Timothy Clifford, a former New York Newsday reporter and bureau chief who spearheaded the paper’s coverage of the Central Park jogger case and the "Preppy Murder" trial, died Dec. 4 at home in Manhattan after a four-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 66.
Clifford was remembered as a throwback reporter, relentlessly working the phones and chasing down leads, often with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, polished off by a pint at the bar with other newshounds after work.
"He was dogged. A top-notch old-school journalist," said former Newsday sports writer Steve Zipay, a close friend of 30 years. "He had that gift of making people feel special."
Clifford was born and raised in the suburbs of Buffalo, the oldest child of Rita Clifford, 90, a retired nurse, and Earl Clifford, 91, a retired engineer.
A voracious reader and world traveler, Clifford would obtain bachelor's and master’s in history from Yale University and then a second graduate degree in modern European history as the American Keasbey Scholar from New College at the University of Oxford. He would continue his graduate studies at Princeton University.
"He was generous with helping younger people," said Rita Clifford. "Very energetic and always willing to learn. We were always very proud of him. Everything he attempted to do he succeeded at."
Clifford would soon trade his study of history to focus on the here and now, taking a job as a reporter with the Boston Herald before moving to New York Newsday in 1986, during the height of the city tabloid wars.
At Newsday, Clifford would cover cases that garnered national headlines: the trial of "Preppy Killer" Robert Chambers for the strangulation death of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin; the multiple murder trials of Gambino crime boss John Gotti and the conviction of five Black and Latino youths for raping a jogger in Central Park. The defendants were exonerated of the crime after serving their full sentence.
Former Newsday editor Laura Durkin, who is married to Zipay, said every night she would receive Clifford’s copy at 5:56 p.m. — four minutes before deadline.
"And two minutes later, I would get a phone call from him in which he would say ‘it’s perfect. Don’t touch the lede," Durkin said. "I would do what I needed to do with the story and then we’d fight about it about the bar later."
Clifford was promoted to lead Newsday’s Washington bureau where he covered then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
In 1993 he was hired by the New York Daily News as its Washington Bureau chief. At the Daily News, Clifford met his future wife, Susan Jordan, the paper’s national editor.
The couple, who have a daughter, Keelan Jordan Clifford, 20, later purchased one of the city’s last remaining wood-framed houses and had the property designated as a historic landmark by the City Landmarks Preservation Foundation.
"Tim was brilliant," Jordan said. "It’s hard to believe such a bright light has been dimmed."
Mark Clifford, 61, of New Jersey, said his older brother was courageous and generous in ways he never wanted advertised.
"He was the fun uncle who would show up with the best uncle gifts you could image — the kind of gifts your parents wouldn’t walk into the house with," Mark Clifford said.
In 1996, Clifford left the newspaper industry, joining Robinson Lerer & Montgomery, a communications firm, before moving to AOL as a corporate editorial editor and then to Time Inc. where he worked in communications and speechwriting.
He returned to RLM in 2011 as a managing director before the company merged with Finsbury but retired shortly after his ALS diagnosis in 2017.
Clifford is survived by his wife, daughter, parents, brother, nephews, Collin and Ben Clifford; and godchildren Marisa Blaine Zipay and Hailey Davis.
A memorial service will be held after the pandemic is contained.