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New York Times to Baruch College: Ralph Blumenthal, Reporting from the Classroom

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Ralph Blumenthal in his office at Baruch College, which is decorated with photographs from a 2000 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society based on his book, Stork Club: America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society, of the same year. The typewriter is a flea market relic to remind him of his earlier days at The New York Times.

How did journalist Ralph Blumenthal decide to follow up a 45-year career at The New York Times, countless reporting accolades and honors, fellowships from the world’s most esteemed foundations, and authorship of five lauded books? He chose to teach at Baruch College as a distinguished lecturer in its Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions.

“I’ve always had a very soft spot for CUNY,” says Blumenthal. His own undergrad years were spent at CUNY’s City College, where he was editor of CCNY’S oldest student paper. “I’m very indebted to the education I got and what I learned as an editor and reporter at The City College Campus,” he says. During these years, Blumenthal also began a job as a copy boy at The Times, which led to writing assignments and, eventually, to a full-time reporting role.

Throughout his many years at The Times, Blumenthal served as a foreign correspondent, a national bureau chief, metro correspondent, an arts and culture news reporter, and, most notably, an investigative and crime reporter.

It was Blumenthal’s crime reporting that led him to author several books on the mafia, police culture and operations, and the story of Lewis Edward Lawes, famed warden of Sing Sing prison. The book, Miracle at Sing Sing: How One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners, grew out of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant.

In late 2009, Blumenthal took a buyout from his longstanding staff role at the leading American daily to pursue other interests. Luckily for Baruch, that included teaching.

Now, as distinguished lecturer, Blumenthal brings his real-world experience to Baruch’s classrooms through Special Topics courses, including “A Century of Muckraking: Investigating Corporations, Corruption, and Governmental Crooks” and “Crime, Cops, and Courts.” Since joining Baruch in fall 2010, Blumenthal has also taught basic journalism courses in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and introductory public administration courses in the School of Public Affairs.

Blumenthal uses his news background to structure his classes around current events. “I try to relate what’s happened in the world since we last met to the subject we’re discussing in class,” he says. “For example, there’s always crime news. So in a related course, we’d look at an event that happened and dissect it—how the reporter handled it, what kind of a crime it was, what it said about the city, etc.”

He also instructs students to speak up, participate, and think on their feet—all critical news reporting skills that helped him become a respected reporting figure, even when interviewing powerful criminals.

Throughout his illustrious career, Blumenthal balanced being a writer with family life, raising two daughters with his wife, Deborah, also a writer. Family, he affirms, has always been most important. Other passions include the outdoors, automobiles, and history, particularly World War II, which he wrote about extensively for The New York Times.

Of course, much has changed since Blumenthal began his career in journalism, but his outlook on the field remains mostly positive. “When I tell students how I started in journalism, it sounds like I’m talking about the dark ages. Electronics have made our jobs much easier. It’s made everybody into potential journalists. That’s a double-edged sword: you’re getting a lot more input, it’s much more democratic, but it’s much harder to sort through.”

Still, he says, “the idea of having the whole universe at your fingertips every time you sit down to write a story . . . how could you not love that as a journalist? It’s brought tremendous possibilities, and very exciting ones. You have to wonder, Where could it possibly go next?”

The world just might be wondering the same thing about Ralph Blumenthal.

Adrienne Preuss