All Strung Out: My Thankless, Chaotic Life as a Newspaper Stringer

Inside the high-octane, all-guts-no-glory existence of journalism's unsung heroes.

All Strung Out: My Thankless, Chaotic Life as a Newspaper Stringer

There’s this fleeting, elastic moment that every newspaper stringer experiences, this fraction of a second that bounces around in his brain like a laser light show in a science museum, wavering wildly between excitement, desperation, fulfillment and fear. This moment may come in between forkfuls of food, while sitting on the toilet, while sitting shiva, while lovemaking, or while making toast. For the stringer—freelance reporter extraordinaire who bounces between scenes of breaking news, stringing together “quotes and color” for a writer back at the office, and who is, perhaps, simultaneously strung along by a news organization’s unspoken suggestion of future health benefits and a full-time position—the important thing is that this moment comes at all. And it comes with a phone call.

Oftentimes, a man like Dean Chang, city editor at The New York Times, is on the other end of the line. There’s been a possible homicide, or a double homicide, or a triple, Chang will say. Or a five-alarm fire in the Bronx. Or a rabid coyote wreaking havoc in Westchester. Or an overturned bus, a catastrophic flood, an impending verdict in a federal terrorism trial, an announcement that a politician has scheduled an announcement. Something has happened—some morsel of news that, for now, is sorely lacking in factual representation, the stringer’s currency. And thus, his phone is ringing—at one a.m., or six a.m., or smack in the middle of a bright, beautiful New York City afternoon. The time does not matter, nor does the stringer’s schedule. The news matters. And so does getting it right, getting it quick.

“You available?” the voice on the phone asks.

Like Dr. Pavlov, editors such as Chang are keenly aware of the emotional and physical response that this simple yet loaded question elicits in the otherwise eating, laughing or fornicating stringer. And like the proverbial Pavlovian dog, the stringer is hungry and, alas, he is desperate—for a paycheck, for acceptance, for the chance to break in and eventually write his own stories. And so he sneaks out of other jobs to take that assignment, leaves his girlfriend alone in restaurants, covers the last couple months of the 2012 Connecticut Congressional campaign on crutches without ever telling his editors of his injury for fear they’ll pull him off the story. The stringer, of course, quickly learns that multitasking is key, that his girlfriend will forgive him, and that an orthopedic boot generates quite the wellspring of sympathy in otherwise tight-lipped subjects.

“We call them ‘legs’ here at the Times,” Chang said recently, more than a year after I’d “retired” as a stringer working under him, long after my broken foot had healed and my phone’s ringtone had ceased to summon a fight-or-flight response. “But that’s a grossly inadequate term,” he continued. “They see, they hear, they think, they use their intuition and judgment to shift their line of reporting when necessary. They can provide the exquisite detail that enables [Pulitzer-winning Times journalist] Bob McFadden to authoritatively recreate a scene he can only see through the stringer’s eyes; they can ferret out a quote that can turn a dry story into one filled with human interest.”

The two important words to consider here are “Bob” and “McFadden.” The stringer’s job, it turns out, is a rather thankless one. He makes his office in “hostile territory,” as Chang described it, and makes a custom of “trying to get people to talk who do not want to.” Yet the stringer’s name, and thus his “contributed reporting” credit, often goes unmentioned until the very bottom of the story he worked so hard to get to the bottom of—an italicized afterthought for the increasingly rare reader with an attention span. Meanwhile, the critical and conspicuous author byline at the top of the piece—rendered in all caps and boldface, right beneath the headline—is reserved for the staffer back at HQ who, ironically, sometimes does little more than string together all of the stringer’s string, and is therefore far more deserving of the moniker. (Staff reporters, of course, frequently do much more than that.)

And then there is the issue of compensation.

“We don’t pay very much at all,” Chang flatly admitted. Twenty dollars an hour for non-bylined reporting at the Times, to be precise.

So why, then, does the stringer string? Why does he answer that phone? Why does he say, “Yes, I’m available,” when every fiber in his body is screaming the opposite? I never once said no in the first year I called myself a stringer, because behind every middle-of-the-night shooting, every Dominique Strauss-Kahn stakeout, every foaming-at-the-mouth animal loose on Labor Day, every feed of notes submitted with two thumbs and a cell phone from the side of a highway, there’s a story that must be told—and with that story, there’s adrenaline, there’s diplomacy, there’s art, there’s seduction, there’s a ladder that’s being climbed one rung higher, there’s real, solid, old-school reporting…there’s a stringer. And there’s always the shot at landing a story of your own and earning a front-page byline—a few moments of well-deserved glory that will inevitably be interrupted by a ringing telephone.

“I don’t think I’ve committed any [staff] reporter’s home phone number to memory, but I know some stringers’ numbers by heart,” Chang told me. And those are the ones who never say no, because if they do, that next call might never come. My colleagues and friends—many of whom have moved on from stringing but regularly threaten to pick up that notepad again—they, like me, never said no. And as you’ll read in our series, we have the stories to prove it.