Wayne Barrett was really a ghost at the Village Voice. The shelves in his office were cluttered with an avalanche of files, and his fleet of interns would be following his memos while the grand wizard of investigative reporting himself was sequestered in his own paper-dump at his Windsor Terrace townhouse, wearing out sweatpants and answering each call with his gruff trademark pickup: “Ya.”
The first time I actually saw Barrett was several months after I started working at the Village Voice when he walked past the smoke room wearing a skimpy tank top and track shorts à la Richard Simmons. I can’t remember what I asked him then, but years later I had to call him. He simply knew too much about the city’s politics and machinery, and I was stuck trying to figure out the behind-the-scenes story of the behind-the-scenes story I was working on.
“If you don’t have anything new to say, you’ll look like a jackass,” he told me.
Tom Robbins sat on the other side of the Voice office. He was in every day. A former taxi driver and union buff, Robbins had a construction helmet on his desk. How cool! He actually went to sites, talked to workers. He knew about each mob family, the labor racket, the political bosses and their hacks that control the boroughs that control the City Council and legislature that, in turn, decide which big projects are made and what laws get passed. Robbins was never ruffled about his deadlines, never seemed capable of making a mistake. He was so generous he once gave his kidney to a friend who needed it.
Before I would pitch a story to an editor, Robbins was my first stop. If an idea could get past Robbins I was sure that I could land an assignment.
Early on, they rarely did. If the topic was interesting, so what? A lot of topics are interesting. If an editor was being a jerk, stop complaining. Come up with a better story. But what makes a story a story? If the idea was good, it still had to be timely. If it was too timely, I might get scooped. This priceless vetting and training is not offered in any journalism school or class. I had no choice. I had to dig. But where? Another corrupt pol? A negligent landlord? A nonprofit robbing Peter to pay Paul?
“Just because the door opens, doesn’t mean you have to walk through,” he said.
His torpedoes and tough love forced me to make more phone calls — many more. I learned to generate ideas from sources then vet them with experts and bring them back to Robbins for a checkup.
Last week, Barrett, who’d been at the paper for over three decades, announced that he’d been laid off. Robbins, who’d been there nearly as long, decided to call it quits, too. It’s easy to argue that the departure of the two investigative giants is the latest in a series of blows to the Voice since it was acquired in 2006 by New Times, which owns alternative papers across the country. It’s also easy to argue that the departure of Barrett and Robbins is another blow to the depleted New York press corp, which no longer covers the city with the same bite and scrutiny as it used to. Okay, fine. But what’s the real story?
Our click-through economy no longer has time for institutional memory, or a way to reward the merits of mentorship, and our budgets reflect it. There are fewer desks to ambush, less gray hairs to poke for advice, and a lot fewer ways to figure out what the story is. That’s the story.