- Zachary Skinner
- Exercise Bike Escape Raft with Spinnaker
I spent the first few weeks of New York's COVID-19 epidemic the way I've spent the past 18 years, as a working journalist covering the Hudson Valley. It had been that way since 2002 when I arrived at The Daily Freeman with a belated BA in journalism from Brooklyn College, a pregnant wife and a bunch of clips I'd acquired as a police beat and general assignment reporter for a weekly newspaper chain in Manhattan.
I'm what people in the business call a "hard news" reporter. Yeah, I can do restaurant reviews, write up an art gallery opening, even write a personal essay if I really have to. But my specialty is the everyday stuff of property taxes and infrastructure programs, drug busts and city council elections. Much of the work is routine, sometimes not much more than fleshing out a press release with a few live quotes and fresh statistics. But the real work, what they pay you for, are the enterprise stories; the ones where you start with a tip, a rumor, a hunch and end up with the best kind of news, the kind that leaves your competitors wondering how they hell you got it and how the hell they missed it.
In early March 2020, with COVID-19 just beginning its grim march from "News of the World" to news in your backyard, I was thirsty for that kind of story. Local government officials were practicing a form of extreme message discipline that was equal parts understandable and infuriating. At first, news was doled out at press conferences held at the county office building or the Sheriff's Office. Then it was "tele-town halls," where the public got to ask the questions and the press got to write up recaps for anyone who missed it and couldn't figure out how to access an archived Facebook live event. A journalism professor, and old school New York tabloid type, once told me that you'd never get a scoop standing around a crowd of reporters at a press conference. Now I was reduced to sitting at my kitchen table on a conference call with my sources and the whole damn county.
As frustrating as the situation was, it was also invigorating. The stately pace of the weekly newsroom I'd called home for the past dozen years suddenly bustled with a charge of electricity as we worked to keep up with a story that moved at the speed of a sneeze. Deadlines, which used to be Wednesday, became "Now" instead. The rut that everyone gets into when they do the same job for long enough began eroding at the sides until it started to feel like standing on an edge. It felt good. And then it all blew right up. I got a call from my editor on a Tuesday informing me that layoffs were imminent. The next day an email from the publisher made it official, for the first time since the Clinton administration I was out of the news business.
In those first days after my layoff, I received a lot of well-meaning encouragement from friends and family to keep up the good fight; start a blog, start a website, start a daily live broadcast from the toilet paper aisle. But, after a quarter century as "the working press" that felt fake and slightly unhinged—like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy putting on an ersatz Johnny Carson show in his mom's basement, interviewing imaginary guests for an imaginary audience. Instead, I do what everyone else does these days; get a little exercise walking up and down the road, try not to worry about things that aren't in my grasp and try to stay out of the bourbon until 5pm Eastern Standard Time. And I think a lot about another Martin Scorcese film, Goodfellas. The part at the very end when Ray Liotta/Henry Hill stands on the stoop of his cookie-cutter house in his cookie-cutter subdivision reflecting on his days as a high rolling gangster before the witness protection program rendered him an anonymous everyman. I never had front row seats at the Copacabana or cops or politicians on my payroll, but I did have plenty of both on my speed dial. If you asked me about some local issue, I had an insider's view I could share with you. I was a newsman and I made the news. Now I have to wait around for it like everybody else. I hope I'll get back in the news game, but in the back of my mind I worry that I'll have to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
Jesse J. Smith is currently viewing the story of the century from the sidelines.