Tales from the Stringers
All Strung Out
By Noah Rosenberg
There's this fleeting, elastic moment that every newspaper stringer experiences, this fraction of a second that bounces around in his brain like a laser light show in a science museum, wavering wildly between excitement, desperation, fulfillment and fear. This moment may come in between forkfuls of food, while sitting on the toilet, while sitting shiva, while lovemaking, or while making toast. For the stringer—freelance reporter extraordinaire who bounces between scenes of breaking news, stringing together “quotes and color” for a writer back at the office, and who is, perhaps, simultaneously strung along by a news organization’s unspoken suggestion of future health benefits and a full-time position—the important thing is that this moment comes at all. And it comes with a phone call.
Oftentimes, a man like Dean Chang, city editor at The New York Times, is on the other end of the line. There’s been a possible homicide, or a double homicide, or a triple, Chang will say. Or a five-alarm fire in the Bronx. Or a rabid coyote wreaking havoc in Westchester. Or an overturned bus, a catastrophic flood, an impending verdict in a federal terrorism trial, an announcement that a politician has scheduled an announcement. Something has happened—some morsel of news that, for now, is sorely lacking in factual representation, the stringer’s currency. And thus, his phone is ringing—at one a.m., or six a.m., or smack in the middle of a bright, beautiful New York City afternoon. The time does not matter, nor does the stringer’s schedule. The news matters. And so does getting it right, getting it quick.
“You available?” the voice on the phone asks.
Like Dr. Pavlov, editors such as Chang are keenly aware of the emotional and physical response that this simple yet loaded question elicits in the otherwise eating, laughing or fornicating stringer. And like the proverbial Pavlovian dog, the stringer is hungry and, alas, he is desperate—for a paycheck, for acceptance, for the chance to break in and eventually write his own stories. And so he sneaks out of other jobs to take that assignment, leaves his girlfriend alone in restaurants, covers the last couple months of the 2012 Connecticut Congressional campaign on crutches without ever telling his editors of his injury for fear they’ll pull him off the story. The stringer, of course, quickly learns that multitasking is key, that his girlfriend will forgive him, and that an orthopedic boot generates quite the wellspring of sympathy in otherwise tight-lipped subjects.
“We call them 'legs' here at the Times,” Chang said recently, more than a year after I’d “retired” as a stringer working under him, long after my broken foot had healed and my phone’s ringtone had ceased to summon a fight-or-flight response. “But that's a grossly inadequate term,” he continued. “They see, they hear, they think, they use their intuition and judgment to shift their line of reporting when necessary. They can provide the exquisite detail that enables [Pulitzer-winning Times journalist] Bob McFadden to authoritatively recreate a scene he can only see through the stringer's eyes; they can ferret out a quote that can turn a dry story into one filled with human interest.”
The two important words to consider here are “Bob” and “McFadden.” The stringer’s job, it turns out, is a rather thankless one. He makes his office in “hostile territory,” as Chang described it, and makes a custom of “trying to get people to talk who do not want to.” Yet the stringer’s name, and thus his “contributed reporting” credit, often goes unmentioned until the very bottom of the story he worked so hard to get to the bottom of—an italicized afterthought for the increasingly rare reader with an attention span. Meanwhile, the critical and conspicuous author byline at the top of the piece—rendered in all caps and boldface, right beneath the headline—is reserved for the staffer back at HQ who, ironically, sometimes does little more than string together all of the stringer’s string, and is therefore far more deserving of the moniker. (Staff reporters, of course, frequently do much more than that.)
And then there is the issue of compensation.
“We don't pay very much at all,” Chang flatly admitted. Twenty dollars an hour for non-bylined reporting at the Times, to be precise.
So why, then, does the stringer string? Why does he answer that phone? Why does he say, “Yes, I’m available,” when every fiber in his body is screaming the opposite? I never once said no in the first year I called myself a stringer, because behind every middle-of-the-night shooting, every Dominique Strauss-Kahn stakeout, every foaming-at-the-mouth animal loose on Labor Day, every feed of notes submitted with two thumbs and a cell phone from the side of a highway, there’s a story that must be told—and with that story, there’s adrenaline, there’s diplomacy, there’s art, there’s seduction, there’s a ladder that’s being climbed one rung higher, there’s real, solid, old-school reporting...there's a stringer. And there’s always the shot at landing a story of your own and earning a front-page byline—a few moments of well-deserved glory that will inevitably be interrupted by a ringing telephone.
“I don't think I've committed any [staff] reporter's home phone number to memory, but I know some stringers' numbers by heart,” Chang told me. And those are the ones who never say no, because if they do, that next call might never come. My colleagues and friends—many of whom have moved on from stringing but regularly threaten to pick up that notepad again—they, like me, never said no. And as you’ll read below, we have the stories to prove it.
Noah Rosenberg is Narratively’s Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and his writing, photography, and documentary film work has also been published by The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Salon and New York magazine, among other outlets.
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When Samu Saved My Life
By Nate Schweber
Get the name of the dog. That lesson, from a college journalism teacher, on gathering precise detail, flashed in my brain as a German shepherd named Samu clamped down on my hand. Samu saved my life. When I think about my most memorable moment as a New York Times Metro stringer, a freelance reporter primed to charge out at any hour to some dicey crime scene, I think of Samu.
Because of my gig, I work in wild parts of the New York region—neighborhoods that everybody knows are there, but that not everybody knows. It’s exciting, especially for a guy like me, raised in a nice town in Montana. Yes, some of the time—probably most of the time—I chase violence. It’s rarely uplifting, but never boring. And the violence doesn’t touch me, usually. But right before Samu shredded my fingerprints in Jersey City, a man beat the living fuck out of me—not an unthinkable occupational hazard for a reporter. The way I figure it, an ass-stomping and a dog-chomping are cheap admission for the show.
I get to see what other people don’t. I get to be the first to tell. I get to feel the rush of intense reporting, and try to rise to the challenge of finding key details. Best of all, I get to work with some of the best journalists in the world, Times reporters. Often I team with people who’ve won—or will soon win—Pulitzer Prizes. Sometimes the story is Big: a drug dealer who torched a family in Fishkill, New York; high-school footballers accused of rape in Steubenville, Ohio; the latest mass shooting; Hurricane Sandy; Jerry Sandusky. On an early Big story—about a potential serial killer targeting hookers in Atlantic City—a future Pulitzer winner said to me, “If you can’t get excited about a story like this, you’re in the wrong business.”
I get excited. But also anxious. When the Times calls, I still feel like a kid in a classroom being reminded to ask for the dog’s name. On days after I’ve scored some scoop, I like to think I do work for the Times because I’ve shown I can produce. Other days, I suspect it’s only because I’m willing to take a punch. Probably it’s a little bit of both. That’s the freelance life, I guess: low on health insurance, high on cool stories. But any barroom bravado I can generate by telling about getting slugged on the job doesn’t mean Bo Diddley in the newsroom unless I’ve also gotten my hands on some details. I learned that the first time I got clobbered. A Newark, New Jersey, resident decked me after I asked about the second of four drive-by shootings in one bloody night. Hurt, I called the writer with whom I was working.
“I just got punched in the fucking face!” I said.
“Oh my god,” she responded. “Did you get any information?”
A few years later I raced to a rough part of Jersey City after midnight to canvass strangers stumbling out of a housing project. A woman had just jabbed a kitchen knife into a policeman’s skull, and the cop’s partner blew her away. I asked a stocky, beady-eyed man in a basketball jersey if he knew anything. He responded with a haymaker to my left cheekbone. I crumpled into the fetal position, but the blows kept coming—from fists, elbows, knees and heels. Then Samu and his K-9 cop owner charged to my rescue. My digits wound up collateral damage, but it was better than the alternative.
Later, in the hospital room where I was stitched and sterilized, a cop asked if I knew the guy who had beaten me. I didn’t.
“He’s the son of the dead woman,” the cop said. That would have been enough for most news stories, but I’m a Times stringer, so I asked for more detail.
“What’s the name of the dog?”
Nate Schweber has worked as a stringer for The New York Times since 2005. He is the author of "Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park: An Insider's Guide to the 50 Best Places."
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Libby’s Birthday Party
By Jed Lipinski
The invite read: “You are cordially invited to Libby Keatinge’s birthday party. Indian theme encouraged!”
It was July 28, 2011, and I was working as a stringer for Nocturnalist, the New York Times’s short-lived nightlife column. In several months on the job, I’d accidentally stepped on Aretha Franklin’s dress, looked on as Bill Cosby nearly strangled a Getty photographer, and stared at Courtney Love’s iPhone as she swiped through photos of herself and the actor Michael Pitt rummaging through Kurt Cobain’s childhood record collection. (“Here’s his old Flintstones record,” she said. “Isn’t that crazy?”)
On this night, however, no celebrities were expected to appear. Libby Keatinge, the guest of honor, is a voluptuous blonde and former gossip columnist whose LinkedIn profile in 2011 described her as a Senior Editor of Love+Sex at BettyConfidential.com. For her 31st birthday the year before, Keatinge had ridden a white horse into the Theater Bar in Tribeca. (The stunt had been a tribute to Bianca Jagger’s famous entrance into Studio 54 astride a white stallion.) Rumor had it that, for her 32nd birthday, Keatinge planned to take it up a notch by riding a full-sized Indian elephant into the same bar.
I went to see if this was true.
Upon arriving in Tribeca, I noticed a giant white 18-wheeler parked at the corner of Franklin and Church Street. A man and a woman in twin Army-green tank tops were laying a blanket that advertised Bombay Sapphire gin on the sidewalk. Minnie the elephant, they told me, was waiting in the truck.
Down the street at Theater Bar, rose petals had been strewn across the floor. A long-haired guy in loose orange pants was plucking a sitar in the corner, his tunes overpowered by the sound of Whitney Houston blasting from the speakers. I overheard two event coordinators nervously discussing Minnie’s imminent arrival. “I really hope there’s not going to be much of a cleanup process,” one of them said.
I found the owner of the venue, Albert Trummer, mixing drinks behind the bar. The year before, Trummer had been arrested twice for setting alcohol aflame on the bar top of his haute cocktail lounge Apotheke in Chinatown. He’d then rejected a plea deal that would have avoided him jail time.
“It’s not like I put fire in someone’s hair, or a gun in their face,” he told me as he mixed exotic drinks for the guests. “The only person who could have gotten hurt was me!”
As we talked, I mentioned that the bar, though high-ceilinged, seemed awfully small for a full-grown Indian elephant. Would it even make it through the entrance’s double doors?
“Oh, she’s not actually going to ride it into the bar,” he said. “The floor of this place can’t withstand a 5,000-pound elephant. The horse she rode in on last year was a skinny 2,000-pound opera horse.” Instead, he said, Keatinge would be riding Minnie half a block down Franklin Street.
My heart sank. I’d privately been hoping for a disaster, the elephant turning berserk inside the club, rising onto its hind legs and ripping down the chandelier with its trunk as the chic young crowd of socialites scattered in terror. Where was the story in a girl riding an elephant half a block in Tribeca?
“She’s coming!” someone shouted. Everyone rushed out into the street. Keatinge, wearing a flowing red dress and a bindi between her eyes, walked in front of the elephant as it ambled down the sidewalk, guided by the two handlers with bull hooks. She’s not even riding it, I thought. What a letdown.
When they reached the bar, everyone clapped. The handlers enclosed Minnie with metal barricades. Gradually, the guests filed back inside, leaving Minnie there on the sidewalk, looking slightly embarrassed in an Indian headdress and a blanket advertising Bombay Sapphire.
Searching for something to write about, I started polling passersby for their reactions.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so disgusting!” a British woman shouted as she walked past.
“Is that elephant over 21?” said a girl who worked in finance. “Because if not, it shouldn’t be promoting Bombay Sapphire.”
A children’s book illustrator asked if she could touch the elephant. Her request was denied. She frowned and said, “You know, there really hasn’t been a well-known elephant since Babar.”
I looked on as the handlers dumped peppermints, Swedish Fish and Whole California carrots onto the sidewalk and Minnie vacuumed them into her trunk. I took some notes about this, and then thought: Why am I taking notes about this? In fact, why am I here at all?
I was snapping photos of Minnie with my phone when the owner of the building next door arrived. He immediately started shouting at the doorman. “That elephant is standing above a shaftway!” he said. “The sidewalk is hollow under there! What the fuck do you think you’re doing!” The handlers quickly moved the barricades so that Minnie was standing directly in front of the bar.
The handlers, William Commerford and his wife, Darlene, employees of the R.W. Commerford and Sons traveling petting zoo, indulged me by rattling off facts about Minnie and elephants in general. Minnie was 39, they said, but they’d known her since she was 15. She had appeared in "Two for the Money" with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. She was raised by an eccentric family in a house in Connecticut, who bottle-fed and potty-trained her. It is a myth that elephants like peanuts. Some of them are afraid of mice, but not Minnie. Also, it is not true that elephants never forget. If you’re away from them for a long time, they will forget you.
Around midnight, a doorman announced that Minnie was leaving. Keatinge and her guests re-emerged drunkenly from the bar and clapped as Minnie walked off down Franklin Street. I decided to tag along.
At the corner of Church, Minnie idly plunged her trunk into a New York City garbage can as she waited for the walk sign. Drivers slowed down to gawk. “Look at that fucking elephant!” a guy in a Mustang shouted out his window. When the light changed, Minnie stepped into the street and up into the trailer bed.
Doug Ward, a personal trainer at Eastern Athletic gym with bulging biceps, walked up. “Oh my god, she’s gorgeous!” he said, peering into the darkened trailer. He’d studied elephants, he told me. He knew that African ones are more territorial and Indian ones are used for the circus. As the handlers closed the trailer doors, Doug shouted, “I’m happy to see you, Minnie! You made the city a better place!”
The notes from the evening made it into the paper two days later, under the headline: “At Theater Bar, the Biggest Star Was Stuck Outside.” The photo shows Trummer and Keatinge posing joyfully in front of Minnie, the red Shaftway sign visible in the background.
Today, when you type Libby Keatinge’s name into Google, that article is the first thing that comes up.
Jed Lipinski is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn.
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By Michael McLaughlin
When I say I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post, people frequently ask me if I get paid. (Yes, I do—we're not all blogging for free.) Not only am I gainfully employed, but I covered what is probably the biggest breaking news event I'll ever see firsthand: the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.
The two years I'd worked as a stringer for the New York Daily News came rushing back. Back then, car crashes, fires and other forms of mayhem constituted a huge portion of my assignments. I learned to be comfortable in chaos and how to respectfully interview people who'd just been through a traumatic event. But the marathon bombing dwarfed all previous stakeouts.
HuffPost dispatched me to Boston the day after the bombing. I was staying with a friend near M.I.T. when a police offer was fatally shot on campus. A collective gasp sucked the air out of the greater Boston area as everyone wondered if the cop killing was tied to the deadly explosion days earlier at the marathon's finish line.
Like any other stakeout, this one became an endurance test. It had already been a long day when I saw Twitter light up with reports of the shooting at M.I.T. Only a few journalists got to the crime scene before me. No one knew yet that the officer’s killers were allegedly the marathon bombers, but a few dozen of the hundreds of reporters, photographers, and camera people who were in town to cover the bombing's aftermath rushed from their hotel rooms to see what had happened.
The media abandoned that scene upon hearing police scanner chatter about gunfire and grenades in Watertown. An editor from Bloomberg News and I hitched a ride with two photographers. Adrenaline surged through me on this white-knuckle car ride as we sped through red lights and into oncoming traffic.
We scattered out of his truck onto the main drag of Watertown to find someone, anyone, who could tell us what they'd seen or heard. It was late at night and lots of people were gathered outside of homes and bars. Reporters asked residents for tallies of the gunshots and explosions and for their best impressions of what the salvos sounded like.
Police began informing the media that we had to relocate to a shopping mall parking lot. Getting us off the streets was essential—they didn't want to be concerned about our safety, or to have journalists hinder their search for a suspected cop-killing bomber by tweeting about their movements, equipment and arms. So, in the middle of the night, a caravan of journalists and a handful of stranded Watertown residents pulled into the parking lot. It was time to get comfortable. We'd spend much of the next day huddled on this blacktop.
Because of the heightened security risks, we were surrounded by state troopers. The police were there to make sure we didn't wander off into town to get a closer look at their militarized door-to-door search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They were also there to make sure that no one, and in particular no terrorism suspect, came our way.
Unlike the typical stakeout, providing for our basic bodily needs was relatively simple. When journalists are camped out in one spot for an extended period of time, identifying the nearest public bathroom is vital. But in this case, the authorities hauled in a couple of port-a-potties for the 100 or so members of the media who'd coalesced in the middle of the night.
Boxed lunches, doughnuts, hot coffee and water were also dropped off, courtesy of Massachusetts’s finest.
There was even a cute, humorous human-interest story there for the writing. A dad and his elementary-school-age daughter had returned from Logan International Airport with their new puppy, who'd arrived by plane, to discover they were blocked from their house and needed to remain inside the lockdown zone. So they cheerfully recounted their ordeal to every member of the press who wanted an interview, including my HuffPost coworker and me.
The hours passed quickly. Being confined to one spot made it tough to develop unique angles. The best I came up with was to interview people on the phone who were living inside the lockdown zone for descriptions of what it was like be under siege. (The British news station Sky News interviewed me on camera.)
In the evening, officials speaking at a press briefing made remarks suggesting that the search might not end any time soon. Security had loosened, though, allowing members of the media to leave the parking lot. My coworker and I decided to go to my friend's nearby apartment. Our plan was to get dinner, freshen up and write an article. But we'd barely gotten inside the apartment when other reporters began tweeting about a volley of gunfire in Watertown.
We packed up our gear and headed back. We milled around, but couldn't get close to the block where Tsarnaev was shot and arrested. Cheers were heard moments after his capture was announced electronically. People emerged from their homes and a street party took shape instantly. Locals applauded a stream of ambulances, police cars and other official vehicles proceeding through town. Using their P.A. systems, the police and emergency responders thanked the public. The feeling of relief was palpable.
Stakeouts and the Huffington Post don't usually go hand in hand. HuffPost's philosophy is to break away from the pack and find a unique angle to investigate. But there are times when a HuffPost reporter gets caught up in the mix and finds himself filing stories from a rental car and tweeting updates from impromptu press conferences, and that just might have been the best way to contribute to coverage of an event of that magnitude.
Michael McLaughlin is a staff reporter for The Huffington Post and has previously worked for the Daily News and the Brooklyn Paper.
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“…,” I said.
By Rebecca White
“Your son was just shot point-blank in the basement. How do you feel about that?”
“Tell me, and forgive me if this is a hard time for you, but had you any inclination that your neighbor would throw her roommate’s toddler off of the balcony like that? Did you hear a fight? Did you see the blood splatter on the pavement?”
“I need a comment, basically, on why the mayor let his daughter bring her pig to dinner. No big deal. But if you could also confirm its name and the specific breed, that would be fantastic.”
“Which way did the tornado go?”
“Do you feel that members of the LGBT community owe it to you to vote for you for mayor? And what color are your toenails painted today?”
“Was she bound and gagged and tied to the bed, or just raped? And if she was bound, was it with her sweatsuit? I heard someone say there was a sweatsuit.”
“I’m sorry, again, I mean no disrespect and I don’t really need to go anywhere. Before you start driving…please…it’s just that I heard that you were the cab driver who took Mr. Strauss-Kahn to the airport and that he told you he was in a rush and needed to get there quickly…I mean no disrespect…Please don’t get angry. I know you don’t want any trouble.”
“Ms. Olsen? What are you wearing? I mean, who. Who are you wearing? Because I can see that yes, yes it is some type of coat.”
“Don’t worry, I promise I won’t ask about Lindsey Lohan. We’re the Times. We don’t do that kind of reporting. But, on that note, it must be so frustrating to have people ask you about your ex all the time, right? I mean, you’re a d.j. You’re an artist. And the past is the past, right?”
“When you’re psychically communicating with the dead pets, do they ever tell you things like, ‘I hate Iams!’ or something?...Oh, of course! How silly of me. Dogs can’t read.”
“How many times were you stabbed in the skull, again? I couldn’t hear.”
Rebecca White is Narratively's Director of Operations and a Contributing Editor. As a stringer for the Times for four years she covered crime, politics, and celebrity nightlife. She also freelances for the Post's Pet Features column. Follow her @RebeccaWhiteNY.
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Sarah Clark is an illustrator and animator living in Oakland, CA. She makes masks, monster doodles and baseball comics at www.sarahclarkart.com.