The Triumph of the Crime Reporter

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Crime has been an endlessly fascinating subject long before TV police procedurals, Twitter and Facebook. But why are some murders more compelling than others? One reason: the special skills of the crime reporter, who can weave a poignant, unforgettable tale out of the grisliest details—and sometimes find clues that even gimlet-eyed detectives miss.

The best crime and justice writers today earn journalism’s top honors for their ability to see patterns and significance in reams of data—as demonstrated by the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded this week to reporters from The New York Daily News and ProPublica for their series on the New York Police Department’s widespread abuse of a decades-old law to force people from their homes and businesses over alleged illegal activity. The hardboiled reporters of earlier decades may not have had laptops on their desks—if they had desks—but they were equally committed to following the facts wherever they led.

Financier Bernie Madoff leaves New York courtroom. Photo courtesy Sterling Publishing Co., Inc by Damon Winter for The New York Times.

The recently released New York Times Book of Crime: More Than 166 Years of Covering the Beat is a celebration of their craft—and a reminder of why journalism is often the first draft of history. The newspaper picked about 100 of the most vivid, dramatic and significant stories from the thousands of items in its archives dating from 1851, from President Lincoln’s assassination to the arrest of Bernie Madoff.

Choosing them wasn’t easy, admits Kevin Flynn, editor of the anthology, and a  prizewinning crime reporter in his own right.  A writer and editor for 20 years at The Times, he was the police bureau chief from 1998-2002, and his work helped earn the paper the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. Flynn co-wrote with Jim Dwyer 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.

In a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau, The Crime Report’s Deputy Editor, he explains why an article about prisons is the oldest article in the book, why New York crime reporters’ legendary hangout is called ‘The Shack,” and what makes a great “rewrite man”— the unsung hero of any newsroom’s crime coverage.

Kevin Flynn of The New York Times

If you’re worried about today’s “crime wave,” check out the writers of this anthology. They’ve seen it all before.

The Crime Report: Looking at the breadth of these crime stories, the tremendous variety, it’s hard not to think about the state of the media today. How do you see crime coverage at the big urban dailies evolving in a time of staff cutbacks and digital disruption?

Kevin Flynn: I don’t know that I’ve read enough into the coverage of folks outside New York to be much of a national expert, but I don’t think there is any question that here in New York City there has been a move toward lesser coverage of smaller crimes by the dailies. To some extent, that has been offset by the work of websites like DNAInfo, which has done a good job of covering local crime. And to some extent, the proliferation of social media tools like Twitter has made everyone a local crime reporter.

In situations like a bombing or a bomb scare, dozens of largely reliable people now have the ability to report their first-person perspectives on what happened. It’s a tool we have to be careful in relying on, but for the most part people provide accurate accounts of what they think they see, and the volume and redundancy of what they report usually gives me confidence in them. That said, the average person is not in position to tweet about crippling shortfalls in a police budget or gaps in a disciplinary procedure for officers. I think it’s important that, as we manage staff reductions at newspapers, we make sure that essential reporting on police departments as institutions never falls through the cracks.

TCR: Going back to the early days of crime coverage by The New York Times, were there stories that surprised you?

Flynn: Yes. The prison chapter has the oldest article in the book, one from 1852, that is about prison torture. Reading the hand-wringing over the fact that the prisoners were being tortured, I was struck by how much concern there was. I had my own myopic image of what New York was like then, and I would have assumed that there wouldn’t have been as much concern about prisoners as there is today. But I was wrong.

TCR: It must have been challenging, when reading through the coverage of a major crime, to decide which story was the perfect one for the book.

Flynn: That was one of the great struggles: to pick stories that were very interesting—but didn’t need annotations at the end that would need to be even longer than the story itself. We often chose articles that were written at the back end of the arc of the crime narrative. We did that with John Gotti and Charles Manson, a few of them, because otherwise it’s too hard to catch the reader up. One of the few examples of a crime that was covered in two articles was Son of Sam. When I picked for this book a story written after David Berkowitz was arrested, one of the editors here at the time made a strong case to me that we needed one written earlier too, because the latter story didn’t capture the terror that New York felt during the time when he was unidentified and Sam was out there killing people.

TCR: What was it like to narrow down the stories for the organized crime chapter?

Flynn: You really could fill two books with good stories. One issue was how many chapters can I devote to mob hits? One out of nine. So I narrowed it down to choosing between the killing of Paul Castellano outside Sparks, which was quite a sensational Midtown Manhattan middle-of-the-day fancy-steakhouse sidewalk shooting, and the killing of Carmine Galante in an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn in 1979. I chose the Galante killing because it was one of the first really big mob hits that I remember and of course it had that amazing picture of Galante, the cigar clenched in his teeth, slumped underneath the table on the patio of the restaurant where he was eating a salad, with the salad still on the table.

TCR: This book is the triumph of the crime reporter, isn’t it?

Flynn: It’s the triumph of the beat reporter—and, in the case of Robert McFadden, the triumph of the rewrite man. He was a person with a delicate way with words who also had an ability to deal with deadlines and take feeds from five, six, seven people at the same time. For at least 15 years he was often chosen to be the writer of the major crime stories. He has four bylines I believe in this book.

TCR: What makes a great rewrite man?

Flynn: He did not get nervous. Robert McFadden had the ability to write fast, think fast, and produce sparkling copy an hour or 90 minutes from deadline.

TCR: Do you think readers will appreciate the dedication to accuracy and meticulousness of The New York Times when covering crime, as compared to the tabloid press?

Flynn: Now I would say that the New York crime reporters for the Post and the Daily News have always been highly accurate. The placement of the stories, the size of the photographs and maybe the luridness of the headlines, the “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar,” could create a patina of sensationalism, but the people I competed against when I was at police headquarters for five years were extremely careful. I didn’t find that they were cavalier about the facts.

What we would do more of at the Times would be the sociology of the crimes. We wrote stories about overtime in the police department and maybe more stories about the fascination that first-grade detectives have with expensive suits. Despite the fact that they will need to go into a dumpster and retrieve a weapon, these detectives still show up at work and look like a million bucks.

TCR: Since you were assigned to police headquarters, that means you worked in The Shack. Can you explain the origin of that name?

Flynn: I believe in 1875 some reporters wrote something which held them out to disfavor with the police department, who threw the press room out of the headquarters building. The reporters moved into a tenement building across the street that became known as The Shack. Some years later, when headquarters moved to another building, they were allowed back in, but the name for the press room stuck. Now if the space they had been moved into had been sort of glorious, elegant place, the name would have died, but it was not.

TCR: Oh, please describe The Shack.

Flynn: These were tiny rooms, some of them with mangy, old carpets. There were all kinds of computer cable and telephone lines both hanging from the ceiling and running across the floor. I’ve described it as a grimy early model space capsule. We occupied it cheek to jowl, usually with three people in the room.

Nancy Bilyeau. Photo by Joshua Kessler

Some of the reporters who work in The Shack [have been] there longer than any of the people in the police headquarters. The police will be in there five or seven years, they get moved around a lot, and they retire after 20 or 25 years. So in some cases, the older tabloid reporters have greater institutional memory than the police they cover. If you need any history of something that happened at police department 20 years ago, the best person to find is someone in The Shack.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report.  Tomorrow: an exclusive excerpt from the foreword to the Book of Crime, written by award-winning novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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