This seems particularly true in cases like Farley, Lennard, and Gwynne’s—reporters who don’t typically cover crime scenes or need to cross police lines in their work. Obtaining press credentials to cover the protests had crossed their minds, they said, but they didn’t expect to need them and couldn’t have obtained them had they tried.

Farley works at a local “multiplatform magazine” launched by WNET/Thirteen (New York’s PBS station) in July; he was at the protest to report “a smart, thinky piece about citizen journalism,” says MetroFocus Executive Producer Laura Van Straaten.

“We don’t have credentials because we don’t qualify,” she said. She explains:

The eligibility requirement is for individual reporters to have six clips to show that you’ve covered similar events. Our entity is two months old, and they are new reporters—they don’t have those kinds of clips, even though we are part of a larger organization that is an established media organization in this town. We don’t qualify and no individual on our team will qualify because we are a magazine. We didn’t go down there to do spot news.

Likewise, Lennard, who has worked at Politico and Salon over the past couple of years, typically writes features and pieces in “non-combat zones” for the Times. “I’ve never applied because I’ve never needed one,” she says, adding that when she was assigned to cover last weekend’s Occupy Wall Street march, “we didn’t have time to get me a police pass, nor did we think that it would be absolutely crucial for me to cross police lines.”

Gwynne, who graduated from journalism school at New York University in May and interned at The Village Voice in the spring, conceded she had no idea how to go about obtaining press credentials.

The DCPI has thirty days to process a reporter’s application for credentials, but because a journalist has to set up an appointment simply to submit the application to a detective in person, the credentialing process can take much longer.

Chris Robbins, a reporter/editor at Gothamist, a news site that reports on New York City (he has also been covering Occupy Wall Street), began spearheading his organization’s efforts to get DCPI credentials for its reporters (none of them have credentials now) over a month ago. He’s still trying to set up an appointment with a detective to submit his own application, and describes the process as frustrating and one that demands “many phone calls, many e-mails,” and perseverance. DCPI, which rarely returns phone calls or e-mails, has a month-long backlog of applications, according to Robbins.

Yet this system, backlog and all, is roundly considered by journalists and civil liberty types to be an improvement over the NYPD’s press credentialing process that was in place until 2010, and was notorious for being opaque and inaccessible to bloggers and journalists from nontraditional media organizations—so much so that three men filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for unfairly denying them credentials in 2008. As Gothamist reported at the time, the reforms to the system in 2010 were intended to “help the Police Department modernize the City’s credentialing system to reflect changes to the media industry and, for the first time, expressly incorporate online-only media such as blogs.”

The NYPD did not respond in time to comment for this story.

The NYPD’s efforts have paralleled those mounted by police departments across the country, striving to come to terms with new media. In 2010, for example, Chicago’s police department opened its credentialing process to freelancers and non-traditional journalists, and dropped the requirement that journalists seeking credentials be fingerprinted and “of good moral character.”

The New York Press Club’s Peter Bekker says complaints from journalists who felt they were unfairly denied DCPI credentials have decreased since the reforms were implemented. Meanwhile, complaints from DCPI that the service is a resource drain—especially because of requests for credentials by reporters who don’t regularly work the police beat—have grown stronger. Bekker is generally dismissive of the idea of press credentials, and of journalists who seek them for a sense of legitimacy. “Journalists clamor for these things for some reason,” he says.

He notes:


The New York Press Club unequivocally supports the right of legitimate working journalists, credentialed by NYPD or not, to freely report on events and issues of interest and value to the public without fear of arrest, detention or prosecution. A free press is a fundamental American principle. Upholding that principle is a core mission of the New York Press Club.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.