In the summer of 2005, the editor and the publisher of our paper, The Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, came to our suburban bureau and said what every reporter longs to hear: “We want you to do something big. And we’re going to cut you loose to do it.” The editor was Mike Levine; the publisher was Jim Moss. Fresh from a trip for newspaper leaders at the Poynter Institute, they were eager to try out some new possibilities, especially Moss, who’d just won a fight with cancer and had said he would retire at year’s end.
They gave us only two rules to follow: what we came up with could not be a traditional newspaper series, and they wanted it to be about Newburgh, a small, poor, violent, old factory town hard by the Hudson River, an hour north of New York City. The rest was ours to decide. The result, published six months later, was a 12-page pullout of five articles called “The Promised Land.” In story selection and in the use of our voices in the story’s telling, it was a natural fit for—and, as things turned out, our tribute to—Mike Levine’s perspective on how best to report local news.
As our paper’s executive editor, Levine had staved off circulation declines of our tabloid paper (80,000 daily) by employing risky and innovative strategies toward newsgathering and telling. He’d sent a reporter and photographer to Indonesia after the tsunami and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina so our readers would be well served in coverage of these global news events. Staff writers appeared on the paper’s local TV ads; he believed their personalities and hyperlocal expertise would engage readers and, in turn, keep the newspaper alive.
When Levine was editor, the journalism we did was about the connections that could be made with readers. Coverage of a men’s adult soccer league popular with local Hispanic immigrants received as much space and vigor as did the Yankees. Ignore the all-too-typical local government “process stories” playing out in our sprawling region’s dozens of town halls, he urged, and instead focus on the view from 50,000 feet up, or from flat on the ground or, ideally, from both. Even casual readers should know the name of the leader of our booming Hasidic community, he believed, and something about the power struggle within his family. Connect, too, he said, with the experiences of migrants from the Bronx who left the city for peace but found the places we covered—“the country”—had their troubles, too. When one of our reporters wrote a personal story about her weight loss, he ran a photo of her in a bikini. And once he even urged a reporter covering a sexual assault trial at West Point to write the story in the first person.
He once described his approach as trying to build “a tabloid New Yorker.” No approach was out of bounds. “The Promised Land” was, more than anything, Levine’s local news philosophy writ large. And it was, in a word, strange.
None of our articles was longer than 30 inches. They were published together, as a five-part whole. The first piece took readers back to the day in 1970 when bulldozers leveled Newburgh’s black neighborhood and marked the arrival of an urban renewal that didn’t renew anything. (This event happened before either of us who wrote the story were even born in Massachusetts.) Told through memories of many who’d lived then in Newburgh’s East End, it grabbed readers by the throat and didn’t let go.
Another article detailed the emergence of Newburgh’s “poverty economy,” the $40-million-a-year industry that grew up to serve and sooth the poor. Another explored the theory, long regarded as fact on the brick streets of Newburgh, that this city was a dumping ground for the troubles of an increasingly affluent region. In a separate piece, which began with a scene of a barefoot man stomping a rat to death, evidence was given that decades of concentrated poverty had produced a condition not unlike posttraumatic stress disorder in Newburgh’s ghettos. In the fifth piece, we returned readers to the still-vacant urban renewal land and challenged the city to see the land as a chance to combat poverty, not just build luxury condominiums.
For us, the strange part of writing these stories was the voice we were encouraged to use in doing so. Clearly we couldn’t tell the story using a first-person voice, since it wasn’t our story to tell. Still, these stories conveyed a definite point of view, and the voice we used shared our perspective throughout their telling. Newburgh had become a dumping ground, our stories argued, a corral for the region’s woes and, until that was addressed, the city could never be renewed. With Levine spurring us on, we dispensed with the usual back-and-forth balancing between sides. Instead, we portrayed the issues as they are seen by people who live in Newburgh, and we conveyed our core finding as a fact backed up by decades of experience.
To reach this conclusion, we relied on the wisdom of regular Newburghers, the ones who had been there through factory closings and crack cocaine and heard so many promises of a new start that had left only bitterness in their wake. We talked with the mayor, but more importantly we talked with Valencia Forbes, who carries a picture of that rat her husband squashed, and one of a son who she lost to Newburgh’s endemic violence. In the end, we gave more weight to her words than to those we heard inside of city hall.
We also relied on our expertise. One of us, a seasoned street reporter, came to understand the history and contemporary dynamics of Newburgh as well as anyone who has lived there and concluded the city’s core problem was entrenched poverty among its black residents. The other, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning, was encouraged to analyze the city’s economy and assess the effects of urban renewal. In a city as remote and small as Newburgh, no outside experts, professors or think tanks had studied its poverty economy or mental health issues. Living as close as they do to these problems, we weren’t surprised that no inside experts emerged, either. So we had to study the city ourselves.
“The Promised Land,” a magazine-style essay about the self-perpetuating cycle of urban poverty, conveyed voices of those hard streets, alongside our big picture analysis of how things got to be the way they are today. At the end, it included a series of next-step recommendations, written mostly by our publisher, Moss.
Reaction by readers—including residents of Newburgh—was mixed. A few praised our work as “brilliant.” More wrote it off as “The Record picking on Newburgh” again—a common theme in the paper’s relationship with the city. It served to galvanize opinion around our chief recommendation—that the vacant urban renewal land be used to build a community college then under discussion—but moved it in the opposite direction. The city’s leaders launched a campaign to put the college someplace else. Most of our recommendations were casually ignored, though some have been taken up by other groups. Under the grind of deadlines and the rush of new priorities, any push by us to keep the pressure on got lost in the haze.
Our colleagues’ reaction was mixed as well. A reporter at another paper wrote to ask one of us if he was aiming to become a columnist. When one of us interviewed for a job at bigger, more traditional papers, editors’ comments about the series went from “genius” to wondering how this buttoned-down business reporter had strayed so far off the reservation.
Back in our own newsroom, Levine liked what we’d done. He used our series as a prime example of the direction he thought newsrooms should move in if they were going to stay relevant to readers. At the Record he believed in freeing up reporters to call it like they see it by trusting in their experience and analysis. He wanted them to write stories that stood for something and to say things no one else would. He articulated these values in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review a few months after “The Promised Land” appeared in our paper.
At our newspaper, “The Promised Land” was really a last hurrah for Levine’s local news approach. Shortly after the series ran, Moss, the publisher who had given Levine so much leash, retired. Within a year, Levine was dead, killed by a heart attack at the age of 54. Soon after, Rupert Murdoch launched his bid to buy Dow Jones and, when his bid succeeded, he indicated plans to sell off its Ottaway community newspaper group, of which the Record is one. Uncertainty pervaded our newsroom, followed by a predictable exodus of reporters, many of whom were believers in Levine’s ideas. One of us embarked for a new newspaper job in St. Louis.
If there’s a lasting legacy, it might be that our words—the voice we became accustomed to using—have been absorbed into Newburgh’s struggle. Two years later, in the offices of several nonprofit agencies, pages from “The Promised Land” are taped to walls and desks. This fall, the city was engaged in a hard-fought, three-way race for mayor, and poverty was a central issue. At least one candidate included excerpts from our series in campaign literature. What’s certain is that the issues and ideas this very different and challenging newspaper series raised are now part of Newburgh’s conversation. As our editor would have reminded us, “That’s the point.”
John Doherty is a bureau reporter at The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. Tim Logan covers the telecommunications and airline industries for the business desk at the St. Louis Post Dispatch.