Crain’s senior health care reporter Jay Greene retired this week, after a 24-year career at Crain Communications, first at Modern Healthcare where he covered nonprofit hospitals, then at Crain’s Detroit Business, where he has worked since 2008.
Jay and I talked over Zoom about how he got into journalism, what has changed in his field along the way and what it’s been like to cover the once-in-a-generation health care story of COVID-19.
Here are highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
AEB: So, you just spent the last year covering the biggest story of your career — in your last year as a health care reporter.
Greene: Yeah, there’s that. I’ve had people tell me over the years, ‘Jay, if you write this story, it’ll be the biggest story you ever wrote!’ But what you just said wasn’t an overstatement. That’s for sure.
At this time in 2019, there were about five pretty good health care reporters in Michigan. After COVID, there are like 500 good ones. Everybody is a health care reporter, and has had to learn a lot.
The past 15, 16 months reminds me of when I started out my career. I was interning at the Miami Herald, as basically a cop reporter. I went around to all the different precincts in Miami, looking at police reports and interviewing cops and writing little briefs and sending them to the news desk. And then in my first couple of years, I was on the city desk at the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald and we would take turns covering the weekend cop beat, Friday and Saturday night, where we’d listen to a police scanner, race out to accidents and crimes. This is how I felt — I was writing all these accidents, people dying and getting maimed and murdered. And that’s what this felt like. Like I was back as an intern or a first-year reporter covering accidents. So it’s kind of ironic. I started off spending a lot of time doing that. And this is how I’m ending it.
How did you cope with the mental load of the past year? Has it been hard for you?
I approached it like I approached a lot of those earlier stories. I remember an accident where some guy was killed — he was fishing off of the Cortez bridge in Bradenton, and he got hit by a car and killed. So I’ve got that police report, interviewed the cop and a couple of witnesses down there, and I got the name and I got his address. And I looked up the phone number, how you used to do it in the big telephone book. And I called his home number and a woman answered — it was his wife. She didn’t even know — I broke the news that her husband had died and had to explain. And I’ll never forget that. And I’ve done that at least five times that I can remember. This woman whose husband died, she thanked me for calling and asked if I could do her a favor — she said, ‘Could you cancel my subscription, because I’m moving back to Ohio,’ because she was a snowbird. And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take care of it.’ And I remember walking over there and telling subscriptions about it and giving her name and number.
…I was kind of mad about coronavirus. Especially in the early days, I was hearing from nurses and ER doctors and support people that they weren’t properly protected with PPE. Then when things started easing up, there were all these people upset because they had their COVID pay taken away, but they still were being asked to work extra hours. And then the whole thing — how the political people were dealing with it, the controversies over the masks and whether COVID really exists. I was kind of upset about all that. And I couldn’t really write that much about it — I did a little bit, in my four or five blogs about (my wife) Olya getting COVID and me feeling sick and getting tested. But I tried to write all that stuff from (the perspective of) — these are health care heroes, and they’re really trying hard against all adversity to help people.
The health care industry was not prepared for this. And I hope that we’ve learned some lessons for the next pandemic. This is what all the big experts say, I’m not breaking any news here. But if you have to keep on saying that, because in every instance of any kind of disaster, people will wring their hands and say, ‘We’ve got to do better,’ and then they’ll just go on with what they’re doing. There’ll be other priorities. But we definitely need to invest more in public health. That needs to be number one. And we’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst case scenario.
How did you get your start as a journalist?
My dad wanted me to be a lawyer and take over his law practice. As a kid, because my dad was a lawyer, I watched Perry Mason reruns. I liked Perry, but I liked more his chief detective Paul Drake. He was the coolest guy — I wanted to be a detective, or I wanted to be Dr. Seuss. I majored in environmental science my first two years at University of Florida. But I realized I didn’t want to be an environmental engineer. They were too stressed out — it reminded me a little of my dad, who worked 60, 70, 80 hours a week.
I decided to switch majors to journalism — what I really wanted to do … was to write about the environment. Growing up in Florida there were a lot of environmental issues — phosphate mining and saltwater intrusion and development. Florida had (a population of) 2 million when I was living there, there are like 18 million now, and developers have destroyed mangroves, and there’s all kinds of bribery and corruption, all tied into the environment.
I got into health care because I was a county government reporter, and the county owned the hospital. So I started covering hospital board meetings and that sort of thing.
I started at Crain Communications in 1987 to cover nonprofit hospitals for Modern Healthcare. I would come into work in the morning, get there between 8:30 and 8:45, and walk in the front door, and the security guard, Lorenzo, would be there greeting people. Every once in a while, Gertrude Crain — I always called her Mrs. Crain — who was the CEO of Crain, would be standing there greeting people coming in. She did this up until she retired, for 7 or 8 years, so I got to know her. She was so friendly, and she was always dressed to the hilt. She had the highest standards, and she knew practically everybody.
…. So do you want me to tell you about how I came to Detroit?
Yeah — when did that happen?
I resigned from Modern Healthcare to move to St. Paul, my ex-wife’s hometown. So I started freelancing and got a part-time job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Around 2007, I got laid off, and the economy started getting bad for newspapers. (Crain’s Detroit Business) was looking for a new healthcare reporter, and Cindy (Goodaker, then executive editor of CDB) talked to Dave Burda, who’d become the editor of Modern Healthcare. And he said, “You’ve got to talk to Jay.” So they flew me out, in January of 2008.