The Lobster Shift

It’s a few minutes after midnight when a cab pulls up on West
33rd Street, outside the offices of the New York Daily
News
, and Veronika Belenkaya emerges. She is just over five
feet tall. Her hair is flopped up into a ponytail, and blond bangs
hang in front of her eyes.

Veronika is the night reporter at the Daily News. She began
working for the paper as an intern during her senior year at
Cornell University and continued after she graduated in May 2004.
She has been working alone in the newsroom weeknights from midnight
to 8 a.m. full time since February 2005, and her first byline as a
staff writer ran in April.

The newsroom is quiet. A few copy editors put the final touches
on the next day’s paper, and a couple of reporters sit at their
desks on the other side of the room. Jill Coffey, an editor, calls
Veronika over. Six people have died in a car crash in the
Catskills, and the Daily News was late on the story. She thinks one
of the victims was a Brooklyn teenager. She knows, from an article
in The New York Times, that they were Russian.

Veronika moved to Brooklyn from Ukraine with her family in 1994.
When she calls the Russian family now, she speaks in their native
tongue. It is 1 a.m.

‘That’s my brother. I ain’t got shit to say. He’s dead,’ the man
says brusquely before hanging up.

At 2:30 the paper goes to bed, and with it go the remaining copy
editors. Veronika and I sit browsing the news wire on the computer,
watching the four televisions within view from her desk and
listening to three police scanners. For the next six hours, all we
do is wait. This is life on the lobster shift, as the beat is
called — long stretches of waiting punctuated by intense calls to
action.

The week before, Veronika responded to a call on one of the
scanners. A fire in Queens caused by an extension cord killed a
2-year-old girl, her mother, and her grandmother. At the scene,
Veronika saw a man pacing back and forth, grabbing his head and
sobbing. It was the girl’s father. ‘You enter these people’s lives
at the time that they’re ending,’ she says.

It is hard to find something positive to report on during the
night shift — there are sexual assaults, shootings, car crashes.
‘It’s a harsh reality,’ Veronika says. ‘Emotionally, you just
deal.’

It doesn’t help that she is filling the shoes of Tom Raftery,
whose coverage of the night shift made him a Daily News
institution, Veronika says. She says the cops she meets still talk
about Raftery: ‘They say he used to do push-ups here at night.’

The scanner announces a fire on Park Avenue. I look at Veronika
expectantly. She shakes her head. ‘I used to get excited when I
heard something like ‘shots fired,’ ‘ she says. ‘But first they
have to be confirmed, then they have to be aimed at somebody, then
they have to hit somebody, then they have to hit them somewhere
important. You learn to decipher with a sense of what’s going to
make the paper.’

At around 4:30 the scanners are quiet for a full minute. We are
sitting in the middle of a newsroom with more than a hundred desks,
in a city with 8 million people. Watching and listening, we are
alone.

Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review
(Sept./Oct. 2005). Subscriptions: $27.95/yr. (6 issues) from
Journalism Bldg., Columbia University, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY
10027; www.cjr.org.

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