The closure of two New York City-based websites, Gothamist and DNAinfo, alarms anyone who cares about the future of local journalism.
But it also raises additional questions about the future of local crime reporting.
A few days before the two sites closed, I ran into a former colleague who reminded me of a story we covered together more than a decade ago. A dispute at an illegal gambling parlor in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, led to a fatal shooting.
My colleague and I showed up the next day to find the betting shop still operating, and the winning numbers scrawled on the wall next to a guy who was preoccupied on the phone trying to field bets.
A mop bucket filled with blood sat in the corner. The dead man’s blood was still smeared on the floor. Business was so good the operators didn’t have time to clean up after the deceased.
We both had a laugh over the bucket of blood. It’s the kind of detail that we crime reporters lived for, chasing crime back when the tabloids and the New York Times were still dedicated to covering what happened in the city on a nightly basis.
There are those who might say that the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality is best left in the past, a remnant of a booze-soaked newspaper era, a relic of a pre-social-media age best left to fade away in the era of smartphones and social media.
Who needs slightly damaged, slightly alcoholic guys and gals like us to be middlemen-and-women to grind out workaday truths when citizens can do it with an iPhone?
Of course the same detail that delighted me as a crime reporter left the residents on the block terrified. If someone can blow away some guy and then stroll away, what about us, they asked? What about my kids? And what about the gun? How did the gun get here, in this room? How many more guns do the criminals have than the cops?
How many white people get killed by guns purchased in a former Confederate state and smuggled into the heart of New York City? How many black people get killed? How many victims are rich? How many poor?
For many citizens, the only contact they have with their government is with the police. How could a guy be killed in a demonstrably illegal gambling den; and less than 24 hours later, how could that den still be humming before the blood could be mopped up and dumped out into the street?
How did the Buildings Department miss this? Was it the sexy corruption of kickbacks and bribes? Or, more likely, the pedestrian corruption of an overburdened bureaucracy incapable of realistically meeting its legal responsibilities?
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. Crime is titillating, but it is also the only way we as a society have to talk about the fundamental questions animating human existence, namely: what it means to live in a just society.
What should be illegal in a free society? Who has to deal with the consequences of crime and why? Who watches the watchers? Are we as a society securing the liberty guaranteed by the Founding Fathers?
The crime beat rubs our faces in the way that what we casually think of as justice plays out in countless small ways in courtrooms and street corners all over this demented slaughterhouse of a democracy we call the United States of America.
Crime reporting was a passport to a world that largely remained uncovered by the major newspapers, and it was a way to see how people survive living in abject poverty, to see up close the consequences of inequality.
Who knows how many stories my colleagues and I stumbled on because we were trying to figure out who shot whom, and why, on some cold winter night.
The simple fact of reporters being there, with eyes on the cops at the scene, and their bosses, who know that someone is watching, can be a check on power.
Human beings, not the greatest specimens that nature has coughed into existence, will generally get away with what they are allowed to. Cops are not unique in this. The simple act of being present at these crime scenes is a deterrent on abuses of power.
With Gothamist and DNAinfo shuttered, it begs the question: what do we do now? What can be done to fill in the gaping holes in coverage left by their absence and the paucity of news coverage by newspapers here?
The short answer is, hell if I know.
If I had an answer to that I’d be filthy rich and not writing this op-ed. The slightly longer answer is that news agencies need to reassess what crime reporting can be. It is not just a blotter. It is a tableau to ask the lofty Big Questions in a small-bore, concrete way.
Schools that teach journalism need to cut their students loose to fill the gap created by the shuttering of DNAInfo and Gothamist. At the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, we have a paper that covers the South Bronx.
Similar projects should be vigorously supported in Washington, D.C., Chicago, L.A., and all the cities affected by the closing, as well as any place where there’s a school teaching journalism.
There is a corrosive nihilism at the beating heart of people turning their noses up at “local news.”
Just recently, a student at the school where I teach was talking about how robots can do what I and my fellow crime reporters did back at the turn of the century, when at least three reporters, sometimes more, were out in the streets at crime scenes trying to figure what the hell happened and why and what it all means.
Especially what it means for the real people swept up in their private tragedy, and what it means for all of us who live in the parallel universe of stability and order, a life free of buckets of blood, who like to go to sleep at night thinking we’re good and fair and just.
My friend, who warned me he was likely to be laid off as a result of the closures, said he had recently returned to the spot infamous for that bucket of blood. It’s a French bistro now. A sign of the “gentrification” rampant in the neighborhoods that used to be awash in crime.
It’s fashionable these days to think all the other diners could just use their iPhones to make sense of the chaos, institutional and intimate, going on in this city as they sat and ate.
But my colleague could have used his experience, streetwise skills – and reporter’s curiosity─to turn that chaos into compelling stories. But he’s now unemployed.
I’m not sure what the other diners were eating. But I asked my friend what he chose off the menu. He ordered the lamb burger, medium well.
Daryl Khan is a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the NYC bureau chief of JJIE, a juvenile justice website. He welcomes readers’ comments.