If I were 10 or 20 years younger, I might think about shaking up the next issue of U.S. 1, the one coming out Wednesday, May 29, to show some special support for the Princeton Festival. Now in its 15th year, the festival hopes eventually to engage other arts groups to create a combined offering of events that would make Princeton an arts destination in June on the order of the Spoleto USA festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in May. Think of it as Spoleto North.
I would dig into the U.S. 1 events database, find out what else is happening, and then turn the centerfold of the paper into a giant, pre-printed wall calendar for the month of June. On the square for each day I would list the time and venue of every arts event I could locate in Princeton and central New Jersey.
I would list not only the 30-plus performances, lectures, and workshops associated with the Princeton Festival, but I also would list the jazz events at McCarter, the Princeton Summer Concert series, the New Jersey Symphony concert, the opening at the Arts Council of Princeton, and so on.
By placing that calendar on the paper’s centerfold, 22 inches wide by 16 inches high, we would be making as bold a statement as we could possibly make.
To top off this plan, I might set aside one page before this centerfold, and another page after it, to include contact information, previews, and other background information about the various performances listed on the calendar itself. And to heighten the impact of this Princeton-in-June phenomenon, I would print these four pages with no ads, just one big, bold editorial statement.
In other words, I would be championing a cause, one that people in Princeton and other towns in central New Jersey could rally around. Exciting, right?
Sure is. But I can also hear the reaction now: There you go again, Rein, last-minute, half-cocked, reckless. No ads? How will this ever make any money?
Given that this is my penultimate column in this space, and given that I am an entrepreneur/editor who has made his living in this arena for the past 35 years or so, I feel compelled to set the record straight about entrepreneurs and editors. Let’s use the four-page, special section for “Spoleto North” as an example.
Last-minute? Sure, but that’s the nature of our business. And every so often we need to sharpen our skills with a project outside the week-to-week routine.
Half-cocked? Hardly. Ten years ago U.S. 1 was locked and loaded and more than ready to do a calendar — we did one every year for about 20 years. We still have templates sitting around in our desktop publishing software, ready to go.
Reckless? More accurately extremely cautious. We wouldn’t promise anyone anything in advance.
Economically unsound? I would be guilty on that one, if the first “Princeton in June” festival calendar failed to resonate with readers and if the second one failed to resonate with advertisers, and if — after that — I blindly kept throwing money at it.
Sometimes you have to do things because they are the right thing to do, and you do it without expectation of any financial return. It’s a hallmark of successful entrepreneurs, and editors for that matter. I had no idea if the first issue of U.S. 1 would succeed or not. In fact, to hedge my bet, I called it the “sneak preview.”
So what does an editor need to also succeed as an entrepreneur?
Be cautious, but don’t lose your sense of adventure. A few years ago I read a piece about how fighter pilots plan their combat missions. When they feel that they are 90 percent certain of success they take off — trying to reach 100 percent is impossible, they realize, and as you try to nail down the remaining 10 percent something in the original 90 percent is bound to change.
The corollary to this is that taking no action at all is also an action, and subject to its own risk.
Provide a platform for ideas you don’t agree with, presented by people you are uncomfortable with. You are editing a newspaper, not a chamber of commerce newsletter. If all you are trying to do is to maintain your community, you are probably losing ground. People die, and others move away. Your goal needs to be to expand your community.
As Christie Henry, director of the Princeton University Press, pointed out in an op ed in the May 15 issue of U.S. 1, “while the health of our [publishing] ecosystem depends upon the diversity of books, it also relies on an inclusive population of ideas, authors, and staff.”
Be ready for public review. In recent weeks I have been clearing out my basement to make room for a home office. I came across several folders of correspondence. There were the expected complaints from advertisers, some of them convinced that the paper was the cause of their business’s demise.
I also got plenty of positive letters, many from readers who appreciated that we not only got the facts right but that we also got the big picture correct. Some people said we got the tone and tenor of a story right, even if not every single fact in the story was 100 percent accurate. Several readers made that distinction. Impressive, I thought.
And have a thick skin. You never know what kind of reaction an article or photograph might prompt. In 1991, shortly after my marriage, we ran a Valentine’s Day feature on the wedding stories of a dozen or so Princeton-area personalities. For a cover illustration we used a remarkable wedding photograph of my in-laws. It was taken during World War II, so Doris’s traditional white wedding dress was a visual counterpoint to Homer’s full-dress military uniform. Better yet, the image was taken in front of faux Greek columns, courtesy of some 1940s-era photographer’s studio.
That was on the cover. Inside was an equally charming but less dramatic photo of my parents. Going through the old correspondence now in my basement, I uncovered a letter from my sister. My parents were crushed, she reported, by my placing the in-laws on the cover, instead of them. Ouch. Wish I could turn the clock back and ask my parents about that.
Some of the harshest comments came from other journalists, who traditionally do not take criticism well. In the first year or so of U.S. 1’s existence, a freelance writer wrote an article about the circulation war between the Trenton Times and the Trentonian. The writer warned me that Richard Bilotti, publisher of the Times, would quarrel with the assumptions of the comparison. Bilotti would call and complain, I was told.
At that point U.S. 1 was still operating out of my garage apartment. The phone rang one morning at about 6:30. I was groggy, but I was ready. Bilotti, not shy about expressing his complaint, was also generous. He eventually treated me to lunch at Pete Lorenzo’s, near the Trenton train station, and shared some valuable publishing advice.
The negative letters, while not quite as numerous, were often more interesting. A cover story in 2003 turns out to say something about our society today — an observation I can make only thanks to the onslaught of complaints we received. The story was on road rage and made the point that much of the rage was due to otherwise mild mannered people channeling some residual adolescent behavior. To illustrate the story I brought my kids’ kiddee cars into the office parking lot. One of the sales reps and I posed as drivers, pedaling around the parking lot and flashing middle fingers at each other.
The resulting cover image was the worst thing we had ever done, according to some readers. More than one of the letters began “I am not a prude, but . . .” The week that the story was published, I ran into a man outside the supermarket who somehow knew who I was. “I have to tell you about that cover,” he began. Here we go, I thought. “It was all wrong. A Jersey salute,” he said referring to the raised middle finger, “isn’t just one hand. You’re supposed to take both hands off the wheel and do this.” He flashed both hands at me, and laughed. Someone, at least, got the point.
One letter was particularly cutting: “I need to let you know how dismayed and disappointed I am with this week’s U.S. 1. . . Although our world is becoming an increasingly crude place, some of us still work every day to make it better.”
That letter came from one of my own editors.
And then, in those basement archives, I came across my response: “I feel the issue is a little more complicated. . . If the thought police condemn my finger, when will they turn on your section, which allows the word f—?” And then, referring to an exhibit by a renowned photographer and Princeton professor of visual arts, I asked, “Was it not crude to print the photograph of Emmet Gowin’s wife peeing on the floor? Or was it art? Of course, when the knock comes to your door I will defend your right to make controversial statements.”
As edgy as that exchange was, it was also honest and thought provoking. When should a newspaper stick with the status quo and when should it take the cutting edge in presenting its editorial content? Looking back at that tempest 16 years later, I marvel also at how radically our definition of civility has changed. Were it not for that contentious moment, we wouldn’t have those thoughts recorded.
Contentious — now there’s a theme. Where did all this contentiousness come from? Next week, in the ultimate column, I will ponder the education of Richard K. Rein in the increasingly contentious period from 1965 to 1969.