By Harry Keaney
When it comes to untangling the intricacies of New York City government, few occupy as prestigious a forum as Dan Barry.
As city hall bureau chief for The New York Times, Barry is responsible for his newspaper’s coverage of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city council and various city agencies. He also coordinates coverage with the Times’ bureau in Albany and with reporters assigned to other beats.
Of course, in any healthy democracy, the media and the subjects they cover, particularly government, shouldn’t always agree.
"We may no doubt disagree because of the institutional differences between running a government and covering it," New York City deputy mayor for operations, Joseph Lhota, said. "However, Dan Barry is someone you can always talk to and, hopefully, reason with. It doesn’t mean he’s going to change his mind but, at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, Dan Barry is a nice guy."
Like any good reporter, Barry sees himself as, essentially, a storyteller, a trait he inherited from his Irish-born mother, Noreen Minogue, from Gort, Co. Galway, who died last February at 61.
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"She would weave these stories about growing up on a farm in Ireland which were enchanting to a kid growing up on Long Island," Barry said.
Barry’s father, Eugene, whose grandparents came from Mayo, ran a check-cashing store on Long Island; before that, he worked on Wall Street as a stock salesman.
Barry himself, who’s 41, was born in Jackson Heights, Queens, and grew up in Deer Park, near Babylon. Given his background and environment, it’s not surprising that journalism became his calling. Had it not, he said he might have been a cop.
"I think I wanted to be a writer, if I can be so bold as to say reporting is writing," Barry said. And, as in most Irish-American households, it was not the Times but the Daily News that was the paper of record.
"It had that blue collar, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx feel to it, which was where all our parents came from in the suburbs," Barry said. "I am not much different to other Irish American journalists of my age: I drank in Breslin. My mother was a storyteller and my father had a counterculture way of looking at things."
In the spring of 1983, armed with a degree from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan college in Olean, in upstate New York, and a graduate degree in journalism from New York University, Barry found himself working at Newsday’s offices in Melville, L.I. — outside, installing lawn sprinklers.
Twice he applied to the Times, first for a job as a news clerk. Outside Manhattan’s Port Authority building, while on his way to the job interview, a drunk clasping a brown paper bag whirled around in a pirouette, splashing Colt-45 all over Barry’s clothes. The candidate, reeking of alcohol, didn’t get the job.
Later that year, he began working for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn. Four years later he was employed by the Providence Journal, in Providence, R.I.
In September 1995, on his third attempt and after "surviving" two days of interviews, he was hired by the Times.
"I had no connections to The New York Times," Barry said. "My connection was that I would read it once in a while and I had a cousin who worked on the loading docks."
But what he didn’t have in connections he did have in achievement.
In 1991 at the Providence Journal, Barry, with reporters John Sullivan, now a colleague at the Times, and Ira Chinoy, who’s now at the Washington Post, won a George Polk Award for exposing corruption in the banking system. In 1993, Barry and Sullivan were again members of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in the Rhode Island state court system.
But, Barry said, he gets "as much of a kick out of writing stories that are vignettes of everyday life" as he does "from writing about some guy who is betraying the public trust."
In his current job, he said, "the trick is to try and explain operations of city government in human terms."
"It’s not just for policy wonks and political junkies," he added.