Tag Archives: Journalism


A story about Jim Dwyer, The New York Times columnist and reporter, who died today:

When Jim Dwyer’s book “Subway Lives” came out in 1991, I was five years into my journalism career but a longtime admirer of Jim’s work.

As a kid who grew up in the Bronx in the 70s and 80s and rode the trains constantly, I had a special interest in his behind-the-scenes stories of the workings of the city’s mass transit system.

I was spellbound by Jim’s deep reporting, exquisite attention to detail and, of course, his writing.

As fate would have it, Jim’s aunt and my mom were friends in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx. Mom would regularly see my clips because her beloved butcher in the Bronx lived in the Hudson Valley where I worked and regularly cut out my articles to bring to her.

Mom arranged to hand off a sample of my clips to Jim and asked him to autograph the book, which he did:

“For Chris Mele, thanks for the clips (delivered by every newsman’s best friend — your mother) which were first rate. All the best, Jim Dwyer. 5 Dec. 94”

Fast-forward to 2000, and my first marriage disintegrated. Lost in the shuffle of the recriminations of divorce was my cherished autographed copy of Jim’s book.

But fate intervened a second time.

A colleague at the Middletown, N.Y., newsroom where I worked one day visited the local used book store run by the library. He happened to pluck a copy of “Subway Lives” from the shelves and took it home.

My colleague spotted the inscription and asked whether I had once owned an autographed copy of the book. I was reunited with it and it has had a special place on my bookshelf ever since. 

As if that were not enough, fate intervened one more time.

I somehow convinced The New York Times to hire me in 2014, and I’m assigned to the Metro copy desk, where — you guessed it — I was occasionally asked to copy-edit Jim’s columns.

To say I felt I was not fit to hold Jim’s notepad would be an understatement. 

But for someone who was as accomplished and well-known as Jim, there was not an ounce of airs and graces to him.

He was funny and generous. He was always a gentleman and a pleasure to work with, even though he always tested the outer limits of print deadlines and was lousy with the spellings of proper names. (Sorry, Jim.)

In 2013, a year before I joined The Times and before I met Jim in real life, I saw “Lucky Guy” on Broadway. 

The production told the story of Mike McAlary, the celebrated cop reporter for New York Newsday, who died at 41. 

Jim was a featured character in the show and I emailed him after to say how much I enjoyed the production and how much I enjoyed working at New York Newsday as a college intern.

Jim, ever gracious again, wrote me — a total stranger — a long note, part of which read:

“I think every journo at middle age, or approaching it, ought to see Lucky Guy. There are a few scenes in there that will make them all realize what lucky guys we are.”

I was the lucky guy for having worked and learned from the likes of Jim Dwyer. 

Rest in peace.

Celebrating local journalism with two anniversaries

Thirty-three years ago today, I walked into the newsroom of The Adirondack Daily Enterprise and started my full-time career in journalism.

This year also marks the 125th anniversary of The Enterprise. Here is an essay I wrote for its special edition to toast its success:

In 1986, when I was just out of college and starting my journalism career, I aspired to work for one of the big outlets, The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times, or even what were then statewide dailies, like The Miami Herald or The Newark Star-Ledger.

Instead, I started at The Enterprise in a part of New York State that, at the time, this Bronx native had never heard of.

As a stepping stone, The Enterprise, a five-day-a-week newspaper, felt like the size of a pebble.

Looking back though, it turned out to be the bedrock upon which my career was built. I’ve never stopped being grateful for and proud of the experiences I had working there from 1986-88.

Today, as the print newspaper industry undergoes paroxysms of change (read: steep decreases in revenues and readership and sharp increases in job losses and other cutbacks, including closures), The Enterprise celebrates 125 years as a pillar of community journalism.

By the time I arrived at The Enterprise newsroom as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, I had spent my entire life in New York City. My sense of scale was always big: skyscrapers, mass transit systems, museums, food, movie theaters, sports teams — you name it.

That sense of big extended to news as well.

I grew up with The Daily News and its delicious tabloid sensibilities of covering the city, its politicians and their foibles, and sensational stories like the Son of Sam serial killer, and disasters like the 1977 blackout.

So, imagine the whipsaw I had coming to Saranac Lake and covering stories like the theft of the “Keep Right” sign that stood where Broadway and Main Street meet or calling Bob Kampf every morning to collect the latest readings from his weather station in Ray Brook.

It was not that I thought those assignments were beneath me. Far from it, in fact.

I was a newbie who was being schooled in daily journalism by the likes of Bill Doolittle and Carol Bruce, then the editor and publisher, and city editor, respectively.

It was exciting and fun and learning experiences abounded.

For instance, I learned what it meant to work and live in a small community.

On one memorable occasion, in a fit of pique, I randomly complained to an Enterprise advertising rep about a village employee, referring to him in a way unsuitable to be retold in a family newspaper.

Without batting an eyelash, she looked at me and said: “Oh him? Yeah, that’s my brother.”

I can’t be sure but I either spit out my coffee or swallowed my tongue. (She agreed with my assessment, by the way.)

What I came to appreciate — and truly embrace — was the vital role a newspaper plays in a community.

With its obituaries, police blotter, coverage of high school sports and annual events like the Winter Carnival, a newspaper like The Enterprise binds a community and promotes a shared experience among its readers.

I learned about the importance of holding those in power to account but doing it in a way that I could look them in the eye on the supermarket line the next day and we would share no ill will. 

I learned about the importance of sources, of ongoing relationships and how newspapers can help a community heal in times of tragedy and loss.

I’ve been in newspapers for 33 years and now I’m at The New York Times as a senior staff editor and weekend editor for its breaking news desk, the Express Team.

But I spent 28 years in community newspapers – The Press-Republican, The Times Herald-Record in Middletown and The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

I wouldn’t give up a second of my time at those community dailies. They enriched my life and taught me valuable lessons, much the way The Enterprise did.

I know the press has its critics and some will derisively refer to some news outlets as “fake news,” but I’m here to tell you The Enterprise is the genuine article (pardon the pun) and has a special place in my heart.

Enterprise, here’s to another 125 years of great community journalism!

Finding Healing by Editing a Book

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.