Dirty Secrets in a Crime Reporter's Backpack

Bravo's Tabloid Wars was a lot of fun to watch, especially because of one of its stars, New York Daily News crime reporter Kerry Burke.

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Bravo's Tabloid Wars was a lot of fun to watch, especially because of one of its stars, New York Daily News crime reporter Kerry Burke. He's a classic old-school type: Shoe leather everything, talking to all the witnesses, staking out scenes with sleeves rolled up, always in a tie with a big backpack. The backpack's kind of his trademark, actually, and though some of its contents have changed over the years, the most useful items are still a pen and paper, a Hagstrom map, and a checkbook, for "the dirty side of this business." Old school.

As Burke explained to The Awl's Paul Hiebert in an awesome Q&A on Friday, he's more or less constantly on the move, heading out to crime scenes and canvassing neighborhoods every day he's at work. And he doesn't have a car to keep all his stuff in.

I was the first staff reporter in New York City to not have a car. Having a car was just taken as gospel; it was a condition of one's employment. But my thing was, one, you're not paying me enough—especially back then—and two, I can get there first using public transportation or a cab. While my colleagues are busy looking for parking and stuck in traffic, I'm on the subway. Basically, if you're late, you're dead.

So Burke's backpack has become the equivalent of a car's trunk, and it holds everything he needs to get around, get his information, and keep himself going. Back in 2006, he spoke to students at Columbia's journalism school about how his first-line crime reporting gets done. Among tips like always be nice to your sources and don't take the cops' word for it, he shared what's inside "Kerry Burke's Famous Backpack:"

* a flashlight, a bottle of water, tons of notebooks, a box of pens, a disposable camera, batteries, an umbrella, a tape recorder, lots of maps (borough, subway and bus), a cell phone charger, business cards, magazines and “stake-out food”
* Kerry’s MUST-HAVE: Hagstrom’s NYC Five Borough map book, spiral-bound.

On Friday, he gave a much more detailed answer to that question, and it seems he's added a few items, while others have changed. The iPad and charger are new since 2006, obviously, and the camera's almost certainly not the instamatic he described in his conversation with Hiebert. One thing Burke seems to have left out of his talk with the Columbia kids is that checkbook he uses to buy photos. The way he describes it, that's quite the useful tool, and nothing new:

What do you bring with you on a typical day of reporting?

Stakeout food. Years ago I had this girlfriend who pointed out that I lived off of slices of pizza, Chinese takeout and beer, and that this would eventually kill me. She was right. She turned me onto yogurt and muesli. It tastes like paste, but it's clean, it's cheap and it's fuel. So everywhere I go I got this container of yogurt and muesli.

I also carry cameras, flashlights, binoculars, notepads, pens, unread mail. I got bills in my bag and a newspaper to read. I have an iPad, which, in theory, I can file stories on, but that's been a bad investment because the iPad connection just doesn't really work when you need it. I have a charger, some plastic gloves, a Hagstrom map of the five boroughs, an umbrella and a checkbook, because the dirty side of the business is that sometimes I have to buy pictures. One time I got in a bidding war with the New York Post for footage of two police officers being killed. Another time I bought security footage of these killers. Before they went out to basically kill people, they went to a Popeyes Chicken. I went to that location and let's just say I bought $1000 worth of chicken.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.