Updated: Feb 9
So I went from being a photojournalist to a reporter who took pictures. This sometimes stood me in good stead, with a presumption that photographers only cared about the images. One time I was assigned to do a political story and the assemblyman carried on back-room business in front of me. I had introduced myself as a reporter-photographer, so didn’t feel there was any deceit. I got a nice behind-the-scenes story out of it. A story the pol didn’t like. But I suppose he learned a valuable lesson that even a photographer could listen and write.
I transitioned from being freelance to being on staff at Courier-Life. The pay was low but the job was fun, and the editor was great.
From a Courier-Life story on Coney Island Gangs. 1974.
Bernie Edelman was a Vietnam veteran, active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He taught me more about the inverted pyramid, how to not bury the lede and journalistic ethics in a real-world setting. Cynical but not embittered. Only a few years older than me but a lot more mature.
It’s a tribute in part to Bernie’s skill at developing talent that I wasn’t the only one who went on to a writing career. Denis Hamill and Michael Daly. Through the Irish writers Mafia, I got to meet Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. Including time hanging out at Camperdown Elm, the unofficial Hamill family bar in Park Slope. I respected them both but identified more with Pete Hamill. He was a gifted writer, whereas Breslin was more the brash columnist. If you’re not familiar with their work, click here.
The Courier-Life job was fun but there definitely was scut work. As a junior member of the team I had the job of translating press releases into short news items. I remember in particular we would get news releases from the Health Department, explaining why a restaurant was closed. Food not adequately heated, or refrigerated, rat feces found, rats and mice seen, roaches scuttling, etc. It was a tribute to the journalistic integrity of the paper that we didn’t just run “puff pieces” on how great everyone was. And writing tight little columns helped develop my discipline and skill at packing in details and stringing together words accurately and efficiently.
In one of my early stories, about a business that was reported to be stealing electricity from Con Ed, I learned the power of “allegedly” and attribution. My story had quoted a Con Ed spokesman verbatim and unattributed. The business owners sued. I was barely a year into my career and thought I was ruined, marked with a scarlet letter of L, libelous. Fortunately, the suit was dismissed. But for a few months after that, every 5th word in my stories was allegedly.