You don't want to mess with Melissa Hayes. She's taken down
at least one politician, and her notebook's still wide open. I've
been her boss at a newspaper and her friend at a bar (actually, at
a lot of bars). Experience has proven there's plenty she can teach
me in both venues. — Louis C.
Name: Melissa Hayes
Media skills: I'm mostly just a reporter with a
point-and-shoot these days, but I can also edit and paginate (Quark
and InDesign). I was once decent with Photoshop, but I'm a little
Organizations you've worked for:
(South Brunswick Post and Cranbury Press: Monroe/Jamesburg
Edition); Journal Register Company (The New Egypt Press);
The Burlington County Times
Random awesome fact about you: I'd really like to write
a book. I just haven't found the right topic yet.
At the Burlington County Times,
your reporting took down a major politician. You and David
Levinsky showed how county Democratic bosses were secretly running
a South Jersey political action committee, and using it to funnel
money to Hoboken mayor Peter Cammarano (who was arrested 23 days
into his term under Operation Bid Rig).
My immediate thought was, “No he did not!” Believe it or not,
I was annoyed to find out he resigned. Why, you ask? Because I had
written a story about people calling for his resignation. It was
published the morning after he resigned in a one-line e-mail at
around 10:45 p.m. If only I had checked my e-mail around 11 p.m.
and called in. I could have yelled, "Stop the presses!"
In all seriousness, It’s still pretty unbelievable to think
that something I wrote caused someone to resign, but I wish I had
the resignation story in that morning’s paper instead of a story
saying everyone wanted him to step down.
Ben says, with great power comes great responsibility. Your
reporting was meticulous, but did you ever worry you were getting
it wrong? Did you feel like you were playing with fire?
Getting it wrong is something I worry about all the time. I
say this all the time, but I truly believe that stories are only as
good as the sources. If there’s no paper trail, no concrete,
unquestionable evidence, then you’re just taking someone’s word for
it, and that’s playing with fire. It’s your byline and your
reputation, so you have to trust your sources and talk to as many
people as possible to make sure you get it right.
You and Levinsky shared bylines on most of those stories.
What was it like, working with a partner on such dicey material?
Were you each other's sanity checks?
Dave and I worked on a lot of stories
together during my three
years at the Burlington County Times, and I wouldn’t have had it
any other way. It is great to have a second set of eyes and a
different perspective going over the material. Dave is still my
sanity. He’s a great reporter and someone I consider a good friend.
Even though we’re at different papers, it’s not unusual for us to
bounce ideas off one another (as long as it’s not something we’re
You've moved on from the BCT, though now you're much closer
to Cammarano's turf of Hoboken, since you're at the Jersey Journal.
Do you feel like there are still important questions about the
Burlington-to-Hoboken relationship that have gone unanswered? Are
you optimistic those questions will be resolved?
I don’t think we ever got into the details of the relationship
between (Hoboken Mayor Peter) Cammarano and the Burlington County
Democrats in the stories, but essentially, (Burlington Democratic
Committee Treasurer) Jeff Meyer had worked with Cammarano, and
(Committee Chairman Rick) Perr said he was supporting another young
Democrat. When the allegations against Cammarano came out, Meyer
seemed legitimately shocked. I still remember him telling me he was
“disgusted and disturbed.”
Aside from the North/South connection, I think there are a ton
of questions still out there about Cammarano. My number one
question is: Where the heck is he? He's one of the few charged in
that still hasn’t appeared in court at all since his
arrest. I don’t think we’ll ever know if he did what he’s accused
of, and why, unless he comes out and explains it all. And I don’t
foresee that happening. (Editor's note: Cammarano pleaded guilty to extortion the same day this
interview was published, but a few days after it took
You're a 21st-century reporter — which means you spend a
lot of time blogging, tweeting and generally
working to keep yourself and your paper well-connected to the
digital world. Do you find traditional newspapers are using social
media and new media effectively? How's it impacted the way you do
I think a lot of traditional newspapers are jumping on the
social media bandwagon too late. We should have been out there on
Facebook and Twitter years ago. Some newspapers weren't even
updating their websites with breaking news until a few years ago. I
think a lot of longtime reporters and editors fear that if you put
the story out there on the Web and your competition doesn't know
about it, well, the whole world will know, and every paper will be
carrying the headline the next day.
I disagree with that mindset. If you’re the first to have it
on the Web, you broke the story regardless of the next day’s
headlines. We’re in a fast-paced culture where everyone wants to
know what’s happening now, so we have to be out there reporting as
its happening. Unfortunately being the first to report something as
it’s breaking means it may not be 100 percent accurate, but the
beauty of the Web is you can update posts as the story evolves.I
think newspapers have to be on Facebook and Twitter in order to
stay in touch with younger readers. It may not make us money right
now, but it drives more traffic to our site through links and that
can generate online advertising dollars in the long run.
Incorporating social media into everyday reporting isn't easy.
It’s demanding. It often means photographing, blogging and tweeting
from events. For me, it also means updating our company Facebook pages
when I get into the office.
What do you think of the trend toward community-generated
content? Is it a fad, or is there something more to it?
I think community-generated content can work really well as
long as you identify the author. With newspapers operating with
skeleton crews, community groups can play a large role in getting
the word out about upcoming events. For example, the Burlington County Times
approved groups, like the local Red Cross, to post content directly
to the website. The organization can advertise upcoming blood
drives without harassing a staffer to post the story and the source
is clearly identified.
I draw the line at hard news, though. There’s nothing wrong
about a community member calling in to report a fire or police
activity, but that’s the sort of story you want to run by an
official before reporting that a building burned down, when really
it was just a false alarm.
Who's your journo-hero? Whose work reminds you of what it
is we're all trying to do in this business?
How much space do I have to answer this one? I think every
investigative reporter aspires to be the next Bob Woodward
But one of my favorite writers of all time is David
, who covered Vietnam for the New York Times. After
winning a Pulitzer, he left daily news writing and moved on to
write numerous hard news and sports books. His wrote “Firehouse
after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Like any reporter, he interviewed
the survivors and families of those who perished. The story is
about 13 men from a small, tight-knit firehouse in Halberstam’s
neighborhood who responded to Ground Zero that day. Only one of
those men survived. I think reporters often remove themselves so
much from the subjects they are covering, that the story is told
from the outside looking in. But when I read “Firehouse,” I felt
like I was there, listening to the very people that Halberstam
interviewed. I was seeing the story through their eyes, and I think
that’s the way it should be.
Halberstam also had a knack for politics and handling
politicians. In an interview he once said, “Don’t expect to be
popular. The better you do the job, the more likely you are to go
against conventional wisdom, and people don’t like to hear bad
news.” That is so true. If you’re trying to be everyone’s friend,
you’re not going to be a good reporter. You have to ask the tough
While we’re talking about heroes, I can’t help but recognize
two local writers I read on a regular basis – Herb Jackson
, both of The Record. I had the pleasure of working under
Jackson as an intern and still have so much to learn from him. If I
ever become a columnist, I hope to be half as good as Stile, who
writes the column “Political Stile.”
Killer android robots from outer space come down to Earth.
They have a special ray gun that doesn't hurt you, but keeps you
from reporting news of substance for six months. Plus, they have
another ray gun that makes you focus all of your journalistic work
on one fluff topic. Which is the sort of technology killer android
robots from outer space would be bound to develop. What one fluff
topic do you pick?
That's a tough one! I’d probably write about children and
– parents love to see their kids in the paper and who
doesn’t love a cute puppy or kitten? It sells papers! In all
seriousness, I would probably spend my time covering those small
community stories that I don’t get to do with my busy schedule.
Whether it’s a new business opening, a craft fair or pet adoption
event, people love to read those things, even if reporters don’t
love to cover them. That’s what keeps weekly newspapers in
business. But then again, knowing me, I'd find a way to turn
“fluff” into news. It’s my nature.
You keep up with the goings-on at our mutual old college
paper, The Daily Targum.
What do you feel it's important for young journalists to know? What
skills should they be focusing on?
It’s funny that you ask, since we were planning to present a
workshop at The Daily Targum (editor's note: Which got
cancelled! Grr.), I actually have a lot of thoughts on this
topic. I would tell the student journos not to take anything for
granted. Take advantage of the alumni. Pick their brains, study
their work, intern if you can. The industry is tough. I’m not going
to sugarcoat it. If you can’t keep up, you’ll find yourself out of
a job. The “good old days” of being able to work on one story all
week are gone. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re doing investigative
reporting, you may be working on one story for several weeks, but
you will also be writing daily stories and briefs and updating the
Web every day while trying to squeeze in long-term projects.
The best advice I can offer is to never lose sight of who your
readers are. Don’t just write a budget story. Tell the reader why
it’s important, what the new budget means to them. If you don’t
tell the reader up front why the story is important, they’re not
going to read it.
Oh Lou, you are such a copy editor. I’m okay with “website.”
However, I don’t know why Web page and Web feed aren’t being
combined if “Web” and “site” are. Also why the heck was “Web” ever
capitalized in the first place? It’s short for World Wide Web. If I
were to write about the New Jersey State League of Municipalities
for instance, I wouldn’t capitalize the word “league” on second
(Editor's note: I'm re-evaluating our friendship over this