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Cold Type

Capital New York

"Beach-bound media wags beware: Your summer reading stack just got a little taller.

This season brings at least four new novels with journalism baked into the plots, from a roman-a-clef about a young magazine reporter cutting his teeth in a dwindling medium to a newspaper noir that follows a fresh-faced tabloid stringer into the hermetic world of a Hasidic murder probe.

'I tried to bring alive what it's like to be a tabloid reporter at a time when newspapers are dying,' said Julia Dahl, the 36-year-old author of the latter novel, Invisible City, which was published May 6 by Macmillan's Minotaur Books.

In writing Invisible City, Dahl, who works as a crime reporter for cbsnews.com, tapped into her former life as a runner for the New York Post, where she spent inordinate stretches of time staking out the apartments of scandalized celebrities and knocking on the doors of relatives of the recently deceased. She was in her early 30s, and already had a fair amount of experience under her belt, unlike the novel's 22-year-old protagonist.

'It's as much about the perils of doing journalism and not taking it seriously as it is about a murder in the closed society of the ultra orthodox,' said Dahl. 'It's about how difficult it would be for a young reporter with very little guidance and maturity to interact with people on the worst days of their lives and ask them really uncomfortable questions.'

Michael Hastings, who died in a car crash last year at the age of 33, had a knack for uncomfortable questions during his short but storied career as a hard-charging national security reporter. His posthumous novel, The Last Magazine, which was published June 17 by Blue Rider Press, is a fictional rendering of Hastings' decidedly non-fictional experiences working for Newsweek during the transformational media era of the aughts.

'In Mr. Hastings’s book, even as the protagonist strives to become what he despises — a big-deal magazine writer — he realizes that soon enough it will all go away,' David Carr wrote in a New York Times column about the book. 'The milieu of the book paints a picture of a treehouse where like minds connive and look for an opening. But far below them, there is the sound of sawing — steady and implacable. The tree will fall. The insurgents — in media, in Iraq, in the world at large — are on the march and a privileged perch is no longer assured.'

These novels are some of the latest examples of what you might call reporter fiction, a literary sub-genre unto itself and one that spans the decades, from Evelyn Waugh's classic 1938 foreign-correspondent satire 'Scoop' to more recent entries like Tom Rachman's 'The Imperfectionists,' a 2010 release that pulls back the curtain on the existential tribulations of a faltering European paper's motley newsroom.

Out this week from Cinco Punto Press is Cold Type by New York Times sports-writer Harvey Araton, 62, whose debut novel was inspired by his conscience-bending decision to cross the picket line during the great Daily News strike of 1990-1991. (Araton's father, who'd died several months earlier, had been a union guy through and through.)

Set during that same period at the fictional New York City Trib, which has been purchased by a filthy rich but not-so-union-friendly Brit, Cold Type is a father-son saga that unfolds on opposite sides of the picket line and explores the psychological dramas of industry-changing technologies, namely the computerized typesetting system from which the novel takes its name.

'In the months after that whole experience,' said Araton, 'I kept thinking, 'Would I have dared crossed the picket line had my father still been around?' '(Real life spoiler: After a single day of scabbing, Araton said, he never went back to work for the Daily News again.)

Fellow Daily News vet Dick Belsky decided not to come up with some fake tabloid title for his latest novel, The Kennedy Connection, a J.F.K.-inspired crime thriller (out August 12 from Simon and Schuster's Atria imprint) that's narrated by Gil Malloy, a fictional reporter at New York's hometown newspaper.

The plot has Malloy, a discredited newspaper hack, connecting the dots between a string of modern-day murders and John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. (Like Dahl's book, it's the first in a series.)

'The character has made mistakes in his career out of his compulsion to get the big story and appear on page one,' said Belsky, 69, who also did time at the Post and was most recently managing editor of nbcnews.com, 'and that's been true of so many people I've worked with over the years in tabloids.'

Or, as the legendary Jimmy Breslin put it in his jacket blurb: 'Who better to tell the story of a newsman in disgrace than a man from the New York tabloids, where disgrace was a badge of honor.'

Stories like these play into the tired old narrative of journalists as a pack of navel-gazing know-it-alls who love nothing more than to read and write about themselves.

While there's some truth to that stereotype, these authors are confident their ink-stained tales will resonate with a wider audience.
'People love to hear stories about newspapers,' said Belsky. 'There's a fascination with it.'

'I was writing for more of a baby-boomer audience,' said Araton, 'but I think a newspaper story can also resonate with younger people who have an interest in the media in general.'

Dahl sees a timeless appeal.

'In a way it's like why we think cop stories are interesting,' she said. 'A newspaper reporter's job, especially at a tabloid where you're in a different person's yard every single day, there are just so many stories to tell. Most people don't get to just nose around in other people's worlds.'"
- Joe Pompeo, July 25, 2014  Visit Website

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