Put down your smart phone and pick up a ballpoint pen!
A legendary newspaper features writer and Park Sloper has published a book revealing where he got the ideas for his best stories and how he turned them into articles. He hopes the tome will encourage other journalists to stop reading press releases and Twitter and head out into the real world where the real stories are.
“The world is not on the internet,” said Barry Newman, 68, whose book “News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories” hits shelves this month.
Before retiring in 2013, Newman spent 43 years writing about lost causes, loners, and oddballs within the narrow confines of newspaper columns. He penned more than 400 front-page features, reporting from more than 65 countries and almost all 50 states.
Newman, who grew up in Queens, originally planned to follow his father, a real estate lawyer on Court Street, into law — in part to score an exemption from the Vietnam War draft — but dropped out of law school in 1968 to become a copy boy at the New York Times (he was ultimately exempted from the war, anyway — 4F for dandruff). Newman said the Times turned him down for a staff position because he was too immature, so he went to the Wall Street Journal instead.
It was there that Newman developed an obsession with writing about people who are obsessed. After a stint covering metals, Newman’s editors allowed him to forego a regular beat and write about whatever interested him, and he became a fixture of the paper’s idiosyncratic “A-hed” section, which features light-hearted, colorful yarns about fascinating people and places.
During his four-decade career at the Journal — including 21 years on assignment overseas — Newman unearthed characters who camped for months in Floyd Bennett Field, advocated for the restoration of circumcised foreskin, and sold myriad varieties of gongs. Newman said his subjects tended to be people devoted to doing small things that give them a sense of self-worth, purpose, and dignity, even though the rest of the world doesn’t care about them.
“I feel good about feeling sympathy for subjects who are not famous but have a life that they’re proud of,” he said.
And Newman himself is something of an obsessive. In his apartment overlooking Prospect Park, he has a wall lined with 737 identical National 1-Subject notebooks, filled with notes written exclusively with Bic pens from his half-century of reporting. He’s never lost a notebook, he said, although he did drop one in a dump.
In addition to compiling his best works and the stories behind them, Newman has filled his tome with practical advice gleaned from his years on the job. For instance, pens don’t work when the temperature is below freezing so bring a pencil, and don’t impersonate a member of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Even for non-journalists, Newman’s book is a humorous and highly readable journey through New York and around the world, with the regular and not-so-regular people who make it tick.
And now that Newman has passed his wisdom on to the next generation of features writers, he said he is looking forward to spending some time driving his Buick, riding his bike, and maybe writing a novel, rather than obsessing over other people’s obsessions.
“In the maybe 20 years I have left I’d like to relax, not run around like a nut case,” he said.
But he admits he might not be able to. He might need to keep writing about obsessive people he finds out on the streets, if only to maintain his own sense of purpose.
“News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories” is available through City University of New York Journalism Press at www.press.journ