By David Colton
The first breaking news story I ever covered was a massacre by a crazed Nazi-sympathizer in New Rochelle, N.Y., in February 1977. The gunman killed five, then himself, surrounded by 300 cops at a moving company near the New England Thruway.
Working for a tiny weekly newspaper in Pelham, I was among a handful of local reporters standing behind the police line in the cold. The big New York City media wasn’t there yet.
Suddenly a rumpled and grizzled figure came up to us. Jimmy Breslin. He asked me, a neophyte reporter, “So what’s the situation here?”
I felt validated that he had come up to me (!), even though I had little to say except “The guy’s still in the building.” I pointed and said, “The cops have a command post over there.” Off he toddled, scarf and raincoat and all.
I never saw Breslin again that day.
The next morning, picking up the Daily News, I saw that Breslin’s column wasn’t from New Rochelle. While everyone else wrote the same police account from the scene, he had tracked down the relatives of one of the victims in Queens and wrote about how tragedy had once again visited the block where the victim’s family lived.
It was quite a column and quite a journalistic lesson. Breslin knew that the best stories weren’t at the press conferences or briefings but out in the streets and bars and neighborhoods where real people lived and struggled.
Those were the stories Breslin did best. He was everything a reporter should be.
Breslin had a wild and crazy career, winning a Pulitzer and losing a crazy run with Norman Mailer for mayor and city council president in 1969.
But every time I see reporters standing in front of a microphone at some news event, waiting for the briefing to start, I think, “That’s not where Jimmy Breslin would be.”
David Colton is the former executive editor of USA Today.
“You climb the stairs,” Mr. Breslin said when he was 72, still a shoe-leather reporter, “and all the stories are at the top of the stairs.”
—From Paul Duggan’s Jimmy Breslin obit in the Washington Post.
David Epstein tweet:
I once asked Jimmy Breslin biggest diff from his early career to now. Answer: reporters go to gym more, bar less; better health, worse writing.