From Capital NY: Former Daily News Editor Kevin Convey Goes Back to School

Kevin Convey

This article appeared in Capital NY, an online news publication about how things work in New York.

By Joe Pompeo

On a Monday morning last August, a dozen or so students gathered for their first class as master’s-degree candidates in the City University of New York’s graduate journalism program.

The course was media law and ethics, one of the core requirements of the journalism school’s 18-month curriculum. The instructor, Eric Robinson, a journalist and First Amendment attorney, got the ball rolling by having each of his pupils say a little bit about his or her background.

The majority of them were young and green. For the most part, the few who did already have journalism jobs on their resumes had worked at lesser-known newspapers or websites.

There was one notable exception: a fair-skinned 57-year-old whose wide, angular grin might not have rung a bell for his fellow classmates, but would no doubt be recognizable to Manhattan media insiders.

“My name is Kevin Convey,” he recalls saying, “and I’m changing careers after 35 years working in print, most recently as editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News.”

Convey, who is studying in CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism concentration, says he’s learning new things about the business-side and technological aspects of media – what it takes to run a startup; how data visualization works; editing video with Final Cut Pro. He was, however, exempted from the fundamental writing and reporting courses, which isn’t to say his schooling lacks a certain journeyman element; in a features-writing class this semester, he’s been brushing up on his Lillian Ross and Gay Talese as well as workshopping a profile of Daily News columnist Denis Hamill.

“The coursework is grueling,” he said.

These days, instead of running editorial meetings and poring over display copy, Convey’s daily routine looks something like this: Wake up around 4:30. Make coffee and breakfast. Check email, Twitter and media-news sites. Do homework for an hour or two. Hit the gym for 30 minutes to jog or lift weights. Shower and get dressed. Pack notebooks and a 15-inch MacBook Pro into a North Face shoulder bag. Five-minute walk to CUNY’s journalism building on 40th between 7th and 8th. Class from 9:15 to 5. Back home. Evening news. Nightcap (Manhattans or Martinis, this time of year). Bed.

Convey, a New England transplant whose brief tenure at Mort Zuckerman’s Daily News was preceded by an editorship at the Boston Herald and positions at various other estimable publications, has an end game in mind.

“In order to be taken seriously at the university level, you really need a master’s degree,” he told Capital, speaking by phone last Friday from his home in Brockton, Mass., where his wife, Kathy, a kindergarten teacher, resides full-time. (During the school-week, Convey lives in a studio apartment in Midtown.)

“The idea of teaching journalism was always in the mix,” he said. “When I left the News, it was a chance to sort of think about what I wanted the next phase of my career to be and it seemed like a natural time to shift into teaching.”

The year and a half Convey spent on top of the News’ masthead was marked by a rocky digital integration in the newsroom and an ill-fated emphasis on covering the outer boroughs, a strategy that didn’t jibe with Zuckerman’s vision for the paper as a lightning rod with the same type of lurid appeal that makes its arch-nemesis, The New York Post, a guilty pleasure among Manhattan power brokers.

After Convey was fired last January and replaced by Colin Myler, an alumnus of the Post and News of the World, he reached out to the deans of the graduate journalism programs at CUNY, Columbia and N.Y.U.

CUNY’s journalism school, now in its seventh year, was a natural fit. Convey was eager to get started as soon as possible, and the school was willing to let him apply for the class that began last summer. (Never mind that CUNY is by far the least expensive of the three: Yearly in-state tuition is just under $10,000, compared to upwards of $50,000 at Columbia and N.Y.U., which are private institutions.) Plus Convey already had a relationship with the school, having served on its advisory board.

Journalism schools pride themselves on attracting baby boomers in addition to recent college grads and burgeoning reporters and editors. (The median student age at CUNY J-School is 27.) But the older students are usually full-blown career-changer — the attorney turned legal reporter; the ex-cop who wants to put his beat skills to work on a metro desk — not people who’ve already achieved the highest ranks of the profession. Seasoned, mid-career journalists have definitely cycled through the more august journalism programs at Columbia and N.Y.U., but representatives for both journalism schools could not name anyone who’d applied with credentials as senior as Convey’s.

“He’s by far the most experienced student we’ve had,” said Stephen B. Shepard, the outgoing dean of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, who couldn’t recall whether Convey’s application was considered with the same rigor as those of the other hundred students, give or take, who were admitted last year. “You obviously give him a lot of points for his experience.”

Decades ago, Convey had considered going to journalism school upon graduating from Colby College in 1977 with a degree in classics and English. He decided to go straight to work instead, first as a general assignment reporter at The Times-Record of Brunswick, Me. and The Standard Times of New Bedford, Mass. His meteoric rise at the Boston Herald began in 1981 when he was hired to cover business. By 1994, following a three-year detour as an editor at Boston Magazine, he’d worked his way up to managing editor. In 2007, after another three-year deviation, this time running a chain of community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, he was named editor-in-chief of the Herald, which he remained until the famously mercurial Zuckerman poached him to edit the News in summer 2010.

“I was given a great opportunity and it didn’t work out,” said Convey, addressing his News departure publicly for the first time. “Mort’s the owner and he should have the kind of paper that he wants. I can’t complain about it. He always treated me fairly.”

Convey’s decision to enroll at CUNY has raised eyebrows among former colleagues.

“I thought it was a bold move,” said Scott Cohen, who was the News’ digital editor under Convey and now works for a startup called Vocativ. “How many former editors-in-chief would have the confidence to go and do that?”

Cohen described his former boss as an “extremely patient and extremely nurturing guy” whose penchant for mentoring young reporters would make him a good teacher.

Convey’s already gotten his feet wet by teaching an introductory “innovation” seminar last fall for the Studio 20 concentration, which focuses on adapting journalism to the web, at N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

“At the Daily News, he had just been through a crash course in digital disruption as the leader of that newsroom,” said Jay Rosen, Studio 20′s director, via email. “He knows in detail, and from rocky experience, why innovation is necessary to the survival of the newsroom tradition he came up in.”

Convey is an asset on the other side of the lectern as well, said Jeff Jarvis, director of CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism program and one of Convey’s instructors.

“He makes his knowledge available whenever you want it, and that’s a very delicate thing to do,” said Jarvis. “One might have feared he’d come in and be the grizzled veteran, but he’s never, never, never like that. At the same time, when I want an example from the real world, I can turn to him.”

After his current classes come to an end this spring, Convey will have to complete a summer internship (probably something that will involve “teaching citizen journalists,” he said) and one more semester of coursework.

And then?

“I want a full-time teaching position at a college or university somewhere in the northeast,” he said.

As for what Convey will miss most about being an editor once he’s settled into his second act as a journalism academic: “Putting page one together,” he said. “That’s the most fun you could have with your clothes on.”