Byline Beast of N.Y.: Times’ Sewell Chan Racks Up 422 in Year

On June 20, page B2 of The New York Times carried a story by City Hall reporter Sewell Chan, giving

On June 20, page B2 of The New York Times carried a story by City Hall reporter Sewell Chan, giving the results of an audit of the city’s stray-animal-care contractor. Page B4 carried two Sewell Chan metro briefings, one about bill signings by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and one about the City Council Speaker’s new deputy chief of staff. And B5 had an item by Mr. Chan about a report on campaign donations last year.

Other Times reporters may have had splashier stories in that day’s paper—Mr. Chan’s longest piece, the stray-animal one, was only 758 words, and informed readers that the shelters had been found “adequate” but could be better. But no Times reporter had written more.

With those two bylines and two taglines, Mr. Chan raised his number of reporting credits in the past 12 months to 422. On average, if you pick up a copy of The New York Times, Mr. Chan’s name will appear in it 1.15 times.

Since he debuted in The Times in November 2004—with a contributor’s credit on a story about the lowering of terror-threat levels—Mr. Chan, now 28 years old, has recorded more than 600 credits. He has covered Hurricane Katrina, the transit strike, the Lake George boating disaster and the fine print of the municipal budget.

“He’s a terrific reporter,” said former metro editor Susan Edgerley, who hired Mr. Chan away from The Washington Post. “He’s hugely energetic. He’s curious, smart. He loves coming to work every day. He’s a joy to have in the newsroom.”

At a paper populated by reporters with sharp elbows and brazen ambition, Mr. Chan’s singular, nearly inhuman work ethic stands out. Through the decades, some New York Times reporters have made names for themselves on West 43rd Street with felicitous prose—to say nothing of deft politicking, sartorial flair or heedless use of expense accounts. But Mr. Chan has made himself a legendary Times reporter by reporting for The Times. And reporting, and reporting some more.

Mr. Chan collects reporting credits the way Pete Rose collected base hits: obsessively, with doggedness and hustle, scratching them out where others might bide their time and swing for the fences. They come one after another, and sometimes in flurries of three or four. As of June 20, Mr. Chan had been in the paper one or more times for 10 consecutive weekdays. That followed a streak of 19 weekdays in May.

The No. 2 metro reporter in output, Kareem Fahim, has 323 credits in the past 12 months, 99 fewer than Mr. Chan. The majority of his colleagues have fewer than 200.

Earlier this month, in a memo announcing the hiring of Serge Kovaleski from The Post, metro editor Joe Sexton quoted Mr. Chan praising his former colleague—and noted that Mr. Chan “took time out from filing 11 stories over the weekend” to contribute those thoughts.

“I guess I’m really old-fashioned, but I’d rather be the one writing about the news,” Mr. Chan said, declining to comment any further.

Mr. Chan’s drive has won him both admirers and detractors. The displeased ones see his ambitiousness as being a little too naked—there was grumbling about careerism (unheard of at The Times!) after he showed up at executive editor A. M. Rosenthal’s funeral. He has been known to shower famous journalists with detailed praise, including specific citations of their work.

But most of the complaints—and the praises—have an element of recognition. Mr. Chan at work is like any reporter on deadline, except he’s always on deadline.

At City Hall, Mr. Chan is one of the few reporters who carry a laptop into press briefings. “I see him working here constantly,” New York Post City Hall bureau chief David Seifman said. “From the moment he gets in to the moment he leaves, he doesn’t take many breaks.”

In group settings, according to witnesses, Mr. Chan doesn’t hesitate to hammer on minutiae. He will offer a question, prefaced by “Mr. Mayor, sir.” Then: “If I could please ask a follow-up …. ” Then: “One more follow-up, if I may …. ”

And he is constantly offering pieces to editors. Wendell Jamieson, who edited Mr. Chan’s M.T.A. coverage last year, said Mr. Chan used to intercept him as he walked through the newsroom and follow him, suggesting ideas.

“There’s a lot of great, ambitious, smart reporters in the newsroom,” Mr. Jamieson said, “but he’s the only reporter I know who actually pitched me a story while I’ve been standing at the urinal in the men’s room.”

Mr. Chan wrote more than 80 metro-front transit stories in 14 months on the beat.

“The story I like to tell about Sewell is you hand him the M.T.A. budget, and two days later he’s digging through it and he’s finding B1 story leads on page 250,” Mr. Jamieson said. “I think he’s home in bed reading it. He flips through it and finds things like they’re going to take conductors off train lines this year. It’s just classic good reporting.”

In bygone days, there were two distinct breeds of Timesmen: the establishment-cozy gentry à la Scotty Reston, and the pavement-pounding sons of immigrants, like Rosenthal. Mr. Chan’s background embraces both. He grew up in Flushing, the son of parents who emigrated from Hong Kong in the early 1970’s. His father drove a taxicab, which he does to this day.

Mr. Chan attended Hunter High School, where he was class co-president his junior and senior years, and where he was a classmate of his current Times colleague, Jennifer 8. Lee. Together, as juniors, Mr. Chan and Ms. Lee took over the school’s No. 2 paper, The Observer, transforming it from an 8 1¼2-by-11 newsletter to a full broadsheet in competition with the official paper, What’s What.

After Hunter, Mr. Chan went on to Harvard, where he majored in social studies and joined The Harvard Crimson. He raced through the paper’s tryout period.

“Usually, you call people at 2 in the afternoon and beg them to come in,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews, who supervised Mr. Chan’s college tryout as The Crimson’s managing editor. “With Sewell, you didn’t have to beg.”

Mr. Mathews said Mr. Chan stayed long after the other aspirants, till only the regular staffers were left, fetching sandwiches and coffee as needed. In a notable class—which also included Ms. Lee and Times reporter Michael Luo—Mr. Chan stood out, Mr. Mathews said. “I would say in both ability and diligence, Sewell was the hardest-working and most talented in that class,” he continued. “And probably the hardest-working and talented person I met at The Crimson during my time there.”

Mr. Chan rose to be executive editor of The Crimson and interned at The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. Upon graduation in 1998, he studied politics at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship.

In 1999, he joined The Post’s metro desk, where he covered cops, education and social services. “He would stay up late at night reading clips,” said former Post reporter Justin Blum, who now works for Bloomberg News. “He could recite who was on the City Council decades ago.”

“He was just incredibly energetic,” said Allan Lengel, a metro editor at The Post. “As an intern, the word was he would work all day and all night and go home and collapse on his bed in his clothes.”

“At one point, he asked then-A.M.E. for metro JoAnn Armao to bring a cot in so he could sleep,” Post metro reporter Lyndsey Layton said. “He was having such long days, he thought it would be more efficient to sleep there. I don’t think she took it as a serious request.”

Ms. Layton sat in the cubicle next to Mr. Chan in the newsroom. “He keeps trying to go deeper,” Ms. Layton said. “He has this very strange affection for middle initials. He was always double-checking with sources, ‘Is that William H.W. Smith III?’ He would get everyone’s middle initial.

“He was obsessed with it,” Ms. Layton said. “Even though it’s not Post style to include it.”

Mr. Chan was also fascinated by bylines, Mr. Blum said. At one point, he expressed admiration for former Times sportswriter Buster Olney’s byline and said he wished he had a snappy handle of his own. Shortly after, Post reporter David Nakamura dubbed Mr. Chan “Skippy.”

Not everyone who crossed paths with Mr. Chan was so enamored. In February 2004, he was assigned to cover Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a tour of Central Asia. According to multiple Post staffers with knowledge of the trip, Mr. Chan’s enthusiasm chafed the veteran Pentagon reporters on the trip. After a stop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Mr. Chan was late for a flight to Kabul, and the group left him behind, stranding him in Tashkent for an extra day. Afterward, an e-mail circulated in which reporters claimed to have pooled their money and bribed a clerk to delay Mr. Chan’s wake-up call. “I don’t think that’s true,” said former Los Angeles Times reporter John Hendren, who was on the trip, of the wake-up-call story. Mr. Hendren said that reporters had written “Sewell” on a sheet of paper and buckled it into his empty seat.

Mr. Chan then was assigned to Iraq, where he had other troubles. During his three months in Baghdad, he clashed with Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Post staffers said there was an incident in which Mr. Chan antagonized the bureau by asking the paper’s Iraqi driver to install a new toilet seat in his room at the Sheraton.

But by summer, he was back in D.C. and on the municipal beat—landing 23 credits in an August with 22 weekdays.

Soon after, he moved to The Times. There, he became as constant a presence in the newsroom as on the news pages. Mr. Jamieson said he had to order Mr. Chan to stop showing up on days off—or at least to stop showing up so much.

“I told him to take a day off on the weekend,” Mr. Jamieson said. “I think he did sometimes, and didn’t on others.”

The balance of Foers is shifting northward! This month, Joshua Foer, the youngest of the celebrated team of brothers, left his hometown of Washington, D.C., to take up residence in New York.

The move leaves New Republic editor Franklin Foer the last Foer brother in the District. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is currently ensconced in a $6.75 million Park Slope townhouse with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss.

Joshua Foer is at work on a book about memory—he competes in memorization contests and has won a national championship—and has been freelancing for National Geographic, Slate, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other publications. In an e-mail, he declined to discuss the specifics of his relocation.

“I literally just moved in,” Mr. Foer wrote. “I haven’t even figured out where to plug in my electric toothbrush or which day is trash collection. Given that most of my friends don’t know that I’m here yet, I’d hate to have them read about it in the newspaper. Plus, I sort of think I should do something a little more noteworthy than just move to town before I end up the subject of one of your columns. I’ll keep you posted.”


Byline Beast of N.Y.: Times’ Sewell Chan Racks Up 422 in Year