Media

Wayne Barrett Trained an Army of New Journalists for the Battle of Reporting

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A TV producer introduced me to Wayne Barrett. In me she’d seen a workhorse who might be of some use to him as an intern. I was dogged and genuinely loved newspapers. But in fact I had no idea how journalism worked or how papers were produced. I knew nothing about reporting. So little that on one of my first days at the Village Voice I wrote “LexisNexis” on my hand to keep from forgetting the word as I walked from Wayne’s office to one of the battered PCs that would, I was informed by a departing intern, spit out whatever information Wayne wanted.

That was optimistic. For weeks, if I was lucky enough to understand what he was asking for, I had no idea how to nail down the specifics. “Find me the racial makeup of the Street Crimes Unit,” he’d say. Or, “Find out who was at that secret meeting with the corporation counsel.” Early on he sent me to his house in Brooklyn. There were files upstairs, he said, and in them a stat that would plug the remaining hole in that week’s story. It was something straightforward, maybe the number of white voters in Delaware County who’d switched parties in the past decade. I looked at the file and its reams of numbers, locked myself in the bathroom, and cried. The tears, I would come to learn, were not unusual for a Barrett intern.

The four or five of us met daily at the Voice, in the office Wayne shared with fellow reporter Bill Bastone (a former Barrett intern himself, and a co-founder of the Smoking Gun). We crowded around a phone on a bare desk. This was the late Nineties; email was in its infancy, and almost nobody yet had a cellphone. Our link to him was the landline that rang early in the morning and that somebody had better be around to pick up. On the other end, Wayne listed what he needed for the story he was writing, told us where we might consider getting it, then hung up.

Several hours later he’d call for a status report. We gave it. Often, when he finally spoke, the effect was like touching a wire fence you didn’t know contained a current. Swift and shocking. You burned from shame and from the strong sense of your own ineptitude. “You mean to tell me it’s one o’clock and that’s all you’ve got?” Later, I would understand he wasn’t chastising us for being slow and incompetent — though sometimes we were — but because he wanted us to care as much as he did. Responsible reporting inspired and educated readers, shone light in dark corners, kept even the most obscure politician honest. Every fact mattered, he said. The number of environmental memos sent and retracted mattered. How, very precisely, crime stats had been altered, mattered. They either made your story or broke it.

When he wasn’t yelling, he was talking you up. I’m sure that I was given a weekly Voice column only after the late Don Forst, then the paper’s editor-in-chief, got the nod from Wayne. He boasted about the accomplishments of colleagues and interns (among the many who went on to greatness: Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone) and worked tirelessly to connect people who needed a job with those who had one to offer. He called when you needed an ear, picked up when you called for no reason, told stories that you wish you’d taped so you could listen to them now.

Every fact mattered, he said. They made your story — or broke it.

Late last year, we spoke almost every day. We didn’t touch on his illness, though I could hear its heavy toll in his breathing. We talked about writing, about where story ideas originate. He was still reporting. “Most of the time it’s a dead end,” he said, “but I have to do it. I have to chase it all the way in order to see that.” When he said, “Now it’s time to work the edges,” he was talking about teasing out information but also about a seemingly intractable problem I was trying to solve.

Leaning on the wall of my office, the phone pressed to my ear, I listened as he fired off instructions, scribbling them on a sheet of paper thumbtacked to the door. He had taught me everything I knew, redirected my life. And because he had a huge and generous heart, he was still teaching. He told me who I needed to call, then shortly after called me back. There was someone else to talk with, but that one could be an email. He paused to tell me something combative to put in the subject line. We laughed. I know he’d have happily typed those words for me and hit SEND.

Coco McPherson, a former editor at Rolling Stone and the founder of goodbyenewyork.org, is developing a newspaper that will be reported, edited, and fact-checked by teenagers.

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