Tabloid City, Pete Hamill's 20th book, is two stories in one. It's one part fiction - revolving around what Hamill calls "murder at a good address" - and one part sobering assessment of the vanishing tabloid newsroom, which should be of concern to us all. When Hamill heard me this week describe this book as being about two things he knows best - New York City and journalism - he was quick to add, "Plus a dab of loneliness."
Tabloid City's story unfolds within 24 hours. A double murder is committed in Greenwich Village - a socialite and her assistant have been slain. Hamill then tells the story through the eyes of a dozen misshapen characters who embody the city and tabloid journalism.
"I was trying to get a collection of people who would appear in the day's paper - some would be on Page 1, and some on Page 14 or 23, because some of the problems are marginal and smaller, and some are matters of life and death. I wanted to get that shape in the novel while focusing on . . . when the subject matter of the newspaper impinges on its editor.
"The woman whom he loved most of his later adult life is one of the victims, and between grieving, and the emptiness of that loss, he must still get the paper out, because that is what he does and has done for 50 years."
The fictitious New York World, edited by 71-year-old Sam Briscoe, is also on the verge of closing, in favor of the young, new publisher's desire to be Internet-focused. And therein lies Hamill's vehicle for offering a serious look at where the industry he knows so well is going. Hamill, the onetime editor of both New York's Daily News and Post, writes about the disconnect from society that comes with newsrooms that become ghost towns.
"At the kind of paper I am talking about, everything is local. . . . It's about the guy up the block, or the person there, or the man in City Hall or whatever," Hamill said. "And I think we are losing the . . . serendipity of the newsroom, where the columnist can mention something to the sports editor that might end up being a good idea for a sportswriter and vice versa. And you end up with stories that come of a knowledge of the city, a sense of the city."
The newsrooms where Hamill cut his teeth were free of all things politically correct (and, as he describes, were a helluva lot of fun).
"I worked in a paper that was owned by a woman and had more women working in it. But even one of the characters in the book is based on a [female] person who was proud of the title of the best . . . rewrite man in the city. And when they tried to make it 'rewrite person,' when the political-correct police started showing up, she said: 'Absolutely not. That is one syllable too long.' "
He maintains that some stories are better suited for coverage by tabloids than by broadsheets. Think Rep. Anthony Weiner's Twitter account.
"The essence of a tabloid story is drama, which means, if you listen to Aristotle, that the essence of drama is conflict. So a lot of the stories in tabloids are about conflict," he said. "Good guys against bad guys. Yankees vs. anyone else. Conflict is at the heart of the matter. Now when the papers don't do it right, they overflow, and it becomes melodrama. Which makes all of us say: 'Oh geez, that went too far. We don't want to know what Lindsay Lohan is thinking.' "
Perhaps Pete Hamill writes so well about characters because he is one. How else to describe a man who was standing with Bobby Kennedy when he was shot, hung with Sinatra, dated Jackie O and Shirley MacLaine, and was able to cover 9/11 so personally because he was less than two blocks from the Twin Towers when the airplanes hit. But does the Internet age allow for similarly street-wise journalists?
Hamill references the greats of his era - Murray Kempton, Mike Royko, and Jimmy Breslin - and how through their reporting they conveyed "a sense of what living in a city is like."
He adds: "And I think with the teaching I do at NYU of young journalism students, I'm encouraged. I think they want to do it. . . . And I hope the Internet is hip enough - as Internet journalism gets more professional - I hope they are hip enough to say we also must have the local. We must have room for what Balzac wrote about and Dickens wrote about."
Of concern to Hamill is what happens when the field isn't dominated by gumshoes who investigate stories. Without the Fourth Estate watching, he fears, there will be less exposure of bad conduct that is in the public's interest.
"That's why we need to have hard-news reporting. Not just opinion like I did for years, which is a column. A columnist is like a soloist in the band. He gets up, he plays eight bars, and he sits down. He's not the band. And the band is all those hard-news reporters that go out there, sometimes at great risk to their lives, to find out what really happened and who make the eight or nine or 10 phone calls, not just one, and not get it from a press agent."