out of the office towards my car. I was now a reporter.

(Mark did call me the next day. He offered me a position on his staff, also. I turned him down, since I already accepted the Ridgewood job. In a few years, Mark would once again come to play a hand in the direction of my career.)

Newsroom Confidential -- Preamble

If you've read my blog for a while, or you know me at all, then you know of my obsessesion with THE WIRE. THE WIRE is a show on HBO that is, without question, the greatest to have ever aired in the medium of television.

This season, The Wire's grander theme is focusing on the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun. This naturally made me happy, having spent many years as a newspaper reporter. I'm also kind of back in the business. A trade publication recently hired yours truly. I am once again a professional journalist.

This has naturally made me think about my days as a reporter. I started off at the bottom rung of the industry and, despite many attempts at sabotaging my own career, ended up realizing my dream and making it to a daily newspaper. Then I realized it wasn't what I wanted anymore and quit the business. But, honestly, it's not anything you can ever quit. No matter what I do, I'll always consider myself a reporter at heart.

Here are my stories of working in a newsroom.

If you're a journo reading this, and you feel like contributing, you can e-mail me at gregg_gethard@yahoo.com and I'll post what you want.


Friday, January 04, 2008

The 99

The 99

A significant percentage of a journalist's day is spent on hold. Over the years in newsrooms, I was exposed to a lot of soft rock. It's an understudied hazard of the industry. The only way to cope is to joke around with your fellow reporters about what you must endure while on hold.

One of my favorite co-workers of all-time was Suzanne. We were desk neighbors at the newspaper in Plymouth. And I would frequently serenade her with whatever adult contemporary hit was playing in my ear while I was waiting to talk to somebody who didn't want to talk to me.

One day, I was covering the hard-hitting story of how The 99 Restaurant was coming to Plymouth. I called their corporate office for confirmation. I was immediately put on hold and this time was subjected to their own theme song, played on a repeating loop. It used a lot of synth guitar and was sung in the style of a middle round AmIdol reject.

"99! You'll always like it! 99! You'll always get what you want! 99!"

I started to sing this to Suzanne. Usually, she enjoyed my acapella stylings. This day, she largely ignored me until she abruptly left the desk in anger.

Later that day, I found out why. The night before, she broke up with her then-boyfriend. At a 99.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Amtrak: America's Vaguely Depressing Form Of Travel

The cold stares of people running away from haunting secrets. Staff workers who look like they are plotting to throw scalding acid in your eyes. An Andropov-era color scheme. The distant smell of urine.

This past holiday season, I had my first experience riding on Amtrak. The wife and I were staying with my parents in Lake George, NY. Lake George is a lovely vacation town which is almost completely closed down in the winter months. Thus, we decided to go visit Montreal (about 200 miles away) for a few days.

I also discovered the AMTRAK ADIRONDACK, a line transporting passengers from New York City to Montreal, with a few stops located close to where we were staying. I figured this would definitely beat driving in Canada in the winter.

In retrospect, I should have been scared off from taking the train trip while using the absolutely awful AMTRAK website, apparently designed by the same people who created "Summer Games" for the old Commodore 64.

We decided to leave from the station in Ticonderoga, NY as it was $40 cheaper than leaving from Glens Falls. In my experience, train stations usually are bustling places filled with commuters. Not Ticonderoga! Here, the train station is literally a little booth set up in the middle of the woods, a perfect place to commit a sex offense.

I struggled with the luggage once we climbed on board. The AMTRAK employee snickered and walked past me. We took our seats. The train ride itself wasn't so bad, even though it left an hour late and for some reason our train moved at a speed of about four miles-per-hour. I eventually got hungry and went to the cafe car, where I learned that they can't break more than a $20.

The train was mildly irritating, and then we hit the Canadian border. Here, we had to go through customs. Canadian customs officials (who are, oddly enough, extremely physically attractive) asked us some basic questions about our trip. Then they went to the cafe car. All of the passengers were told to sit until we could depart.

This took four hours. Not once did any AMTRAK officials make an announcement as to what was going on. In fact, no AMTRAK officials even walked into the passenger cars to discuss what was happening. At the three hour mark, I walked to the cafe car to snoop around. Here, an AMTRAK worker leapt up from his seat and told me to immediately go and sit down. Behind him, a Canadian customs official was counting -- I kid you not -- sugar packets.

We eventually made it to Montreal, which is a fantastic city. The train ride back sucked but was inconsequential. AMTRAK is so dreadful and dreary, I'm tempted to take a trip across country in a sleeping car.

My New Year's Resolution

In the year 2008, I hope I can learn how to trust again.
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