When APBnews.com offered print legend Sydney Schanberg a job earlier this year, "I thought to myself, some of my friends are not gonna be able to figure this out,'" the 65-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner recalled recently. "I could walk away, and I will never learn about this. So I thought, what better way to have an adventure."
Schanberg has had a few adventures in his day, from serving in the U.S. Army to climbing the New York Times ladder from copy boy to Southeast Asia correspondent (where his harrowing adventures eventually led to the movie "The Killing Fields"), to writing urban columns for Newsday. His latest foray follows in the footsteps of two other respected veterans who've made the plunge: Lou Dobbs (from CNN to Space.com) and Peter Arnett (from CNN to ForeignTV.com).
Schanberg wasn't exactly planning an online future before he received a phone call this spring from APB Chief Operating Officer and co-founder Mark Sauter, a TV journalist and book author whose work investigating the fate of American POWs was familiar to him.
At the time, Schanberg was freelancing and pursuing his dream of becoming an internal press critic for a major media outlet, covering its own operations with the same energy and toughness that is normally used on Congress or Wall Street -- a crusade that failed to drum up serious interest. His level of technical sophistication, meanwhile, was not high.
"I was sitting at home with an antediluvian laptop, cursing it every time it blacked out," he said. "It took forever to get anything to come up on it, and I'd never seen state-of-the-art tools."
Sauter suggested Schanberg come down to APB's New York office and have a look. What he saw surprised him.
"Instead of being filled with people who had green hair and nose studs," said APB Executive Editor Hoag Levins, a 30-year print veteran, "The newsroom was filled with old newspaper farts such as myself."
"I was taken by it," Schanberg said. "I said, 'Well, if you're only gonna cover garden variety crime, you know murders, mayhem, rape and serial killers and all, I don't think you're gonna hold my interest very long. But if you're interested in covering the whole criminal justice system, which is ethics, standards, white collar crime, government corruption, etc. etc., then it would fascinate me.'"
In August, Schanberg was brought on to head an investigative team, which so far consists of himself and one young reporter.
"I wanted to start slow and build from there," he said. "You don't want to come out with a big ticker-tape parade, then you've got to produce enormous things in 10 minutes."
Schanberg wouldn't say what specific projects the team is working on, but the idea is to take advantage of APB's freshness and lack of established agenda.
"All you have to do is sit back in your chair and relax a bit and think of the sacred cows that mainstream journalism doesn't touch," he said. "And your eyes will light up because of the possibilities."
So far Schanberg's output reflects his passion for media criticism: one feature on how the Wall Street Journal put legal muscle on an obscure children's publication called the Small Street Journal to change its name, and a column critiquing the methodology and reasoning behind the New York Daily News publishing the leaked transcripts of John Gotti's prison conversations.
"Beyond the philosophical and ethical questions, there are practical matters we might look at -- again involving journalistic methods that are kept from the reader," he wrote about the Gotti coverage. "It was undoubtedly a law enforcement person who leaked the tapes. So why did he or she do it, and how did the reporters pull off the deal? Not being inside their heads, one can only guess, using experience as a guide. Those of us who've been in the business for a good while can say that some reporters at times grow too dependent on a source or sources, too close for professional credibility."
Jerry Capeci, who took part in the Daily News' coverage and runs an organized crime-tracking Web site of his own called Gang Land, calls Schanberg's take "a bit disingenuous." "First, he took great pains to rap the Daily News for invading Gotti's privacy," Cepeci said by e-mail. "Then he re-published a bunch of the more titillating quotes to further invade Gotti's privacy to however many APB online readers who hadn't seen them in the news. If he really felt strongly about it, he would have left out the quotes."
Though he won't be serving as APB's internal watchdog, Schanberg says he's in on discussions about how to build the site's credibility. It's a topic he wrote about in the Washington Post just before jumping online, and it remains a way he sees journalism can "slow" the decline it has suffered over the past two decades.
"We're asking them to trust us, and yet we don't trust them with our methodology," he said. "Most of what we do is boiler plate, and the rest is special. And we try to make even a boiler plate story special, because that's the goal: you take something, you take the sow's ear, and you try to make it a silk purse. But that's the honest way to tell people. And I don't think we ever do."
APB editors say Schanberg has been a welcome influence in the office.
"He has good ideas for large projects, can quickly crank out smaller columns, and has proven to be a great mentor for some of our younger staff members," Levins said by e-mail. "He is a perfect fit in our newsroom which is such a mix of the very traditional and the very new."
Sauter says Schanberg "brings a sense of gravity and idealism to our entire operation. He's so enthusiastic about the digital age it's easy to forget he was setting the standard in print before some of our Web heads were even born."
William Bastone, a Village Voice reporter who publishes the The Smoking Gun (a popular twice-weekly site that posts government documents) is a bit skeptical of the hire.
"I like Syd; I've known him for a good number of years," Bastone said. "But I think it's some sort of marketing ploy. ... I think that his Pulitzer is probably what is of great interest to these guys."
But Schanberg is more concerned with chasing dreams and learning a new medium than trafficking in cynicism.
"I believe that we all can do something," he said. "Editors will say, 'I can't help it, I had no choice, I had to put that junk in the paper because it's a 24-hour news cycle ... and we have to be competitive.' And I say to them, literally: If you really believe you have no choice, that you have no options, you should really stop being an editor. You should go home and go skiing, and take up knitting, whatever you want to do."
"That's why I've been flogging this notion about if we're gonna be the watchdogs for everybody else, if we're gonna say that endlessly, then we better look after ourselves, and cover ourselves. ... I don't know if it'll ever get done, or whether it's just me tilting windmills again, but there are some things that you just don't get out of your system. And I guess that's my bug."
For now, the bug will concentrate on fitting in.
"I'm feeling my way, it's a whole new culture and I don't pretend to really understand it, and I won't understand it for a year or so probably, but I don't think it's any different," he said. "A good story's a good story, and I know that's a cliché, but it's true."
... back to The New Crime Boss