‘The Shack,’ long the legendary hangout for reporters covering the New York City Police Department, is going the way of many of last century’s hoary journalistic traditions. NYPD announced its closure in early April, citing space issues. We asked Dave Krajicek, a veteran of the New York crime beat and a contributing editor to The Crime Report, to tell us whether it was ever all that legend made it out to be — and what that says about contemporary cop-reporter relations.
By David J. Krajicek
The NYPD is behind the curve in evicting scribes from the fabled press Shack at 1 Police Plaza.
Reporters in all but the biggest cities long ago gave up desks at police stations. But it was city editors, not police chiefs, who shooed then into the streets.
Lincoln Steffens, who did time at the NYPD pressroom, famously wrote that such places are best used to “gossip or doze or play cards.”
Editors suspected that long ago, even before the disintegration of the news business forced them to budget reporters' time in 15-minute blocks. Today, most police reporters visit headquarters early in their shift then go on their way.
And as with many beats, the increased competitive pressure of covering crime for a 24/7 news cycle has made the idle lolling of Steffen's era an occupational relic. Pressroom naps and poker games have gone the way of Linotype machine as reporters hurry from one subject to the next, maintaining employment by producing content, sometimes in competition with colleagues.
I admit feeling conflicted as I've read the wistful odes to the Shack by its former denizens, as though it were the Fatima of great crime journalism.
I don't feel nostalgic about my years there, which coincided with New York's crack era and the attending stratospheric rise in crime. Then as now, about a dozen of us on the police beat reported to work at headquarters.
My paper, the Daily News, had five reporters there. Newsday, the Times and the Post had two or three, the Associated Press one. Others from the wires, radio and ethnic newspapers flitted in and out.
Steffens' bon mot aside, we worked hard covering the crack crime wave. Few of us got along well with the police brass, whose typical defensiveness was compounded by Commissioner Ben Ward's distinguishing characteristic: He did not like bad news. That's a difficult position to stake when you lead an agency charged with investigating bad news, including the seven murders a day the city was then averaging.
The daily pursuit of a story or two culled from that mayhem did not make the Shack conducive to deep thought about criminal justice journalism.
And I can't say that proximity equated to access. Any exclusives during my years at the Shack were earned because my colleagues Larry Celona and Patrice O'Shaughnessy had good sources in the city's precincts, not because we were chummy with the police bosses.
Today, a well-sourced reporter standing at a crime scene in the Bronx can get an email reply from a cop faster than it takes to ride the elevator from the Shack on the 2nd floor to the public information office on the 13th floor.
I don't know that the public will know any more or any less about crime when the reporters are roused. Journalists will manage to continue the institution. Police will still invite reporters back when it wants to tout a success, and cops with tips will still find the cell phone numbers of good reporters, whether or not they occupy a desk at 1 Police Plaza.
But I do know that great crime stories are rarely uncovered at the Shack. As Jimmy Breslin likes to point out, great stories are discovered by reporters who get out in the city, climb steps and knock on doors.
David J. Krajicek, a crime journalist and author, was chief of the New York Daily News police bureau from 1987 until 1990. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org