Tag Archives: Journalism

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For more than 20 years, Mike Levine was a columnist at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. His name was as well known in the region as Jimmy Breslin’s was in New York City.

To readers, he was “Mike Levine.” To his colleagues, he was “Mike.” And to the politicians he pissed off, he was “Levine.”

In life, Mike was a short guy, but in the world of journalism and in the Times Herald-Record newsroom, he was a towering figure.

My first encounter with him was when I was a new reporter. He was hunched over his computer at a corner desk littered – emphasis on “litter” – with papers and food wrappers.

An editor working with me on a project consulted with Mike about the opening to a story. Mike offered some writing tips and returned to his work.

Mike Levine, Editor for the Times Herald Record. 11.22.05 Tara Engberg/TH-Record.

Little did I know that that fleeting encounter would be my introduction to a man who would change my life: He became a mentor and cheerleader for my work and career.

I teamed with Mike on a couple of projects while he was a columnist and later, when he became executive editor, he helped advance my career as an editor.

Few things meant as much to a reporter than having Mike praise a story. I think he was a father figure to many of us, and we always sought his approval.

Mike was an enormously talented writer whose columns championed the unsung heroes of life: the school janitor who looked out for kids, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, the hometown doctor who dedicated his life to his patients.

By the end of any column, the power of his words could make you feel humility, gratitude or outrage — or leave you laughing or in tears.

His columns were compact and not at all stuffy the way some newspaper writing can be. His writing did not read like homework.

Most of his brilliance whirred inside his head, meaning he made a passable impersonation of being semi-organized.

But by the end of the day, his tie was askew, his shoes were untied, his shirt-tail was hanging out, and his reading glasses (one of five he bought from the drugstore) were horribly smudged.

Despite his popularity and stature in journalism, he had no airs and graces. He was very much the everyman-working-class-guy he wrote about.

Mike died in 2007 at the age of 54. The great big heart that he put into his family and work gave out. It was an unimaginable loss.

Upon his death, Pete Hamill, the author, columnist and former editor of the New York Post, said, “Mike was one of the best newspapermen I ever knew, full of passion for our poor imperfect craft.”

The debut of Mike’s column in the Times Herald-Record in 1983.

In the months that followed, there were discussions in the Times Herald-Record family about picking out the best of Mike’s columns and publishing them in a book.

But, you know, life happened: Careers advanced. People moved. Seasons passed.

Then in July 2015, in a burst of inspiration (or sheer hubris and/or insanity), I told my wife, Meg McGuire, who was Mike’s managing editor, and Mike’s wife, Ellen: You know, I’d like to take a crack at this.

It took me nearly four years to go through all 2,219 of his columns to pick the best 76, find a publisher and clear endless proofing and production hurdles.

The result? “Words to Repair the World: Stories of Life, Humor and Everyday Miracles” was published last month.

The title comes from “Tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “repair of the world.”

It was a belief reflected in his columns. Mike privately talked about his moral obligation to contribute to repairing the world.

Yes, the work to make the book happen was tedious and felt never-ending but it was a labor of love. All the proceeds go to the Mike Levine Journalism Education Fund to support training for journalists.

The work was also cathartic. It gave me a chance to celebrate his writing and pay it forward.

I still miss Mike.

Nothing will ever replace the void he left behind, but the book did help me repair the part of my world that was broken by his death.

For more about Mike and this book, please go to mikelevinebook.com

Got Passion?

A scene in the movie “London Has Fallen” features the president and his trusted Secret Service agent, whose wife is pregnant with their first child.

The agent asks the president for advice about fatherhood and parenting.

You just need to keep two things in mind, the president replies: Teach your kid the Golden Rule and encourage them to pursue their passions in life.

That latter part really resonated with me.

When I was growing up, if I heard from my dad once, I heard a thousand times:

Follow your passions in life. Don’t be like your old man. A man who loves his job never works a day in his life.

And my favorite: “If you are happy diapering piss clams, diaper piss clams.” Forty years later I still have NO IDEA what he was talking about but I got his drift.

From about the time that I was 8 or 9, I wanted to be a newsman.

I had an avid interest in current affairs, a love for writing and a curiosity about the world.

I routinely would race down three flights of stairs from our apartment in the Bronx if I heard the fire trucks turning onto our street.

I’d write mock scripts, relying on accounts from the newspapers, and then tape myself on my cassette recorder pretending to be a television newscaster.

And when I got my very own camera — well! That opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I took photos of crashes, blizzards and crime scenes.

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On one memorable occasion when I was about 11, my buddy told me there had been a shooting the night before about 20 minutes from where we lived.

We furiously biked to the scene, where we learned the car had been towed to our local police station.

We got to the station, and there it was in the garage: A blue car with bullet holes in the windshield and bloody bandages still on its hood.

I snapped a bunch of photos, which I still have.

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I never gave up on my pursuit of news as a career. Every opportunity I had to write, to learn or to network, I seized with both hands.

I earned a degree in journalism at New York University, and got an internship at what was then New York Newsday, working with some of the sharpest reporting minds of the time.

I mention all of this because of a 9-year-old girl in Selinsgrove, Pa., named Hilde Kate Lysiak. She publishes and reports for her own homegrown neighborhood newspaper and website, The Orange Street News.

She became a media sensation when she broke the news of a murder in her neighborhood and then responded to critics who questioned what a 9-year-old girl was doing covering killings.

In her video rebuttal, Hilde pointedly spoke back at those who suggested she should be playing with dolls or having tea parties instead.

What came across so strongly was that Hilde was passionately dedicated to her work.

She reminded me of myself at her age.

And 30 years into my career, I can say that passion has paid off.

I’ve come full circle in a way because I was able to write a story about Hilde as a staff reporter at The New York Times.

So you go, Hilde! Take it from me, whatever your passion is, never give up on it.