Hey honeys! 'King of Brooklyn' Gersh Kuntzman heads off to academe, to instruct young gumshoes
Around 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Gersh Kuntzman was killing time in a cavernous DUMBO gastropub called reBar with his nose buried in the latest New Yorker.
He had just closed his second to last issue of The Brooklyn Paper, the prominent weekly broadsheet of which he would relinquish his editorship in another week. He starts a new job as a teacher-editor at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on Jan. 2.
Aided by a reBar signature cocktail (“The New Gersh,” not to be confused with “The Gersh”) which contains rye, ginger-flavored liquor and grapefruit juice, among other ingredients, he was slogging through Alec Wilkinson’s profile of the Guinness World Records addict Ashrita Furman, whom Kuntzman, too, had once profiled.
This was back in the mid-'90s. At the time, Kuntzman recalled, Furman was attempting to break some world record or another, probably something involving either a pogo-stick or balancing a bottle of milk on his head. The 46-year-old Kuntzman, a lanky 5-foot-10, with wire-rimmed glasses and reddish-brown scruff that wraps his wide grin, was then a reporter on the features desk of the New York Post, where he worked for almost 10 years before joining The Brooklyn Paper.
In the New Yorker piece, Furman was as fascinating to Kuntzman now as he was back then. And there was a lesson to be learned in that: A good story is a good story, whether it's tabloid bait or a 10,000-word magazine endeavor.
“The New York Post covered this guy, and the New Yorker covered this guy,” Kuntzman said. “So don’t tell me that tabloid journalism is somehow cheap or silly or whatever. The things we’re interested in are the same. I need my students to see that it’s a very big world out there and there’s many different places you’re gonna end up, but the fundamentals of our business don’t change.”
Kuntzman’s “students” have lately been a revolving cast of cub reporters that cycled in and out of his newsroom over the past six years, during which the Park Slope resident and father of two was as much a relentless mentor as he was a guy whose duties entailed getting a 35,000-circulation paper (plus its sister editions) out the door every Wednesday night, and making sure its website was always buzzing with fresh content.
The job meant initiating a roster of aspiring gumshoes while also poring over every line of text, every cutline, every photo credit, for about 140 stories a week both in print and on the web. It also meant transforming what was already a well-respected community publication, with its informative re-caps of local board meetings and dutiful coverage of provincial affairs, into the type of scrappy news product that could command the interest and respect not only of its neighborhood constituents, but of those media elites across the river.
“What I did,” said Kuntzman, more modestly, “was, I took a very, very strong paper, I cut the story length in half, and I added a kind of tabloid brashness. I didn’t elevate it. I merely said, ‘OK, we’re gonna give you the planning board meeting and explain why it’s important that you know about this eight-story building that’s going up in a zone for six stories. But we’re also gonna give you some, ‘Hey honey, the Park Slope Food Co-Op is gonna ban bottled water!’”
That piece, (co-bylined by Dana Rubsinstein, who is now a reporter at Capital), ran on March 8, 2008, under the headline, “H-2-Whoah!”
“The idea of a ‘Hey honey’ story was ingrained in me very early at The New York Post,” said Kuntzman, who was now chowing down on a medium rare cheeseburger with a side of shoe-string fries.
“That’s something I don’t think people today at journalism schools are ingrained with,” he said. “The notion that on some level, something on the page has to be something that could make a husband say, ‘Hey honey, look at this story!”
So completely did Kuntzman's personality—inquisitive, at times a little bawdy, sometimes adamant—inhabit the paper that some wondered how it was possible for him to really leave it.
"We were shocked," said one staffer, recalling how Kuntzman broke the news of his resignation rather stoically at the tail end of a Thursday staff meeting in late November. "Of all the people you'd expect to leave The Brooklyn Paper, Gersh was the last. He and the paper are inextricably linked, for many people, and his personality and talent have really shaped it into what it is today."
Apart from the bottled water wars, some other classics from Kuntzman’s Brooklyn Paper canon, outside its signature beats like bike lanes and local development (it got massive mileage out of the Atlantic Yards saga), include the horrific geese-slaughtering of July 2010, the infamous 6-year-old sidewalk chalk vandal of Park Slope, and the editor’s rather racy real estate porn spoof that took readers on an orgasmic video tour of DUMBO’s $25 million Clock Tower penthouse (perhaps to the discomfort of Kuntzman’s bosses at The Brooklyn Paper’s parent company, Community Newspaper Group, which, like Kuntzman's former employer, the Post, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.).
Think what you will of Murdoch’s media empire: Kuntzman said News Corp. didn’t change The Brooklyn Paper after the company bought Community Newspaper Group in March of 2009.
“Don’t believe the conspiracy theories,” he said. “We got nice fancy new offices, but I wouldn’t say the culture of the place changed at all.”
Kuntzman arrived at The Brooklyn Paper a few years before the News Corp. deal. It was late 2005, and after filing countless inches of copy for the Post, where the hats he wore included senior reporter, re-write guy and occasional assistant night editor, he could feel the sun setting on his career there: "I just thought it was time for me to run something," he said.
Meanwhile, Kuntzman had heard that The Brooklyn Paper's then-editor, Neil Sloane, was likewise on the hunt for a new job. There happened to be an opening at the Post, which was scouting for an assistant day editor. That's when the lightbulb went off: Kuntzman would put in a word for Sloane and then toss his own resume over the transom at The Brooklyn Paper, where he'd previously contributed columns and sports coverage. The plan worked out beautifully.
"We essentially traded jobs," said Kuntzman. (Sloane is still at the Post today.)
In his new gig, which he applied for on a whim last summer, Kuntzman said he will imbue the “Hey honey” sensibility in a class built around an earnest community website called The Local, which covers Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and is produced under the auspices of The New York Times. Student reporters and community contributors provide the content; Kuntzman, as editor-in-chief, sets the tone. In a press release announcing the news, he said he wanted to make it “a more urgent and intense news site so it becomes a viable first-read for people in that neighborhood.”
Back at reBar, speaking of his plans for The Local, Kuntzman said: “I do think the stories will just be a little bit...”
He paused and threw back a few fries.
“I’m trying to find the right word,” he said. “I think it’s a very good website. But I think it could be just a little sharper. More like a newspaper website than a very good student journalism website. Some of the best journalism going on in this country is student journalism. But if a whole website is student journalism, there’s just a little practical element that’s missing. Just a little.”
As for the teaching part, Kuntzman hopes his students—real students, this time—will come away from the course understanding that “you still ask the same questions whether you’re at the Times or the Post or USA Today,” he said.
“Just give the reader some reason to keep going,” he said. “If I can impart that on the kids, and I know I can, the ones who embrace it will be able to work for the Times and work for the Post, or The Wall Street Journal, or any paper in America.”
Maybe even The Brooklyn Paper, which will now find Kuntzman’s long-trusted colleague, Vince Dimiceli, at the top of its masthead.
“He’s an amazing editor and he’s gonna do a great job,” said Kuntzman.
Ben Muessig, a former Brooklyn Paper reporter now at The Huffington Post, will return to his alma mater next week to handle day-to-day editing duties.
For Kuntzman, it's bittersweet. He's tired, and ready to move on; and yet he said he’d miss everything about the Brooklyn Paper newsroom, even the most stressful parts: the arguments, the battles, having to tear up stories on deadline, and so on.
“Without a doubt, it was the best job I ever had. No question,” he said. “It was the first time I really ran anything of any consequence.”
But there was also this: “It had the appeal of being King of Brooklyn,” he said.