About 20 years ago a cop reporter I worked with at the Jacksonville Daily News gave me her copy of a famous book written by a cop reporter from Baltimore. “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” by David Simon was published in 1991. By 1993 it had become a TV show on NBC, a midseason replacement drama that first aired after one of those Super Bowls in which the Buffalo Bills were obliterated. “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” was produced until 1999. Simon went on to create arguably one of the best TV series of all time, “The Wire” on HBO. He also was the creative force behind “Treme,” also on HBO.
Francine Sawyer was the cop reporter who gave me her copy of that book. She was one of a few dozen cop reporters who worked with me over a 30-plus year newspaper career. She wasn’t the best but she was very, very far from the worst. In fact, I’d put her near the top based on her incredible interest in breaking news. She loved pursuing and writing stories about crime or what she called “malfeasance.” She was a singular newsroom character. She was a crazy aunt who became a lifelong friend.
Francine knew I would love the book because we shared a passion for reporting news and, well, malfeasance. She was also aware I was a big fan of the TV series – still one of my favorite shows of all time. She wanted me to keep the book and add it to my journalism collection. Like any endearing crazy aunt, she was always giving away things to people she respected or cared about. It was so Francine. In this case, she liked the idea of a cop reporter giving away a book written by a cop reporter about cops.
This week, Natalie Allison Janicello is leaving her first newspaper job at the Burlington Times-News where she has been a cop reporter since graduating from Elon University in 2013. She will be the breaking news reporter for the Nashville Tennessean — that’s what they call cop reporters these days – breaking news reporters. Natalie is among the best cop reporters I worked with in my 30-plus years in newspapers. She has all the things Francine possessed but far more. She’s an outstanding writer with a keen eye for detail and the perspective to write in-depth stories about complex subjects. People talk to her and she listens. The latter is a trait too few reporters still possess. She’s also a singular newsroom character. She was my talented niece who became a lifelong friend. She and I also share a lot in common for people born so far apart. The oddest coincidence – we both have mothers who had careers in social services.
This week I pondered what to give to Natalie as a going-away gift. I thought about cop reporters. I thought about my crazy aunt Francine who stunned us all by passing away in October. I thought about my talented niece and looked toward the large bookshelf in the living room of the home I share with my spouse Roselee Papandrea, also a brilliant cop reporter during her newspaper career – No. 1 on my unofficial and official list. I’m a little biased, I admit. I don’t think Natalie would argue too much about the ranking.
I spotted “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” on the shelf and knew exactly what I wanted to do. Roselee agreed.
Today is Natalie’s last day at the Times-News, a newspaper she grew up reading as a child, teen and student at Elon. Thursday I stopped by my old newspaper office and dropped off that copy of “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and gave her a hug. Inside the book I told her about Francine and also about the possibilities that are ahead. Her future is still to be written. I’m looking forward to seeing what she will accomplish.
And I have to admit, there is a certain symmetry to an old editor passing along the gift of a former cop reporter to a current cop reporter of a book written by a cop reporter about cops.
Somewhere, Francine is smiling.