Great tabloid headlines, says New York Daily News Editor in Chief Kevin Convey ’77, need action, attitude, and crisp language. When Convey arrived in the newsroom the night of May 1 to trumpet the killing of Osama bin Laden, his team began brainstorming. Convey’s first suggestion—the single word, “Dead”—alluded to the headline accompanying the iconic 1928 Daily News photograph of a murderess being electrocuted at Sing Sing, but most people wouldn’t have understood the reference.
Another Convey suggestion, “We Got Him,” lacked the wallop he wanted. A copyeditor then proposed a provocative headline that Convey predicted would resonate with his core readership: “Rot in Hell.”
“It was perfect,” said Convey, noting that copies of that cover now sell for $23.99 on eBay. “This guy was the biggest villain in modern times. The headline embodied the principle that headlines ought to wear their hearts on their sleeve.”
And that’s precisely where Convey wears his love of the newspaper business, an industry that has kept him on the forefront of breaking news and popular music since he graduated from Colby 34 years ago. He now oversees a $40-million news operation—both online and in print—that appeals to New York’s working and middle classes.
Convey, a trim 56-year-old with a full head of hair and a gray, stubbled Vandyke beard, came to work one recent afternoon in a green glen plaid suit, Brooks Brothers shirt, and a black silk Armani tie with matching breast-pocket handkerchief. He wore no socks with his black tasseled loafers. Convey walks to work at the paper’s downtown waterfront offices from his Tribeca loft several blocks away, where he lives with his wife, Kathy, a kindergarten teacher.
“I haven’t worn socks in the summer for years,” said Convey, whose son, Eamon, is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, and daughter, Mairead, matriculated this fall at Fordham. “I like cool beachy feet.”
Convey confers with editors in the afternoon news meeting, with photo spreads from the next day’s newspaper displayed for discussion.
In his office, reminders of his Brockton heritage are mixed with mementos of his life in journalism and his love for the sport of boxing. On one shelf there’s a signed portrait of middleweight legend Marvin Hagler, the Brockton resident who worked building the patio of Convey’s parents’ home, just below a pair of boxing gloves signed by Ukranian heavyweights Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. On one wall hangs a cartoon lampoon of his days at the Boston Herald, with Convey bidding farewell to his fellow editors.
Convey’s ascension to one of daily journalism’s top jobs caps a career that began at the Times-Record in Brunswick, Maine, after his graduation from Colby in 1977. By 1979, he’d moved to the Standard Times in New Bedford, Mass., before arriving at the Boston Herald as a business reporter in 1981. He rose through the ranks, becoming city editor in 1983. He ended his run there as editor in chief from 2007 to 2010.
Andrew Gully, who worked at the Herald for more than 20 years, says Convey had an uncanny ability to come up with the next day’s “wood,” the name for the tabloid’s cover page, derived from the fact that in the days of lead type, the type for front-page headlines was so large that the letters were carved from a block of wood. “Kevin was always looking for tomorrow’s wood,” recalled Gully, senior vice president for communications and external affairs at Brandeis University. “He had a knack for figuring out where to drive the coverage and where to set the edge. He could see where the story would be in the morning, not where it was today.”
Brockton boy with journo instincts
Convey says he’s had “ink in his blood” since growing up in the working-class city of Brockton, 25 miles south of Boston. At age 8 he published one-page missives on a child’s printing press to distribute to his neighbors. By his early teens he had a thriving paper route, delivering morning papers by a bike equipped with double rear baskets and a transistor radio in the handlebars. He wrote for his high school paper and learned the power of the daily newspaper when stories in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald staved off an attempt by the high school administration to stop publication of an especially racy issue on sex and drugs.
During two Jan Plans at Colby, Convey wrote for Maine Times and the Bangor Daily News. He reported for the Colby Echo as well, banging out a biting review of a student production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Waterville Opera House.
Convey spent his junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, where he deepened his study of Joyce and Yeats in their homeland. It was in Dublin, Convey says, that he became an adult—having to find an apartment and making do in a flat shared with Jeff Sherwood ’75, which was heated by peat and had a drafty bathroom with a broken window. “We would sit around, wrapped in blankets,” recalled Sherwood. “It was too much trouble to haul the fuel up to the flat. It was damp and cold.”
Sherwood was among Convey’s circle of friends on third-floor Dana Hall, a group that also included Alan Taylor ’77, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of California, Davis. Convey majored in classics and English while sampling a broad range of courses, including one in jazz taught by the Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities Paul Machlin. Convey credits that class with laying the foundation for his career in music criticism, which has featured thousands of album reviews and hundreds of features about music. “Without that course, I might have been an enthusiast, but I wouldn’t have become an authority,” he said.
In one of his online chats, he called himself “a proud liberal arts grad.” And he says a liberal arts education fits the needs of any aspiring journalist.
“The process of being a journalist is the process of educating yourself in something new, all the time,” he said. “It’s all about learning and teaching yourself, and that’s what a liberal arts education did for me. I learned how to learn, and then teach it. Assimilating knowledge and reassembling it in an intelligible way for readers is at the crux of what we do.”
Convey says that process serves him well when he’s hunkered down in the daily news meeting, working with his editorial staff, conjuring up the perfect headline to grab the attention of his loyal New York audience—either by their throats or by their hearts.
“It’s quite rewarding,” said Convey. “Tabloid headlines are a very demanding form. You are putting big words on a page that five hundred and thirty thousand people will buy and two million will read. It’s like journalistic haiku.”