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Notes from the Underground (Newspaper)

An ex-Queens newspaperman on the allure of a media job in the big city

- April 20, 2005

I'll never forget the day I received a call from The New York Times. I was at the office in Rego Park, a middle-class suburban neighborhood in Queens, just down the street from a huge shopping mall. I was working as an editor at a newspaper there, one of 10 or so weekly newspapers dedicated to covering the borough. The reporter from the Times was inquiring about a story we had written. Because the newspaper I worked at comes out every Thursday, we were often left to report on stories that had already gotten significant coverage in the dailies. (Our September 13th coverage of the September 11th attacks is one glaring example.) The Times City section, however, appears only on Sundays, so its reporters are sometimes left in the same position we were, taking the scraps the Daily News, New York Post, and Newsday have left behind.

At the end of my brief conversation with the Times reporter (the specifics of what we talked about have left me), he told me that he often drove through Queens to pick up as many of the weekly newspapers as he could. "I always read your paper," he said. "I really like it." He was just being nice, of course. But the weekly press corps in Queens is a largely bitter bunch. After all, we are at the very bottom of a very tall media totem pole in New York City, in terms of both professional stature and salaries. So I thought he was just being condescending. (Our paper was cute. My job was precious. I was playing at being a real reporter while he worked for the best newspaper in the world.) So my reply was laced with the kind of cynical resentment you would expect from a young man who continually had to explain to his friends why exactly he was working in Queens. "I always read your paper as well," I said. "I really like it, too." He just laughed.

In the publishing capital of the world there are a staggering number of media companies, but a very select number of available jobs. This is especially true for writers. No other city can boast as many daily newspapers as New York City, so why would there be so few jobs available? One reason is that the stage is bigger here and the newspapers often require more experience and a slicker resume. True, there are more writing jobs here than anywhere else in the country, but intense competition dictates a steep supply and demand ratio. It's like being an actor in L.A. No city in the world can boast as many movie jobs, but that also means no city in the world has more out-of-work actors and unread screenplays. But also, even having five local daily newspapers when it is unusual for most cities to have even two, does not mean writers are immune from the realities of the industry. Advertising is down, readership is down, and that can only mean hiring is down as well. So why stay in a city with a cutthroat job market and an unreasonably high cost of living? For the same reason that every struggling actor, playwright, publicist, and administrative assistant stays here: Because it's New York City.

And that is what working at a weekly in Queens offered me. It was at the bottom of the totem pole, but it kept me in the game. Sure, I was often covering stories that seemed better suited to a small town paper in a sleepy red state, instead of the hardboiled articles most associated with the city that never sleeps. After all, this was community news. But I was also there for numerous Bloomberg press conferences, protests outside City Hall, an anthrax scare at LaGuardia Airport. There was First Lady Laura Bush at an elementary school in Corona, the deli worker shot and killed by an ex-detective who said it was an accident, and the Beastie Boys shooting a video in Jackson Heights. I worked at a newspaper no one had ever heard of, but I had something every reporter from the dailies had: An NYPD-issued press pass. My job at an obscure weekly newspaper in Queens offered me a backdoor to the New York City press corps. I understand that my three years there might look like a black hole on a resume to an editor who is curious about why a guy pushing 30 has only one year at a daily newspaper. But could I reasonably explain that no other city in this country can offer me as many art galleries as this one and so I stayed here at all costs?

The sensible thing to do would be to move away. Move to Iowa or Florida or Mississippi or anywhere else in Americathat Northeastern intellectuals supposedly don't understand. The best career path is, theoretically, the one where I can cut my teeth at a smaller daily in a kinder, gentler market. But I moved to New York City for a reason--to be a writer, sure, but also because this is where Warhol, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Burroughs, Ginsberg, George Plimpton, John and Yoko, De Kooning, and Jean-Michel Basqiuat lived. It's cliched but it's true: if I can make it here I can make it anywhere. And if I fail, at least I failed ambitiously. And that is why I stay in New York City.

In my three years at the weekly newspaper in Queens, my co-workers included graduates from some of the country's finer academic institutions: Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago. The best and the brightest working wherever they could find a job as a reporter in this city. Instead of answering phones for a handsomely paid executive in midtown, they went underground to the weeklies in Queens, foregoing an easy commute for the chance to actually do what they loved. In fact, one of my former colleagues is now working for a daily newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut. You don't need to look that one up on MapQuest to know it's a brutal commute from her apartment in Brooklyn.

What worries me is that young people just entering the industry might have the wrong impression. Coverage of the media's movers and shakers makes everything seem so glamorous. Whether its Matt Cooper battling for First Amendment protections at Time, or, well, Bonnie Fuller trying to transform the Star into whatever, the names are big and the stakes are high. But it is not the full picture. This is an industry that is struggling and hiring freezes are not uncommon. The time when a young, inexperienced reporter with moxie could walk into an editor's office and land a job on the city beat, if it ever existed, is long over.

So tucked away from the bright lights of the big city are smaller newspapers that exist more to sell ads than deliver news. But don't tell that to the journalists who work there, because these newspapers offer the chance to be a part of something that can often be enthralling. When you're crowded into a district attorney's office with reporters from the Times, the Post, the Daily News and every local broadcast station, you don't care where you're working. You're a reporter with a notepad and a press pass in New York City, like everyone else in the room. It may just be an illusion; we're the mall cops hanging out with the beat cops. But it's hard to explain the rush of flashing your press pass and getting into City Hall for the first time.

Just as it's so much easier to tell someone to break up with her boyfriend when it's not you in the relationship, it doesn't take much to tell someone to be sensible and move away from New York City when it's not you living here. This is a city for the young and energetic and for many people, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So what happens when you love journalism and the city equally? Sometimes you get to do both. And sometimes you have to choose one or the other.

I would probably be much further along in my career if I had just stayed in Texas and kept working at a small daily. But then I wouldn't have covered the story about the defiant immigrant gas station manager who took on big oil and sold his gas at a reduced cost, before finally being evicted from his business. If I hadn't moved here I wouldn't have randomly shook hands with Bill Clinton on University Place two days after 9-11. I wouldn't have been waiting in line to get into a bodega the night of the blackout to buy the last of the warm beer in my neighborhood. I wouldn't have seen and heard or smelled all the crazy, beautiful things in this amazing, but sometimes draining city.

Three years at the Queens weekly probably proved too many, and it ended in a falling out with management. I have now been collecting unemployment for three months, sendingout resumes, and pitching story ideas to as many publications as possible. Moving into an apartment with ridiculously cheaprent has helped. Unemployment, however, means I now wake up every day and panic about the fact that I might be wasting away my career. But then later some guy on the subway with an acoustic guitar will do a dead-on cover of a Prince song I like and and I'll think about how lucky I am to be here. Working in small towns is often a rite of passage for journalists. But living in New York City is a rite of passage for being young. I will never stop writing but I don't know when I will be paid full time to do it again. I am not one to reject paying my dues. But I'll be damned if I start driving to Connecticut for work.

Paul Menchaca is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be reached at menchacapaul@hotmail.com



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