“I fell in love. I fell hard and absolutely. Journalism was what I was going to do with my life. What always amazed me was the number of people in the newsroom who had the exact same story,” says Parks. A former sportswriter and investigative reporter at The Star-Ledger, he took the buyout in 2008.
After college and a stint at The Washington Post, Parks followed his future wife to New Jersey and found a “dream job” in 1998 at the Ledger, where he joined the sports enterprise desk. But after his marriage in 2004, he realized that spending 100 nights a year in a hotel room probably wasn’t compatible with having a family.
In November 2004, he switched to investigative news, a move that eventually would change his life. His first story involved a Thanksgiving weekend quadruple homicide in Newark. In a bloodstained vacant lot was a scene that would stay with him. While his wife labored at her graduate work, Parks started work on a novel that began with a quadruple homicide investigated by Carter Ross, an intrepid young reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, a paper that bears a strong resemblance to The Star-Ledger. The WASP-y Ross also bears a resemblance to the thirty-five-year-old Parks. “He’s some idealized version of me. In essence, he has become the vessel for my unrequited journalistic desires,” Parks says. “I don’t get to do the stuff Carter does anymore and, frankly, I miss it.”
Even before the buyout, Parks says, he had realized he would have to leave the Ledger. The epiphany came in late 2007, after he had turned in an award-winning series on the fortieth anniversary of the Newark race riots, an event that vastly altered the city. Parks asked for a raise, though there had been a pay freeze on for two years. When he was denied, he says, “that was the beginning of the end.”
Slowly, he realized that “the things I loved about my job weren’t going to be possible anymore.” Parks and his wife Melissa decided to go for what they had always considered “the nuclear option” if things got really bad. A guidance counselor, Melissa began looking for a position at a boarding school, with the idea that they could live rent-free and Parks could write.
By the spring of 2008, she found one, at a school in Virginia’s Tidewater region. By July, Parks had a two-book deal from the Minotaur imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. By the end of the year, he had left The Star-Ledger.
These days, he is the stay-at-home father of two young children and writes his Carter Ross mysteries in a 1,200-square-foot cottage on a bucolic campus. “That’s really how we’re able to survive. We couldn’t do this if we were still living in New Jersey, with an expensive mortgage and all of that stuff,” Parks says on a recent spring morning. He was on his way from Virginia to a book convention in Ohio.
Faces of the Gone, his debut novel, came out in December 2009. Eyes of the Innocent is due out in February 2011. He’s completed and sold a third yet-untitled book in the series.
Parks deeply misses the camaraderie of the newsroom but is sanguine. “The elevator that had taken our careers steadily upward had stopped,” he says, “but it let me out on a pretty wonderful floor.”
Matt Rainey and Michelle Segall-Rainey
Neither Matt Rainey, a photographer, nor his wife, Michelle Segall-Rainey, a former photo assignment editor, ever wanted to leave The Star-Ledger. But with three children to support, by the time the 2008 buyout came around they felt they needed safer ground.
Michelle, who spent nine years at the Ledger, left in December and soon began a one-year college program to become a paralegal. Matt’s feature photography had won the Star-Ledger’s first Pulitzer Prize, in 2001, for an emotional series on the recovery of burn victims from a dorm fire at Seton Hall. He stayed on at the paper, which he had joined in 1995.