Ralph Ortega grew up wanting to work at a New York City paper. Today, he’s leaving one.
For the past six years, Ortega has been responsible for some of the Daily News’ most memorable tabloid stories — from hospital interviews with 800-pound men to the continuing saga of Little League baseball cheat Danny Almonte.
“To me, working here is a dream,” Ortega said yesterday, as he cleaned out his desk. “I never thought I’d make it to a New York paper and the News.”
But the youthful 37-year-old says he just couldn’t turn down the job at the Newark Star-Ledger, where he’ll earn more while commuting less.
“It’s good money, it’s good benefits. You don’t pay for health, you get a pension ... and it’s a good paper,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity. I don’t want to pass it up.”
Ortega will work as a general assignment reporter for the paper, covering Somerset County, N.J. He’ll knock off 20 miles from his grueling drive to work from the Poconos, which can take up to two hours.
Colleagues at the News describe Ortega as skilled, tenacious and popular, and said his departure would leave a void.
“Ralph is one of the most dogged and intelligent reporters I’ve known, while at the same time one of the most human and empathetic people I know,” said assignment editor Kirsten Danis.
“He’s really good at pushing stories to the limit — and I mean that in a good way,” said education reporter Joe Williams, who sits across from Ortega. “He always seems to get into emergency rooms and people’s hospital beds — and every time he does that he sets the bar higher for everyone else he works with.”
“A piece of the newspaper is gone, a big piece,” scowled photographer Todd Maisel. “I’m very depressed.”
Ortega has carved out several niches for himself at the News, where he fills the early 8 a.m. shift.
One of a few bilingual reporters at the paper, Ortega is frequently called upon to cover stories involving the city’s Latino community and estimates that as many as half of his interviews are conducted in Spanish.
But he’s also covered a number of human oddities, most notably the story of Eleodoro (Tiny) Villafane, who was 800 pounds when firefighters rescued him from his East Village apartment in 2001. He’s kept in touch with Tiny since, filing numerous reports.
“There were just a lot of Tiny stories,” said reporter Maki Becker. “He couldn’t get enough.”
Ortega has a knack for getting people to open up to him, said rewrite man Corky Siemaszko. “Ralphie’s got a good heart, and he’s about as inoffensive as an altar boy, so people talk to him. But he’s no pussy either. He’s a tough kid.”
Ortega says his most memorable News story was his hospital interview with Staten Island ferry victim Paul Esposito, just three days after the 2003 crash.
“It was really cool — and very raw. The guy had just lost his legs,” said Ortega. “From the very beginning, he was a very positive individual. He was all doped up — but it wasn’t the drugs. To this day he is very positive.”
Ortega and colleague Albor Ruiz also scored the first interview with Elián González’s father, Juan Miguel González, scribbling notes on napkins at the Cuban mission in Washington.
And he’s written no fewer than 31 stories involving Danny Almonte, the ace southpaw who pitched his team to the Little League World Series before it was discovered he was really 14, not 12.
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Ortega was born and raised by immigrants in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park area. His father, from Cuba, was a banker; his mother, from Chile, a doctor.
His parents were “news junkies,” reading the Times in the morning, the News over lunch and the Post in the evenings, as well as watching Walter Kronkite, Ortega said.
“I always was a pretty good writer, but I felt pressure to be a doctor, because my mother was a doctor,” Ortega said.
At New York University, Ortega enrolled in the pre-med program but was “miserable,” eventually switching to journalism.
After college, Ortega worked at small newspapers in Pennsylvania and Florida as well as odd jobs — a Holiday Inn front desk clerk, at a music publisher, and selling men’s clothing at Lord & Taylor.
“That was horrible, I hated that,” he says of the sales job.
His first city journalism job came in 1992, as a copy boy at the Times, where he delivered mail, pushed coffee carts and handed out news wire copy.
“That was shit work, but it was fun. It was interesting,” said Ortega, who also took notes during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
In 1996 he landed at the Asbury Park Press in N.J., where he worked under editor Kathleen Lanini, whom he’ll be rejoining at the Star-Ledger.
Hired by the News in 1998, he spent two years in the Bronx bureau before moving to the News’ main newsroom in Manhattan after impressing then-editor Rick Pienciak with his coverage of the 2000 Seton Hall fire.
In March 2002, Ortega and his wife, Cathy, moved from Lakewood, N.J. buying a four-bedroom house in the Poconos. The couple have four children: Robert, 10; Andrew, 7; Paul, 5; and Abigail, 2.Ortega submitted his resignation just three days before the News announced buyouts that could have conceivably netted him thousands of dollars, but Ortega shrugs that off, saying his application probably wouldn't have been accepted.
His biggest regret, he says, is lying to a rival reporter while chasing a story this past summer.
"It was kind of unbecoming of me," Ortega said. "I always try to be competitive, without being a dick. I try never to be an asshole to other people, unless they're assholes themselves."
While the Jersey suburbs will surely be a change of pace for the hardened city reporter, colleagues expect he’ll do well there.
“I think he’ll always find a way to find a story, no matter where he is,” said Williams. “He’s always good at making the next call, taking that next step to find a story that others gave up on.”