Tom Robbins is a reporter’s reporter, a journalist who, more than four decades into a venerable career, is still plugging away to root out stories that matter about New York City, expose corruption, and shed light on the ills of the criminal justice system. On many days, he can be found in his corner cubicle at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism – where he has been investigative journalist in residence since 2011 – deep into a phone interview with a source for the next story that will carry his byline. (On Twitter, it’s @tommy_robb.)
Robbins has worked alongside the greats of New York City tabloid investigative journalism: Pete Hamill at the New York Daily News, Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett at The Village Voice. Jimmy Breslin was a good friend and colleague. He speaks in their collective voice when teaching his Newmark students how to look beyond government press releases to find stories about real New Yorkers. Through his own reporting, he has also shown why clemency is a justifiable option for some felons who redeemed themselves in prison and deserve to get a second chance.
Robbins’s resume includes many leading U.S. media outlets. In addition to working at City Limits, the Daily News, and the Voice during their heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s, he has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Atlantic, and many more.
He has also probed into the prison system for The Marshall Project. His series on violence in New York prisons, produced in collaboration with The Marshall Project and The New York Times, was named a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Investigative Reporting and won the 2016 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism.
Now, he is taking on a new assignment as a senior investigative reporter for The City, the nonprofit digital news platform devoted to hard-hitting coverage of the Big Apple.
Robbins spoke to us about his latest reporting gig and his storied journalism career.
What will you be doing for The City?
They started a new investigations unit headed by Marty Gottlieb, a great editor who I worked with at the Voice and later at the Daily News. Three other reporters are on the team. We’re going to do long-term investigations about New York City.
How will you incorporate this new assignment into your work with students?
It’s going to be an added benefit all around. I’ve been teaching a class since I’ve been here where we do projects – everything from writing about bad landlords to people stuck with convictions they can’t get off their records. I’ll be a player-coach, working with the investigative reporting classes and helping students get their work published in The City.
What motivates you to keep reporting, long after many of your peers have moved on?
I love New York, and I love the job of being a reporter. I also love sharing my knowledge with students at the J-School. I see the two going hand in hand. Reporting is the best job you can have. You get paid to talk to people. I look at my reporter’s credentials as a passport to talk to anyone, from the governor on down, and shine a light on corners that don’t usually get looked at.
What are some of the challenges investigative journalists face in today’s media landscape, and how do you think these challenges can be addressed?
The biggest challenge is the reduced number of publications. This used to be a town with many thriving daily newspapers. Now, three are left, and one is hanging by a thread. The press has been noticeably weakened; we don’t have the critical mass we used to get gathered together at the mayor’s press conferences. Digital news outlets are trying to pick up some of the slack. The City was created to address the gap in local coverage.
What inspired you to pursue a career in investigative journalism?
I was working as a community organizer on the lower east side (of Manhattan) in the 1970s, and I saw what was going on: lousy living conditions, landlords torching tenants out of their buildings. I was so struck with what I was seeing that I thought I had to write about it. I started with some small local publications, then went to City Limits. I got schooled in the streets of the city. One day, someone said this was investigative reporting.
Is there one story that stands out to you above the rest?
I did a story about Donald Trump early in his career that I think got to the heart of how he operates. I wrote about the workers he had hired – mostly undocumented laborers from Poland – to tear down the old Bonwit Teller building so he could build Trump Tower. They couldn’t understand why he was one of the richest men in New York and they weren’t getting paid. So they filed a lawsuit. “The Art of the Don Deal” ran on April 15, 1990 in the Daily News.
What three skills are essential for success in investigative journalism, and how do you help students develop these skills in your classes?
Showing up, listening closely, and finding the people burning with intensity to tell their story, those are the three most important qualities of the job. Research and data skills are a great addition to investigative work; they greatly expand the lens we bring to a story. But those tools rest on a foundation of reporting that is up close and personal. I tell students that my favorite investigative tool is the telephone.