Paul LaRosa is a longtime producer at CBS News, having transitioned to electronic media following a long stint at the New York Daily News. Before that LaRosa, the lifelong New Yorker, attended Fordham University. But his career was shaped even earlier growing up in the Monroe Housing Projects in the Bronx. LaRosa went to Blessed Sacrament for grade school at the same time as future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. One year her senior, LaRosa didn’t know Sotomayor, who lived at a neighboring housing project.
LaRosa, 58, has recalled his many personal experiences in a fascinating memoir, Leaving Story Avenue by Park Slope Publishing, released April 18th.
“It was such an amazing time–the late 1970s in New York–it was just before computers came into being,” LaRosa tells FishbowlNY.
LaRosa writes intensively about his 16 years at the News.
“It was the end of the Front Page era because people would drink at their desks, everybody smoked,” LaRosa says. “It was no big deal to spend hours at Louie’s [bar behind the Daily News building]…It was still like an old Humphrey Bogart movie.”
He says the newspaper was undergoing major changes from 1975 to 1983, the height of LaRosa’s time at the Daily News.
LaRosa also uses his pages to describe to famous columnists from the pages of the Daily News–the award winning Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.
LaRosa was there during the serial killer Son of Sam madness of 1977. Breslin received letters directly from the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) that, of course, would be instant page one material.
“Breslin is like a caricature in my eyes,” LaRosa recalls. “He’s larger than life, and I think he considers himself larger than life.”
By contrast, LaRosa calls Hamill a gentleman who was more approachable.
“[He] would talk to copyboys about art and writing,” LaRosa says. “Anything you wanted to talk to him about, he was happy to talk to you.”
LaRosa’s dream since a child was to work at the Daily News. Although at that age it had nothing to do with being a reporter.
“When I was a kid, I was very much taken with the Superman TV show and the globe on the Daily Planet roof,” LaRosa says. “My mother brought me to this [Daily News] building to see Santa Claus, and saw the globe in the lobby. It was like Superman could really exist and the Daily Planet could really exist.”
The image of the lobby was so strong, he used it as the headings for each chapter of his book.
As said, that Daily News lobby, and Superman made such an impression on the young LaRosa, that he, literally, needed to get his foot in the door of the building. While in his senior year at Fordham, LaRosa saw a job posting for an entry level position at WPIX.
“The only reason I took the job is because I knew that it was in the same building as the News and they were both owned by the Chicago Tribune,” LaRosa says.
As graduation approached, LaRosa went down three floors and applied for a copyboy job at the Daily News.
He refers to Leaving Story Avenue as two memoirs in one, the career and the formative years in Soundview.
“The projects were very much in transition at the same time,” LaRosa remembers. “It was idyllic when I moved in and it became really dangerous when I moved out.”
Even before it got “really dangerous,” it wasn’t great. LaRosa admits to getting mugged a lot as a child. It didn’t get easier by the time LaRosa was of high school age.
“We had to change buses at Simpson Street, which was the heart of ‘Fort Apache’ in those years,” LaRosa recalls. “One time I put my bookbag down. As soon as it hit the concrete somebody came along, grabbed it and kept running. We chased him into an abandoned building. The guy pulled a knife on us.”
He says that menace was an unfortunate, albeit regular part of life. It helped mold LaRosa, who took an affinity to the crime beat, first with the News, and then with CBS’ 48 Hours.
“I’m a real New Yorker. I have a jaded, cynical hard shell,” LaRosa says. “I probably find it hard to trust people.”
LaRosa and his family arrived in the new Monroe Houses in 1961 and left the scene in 1977, the same year Howard Cosell famously told the World Series audience from Yankee Stadium that “the Bronx is burning.”
Cosell was also on the air three years later as the first person to tell the world that John Lennon was assassinated. In fact one of the chapters in LaRosa’s book is dedicated to Lennon’s murder. It’s the one titled Lobster, what newspaper people call the overnight shift.
“I turn on WNEW-FM, the city’s premiere rock station, to learn what they know,” LaRosa writes. “The DJ is of course devastated by Lennon’s murder and does the best thing he can–he plays music.”
LaRosa staked out the Dakota with hundreds of mourners, interviewing many for the Daily News. The next day, LaRosa decided to tell the story of Lennon’s death from his perspective on Central Park West.
“I wanted readers to know I wasn’t just another reporter, I was a huge Beatles fan,” LaRosa says. “I remember how hard I tried to make that story great.”
It was the biggest story he would cover in print, and biggest overall until September 11, 2001.
LaRosa was with CBS by 2001, joining the Tiffany Network ten years earlier, leaving the Daily News after a five-month strike. Athough he enjoyed writing the most, LaRosa has reaped some benefits that television has to offer. On a basic level, he says TV pays more than the newspaper business.
“When I worked at the Daily News, New York was my beat,” LaRosa says. “But now the country is my beat.”
Not just this country, LaRosa has visited places worldwide for 48 Hours, where occasionally it can take up to six months to produce a one-hour episode.
“It’s a luxury, almost like a long-form magazine,” LaRosa says. “It’s sort of like Vanity Fair, in a way.”
LaRosa, who offers a candid take on life at his blog paullarosa.com, knew he’d need to be open for the memoir to be effective.
“I tried to put myself out there,” LaRosa admits. “I’m honest in the book, even if the stories sometimes embarrass me.”