As many readers have figured out by now, this first issue of the new year is, paradoxically, more about the old than the new. Given that the news industry pays virtually no attention anymore to the time-honored art of the obituary, we figured that it was time to pause and consider those who have gone before us in the course of the past year.
So this is a chance for me to consider those who have gone before me. Since I started out not knowing a blessed thing about this business, what have I learned over the years, and from whom did I learn it? I submit a partial list (along with things I should have said at the time of their death, if I had been asked to prepare a proper obituary):
Tom Cawley. One of the heroes of the newsroom when I arrived at the Binghamton Evening Press in June of 1965 was Cawley, the five-day-a-week columnist, the writer of three or four or more small feature stories a week, and the guy who took dictation of late-breaking stories from correspondents in Norwich or Oneonta (Cawley was also the best typist on the staff and the first to have an IBM Selectric typewriter).
I once asked Cawley how he could sustain his enthusiasm in the face of all the deadlines he faced day in and day out. It was easy, he said, every time he put a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter, he reminded himself that this might be the best piece he would ever write.
Another time Cawley got wind of a story that was perfect fodder for one of his columns. In these pre-database, pre-online days, a man from the traffic violations bureau in New York City was camping out in Binghamton for a few days, poring over license plate files matching local residents with cars that had unpaid parking tickets issued by the city. In those days visitors to New York figured no one would ever trace them back to the boondocks. The best part of the story: The name of this strong-minded man was Atlas, willing to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders in the hunt for unpaid parking tickets.
Cawley wrote a typically artful column. The key to its success, he told me, was not identifying the ironic name of the scofflaw hunter until about five paragraphs into the story. In other words, be enthusiastic, but don’t get carried away. Cawley died in 1985 at the age of 72.
Brock Brower. A Rhodes Scholar from Dartmouth and “new journalist” living in Princeton when I arrived as a freelance writer the early 1970s, Brower was writing for publications such as Esquire, Harper’s, and the New York Times magazine. He was one of handful of writers in town I sought out for advice as I plunged into a new and uncertain career phase. His advice: Don’t worry about being the first person to do a story. Sometimes it’s better to be last. The idea was that all of the earlier stories would set the stage and explain the basic details of a story. The last writer in could mine the ironies and the more subtle details.
Brower died in 2014, at the age of 82.
Don Stuart. In the early 1970s, as a budding freelancer, I was covering Princeton football games for the Alumni Weekly. I wrote one story from the point of view of the public address announcer, Don Stuart, Princeton ’35.
Stuart’s day job was as editor of the Town Topics, the weekly newspaper in Princeton. Sometime after my profile of him appeared in the PAW, Stuart asked if I would care to do occasional freelancing. I jumped at the chance.
I learned a few tricks of the trade from Stuart. One was that names are the coin of the realm in community journalism. The more names, the more community connections you can mine, the richer your publication.
Another was about style. Like many newspapers, including U.S. 1, the Town Topics had an editorial style that governed spelling and grammar and so on that was a blend of the AP style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and various local preferences. But in any specific case, Stuart advised, if style gets in the way of what you are trying to communicate, forget the style and say what you have to say. We’re in the communication business. We are not stylists.
Every once in a while Stuart and I would shoot the breeze about the business of journalism. Someone would start a new publication in town or in the surrounding region and we would size up its chances. If one seemed to grow by leaps and bounds, I would be amazed. Stuart would have his doubts. A tree should never outgrow its roots, he would say.
The best advice Stuart ever gave me had nothing to do in particular about newspapers. He was recalling how everyone urged him as a businessman to be aware of changing circumstances, and be ready to cope with those changes. But don’t think that everything is automatically going to change, he advised. Town Topics at the time was located at 4 Mercer Street, next door to the Nassau Club, with big picture windows looking across Mercer Street to a small, triangular piece of land, lined with trees, across Nassau Street from a line of retail storefronts. He had begun renting that office about 25 years earlier, he said, and in all that time people kept warning about the need to cope with change. But look at that view, he said, it hasn’t changed a bit since when the paper’s staff moved in.
You can go to the old Town Topics building today, now occupied by the university’s Office of Community and Regional Affairs. Another 45 years since that conversation, the view still hasn’t changed.
Stuart died in 1981 at the age of 67. If he had lived another few years I would have asked him to be my partner when I came up with the idea for U.S. 1 in 1984.
Dick Hagy. Formally known as C. Richards Hagy, this central New Jersey marketing and advertising man was a force to be reckoned with when I started U.S. 1. As I recall he was the person who in 1974 came up with the iconic logo for the hip new restaurant that took over for the tired King’s Court restaurant on the alley between Witherspoon Street and Palmer Square. While the restaurant has gone through several major expansions, the logo has never changed: the Alchemist & Barrister.
I don’t think we had printed the second issue of U.S. 1 before Hagy offered me two pieces of advice: First, primacy in the market is a valuable position — I should take advantage of the fact that U.S. 1 was the first paper to serve the greater Princeton business community. Don’t apologize for the usual blemishes of a start-up, Hagy advised. You are (for now, at least) the only game in town.
Second, now that U.S. 1 was launched, the single most important thing to do was to establish a reliable frequency of publication. Whether it was weekly or biweekly or monthly, it should be just that, without exception. A periodical needs to have a defined periodicity.
We started out as a monthly and stuck to that schedule. In the beginning I used to drive the pages down to the printer in Bridgeton in a U-Haul truck, which would be loaded with the finished papers after the press run for me to drive back. For one of our monthly editions Hagy ordered a full page ad for a client. We left the page blank awaiting Hagy’s camera-ready ad. The deadline came and went. Our time on the press in Bridgeton was limited. I called Hagy and told him I had designed a substitute ad for his client and we would be leaving soon for the printer. When he still didn’t arrive, I took off on Route 1, headed toward I-295 South. Somewhere in West Windsor I heard a car honking at me. It was Hagy, frantically motioning me to pull over. I did, he handed me his completed ad, and I resumed the journey, keeping U.S. 1 on its appointed schedule. I didn’t need to tell Hagy why it mattered.
Hagy died in 2012 at the age of 82. U.S. 1, by then a weekly, was still making its deadlines.