Whether as editor, columnist, novelist or reporter, Hamill has always stamped his work with the same intensely personal style and sharp, vivid language.
While he is often lumped among the so-called "new journalists" who came to fame in the 1970s, Hamill really came from the old school of newspaper writing.
"Newspaper people were flamboyant, hard-drinking bohemian anarchists, with great gifts for obscenity and a cynicism based on experience. Or so I thought," Hamill wrote in Piecework, a 1996 collection of his non-fiction. "I loved being in their company, in city rooms, at murder scenes, or standing in the bar after work."
"For me, the work was everything," he wrote. "In my experience, nothing before (or since) could compare with walking into The New York Post at midnight, being sent into the dark scary city on assignment and coming back to write a story for the first edition."
"No day was like any other's, no story repeated any other in its details. Day after day, week after week, I loved being a newspaperman, living in the permanent present tense of the trade."
Hamill began his writing career in 1960 at The New York Post. His brief tenure as editor there is widely credited with saving that tabloid.
He has been a columnist for The Village Voice and New York Newsday and the New York Daily News, where until recently, he served as editor.
His writing has also appeared in Esquire, Vanity Fair, Playboy and New York magazines.
Hamill is the author of thirteen books, including his best selling memoir, A Drinking Life and his recent novel, Snow in August.
Hamill says: "Do It Right!"
Acceptance speech coverage from The Press Box
By chasing TV and tabloid style sensationalism, even responsible American newspapers are becoming as irresponsible as their breathless brethren, said veteran newsman Pete Hamill.
Worse, by using the same hazy and unnamed "sources" cited on TV, newspapers are abandoning one of their most important functions, to verify the news in a medium that viewers can trust to be accurate.
"We have to be the verifying instrument in American journalism, " Hamill told an audience of 300 people at the Brown Palace Hotel, before receiving the Denver Press Club's Fourth Annual Damon Runyon Award. The crowd interrupted him with applause four times.
The benefit dinner and silent auction raised about $14,000 for the club's building and scholarship funds.
Hamill, 62, said he was thrilled to be included among the awards earlier winners: Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Molly Ivins and Herb Caen. He was less thrilled with the way newspapers are handling today's news.
"The press performance in this latest sex crisis has been abominable," Hamill said, referring to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair in an interview prior to the Feb. 6, 1998 banquet. "By retailing rumors and with unnamed single-source stories, newspapers give readers no framework for credibility."
"To cite a 'White House source' or 'a source familiar with the investigation' allows readers some clue to consider that source," Hamill said.
"Now, we get screaming stories built on nothing more than, ‘sources said’. Who are these sources? The guy who delivers Chinese food to the White House on Friday night? A UPS delivery man?"
Newspapers are undermining their function by trying to play TV’s game, Hamill said.
"With today's TV and on-line technology, we have an instant, unedited and wide-open news forum. TV puts a lot of reporters under pressure to be first with the news. So they go on the air, 'with their notes', without making the verifying phone calls or checking earlier facts in the news clips."
"Newspapers have to deliver more than that kind of reporting, " Hamill said. "The function of a newspaper is to verify what people have already heard. And readers have to believe that it's accurate."
Hamill feels strongly about newspaper integrity. It cost him.
Although well-liked by his staff, Hamill was often at odds with Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman. Hamill resigned in August, just one week after accepting the Runyon award, and after just eight months at the helm of the troubled 750,000-circulation paper.
Former Denver Post editor Gil Spencer, who was Hamill's boss when Spencer was editor of the Daily News in the 1980s, said, "Pete was a sweetheart and reporters loved him. But he wasn't political. And in this (bleeping) business, you've got to be political. Believe me. I know. I've been there."
Hamill said he tried changes designed to bring in more readers among women and recent immigrants to New York. But he and Zuckerman were never on the same page.
"We had different visions of where the paper should go," Hamill said. "And I'm too old to play the game of telling the publisher he's always a genius. I refused to go down-scale, to dumb-down the paper or to do 'celebrity journalism' without some news context."
Hamill said newspapers have joined TV "in encouraging a view of us standing like a bunch of waifs with our noses pressed to the window, adoring these celebrities as creatures more important than the rest of us.
Hamill has good wishes for new Daily News editor Debby Krenek.
"She's a good news person, is from Texas, but lives in the city," he said. "That's a plus. A big problem with newspapers across the country is that they're run by people whose lives are out of touch with the lives of their readers. They don't live in the city, but come in by car or limo while listening to talk radio. Once they're in, they're in. They disappear into meetings. Many top editors don't even talk with their reporters anymore."
More and more, "papers are run by people not from that city - who don't have that city's history, legends and lore in their bones. They should listen to the people who do. Usually, they don't - and readers, who aren't stupid, notice."
-- J. Sebastian Sinisi