Eulogy for a Small-Town Paper

What happens when a town loses its news source

Photos courtesy of the author.

InIn the 1940s, before the newer, bigger container ships of the 1960s required deep ports, small cities like Hoboken, New Jersey, were hotspots for freight shipping. As dockworkers loaded goods on and off the waterfront, corruption ran rampant. A reporter named Malcolm Johnson wrote 24 investigative articles for the New York Sun in 1948. Johnson’s series inspired the 1954 film On the Waterfront, about a boxer who throws a fight to satisfy a Hoboken mob boss.

“I could have been a contender,” Marlon Brando tells Rod Steiger in the back of a car as it rolls down River Street, along the edge of the city. “I could have been somebody.”

As the second half of the 20th century wore on, shipping left the mile-square city. Corruption lingered, and the waterfront languished. In the 1980s, developers converted rows of inexpensive apartments to condos, and in the 2000s, luxury high-rises rose all around. The Maxwell House Coffee factory on the waterfront closed in 1992, causing hundreds of layoffs, and became Maxwell Place condos.

In the 1980s, a local real estate developer bought a small weekly newspaper to provide news for the growing community. The little paper grew in size. It became a staple of Sunday mornings in Hoboken, landing on porches and piled in apartment lobbies each weekend. Working in the basement of an apartment building, the writers, salespeople, and graphic artists — doing pasteup on a long table — kept the paper going for more than three decades.

There are hundreds of towns in the United States right now without a single newspaper covering their meetings, according to the Poynter Institute.

Each week, the Hoboken Reporter included not just community features and columns, but often harder news and the occasional investigative pieces on everything from voter fraud (we ran more than a dozen in-depth election corruption stories during my time there, one of which was referenced in the Washington Post) to malfeasance at a local animal shelter (a story also picked up by larger outlets).

The paper also served to chronicle the oft-painful gentrification of the 1980s. Each year, Hoboken hosts two popular Italian festivals that date back nearly a century, but in the mid-1980s, newer residents began writing letters to the Reporter complaining about noise from the traditional “feast bombs” that were part of the festivals. This evolved into a four-year letters battle that some saw as pitting “newcomers” against “old-timers,” but it also symbolized the gentrification of the neighborhoods. For several years, people began turning to the “feast bomb” letters first each week to catch up on the latest salvos, and some epistles were so funny that they were complied into a book in 1987 that was reviewed by the New York Times and is still assigned in college sociology classes: Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime.

A book of letters in the Hoboken Reporter was published in 1987 and reviewed by the New York Times in 1988. It’s still assigned in some college sociology classes.

Reviewed in the New York Times in 1988 under the headline “People Are Getting Out of Hand,” the book was co-authored by the paper’s publisher, Joseph Barry (the aforementioned real estate developer who bought the paper in 1983), and the paper’s Hoboken editor at the time, John Derevlany, who has since become an Emmy-nominated TV writer.

Back of the book.

InIn 1994, fresh out of college, I joined the Reporter staff as a writer and was set up at one of the five editorial desks in the basement. I had no idea what I was walking into. But I’d loved newspapers all my life, not just because of the critical information they imparted, but for the challenge of finding the lead, headline, and checkerboard of art and text to otherwise apathetic or busy reader to a complex story. (Often it takes a spoonful of sugar to get readers to continue onto the harder stuff, with so much competing for their attention.) I didn’t know about the legacy of the paper, or that on the Hoboken beat, I’d be replacing a popular reporter known for his quirky stories — Andy Newman, who eventually went to the New York Times (and had a cover story there last month).

Although I’d written for my college newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, completed an internship in Gov. Jim Florio’s press office in Trenton, and learned about political communications from the experts, the tenor of Hoboken politics was new to me. The chain had grown to six papers by the time I got there (separate tabloid-style editions for Hoboken, Jersey City, Secaucus, Weehawken, and other bustling towns) as well as a jaunty arts weekly just for Hoboken and Jersey City, called the Hudson Current.

As I was saying about that spoonful of sugar…

I quickly realized I was among a clutch of people with good hearts, sharp minds, and thin wallets — no one is in journalism to get rich, as the reporters earned $325 a week, before taxes, while researching multimillion-dollar contracts and development deals. (Hoboken lies directly across the river from Greenwich Village, so developers and others saw new potential in that one square mile.)

I realized that on the Hoboken news beat I had a big responsibility for a 23-year-old: to give 53,000 people a heads-up about what kind of buildings might rise in their back yards, who wanted to join the Zoning Board to vote on them, what kind of crimes were happening on their street, and who wanted to run the public schools.

By 1993, the competition was waning: The daily Hudson Dispatch in Jersey City had been closed for two years (after 117 years in business), so only the weekly Reporter and the daily Jersey Journal battled to cover Hudson County. Still, the newspapers competed hard; I remember the days of out of city council meetings at 11 p.m. to see the Journal reporter cramming coins into a payphone to ensure that his or her story would make it into the next day’s edition. Such was typical of newspaper life at the time.

There clearly should be more coverage, as Hudson County is the densest county in the United States, outside of San Francisco and New York City, with nearly 700,000 residents — so there’s obviously more news than can fill one (every-thinning) daily and a weekly. And the question to be asked is, as it should be on the national level: What if those few remaining outlets die too?

MyMy first editor in the basement in 1994 was an Elvis Costello look-alike named Michael Richardson, a thirtysomething Columbia J-school grad who was the son of one of the (few?) heroes of Watergate, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson. He sat directly behind me in the basement, but at least he had a window above his head to watch people’s feet pass by. I also met longtime sportswriter Jim Hague, who gave a voice to the teenagers and coaches who poured their hearts into local athletics. I also met a now-extinct species: the late-night classifieds crew in the other corner of the basement, who arrived at 6 p.m. to jockey the phones taking down“roommate wanted” ads in Hoboken well before Craigslist.

I also met the paper’s three owners — the aforementioned founder/developer and his two eventual partners, who had started as the office manager and ad sales director and grew to learn the business. Over the years, they got a lot of grief over publishing stories and letters that their advertisers would have preferred didn’t run, particularly the rather long letters from residents who hoped to curb potential overdevelopment. Owning an independent newspaper is a double-edged sword, with a guarantee that you’ll get yelled at by all sides. (There’s always a problem inherent in newspaper funding: A paper cannot be funded by the very government it covers, so to survive, it often has to be owned by someone with deep pockets and special interests. These days, even organizations funded by several investors may draw suspicions, but newer media outlets are trying different models, searching for the best way to thrive.)

The Reporter basement was rapidly becoming a training ground for successful journalists, with some winding up there after a job as a waiter or telemarketer, then learning the trade and going on to national publications — but when they were hired, they often had some writing experience, an interest in news, and a desire to start at the ground floor (actually, the basement). Alums went on to outlets like Rolling Stone or to their own best-selling books and other creative writing projects.

AsAs Hoboken changed and grew in the 1990s, the little newspaper chain grew with it, moving out of the cellar 1995 and across teh street to a sturdy former bank building that had lain unused. The vault in the basement was transformed into a darkroom for our lone staff photographer, Rob.

Bank turned newspaper building.

During each local political campaign, the Hoboken paper ran a column solely to debunk the week’s lies and half-truths that appeared in political flyers, called “On the Campaign Trail.” Unfortunately, it’s traditional in Hoboken for anonymous operatives to slip unsigned “midnight flyers” under the doors of low-income housing residents overnight, frightening thousands of potential voters into believing they’ll lose their apartment if a certain candidate wins, or worse (see photo below). Imagine a world in which people could anonymously say whatever they wanted about you, and there was no one to counteract the lies. We may be heading toward that world now.

Is it any wonder that our national political leaders are trying so hard to discredit the remaining few newspapers that can fact-check their statements on a national level? Imagine if this was written about you right in your mile-square hometown, and slipped under your neighbors’ doors:

Anonymous flyer from a past Hoboken municipal election.

“I hate that column,” a city official once told me, making the point that politicians spent thousands of dollars on literature only to have their lies debunked by a free weekly (sorry!)

The paper exposed problems that would otherwise go unreported, including two instances in different Hudson County towns in which officials voted themselves hefty raises at poorly attended meetings. Right now, there are hundreds of towns in the United States without a single newspaper covering their meetings — 1,300 communities that have “totally lost news coverage,” Poynter says — raising the question of how many raises are slipped through late at night, how many unanswered flyers are slipped under doors in public housing. In my last years at the newspaper, we often found out about occurrences from months earlier that should have been stories. We were still able to write about them, but they were the types of things we would have been alerted to in real time when we had more staff to go to meetings.

A quick look at the national news will tell you that people are still circulating anonymous flyers about Hoboken candidates each year during elections, particularly an infamous flyer that made the news in November 2017, falsely calling the new mayor-to-be a “terrorist.” (See our investigative reporting on that fake news here and here.)

If law enforcement someday finds the source of the flyers, it may bring down a big New Jersey political player and finally put a stop to a shady practice, but such investigations can take years, longer than newspaper coverage. (In fact, a recently adjudicated Hoboken voter fraud investigation took more than five years to reach to a grand jury.) In the meantime, more campaign rumors will arise that have to be debunked, but who will debunk them before they affect an election?

As reporters continued to cover these falsehoods into the 2000s, the paper sometimes became the subject of rumors itself, often spread by loyalists ofone political figure or another to discredit the reporting — but at least it showed the paper’s influence. (What people believe happens inside a newspaper office is vastly different from the reality, just as if journalists tried to speculate on what happened in your office last week.)

Most of the rumors pertained to the letters page. Residents would promise a mayor that they’d write an endorsement letter, never get around to writing it, and then tell the mayor they sent it to us. The mayor in question would call us, demanding to know why so-and-so’s letter didn’t make the paper. We always kept our mouths shut, even though this would discredit us; it was important to preserve the anonymity of our letter writers. Public officials would also sometimes send us a letter after the papers were put to bed, then claim we left it out of that weekend’s edition because of bias. We couldn’t defend ourselves. We always spoke to an individual writer about why his or her letter didn’t run; what they chose to tell others was beyond our control. We only hoped they’d share the truth.

(Incidentally, it’s easy to believe the worst about any institution such as a newspaper or government body, and not ask for evidence or reach out for a good-faith conversation — a luxury journalists don’t have when they report.)

IIearly 2001, one of the paper’s co-owners, Lucha, who had a background in business technology, was savvy enough to order us digital cameras from Olympus. Our first digital cameras were bulky and cost $800. At press conferences, other reporters would wander over and ask us, “Is that a digital?” I felt a note of pride when that happened. Unfortunately, one of our first uses was on September 11, 2001, when we went to the waterfront expecting to cover a fire that was delaying our residents’ commutes to Manhattan. Instead, we saw the Twin Towers fall and heard people scream, cry together, and pray in a circle. By then, I was an editor, and our Hoboken coverage of 9/11 was written by a brilliant former restaurant worker I’d hired who became an award-winning journalist.

Hoboken waterfront, 10 a.m., September 11, 2001.

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy blew out the power in much of the county, our other co-owner, Dave, arranged with the staff at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen to let us squeeze into a room in the maternity ward so we could birth that week’s newspaper. Readers told us they were glad to walk downstairs in their dark apartment buildings and see the paper in the lobby as usual, as it brought a sense of normalcy. It took 10 days for the power to return to many of the buildings in town, including ours.

Sign at Hoboken City Hall after Sandy, 2012. Photo by the author.

InIn the past few years, the paper’s remaining two owners, Dave and Lucha (the founder/developer, Barry, sold his share to them in 1999), seemed ready to move on. Several times, late on Friday nights, hours after production was over, Dave would call me saying, “I’m having second thoughts about that letter,” or, “I’m still thinking about that article” as the paper was being printed in New York, because we had checked a controversial line only 49 times and not 50. Once something is in print, you can’t take it out — a fact that holds longtime established media accountable in a way that websites may never be, and something people today should understand about the “mainstream” and established outlets. Print also makes newspapers vulnerable to lawsuits and legal threats. I’ve heard people claim that there’s no investigative journalism today, which is silly — certainly there’s a lot of it going on away from cameras; it’s just expensive and risky, and only a few organizations have the resources to do it every day or week, as even getting public documents can cost money for lawyers. (Just a handful of remaining outlets can afford in-depth reporting, such as the Washington Post or New York Times, and imagine if we didn’t have them.) Well-researched investigative journalism is also getting done, when it can be, quietly in small towns everywhere, without fanfare. With small papers having to retain lawyers just to fight to get public documents, it costs more than readers realize when they try to do a deep dive.

In spring of 2018, our paper’s two co-owners, who’d been at the helm for more than 25 years, sold the chain to a New Jersey–based media group that owns dozens of weeklies in Central and South Jersey. The hope was that this company would have the resources to keep the publications going.

Around that time, in spring of 2018, I assigned a lifestyle story to our hardworking Hoboken beat reporter, in which longtime Hobokenites gave suggestions to new residents on everything from restaurants to parking — and the article got more than 10,000 web hits in its first weeks, showing there are indeed ways to engage younger demographics in local media outlets when relevant to them. Social media also helped spread the word. So when the new owners asked me for a written plan, I gave them one that involved doing what newer, successful online publications in the area have been doing to draw readers.

Then we spent the next several months not discussing it.

Once a newspaper is gone — just like when you lose parkland to unchecked development — it’s unlikely you will get it back.

This past November, after 24 years, I (as an editor) was part of a second round of layoffs under the new owners. The HR director told me, after I asked, that things would continue on as before. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Three weeks ago, on Friday, July 26, the owners called a morning meeting for the remaining staff. In a conference room, they read a list of people to be let go, including three of the five remaining writers and two of three graphic artists, telling them they had a half-hour to pack their belongings, some after ten or more years on the job.

These new owners also announced that six of the papers — including the Hoboken Reporter and the Jersey City Reporter (covering a city that may soon be the most populous in the state)—would be combined into one all-county Hudson Reporter, although the individual Bayonne Community News will remain intact.

The recent round of layoffs was written about by one of the area’s successful newer on-line outlets, hMAG. When hMAG posted a link to its story on Facebook, a Hoboken reader commented, “A damn shame… I never understood why the Reporter didn’t build a stronger online and social media presence.”

I can’t stress enough that readers who still have a newspaper in their town ought to communicate suggestions like that before the paper is gone or consolidated, because the editors and writers likely are making the same suggestions to upper management and not being heard. Newspaper owners may pay more attention to suggestions from the public than from the staff.

Once a newspaper is gone — just like when you lose parkland to unchecked development — it’s unlikely you will bring it back.

Posting your thoughts about dead newspapers on social media, while accuratet, may not help, but sending the reporters or editors of your local paper a good-faith email asking about the paper’s future just may. They can forward it to their higher-ups.

Sometimes it takes one person who cares a lot about an issue to awaken the rest of us.

Opening a good-faith dialogue with a local reporter or editor may give you perspective you’ve never imagined. Then you can keep learning about a building growing in your back yard before it’s built, and what’s coming around the corner.

“The media” is not talk show hosts on CNN or Fox; it’s your cousin who earns $11 an hour at the Plano Eagle, or the investigative team at the New York Times who kept all of our families safe from tainted food by researching this Pulitzer-winning series on problems with meat inspections. Those stories weren’t “sexy” and won’t make the reporters wealthy, nor will politicians raise them during campaigns, but they literally save lives.

Journalists are clearly the opposite of anyone’s “enemies,” and we’ll never know most of their names, just as we don’t know the names of so many in law enforcement, social work, office administration, government, and so many other fields who quietly go to bat for us every day for a small salary.

“The media” was also the succession of new writers at the Reporter papers who, each November for a quarter-century (including last year), wrote a story that listed every place in the county where you could get a free meal or volunteer on Thanksgiving. Each fall, our newest reporter was always put in charge of updating it. Years ago, when I volunteered at the Hoboken shelter for Thanksgiving, some of the volunteers told me they’d found out about the meal through the paper. Will service journalism continue when staffs shrink?

More journalism is needed everywhere, and certainly in a New York–area county with nearly 700,000 people. I hope the owners of the remaining two Reporter papers find a way to make them thrive, but just two business days after all of their layoffs in northern New Jersey, the owners ran ads to hire two editorial folks at their South Jersey papers, close to where most of them live. They also continued a series of company social media posts that spotlight only the employees and papers in Central and South Jersey. Perhaps acknowledging their publications in North Jersey would help get readers’ attention and inspire the remaining staff.

Print still lives — well, clearly the propaganda-filled “midnight flyers” do. Will they outlive print newspapers? It’s an unsettling prospect.

ItIt was 6 a.m., Friday, May 15, 1998. The phone rang in the little walk-up apartment I shared with a roommate. It was my mother calling. (Who else calls at 6 a.m.?) She was calling to tell me someone died. (Why else do mothers call at 6 a.m.?)

Frank Sinatra had died the night before, but his passing was just making the news.

Friday was production day for the papers, so they would be sent to the printer in a few hours. I only had a little time if I wanted to change that weekend’s cover. I headed to the southwest corner of Hoboken, where Ol’ Blue Eyes had grown up and where some of his neighbors still lived. This was before cellphones were in wide use, so I couldn’t call work and tell them why I was going to be late. When I finally got to the office, my co-workers worriedly asked me if I’d heard about Sinatra. I typed up the story, and our editor, David Cruz, came up with a fitting headline.

Layout by Jen.

It’s probably just as fitting that as the curtain closes on the individual Hoboken Reporter and its sister papers (just to be clear, there’s still a consolidated Hudson Reporter and Bayonne Community News), I note how lucky I was to have worked with such kind, dedicated people — and I don’t just mean the staff inside the newspaper, but everyone who sent us heartfelt letters, the hardworking mayors who remained patient with our (sometimes amateurish or poorly timed) questions, the other public servants who walked us through a municipal budget so we could walk our readers through it, the longtime local residents who educated us, the builders and business owners who found our towns worth investing in, and everyone who advertised, stopped by, or just talked to us good-naturedly about our coverage, listened, and gave feedback.

We were lucky to be centered in a place with such color and heart. There were frustrating times when we had less staff to keep doing what we did, but somehow we kept going, despite tense production days. I can’t count how many times we editorial folks trudged into the graphics department at the last minute to ask the graphics staff to rip up hours of their painstaking work just because we’d given them the wrong version of a story or because a last-minute news item came in, but they understood the nature of the business and kept cool under pressure. (I recall a small article in the New York Times several years ago about two men fighting in their graphics department with an X-Acto knife. I can guess what that was about.) I never met anyone who didn’t go into newspaper work for the best reasons.

I also met so many people in our communities who spent hours and days on their submissions to the paper, sometimes sending a letter about an important issue almost every single week, solely because they cared about their neighborhood, their park, their local businesses, their waterfront. Those folks are partly responsible for how our towns look today, even if they were sometimes scoffed at by others who couldn’t believe someone would spend that much time fighting without an ulterior motive. They educated us and saved us in a hundred ways. Sometimes it takes one person who really cares about an issue — when others are too busy or just aren’t paying attention — to slowly wake up the rest of us.

I’m also grateful for the other type of letter writers, like the woman who asked me to publish several poems by her talented daughter, a Union City resident and animal lover who had passed away too soon, in her thirties. She probably left so many great poems unwritten. I am grateful to the man who sent us a letter every December to commemorate Frank Sinatra’s birthday, just because he didn’t want us to forget.

All of these people did good for the community in ways we’ll never be able to quantify. We’ll only know we were touched by them, like a summer wind.

Author of nerdy novel CARRIE PILBY (film version‘s on Netflix). Finishing up offbeat memoir. Love dogs & puns. Read more: http://carenlissner.com.

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