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Make sure you get it right: MH interviews journalist Melissa Hayes

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. Hochman

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 rusty.
Organizations you've worked for: Packet Publications (South Brunswick Post and Cranbury Press: Monroe/Jamesburg Edition); Journal Register Company (The New Egypt Press); The Burlington County Times and The Jersey Journal
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).

When you first learned that one of those Democratic bosses — Burlington County Committee Chairman Rick Perr — was stepping down because of the information you'd uncovered, what was the first thing you thought?

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.

As Uncle 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 competing on).

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 Operation Bid Rig 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 place.)

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 your job?

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 every morning 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 allows 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 or Carl Bernstein.

But one of my favorite writers of all time is David Halberstam, 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 questions.

While we’re talking about heroes, I can’t help but recognize two local writers I read on a regular basis – Herb Jackson and Charlie Stile, 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 pets – 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.

And perhaps the most important question of this interview: “Web site” vs. "website"?

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 reference.

(Editor's note: I'm re-evaluating our friendship over this answer.)

Interview by Louis C. Hochman.

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Comment by Melissa Hayes on May 13, 2010 at 1:20pm
@Bumper - What are you trying to have people thinking I'm a hippie? :-P
Comment by Bumper DeJesus on April 27, 2010 at 9:28pm
I told somebody in an elevator that I call you "Purple Haze".
Comment by Christina Paciolla on April 26, 2010 at 3:13pm
awesome!

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