Lover of Cities, Agent for Change

(Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Jarrett Murphy, 37, is the editor in chief of City Limits. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

While Jarrett Murphy, now editor in chief of City Limits, has worked for newspapers since high school, his first love was for cities. Instead of trekking to kid-friendly destinations like Disney World, his parents took him to different cities across the country.

“I was just fascinated by them. I thought they were the most interesting places you could be,” Murphy said.

Peering beyond the glamorous and jazzy façades of big cities like New York or Los Angeles, Murphy was drawn to the darker elements of cities, some of which he saw in his own hometown.

New Britain, where Murphy grew up, was, “a small, typical, dying New England industrial city in central Connecticut,” Murphy said. “But it was an urban microcosm.”

New Britain suffered the same maladies as many much larger urban centers: shuttered factories, gangs, violence, AIDS and neglected public housing.

“I wanted to be someone who worked to save, to improve, to salvage what I could of cities like New Britain.”

Years later at the helm of City Limits, a subversive publication that produces long-form investigative works about underserved communities and under-reported issues, it seems Murphy stays true to his original mission every day on the job. The stories he’s written and edited have generated discussions, changed minds and halted corruption in ripples that spread across the city.

Now 37 years old, Murphy has been reporting for most of his life. He began writing for high school and college newspapers and later reported and edited for The Hartford Advocate, CBSNews.com, the Village Voice, and finally, in 2007, City Limits.

While completing a degree in Urban Studies at Fordham University, Murphy wrote for a left-leaning, editorial-based campus publication called The Paper.

While many of his colleagues published opinion pieces, Murphy pursued actual news stories, The Paper’s long-time advisor Jeffrey Gray, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at Fordham, said.

Even as a green campus reporter, Gray said, Murphy was “always a little suspect of the institutional priorities, and willing to push it a little further and see what he could uncover.”

Tom Robbins, an investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, who worked with Murphy both at City Limits and the Village Voice, said he saw a change in Murphy’s writing over the years.

“I’ve seen his writing become really eloquent,” Robbins said. “When he puts his pen to paper, he can make it sing.”

But his eloquent prose is largely self-taught. Murphy never took formal journalism classes and instead said he had the hands-on training of “learning by doing from editors.”

Murphy began studies for a masters degree at the London School of Economics and later completed his M.A. in Economics at the New School. He did so, not with the goal of choosing public policy or economics as a career path, but as a way to become a more astute journalist.

“If I couldn’t be an expert myself, I would at least know how to navigate experts,” he said. “Ask the right questions and figure out who was fibbing.”

City Limits: Filling a Gap

In 2007, Murphy was plucked from his job as a general assignment reporter at the Village Voice to work on City Limits’ new quarterly investigative magazine. City Limits is a nonprofit news agency partly backed by the Community Service Society of New York, although it maintains editorial independence. The publication dates back to 1976 when it originally served as a newsletter for activists about housing concerns in the city. It has since expanded its coverage to encompass all kinds of pressing policy issues.

The first issue of City Limits in 1967 served as a newsletter for activists about building demolitions.

The first issue of City Limits in 1976 served as a newsletter for activists about housing concerns.

Investigations into neglectful corporate landlords, the state government’s bungle of a $175 million investment, and the lack of pre-natal care for pregnant undocumented women are just a few of the hard-hitting issues that City Limits had tackled before Murphy joined the staff.

The quarterly magazine would offer long-form journalism with hyper-focused topics, exactly what piqued Murphy’s fancy.

“One issue dedicated entirely to affordable housing or sewage overflows,” Murphy described, “really let people who are as obsessed with the city as we are dig into it.”

The magazine ran until 2010 when financial constraints coupled with a surge in web traffic led City Limits to discontinue the print component.

Regardless, even in its current digital-only form, City Limits’ mission remains the same.

“City Limits has always existed to fill a gap both topically and geographically,” Murphy said.

Since he began at City Limits, Murphy has been promoted several times as senior staff members left. Now the publication relies almost entirely on freelance writers.

“He’s one of the best editors I’ve ever had,” said Sean Gardiner, now a criminal justice reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Gardiner worked with Murphy on an extensive series about the War on Drugs in 2009. “It wasn’t just your normal garden-variety editing. He put in a lot of work and made the story much better.”

While the number of full-time staff members has decreased over the years, City Limits’ coverage has actually expanded. In 2011 it founded the Brooklyn Bureau and unveiled the Bronx Bureau a year later. These two separate websites focus on several underserved community districts (CDs) in both boroughs.

This year, Murphy plans to expand coverage of community board meetings and commission investigative pieces in the Bronx CDs 3, 4, 5 and 6 and Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick, Sunset Park, East New York and Brownsville. There may even be a print version to facilitate distribution in some of these neighborhoods.

City Limits’ task is to become a vital part of the communities it covers. Murphy sees this challenge as analogous to the work of a political candidate.

“Political candidates don’t assume that the voters are going to come to them,” he said. “They don’t assume that they’re going to see their commercials, don’t assume that they’re going to read the mail. So they have to hit all those fields and talk to people where they live.”

An Incredibly Present Dad

A tireless workhorse, Murphy’s day starts at 5 a.m. when he’ll squeeze two hours of work in before waking up his oldest son Owen, 10, at 7 a.m. to get him ready for school. Murphy works on his commute to and from the City Limits office in Midtown and his home in the North Bronx. Many nights he puts in a few hours after Owen and Hugh, 3, have fallen asleep.

“He’s the most disciplined person I’ve ever met by far. He never wastes any time,” said Eileen Markey, Murphy’s wife. Markey, who met Murphy in college, attributes her husband’s ability to balance work and family to these fierce time management skills. “The kids have an incredibly present dad.”

Beyond his family life, Murphy plays in an informal rugby league where he is an admitted novice, and is the bass player and vocalist for a blues-funk band called Fort Indy.

“It’s a good excuse to make some noise in [my friend’s] basement, drink a few beers and pretend to be rock stars,” Murphy said.

Ripples of Change

Murphy relishes small victories like when a City Limits story gets picked up by a bigger publication, raising awareness across a much larger audience. Sometimes policy changes result.

One of the first stories Murphy wrote for City Limits in 2007, still has on New York City politics today.

One of the first stories Murphy wrote for City Limits in 2007 continues to have an impact on state politics today.

In one of his first stories at City Limits, Murphy investigated the inequities of the New York State bail system and how poor New Yorkers, not able to afford the bail, are held at length without trial. In 2010, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report on the issue that was largely based on Murphy’s article. By 2013, Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge, had become a major proponent for bail reform, indicating that the tides are inching towards change.

A story City Limits published in 2010 revealed questionable financial and familial ties between a new charter school that was seeking a contract from the New York State Board of Education, a for-profit curriculum provider and the state board charged with approving contracts. A week after the article was published, the charter school withdrew its application.

These instances make the work Murphy does at City Limits worthwhile.

“We’re not just random chroniclers of fact,” Murphy said. “We pick our stories because we feel like they are part of an effort to make the city a better place to live.”

Gwynne Hogan is a journalist for Voices of NY. Follow her on Twitter.

This story is part of a series of profiles on editors from the community and ethnic press. Read the rest of the profiles here.

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