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Local reporters, including former Daily News staffers, on why local journalism matters

Written by
Jillian Anthony

On Monday, the New York Daily News cut its newsroom staff in half, gutting one of New York City's remaining three daily newspapers. Forty newsroom staffers were dismissed, including editor-in-chief Jim Rich, launching a national conversation on the state of journalism and the industry’s dire financial struggles. (The paper also plans to raise its daily price from $1 to $1.50 on August 6.)

Many New Yorkers, former Daily News staffers, journalists and government officials around the country took to social media to lament the loss of another important journalistic institution, one that's been around since 1919 and has broken countless stories, including the brutal assault of Abner Louima by NYPD officers in 1997 and, earlier this year, the exposure of widespread dangerous levels of lead in public housing.

“This will undoubtedly devastate many households and hurt an important New York institution and one of our nation’s journalism giants,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement.

Time Out New York asked reporters, including former Daily News staffers, to share their thoughts on why local news is so important to New York City, the nation and the world. Read their collected thoughts below.

Michael Musto, writer

"In April 1996, I ran something in my Village Voice column about how club kid leader Michael Alig said he was fired from the club Limelight, and I also included the fact that there was buzz about a missing person. Later that month, Page Six picked up a New York magazine item about the murder buzz, plus my items (including a blind item about the details of the murder buzz) and made it their lead item. As the months went on, the buzz kept growing and eventually Michael Alig and Robert Riggs went to jail for killing Angel Melendez. I had covered Alig for years as a local reporter (and I also went on national TV shows with him), so I was privy to a lot of news and gossip. Being a NYC reporter with a beat was essential to my being in on the early coverage of this horror.
On a happier note, in 1997, I got information about the fact that Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche were openly canoodling in NYC. This wasn't even outing--they were pretty much outing themselves. I worked in conjunction with Page Six to break what I knew, and eventually, the twosome came out on the record, and all was good—until they parted. Reporting the truth helped level the gossip landscape—since straight couples were always reported about, even adulterous ones—and it made same-sex relationships more reportable and accepted."

Albert Samaha, criminal justice reporter at BuzzFeed News

"The Village Voice was the third local paper I worked for, and by the time I got there I had a routine for getting to know a new city. The most crucial step was taking veteran reporters out for drinks, to indulge in their institutional knowledge, pick up the lessons and anecdotes passed down from those before them—a long collective story of a place’s good guys, bad guys, traumas and triumphs, chronicled week after week, year after year. You got the sense that a wrongdoer couldn’t run from this relentless journalistic presence. At my first gig, in St. Louis, it was a veteran reporter’s coverage of a neighboring town that sparked my interest in that town’s high school, whose students were nearly all black and whose football team, I discovered, had been unfairly barred from the playoffs thanks to the coaches at opposing, predominantly white, schools who exploited obscure zoning rules that deemed kids who didn’t live at fixed addresses ineligible to play. The opposing coaches stopped filing bullshit complaints after my story. At my second job, in San Francisco, a colleague generously shared a source who tipped me off about police and prosecutors exaggerating evidence of a person’s gang membership in pursuit of harsher sentences; the story led a judge to reverse a teenager’s conviction. By the time I got to the Voice, though, most of the veteran reporters were gone, and the ones who remained would be gone within a month of my arrival. The few of us left had to start from scratch, and there was always more happening out there than we could cover. That growing, invisible list of all we miss is scary as hell."

Lisa Colangelo, staff writer amNewYork, former staff writer at the New York Daily News 1999-2016

"I grew up in Queens reading the Daily News, and by the time I was 10 I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was curious about everything going on in my city and my borough—the crime, political scandals, quirky human interest stories and, of course, my beloved Mets. I knew the Daily News would provide that every day. At a time when too much 'news' is generated by content producers sitting at desks, regurgitating information that is already out there, it’s more important than ever to have an aggressive local paper that still sends reporters out on the streets to talk to people, dig through documents and keep an eye on lawmakers and government workers. But it’s also about telling the stories of ordinary New Yorkers and civil servants who also deserve some time in the spotlight. Working there for 18 years was a thrill and an honor. We can never underestimate the importance of covering local news."

Daniel Johnson-Kim, former New York Daily News director of content

"When I think about why local news matters, I think of the death of Eric Garner. I’ll never forget the evening of July 17, 2014. Eric’s story would have never been told if the NYPD had its way. But because of the unrelenting hunt for the truth by professional local journalists at the New York Daily News, nearly everyone in this city and country knows his name and what it means when you say 'I Can’t Breathe.'

Before it was a hashtag and a T-shirt that NBA players like LeBron and Kobe wore, it was a conversation that Ken Murray overheard on the police scanner while driving through Staten Island headed to an assignment. Then it was a call with Chelsia Rose Marcius to head to Staten Island because something big was going down. And they both called the desk to let them know where they were headed and why.

Murray got a hold of the video of the end of Eric’s life and it was sent to our photo desk. A photo editor watched the clip and I quickly heard gasps and 'What the f#$k!' coming from the desk. Soon, most everyone in the newsroom was gathered around that same desk and observed in horror.

Then we went to work.

Kerry Burke knocked on doors to find Eric’s family and learn the truth about the man who was quickly going viral. Rocco Parascandola reached out to his cop sources. Bill Hutchison was assigned rewrite and I was handed a folder full of screenshots of the end of Eric’s life. Jim Rich, then the executive editor, sketched out a basic design and told me he wanted a sequence of numbered photos and there was no need to write a headline. Eric’s words would be enough: 'I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe.'

We made our deadline as a team.

The 'wood' (front page) on July 18, 2014, was an international story about Vladimir Putin shooting down a passenger airliner. Only one man died in Staten Island and hundreds died on that plane, but I always regretted that we didn’t change the wood to be the story of the NYPD killing of Eric Garner. The Garner spread ran on pages 10-11.

And isn’t that exactly why local journalism is danger? Everyone is focused on trying to cover the world and missing the local stories like Eric’s that have a greater opportunity than ever before in history to be read throughout the world thanks to social media and the web.

Fortunately the next day the Daily News squad came through again. The front page story on July 19, 2014, was an exclusive interview with Eric’s widow, Esaw.

Local journalism is necessary for a democracy to thrive. Sure everyone wants to cover national politics, but it’s the local politics and the local politicians and the local stories that have the greatest effect on citizen’s lives. Without anyone to cover them regularly, corruption, incompetence and dishonesty in government will only get worse."

Spencer Dukoff, former Daily News social media editor and entertainment reporter 

"The ultimate responsibility of any journalist is to hold truth to power, and that was the M.O. of any reporter who ever had the privilege of working for the New York Daily News. Without local journalism, corruption festers, leaders lie with impunity, marginalized communities become further marginalized and injustices go unanswered. Good local journalism serves the public interest and balances the scales between the powerful and the powerless.

The Daily News has always prided itself on punching up, sidelining talk of 'civility' and 'good manners' to cut right to the core of an issue. It's a pugnacious attitude that mirrors the spirt of the city we serve. An editor I admire and respect has said that 'everything is local.' Our society is just a bunch of little local communities interacting with one another. We all come from somewhere. Everything is local. And if we don't have a thriving local press staffed with journalists who understand the communities and beats they're dispatched to cover, then we lose a fundamental piece that allows our democracy to function." 

Amy Plitt, editor of Curbed NY

"If you need hard proof that local news matters and has a profound impact on cities, look no further than the NYCHA scandals that have unfolded over the past couple of years. Many of those—the lead paint scandal, the level of mismanagement at the agency—came to light thanks to the New York Daily News, whose reporters pursued those stories doggedly. Now, at the very least, some problems have been exposed and people have been held accountable—and that's what good, effective local reporting does at its best. New York has lost a lot of reporters who were doing just that for years (RIP, DNAInfo), and the city is definitely a poorer place for it." 

John Karalis, Good Day New York

"Our founding fathers made two profound choices that highlight how important local journalism is. They created a government of checks and balances and they protected the press with the First Amendment. The checks and balances were created because they knew people in power couldn't be trusted 100 percent of the time. They created the First Amendment because they knew someone had to be empowered to expose those who were abusing their positions without fear of repercussion. 
It sounds dramatic, but it has to be someone's job to inform the public when something is going wrong or when power is being abused. It has to be someone's job to look into problems, determine what's going wrong and tell everyone about it. When no one is there to look into problems, those problems persist, unchecked, often until it's too late. 
Local news and local journalists are the first line of information that keep politicians honest and people informed. Without someone to pull at the first weeds of the spring, we run the risk of being infested. Without a local journalist to spot problems and dig at them, we risk losing our money to incompetence and our rights to the unscrupulous."

John Maher, digital editor, associate news editor at Publishers Weekly

"When I worked for the Rockville Centre Herald, one of many papers under the Long Island Herald banner, one of my beats was Village Hall, and one of the things I noticed was that the affluent, extremely white community I was covering (and was also from) didn't pay much attention to the small, predominately black and hispanic and Latinx community living in public housing in the village. This all came to a head when two different laws—one on the federal level, levied by HUD, and one on the state level, under New York's Public Housing Law—came into conflict with one another, effectively paralyzing the board of trustees overseeing the units. HUD demanded that the two tenant representatives on the board—the only two non-white members of the board, and the only officials on the board actually elected by the tenants and not hand-picked by the mayor—be removed because, despite federal laws demanding their presence on the board, 'their election could not be approved.' The state disagreed—and because of conflicting understandings of what constitutes public housing, and because of legislation drafted by the now-disgraced New York Politico and Rockville Centre native son Representative Dean Skelos, everything went haywire. The chairman of the Rockville Centre Housing Authority had to somehow ensure that he and his board obeyed both edicts. When he deferred to the feds and temporarily stripped the tenant reps of their spots on the board while appealing to Albany and Washington to work together to solve the problem, unsurprisingly, the mounting furor in the public housing communities boiled over.
This was, by far, the most important story we would cover that year. I knew it, and my editor knew it. It was so many problems in a nutshell: racial disparity, federal and state governments being out of sync, public servants being stuck between rocks and hard places, a mayor whose focus was elsewhere as a significant portion of his citizens were having their rights hamstrung by policy hangups. And yet our executive editor, and our publisher—who shouldn't have been involved editorially anyway—fought us tooth and nail every time we wanted to put this story on the front cover. Why? Because only a slim margin of the residents of Rockville Centre weren't white; because the story was extremely complicated (honestly, I'm not sure I even had it totally figured out by the end, and I read hundreds of pages of federal and state code while reporting the story solo in order to try); because it didn't make for exciting reading, and it wouldn't sell papers. But my editor and I—both of whom are white men, for the record, as were our executive editor and publisher—fought to get the stories on the cover. In the end, they made the front page, above the fold, every time. 
To be honest, this story doesn't end happily. I fought for ages to get Albany and Washington to talk to each other, at one point literally taking two different phones I was then talking on—one with a HUD agent, and one with someone representing NYS Section 8 housing—turning them upside down so as one's mouthpiece was in the other's earpiece and yelling 'TALK TO EACH OTHER AND FIGURE IT OUT!' I was completely exasperated; communication breakdown between governments had kept the board from being able to govern and solve basic problems at the housing authority for almost a year. But when HUD finally backed off, they also granted temporary relief from the statute requiring the authority to have at least one tenant representative—effectively allowing the mayor to keep the board at five appointed members, and effectively removing all black representation from the board. The chairman—whose efforts to preserve the tenant reps while also obeying all laws, despite public perception that he just wanted the easier path, I had been privy to for that whole time—finally gave in. To my knowledge, there are no tenant reps on the boards to date.
That said, after we started covering it, folks in the community began to pay attention. More people spoke up at village hall meetings about the problem—few, but more than before. And the state and feds DID have to do something, even if that something was just more proof of how broken everything is. I can't imagine what would have happened if we hadn't covered that story. Actually, I can make a guess: nothing at all."

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