Monday, July 10, 2006

The Lobster Shift

CJR September/October 2005: Scene By Julia F. Heming:

Covering the news in a city that never sleeps - Columbia Journalism Review

It’s a few minutes after midnight when a cab pulls up on West Thirty-third Street, outside the offices of the New York Daily News, and Veronika Belenkaya emerges. She is just over five feet tall. Her hair is flopped up into a ponytail, and blonde bangs hang in front of her eyes.

Veronika is the night reporter at the Daily News. She began working for the paper as an intern during the winter break of her senior year at Cornell University and continued after she graduated in May 2004. She has been working alone in the newsroom weeknights from midnight to 8 a.m. full time since February, and her first byline as a staff writer ran in April.

The newsroom is quiet. A few copy editors put the final touches on the next day’s paper, and a couple of reporters sit at their desks on the other side of the room. Jill Coffey, an editor, calls Veronika over. Six people have died in a car crash in the Catskills, and the Daily News was late on the story. She thinks one of the victims was a Brooklyn teenager. She knows, from an article in The New York Times, that they were Russian.

Veronika moved to Brooklyn from Ukraine with her family in 1994. When she calls the Russian family now, she speaks in their native tongue. It is 1 a.m.

“That’s my brother. I ain’t got shit to say. He’s dead,” the man says brusquely, before hanging up.

At 2:30 the paper goes to bed, and with it go the remaining copy editors. Veronika and I sit browsing the news wire on the computer, watching the four televisions within view from her desk, and listening to three police scanners. For the next six hours, all we do is wait. This is life on the lobster shift, as the beat is called — long stretches of waiting punctuated by intense calls to action.

The week before, Veronika responded to a call on one of the scanners. A fire in Queens caused by an extension cord killed a two-year-old girl, her mother, and her grandmother. At the scene, Veronika saw a man pacing back and forth, grabbing his head, and sobbing. It was the girl’s father. “You enter these people’s lives at the time that they’re ending,” she says.

It is hard to find something positive to report on during the night shift — sexual assaults, shootings, car crashes. “It’s a harsh reality,” Veronika says. “Emotionally, you just deal.”

It doesn’t help that she is filling the shoes of Tom Raftery, whose coverage of the night shift made him “a Daily News institution,” Veronika says. She says the cops she meets still talk about Raftery. “They say he used to do push-ups here at night.”

The scanner announces a fire on Park Avenue. I look at Veronika expectantly. She shakes her head. “I used to get excited when I heard something like ‘shots fired,’” she says. “But first they have to be confirmed, then they have to be aimed at somebody, then they have to hit somebody, then they have to hit them somewhere important. You learn to decipher with a sense of what’s going to make the paper.”

At around 4:30 the scanners are quiet for a full minute. We are sitting in the middle of a newsroom with more than a hundred desks, in a city with eight million people. Watching and listening, we are alone.

Julia F. Heming is an intern at CJR.

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