Mary Pilon | Longreads | August 2015 | 10 minutes (2,724 words)
“Why wait until the next story about coagulated fat in sewers comes along when you can read this one now?”
“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley.”
“With a WeedWacker under his arm, Dan Kowalsky was at work trimming the median strip of U.S. Route 1 in suburban Westport, Conn., when he was asked, above the din: Why not use a scythe?”
For 43 years, this is how Barry Newman has opened his stories. As a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Newman developed a niche as the “King of the A-Hed,” the front page, below-the-fold feature story that had become one of journalism’s more peculiar corners since its inception in the 1940s. On a front page filled with the dryness of the bond market, the gravity of war casualties or the enduring egotism of Wall Street, the A-Hed was an homage to the ridiculousness of the world, a favorite among readers, reporters and editors, its existence constantly under threat.
In person, Newman is much like his prose: smart, eccentric, befuddled and constantly examining things through a crotchety yet curious lens. We first met when I joined the Journal’s staff in 2008 and overheard him shouting on the phone—to editors, public relations professionals, sources, you name it. The sins on the other end of the line were usually stupidity, insincerity or some combination of the two.
To be fair, it was a period of great yelling and despair in financial journalism. If you weren’t getting laid off yourself, you were writing about those who were. Editors assigned reporters to cover financial institutions to find out moments later they no longer existed. And for me, as someone in her first full-time reporting job during a global economic panic, nothing seemed more terrifying than the silver-haired, impish veteran reporter with spectacles, impeccable first drafts and a ruthless reporter mentality.
Newman survived many market booms and busts and knew what to do. While the rest of the newsroom was battling competitors for scoops and craving detailed boardroom gossip, Newman used the Journal’s pages to explore bagel slicing, foreskins, Russian baths, apostrophes, Grape Nuts, and sidewalk sheds, to name a few. Even in retirement, he couldn’t resist pitching to the front page a treatise on baby bananas earlier this year.
It was near the site of the baby banana reporting, at Newman’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that we met up for a beer to discuss his first book, News to Me. In it, he deconstructs several stories over his career at the Journal, offering advice and anecdotes along the way and marveling at spending a career in journalism for more than four decades but never filing anything longer than 5,000 words.
“You must be here for color,” he said as he opened the door.
News to Me is part memoir, part handbook, part anthology, but also a meditation on the rare art of funny, nonfiction storytelling. There are reporters who dig deep, but take themselves too seriously, and there are comics who induce chuckles but often make up their material. Newman’s microgenre fits somewhere in between—serious investigative tactics applied to absurd topics. (Among the advice he passes along: “1. Always take a leak when you get a chance. 2. Don’t miss anything.”)
Newman spent much of his career overseas in Eastern Europe and South Asia, but admits that he found the strangest country to be his own. He thinks that puns are overrated, but will admit to using some early in his career. He does not hide his disdain for irritating publicists or books with ugly dust jackets.
Upon arriving on a recent Monday afternoon, Newman showed me the bagel slicer he used during his childhood in Rockaway—a small, palm-sized plastic clamshell that couldn’t hold any of our monstrous modern bagels. He then pulled out a more sophisticated foot-long blade and proceeded to slice with the vigor of a butcher.
For his 2009 bagel-slicing story, Newman said he worked with one of the Journal’s data reporters for weeks to compile just two sentences of the story:
“In 2008, according to an analysis of fingers cut by knives as reported in the government’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, 1,979 people appeared in ERs with a [Bagel-Related Injury]. Chicken-related injuries (3,463) led the category, but recorded bagel injuries were otherwise exceeded only by potato, apple and onion injuries.”
“That sentence made the story,” he said.
As his wife, Dinah, began work on a homemade quiche, Newman retreated to his study where a wall was lined with seven shelves of tightly-packed reporters notebooks. His senior thesis from Union College, “Albany’s War on Poverty,” was there, along with some photographs of his family. He still carries a notebook and pen in his pocket.
Newman grew up reading the Herald Tribune, particularly the sports pages, and began reporting while he was a student at Union College. For a class assignment he had to interview someone at The New York Times—a perfect excuse to see the newsroom up close. He got a B on the paper. Newman said he then erased the grade, then submitted it to the Times to see if he could land a job. He started as a copyboy at The Times soon thereafter, working with the religion department.
“I wanted to be a newspaper reporter because I was really excited about the notion of being present at important events,” he said. “And it was exciting. And I was a disaster because I found out really soon I didn’t like doing that. But I was stuck.”
Bored with breaking news, Newman started at the Journal in 1970. Upon arrival, he was given what at the time was considered to be the “shittiest beat”: non-ferrous metals.
“I had to cover the changes in prices of metals every time a price changed,” he said. “There was a lot to do on that beat.”
Soon, he discovered he liked “looking at the press releases that were full of lies” and began to develop a voice as a feature writer, the humor writer amid a sea of serious suits. Even on the metals beat, Newman found Merle Zweifel, a prospector who didn’t dig anything, just allegedly conned mining companies into paying to get rid of him, Newman said. The story’s flashline: “Never Mined.”
“It’s just getting on the outside,” Newman said, “Not being on the inside. Seeing the folly for what it is. All of these hyper-serious people who think that they’re the center of the world and they take themselves so seriously.”
Reading Newman’s work—his profile of a man fighting for New Jersey’s state dirt comes to mind—I told him I always feel like he’s on the side of the absurd characters he writes about. The stories are humorous from start to finish, but the subjects of the story don’t feel as though they’re the butt of the joke. There’s a dignity to how they’re portrayed.
“I love them,” he said.. “I love them. They’re trying to find something in their lives that makes sense, that makes them happy. And they aren’t doing it in a strutting, self-important way. And they’re not all like that, but I respect them for their craziness.”
One of Newman’s stories centered on an awards ceremony for awards, a cinematic critique of the American art of puffery. Reporting out of Las Vegas, Newman chronicled a scene of the Awards and Recognition Association’s gala, an Onion-like celebration of people handing out trophies for best engraving and best sandblasting.
He quoted a man on the scene: “’People feel underappreciated…They hang onto their trophies, those little units of success in their lives.’”
I told Newman I find this line to be profound and devastating, a great example of the commonly funny-sad tone of his writing.
“I’m waiting for it,” Newman said. “I loved that story because you had one guy who never won and a woman who had won everything that year sitting next to each other.”
The motivation for that story, Newman admitted, was the attention paid towards winning awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize, in the Journal’s newsroom.
“I don’t want to win an award,” Newman said. “I don’t care about awards. I think awards are stupid.”
He gestured to a stack of plaques leaning against the wall. “I have some awards, they’re stuck over there,” he said.
“I can’t stand mawkishness,” he said, “and I learned when I went over to Asia and saw people in the most horrible circumstances imaginable carrying themselves with self respect in a way that made me feel like I could never look down on them, talk down to them or feel sorry for them because they didn’t need to be felt sorry for. But here in the United States, we have all these people who are doing very badly in comparison with the rest of the culture and we have to break out the violins and feel sorry for them.”
For most of his career, Newman said he’s had an imaginary reader he visualizes, a Babbitt or someone like John Updike’s Rabbit character, he said.
“This person I was writing for doesn’t take any crap, sees through everything,” he said. “Is a solid, fairly middle-range American who sees the absurdity of everything on the left and on the right and his life in general.”
For years, that was the dentist in Akron, Ohio.
“I can see him now,” Newman said, “leaning over me, exploring my molars, mumbling about the mercury in my fillings, nylon tunic, goggles, head lure, mint breath. The dentist in Akron belongs to the mid-American middle class who knows everything about dentistry and is open to learning a little bit about everything else.”
Then, there was the elderly woman reader. “My little old lady wore a lace collar, had ten shares of AT&T, and had a wit as dry as the tall raspberries. She saw through fools and put on airs and liked complex thoughts and simple sentences.”
He paused. “Who is my reader now? The server at the gluten-free pasta bar who asked me if I would like an order of gluten on the side.”
He added, “I think you have to visualize somebody. But I’m visualizing people who don’t play the game. Who don’t give a damn about zeitgeist. Who think it’s stupid.”
Newman said he never sits down to write without reading E.B. White first. On his bookshelf were works by White, Joseph Mitchell, Truman Capote, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, among others. “It’s a pretty standard group,” he said.
Newman, who recently joined Facebook and has largely resisted Twitter, has reported with a camera in hand since 1967. He can recall a time when the soundtrack of newsrooms was of typewriters and telegrams, but also wrote that the agonies of the digital revolution should fall to the bean counters, not reporters.
“Did Medieval monks talk about nothing but technology when moveable type killed the illuminated manuscript?” he wrote in his book. “OR did they get on with their true vocation: spreading the good news?”
“There have always been things to rock the boat,” he said. “There have been things rocking the boat in everybody’s profession all the time because things change all the time. I often just tell myself to put my head down and focus on what you have to do and do it. And if it doesn’t work, that’s too bad. But stop worrying about all this other stuff. Try to clear the decks and focus on what’s really important and what’s really important is the story you’re doing. The story is what’s important. Could you imagine if novelists started tearing their hair out over whether they’re going to be published in a Kindle or in books?”
“But novelists are pulling their hair out over that stuff,” I said.
“About the finances, yes,” Newman said. “But not the substance, not the content. If you are really good and you want to be good, you want to do you at your best. You want to be you at your best, which is what I always thought I wanted to hand in, me at my best. Maybe it wasn’t very good, maybe it wasn’t as good as a lot of other people, but I wanted to be me at my best.”
He also has little time for nostalgia about the good old days of newspapering. “There’s always been crap,” he said. “There still is and there always was. If you look at the old newspapers when I was growing up, 90 percent of it was garbage, and who cared? You were going to throw it out the next day, anyway.”
In his book, Newman points out the discouraging Bureau of Labor Statistics ratio of 229,000 public relations personnel to 58,000 journalists—a barrier between his readers and the truth. “PR people have two functions,” he said. “To beg for publicity, or insist on privacy. Reporters cope.”
Newman tries to find stories about people who don’t have public relations people. “And I think the simple fact that someone has a PR person makes me want to vomit.”
Which brings us, naturally, to foreskins.
In one of his page-one stories, Newman expounded on a group of advocates fighting against circumcision. As part of a series about lonely causes, Newman even counted the column inches of the story to ensure that his main character unbuckled his pants before the jump page.
“I was totally sympathetic,” he said. “To my mind, this is another reversal situation. All the arguments about female genital mutilation pop in the news all the time. And the fact that little boys are mutilated, it’s like ‘oh, well, doesn’t everyone do that? Isn’t that normal?’”
What it comes down to for Barry, it seems, is therapy. To be a reporter is to be a form of therapist—the person who listens when others may not. And that may be the real scarcity in journalism’s digital age. In his book he reflects on why people talk, describing his interview style more as “meatball” than “hardball,” an approach that typically yields more information. Newman said he once garnered an interview from a reluctant scythe advocate by reading up on the topic and impressing him with his reporterly knowledge of bush blades, bent snaths and peening.
“Settled in and comfortable,” Newman wrote, “people love nothing more than to talk about themselves. It’s therapeutic. Psychologists have a 50-minute hour, but I listened to Mike Twigg for five hours and filled 43 notebook pages. Twigg was a slip-house foreman in England’s potteries who had been out of work for two years. In his two-up-two-down row house, he sat on the couch beside his gas fire, smoking, sipping tea, and reviewing a life of work, unemployment and regret.”
When Newman left Twigg, he followed him and stood in the doorway, Newman said. He asked about a “check.” “In Mike Twigg’s mind,” Newman wrote, “I had metamorphosed from a reporter to a caseworker for the Department of Health and Social Services. Mike, I told him, I’m not from the DHSS. I have an American accent. I’m an American journalist. Remember? Oh, yes, Mike remembered. Not to worry, he said. He had enjoyed the chance to talk.”
I know many reporters who have to work at it, but this curiosity is innate for Barry. “I do it when I’m not working. I do it in the Park. I meet a lot of people everyday and I talk to them. There must be something inside me that’s crazy because I’m still looking for story ideas. So I’ll engage people in shops, in line, the subway, you know. And I think, maybe there’s a story in there.”
Newman laughs and looks up at his bookshelf.
“Every one of my notebooks, and they’re all in order,” he said, “every one of them is filled with people, things, stuff that happens.”
I ask him what he’s working on next.
“Death!” he said, taking a sip of his beer. Then he launched into a series of questions about his next story.
* * *
Mary Pilon is the author of The Monopolists, a New York Times bestseller about the secret history of the board game Monopoly, which started as an a-hed she wrote in 2009 while working as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Find her at marypilon.com and tweeting @marypilon.