Longtime readers of U.S. 1 may recall the anniversary issues, usually published the first week in November, when the Between the Lines column would be turned over to an interview with our founding editor, Richard K. Rein. The piece would inevitably begin with an intrepid (but also very young) reporter making his way into a cluttered office, where the boss sat at a desk sagging under the weight of accumulated newspapers, books, and magazines. Once the interview began, the reporter became the “kid,” a young person in need of a little fatherly advice in addition to the answers that he sought.
As most people came to realize, the cluttered office was factually correct; the kid was a fictional character. But between the lines of that rhetorical give and take some straight-shooting advice was dispensed. Often it was directed at the staff; sometimes it was an assessment of our many competitors.
This year, on the occasion of the U.S. 1’s 30th anniversary, Rein has removed the fictional cub reporter from his commentary. Instead he is trying to offer the inside story of how the paper started (helpful perhaps for other entrepreneurs in any profession) and how it has evolved in terms of content and design (possibly of interest to those in the media business or those who are intrigued by it).
As always, we invite readers to add their own opinions and insights to the discussion. You can E-mail a comment for our next print edition to email@example.com. Or you can post a comment at the end of this story posted online at www.princetoninfo.com. U.S. 1 remains a two-way street. Thanks for sharing it with us.
#b#U.S. 1 Turns 30: Who’s Sorry Now?#/b#
Nothing’s ever easy, they say, but 30 years into this venture, I still get a little uneasy when I am asked to explain U.S. 1 and its past, present, and — especially — its future.
And if you grew up when I did in the 1960s, the famous refrain from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, “don’t trust anyone over 30,” may still ring in your subconscious. And why shouldn’t that skepticism apply to institutions as well as to people? In our case, does the newspaper at age 30 still engage itself with the community as it did when it was an energetic start-up? Or is it now resting on its laurels, riding the momentum of its past success?
The most recent test came just last week before a group of students in Princeton, thinking about launching a newspaper of their own, and eager to hear a few of my war stories.
I started out by asking how many elements they would guess were needed to create a successful newspaper. A hundred? Ten? Or two? A majority of hands were raised in favor of 10. I told them my answer was two: 1.) Creating content that appeals to a distinct (and desirable) audience; and 2.) delivering that content with a reasonable (and reliable) frequency.
Along the way they peppered me with questions. What happens when the editor and publisher do not agree? How do you allocate space? How important is the name of the paper? And (most intriguing to me since this audience was born squarely in the age of the Internet and digital media) where do you get the paper to print it on? The idea that their new journalistic production could be written, designed, produced, “printed,” and distributed without a single piece of paper being involved apparently had never occurred to them. Notwithstanding all that talk about print being dead, here was a group of the best and brightest wondering how to procure newsprint.
Of course, maybe I am reading a little too much into the students’ reaction. This was not a group of Princeton University students, nor a room full of high school kids. Rather it was 40-some bright and eager youngsters at the Princeton’s public school system’s charter school on Bunn Drive.
My audience was a bunch of third graders. I think I did OK. But even after 30 years in this business, you can never be sure. The public is one tough customer.
How It All Began.
The Official Story. As I have written before, the official light bulb moment for U.S. 1 came in the summer of 1984, when my freelance writing career included various pinch-hitting assignments for vacationing reporters at Town Topics, the community weekly serving the heart of Princeton.
I had taken notice of a battle between the two new hotels on Route 1, the Hyatt and Scanticon (now the Marriott), both hoping to host the business meetings of companies taking up space in the new offices along the highway. Each was outdoing the other with lavish cocktail parties aimed at currying favor with the corporate crowd. It all sounded intriguing, the Town Topics editors agreed, but they noted — the Hyatt was in West Windsor and Scanticon was in Plainsboro. Town Topics’ focus was Princeton Borough and Township.
Though none of us would have articulated it at the time, we were basing our thinking on the premise that there are two essential elements to a successful publication: reasonable content aimed at a reasonable audience, and a reasonable (and reliable) publishing frequency.
If it was not a Princeton story then it was certainly a Route 1 story, or a U.S. 1 story. As I told the third graders, I called it U.S. 1 rather than Route 1 because half the people I polled about the name pronounced it “rout one” and the other half pronounced it “root one.” I didn’t want to keep explaining it. (U.S. 1 was a fortuitous choice. USA Today, founded in 1982, was a big national success and people we called for interviews often thought we were from the Gannett-owned daily and eagerly took our calls.)
By the end of October we had run 3,000 copies of the first edition (called the “sneak preview” in one more instance of an entrepreneur hedging his bet rather than taking an all-out risk).
At that point I realized the importance of the second element of a successful publication: a reasonable and reliable frequency. Dick Hagy, a veteran Princeton-area ad man, saw the first issue and congratulated me for having the vision to see a community in the disparate clusters of offices springing up along Route 1 and connecting roads. The community would be able to support its own newspaper, he said. But it was up to me to follow through with a reliable publication schedule.
I was off to the races. The month of November flew by like no other month in my life.
The Back Story. While we all like to put the word “young” in front of entrepreneur, the fact is that in 1984 I was 37 years old and already a battle-weary veteran of almost 20 years in journalism. A summer job after high school at the Binghamton Evening Press, then in a death battle with its morning competition, taught me the reasonable content rule — a story for the Sun-Bulletin readers enjoying their morning coffee at the diner would never pass muster with our audience reading the paper at home after the work day.
The lesson was reinforced as a staff writer at Time magazine and later as a freelance writer for a half dozen publications. Along the way I experienced another, more refined filter for the reasonable content/reasonable audience equation. Was this the best time to present that content to that appropriate audience? Why should we do this story now, editors at People magazine, in particular, were wont to ask. Why now? The freelance writer better have a good answer.
In this highly competitive market, I was keeping my head above water, but not exactly thriving.
My most lucrative gig was working fulltime for Time magazine. But the job could be stifling. As a correspondent I wrote not for the public, but rather for the writers and editors in New York, who in turn would combine my work with that from other sources and mold it into the classic Time-ese style. The breaking point for me was being sent at great expense to Lincoln, Montana, a small town an hour’s drive or so from Missoula, to report on environmental pollution in a region of the country that seemed to be the last place pollution would ever visit. The story got bounced by a breaking news story somewhere else in the country, and then got swallowed up in Time’s editorial machinery. It never ran.
So I quit in frustration, and vowed that I would make a living writing my stories in my own voice. Like a whole generation of journalists, I was heavily influenced by the New Journalists — Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, and others who employed fictional techniques to render their subjects in deep analysis and revealing scenes that “objective” journalists could rarely attain.
That was the ticket. I would develop a distinctive voice and parlay that into compelling narratives that would lead to the holy grail of newspaper and magazine writers in the 1970s: a book. While freelance writers only got paid for what they wrote, and were limited in earning to the number of hours in a day, the journalist/author could write his book, earn his advance, and then sit back and watch as the royalties flowed in. You could make money while you were sleeping. And if you were really lucky, the book got turned into a movie.
Thanks to my connections at Time-Life I developed enough steady work to support myself. But high profile assignments at the big ticket magazines — Esquire, Playboy, Harper’s, the Atlantic — never materialized.
I soon created a plan B. If my voice didn’t carry well in the world of mass market magazines, I thought I had a knack for helping others develop their voices. I parlayed an assignment for People magazine into a proposal to co-write a book with Connie Francis, the 1950s pop icon (“Where the Boys Are” and “Stupid Cupid”), who brought rape into the public spotlight when she sued a motel chain for failing to properly secure the room in which she was staying when she was attacked. I somehow managed to develop a rapport with Francis, who had a reputation for being difficult. I gathered reams of notes as she opened up about the various loves — and losses — of her life.
A celebrity bio seemed within reach. There was one problem: How would I be paid? Francis kept ducking the question. Counseled by Princeton lawyer Peter Knipe, who had served as the agent for bestselling author Peter (“Jaws”) Benchley, I asked for a modest deal that would include a small percentage of whatever profits the book (and possibly movie or television docu-drama) would generate. But Francis’s designated agent for the book deal (also her hairdresser — did I say that she could be difficult?) was adamant. No participation for me. As he pointed out, I had no credentials as a book author. The deal was off.
Undeterred, I realized that a guy from my hometown in upstate New York was becoming a national celebrity in a most unlikely role — a baseball umpire. Ron Luciano’s flamboyant style was drawing attention to a group of professionals who had always measured success by how little attention they created. I reached Luciano by phone at a hotel in Kansas City, and sold him on the idea of a book.
I kicked off the project with a profile of Luciano in People magazine and then began to drop in at selected ballparks to hang out before and after the games with Luciano and his crew. A weekend in Baltimore, a few games in New York, and then a series at Fenway Park.
At Fenway I saw something that I never imagined I would see at a major league baseball game. In his first at-bat Red Sox hitter Jim Rice quarreled with a strike call made by the home plate umpire. A few pitches later Rice was called out on strikes. In his next at bat, Rice was called out again, without taking a swing. When Rice came to bat again, Luciano, who was umpiring at first base, caught my attention, pointed to home plate, and made three swinging motions, and then made the out call with his fist. The home plate umpire was going to call Rice out again — whether the pitches were really strikes or not. Rice was being punished for challenging the umpire’s judgment in the first inning.
It was the tell-all, insider stuff that could turn this biography into national bestseller. But instead of running to a publishing house with a treatment, I kept reporting away, trying to turn all this good stuff into even better stuff. Another weekend, another road trip with Luciano and his crew. Over the all-star game break, I arranged to meet Luciano again at his home in upstate New York for more interviews.
But this time Luciano never answered the phone.
When I finally got hold of him, he told me there was a problem. His agent wanted him to work with another writer, a former Life magazine writer named David Fisher. As Luciano explained, in an apologetic way, Fisher had something I didn’t have — credentials as an author. Luciano and Fisher ultimately wrote five books. The first was “The Umpire Strikes Back,” a bestseller that came out in hardcover in 1982 and in paperback in 1984.
Back in Princeton, my friends cheered my up with some gallows humor. “Who’s sorry now?” they asked, invoking the title of Connie Francis’s book, which came out in 1984 and made the New York Times bestseller list.
Things I did right. As painful as the failed book deals were, they did prepare me in a strange way for the moment when the light bulb went off. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, and contrary to the great public perception, I was no longer a risk taker, I was a risk minimizer.
I spent the first few days after the light bulb moment letting the ideas flow about what the paper would eventually contain, what it would not contain, and how it would be distributed (free circulation, distributed to people at their place of work rather than at their homes). Given my experience in journalism all that was second nature.
Then I turned to the business side of the operation. No ideas flowed at all. Where would I get the money? How would I sell the ads? Find an office? Hire staff? How would I keep paying my mortgage?
My first thought was to find some partners. I talked to some friends, all of whom had immediate and obvious concerns. How would we get permission to enter all those offices to deliver the paper? What if we were turned down? What if no advertisers would take a chance on a brand new entrant in a cluttered marketplace?
I thought back to all my failed writing partnerships. Maybe, from a business point of view, I needed to develop my own distinct entrepreneurial voice. I decided to do it on my own, adopting a bare-bones bootstrapping style that would forego most financial planning and analysis and instead just do everything as economically as possible. You could spend hours analyzing a decision and not end up any better than that.
Everyone said you needed a media kit to sell ads. That was a challenge since the greater Princeton business community even then spanned six or seven municipalities and three separate counties. To gather some market data I visited a nonprofit named after those three counties — the Mercer-Somerset-Middlesex Regional Planning Council. The driving force behind the MSM group, Sam Hamill, immediately recognized the viability of the target audience.
I asked him how I should cover the municipalities in the region, which were wrestling with overloaded schools, strained sewer systems, and the specter of rush hour traffic on Route 1, what had previously been the fast lane to escape points like Newark Airport and New York. Even then a professor at Rutgers had taken some informal traffic data from two separate years and extrapolated the data to predict that it would soon take four hours to drive from Trenton to New Brunswick. The media, always eager to report bad news, gobbled up the news.
Don’t even bother with municipal news, Hamill said bluntly. What we need is a regional approach. At that point I coined the paper’s first slogan: No sewers, no schools, no doom or gloom.
Still I needed that media kit, or so the experts said. I puzzled over that one for a few days. Then I had a better idea. Why not produce the media kit in the form of an actual newspaper, include some stories that would demonstrate the editorial direction and even sell ads in it, if possible?
And then I got lucky: Connie Rafle answered an ad I had placed with a networking group called the Professional Roster for someone who could help produce a community newspaper. Rafle, an English teacher by training, figured she could help out. I assigned her to gather some information on some editorial listings we were preparing. As she visited the venues and explained the new paper, several people asked her about paid advertising. Overnight she became an ad salesperson.
Rafle became the first of many people I encountered who had mastered one endeavor in life, and then found themselves between jobs and at U.S. 1, where they were asked to be a jack of all trades — and then did the U.S. 1 work competently and cheerfully. I owe all of them a round of applause.
U.S. 1’s Evolution
Reasonable Content for a Viable Audience. When the original idea for U.S. 1 flashed across my mind, it was a business magazine that I envisioned. One obvious story was Scanticon vs. the Hyatt in the war for the business meetings. But sometime in that first 48 hours or so, I began to ask myself what would come after that? And how would I ever fill eight or twelve or more pages of a newspaper, no matter how infrequently it came out?
I think the answer came from my friend and colleague, photographer Craig Terry, whom I met when we were both freelancing for New Jersey Monthly in the 1970s. Over the years Craig and I had shared ideas for various editorial ventures. I ran the idea of the business newspaper by him and he remembered the idea as something different: “I thought the idea was for a business and entertainment magazine,” he said.
The light bulb got lit a second time. I came up with an entertainment story to put on the front page of the inaugural issue — places to dance to live music in central New Jersey. Craig and I showed up at the Hyatt on Route 1 and found a 20-something couple on the dance floor. Business and entertainment seemed to resonate: Later, when I delivered the paper, people in dull and dreary offices smiled at the front page. They weren’t looking at my clever little story about mixed use development and zoning restrictions. They were checking out the listings for where to go to do some drinking and dancing on the weekend.
What I Did Right. Probably fueled by the reaction to the first issue, and influenced as well by the need to differentiate the paper from the crowded field of established newspapers, I began to create an idiosyncratic voice for the new publication. What I couldn’t achieve as a writer I was managing to pull off as an editor.
I was aided and abetted by the photographer, Craig Terry, a guy with a whimsical sense of humor. He and I looked for any chance to shake up the audience and be noticed in the blizzard of printed material falling on central New Jersey.
An article on the dearth of affordable housing in the region featured a cover shot of a two young professionals checking out a dwelling unit near the highway — the “housing” was a tent we had pitched in front of the Princeton Hyatt. A story on rush hour traffic featured a car with no driver but two people reading in the back seat. The car was parked in the front of a long line of Route 1 traffic backed up at the Washington Road light (the driver had ducked down under the dashboard while Terry took the photo).
A young woman’s essay on the burden of being single in central New Jersey featured the writer and her girlfriend throwing a young man, wearing a suit and tie, into a swimming pool. The headline: “Are Route 1 Men All Wet?”
We had so much fun that one of our competitors, a central New Jersey business paper that eventually turned into the very successful statewide NJ Biz magazine, ran a radio commercial with circus noise in the background. The tagline said, in effect, that advertisers could put their money with the clowns or with the more serious publication that was “all business all the time.”
On our third-year anniversary, October 30, 1987, the New York Times ran a story on U.S. 1 by reporter Iver Peterson, who recognized the “zing” of both the paper and the community it served. “If we dealing with the CEOs of IBM or Xerox, we’d be lucky to get by the PR guy,” I was quoted as saying. “Instead we’re dealing with the CEOs of small companies who are having as much fun as we are.”
Empathic Design. How did U.S. 1 end up looking the way it does today? Most companies have some sort of story to tell about their progression — from the light bulb moment to business plan to start-up idea to operational business through various stages of growth. But few ever tell the story.
When I started U.S. 1 back in 1984 community journalism was basking in a technological revolution that had taken the process of setting type away from the linotype operators in a factory-like setting of a composing room and given it to ordinary typists (men and women) who could input the writer’s copy on the keyboard of a photo-typesetting machine.
Though you could now install the typesetting machine in an ordinary business office (or even the garage of your house, as I eventually did), they were expensive. You could get a used Compugraphic machine for $6,000 or so, more than I could handle at the time. But I did have an open invitation from Larry Dupraz, the compositor for the Daily Princetonian on the university campus. I had known Larry since my undergraduate days as an editor at the ‘Prince.’ He would help set up the first issue and would teach me how to use the Compugraphic machine.
Naturally we set up U.S. 1 as a clone of the Daily Princetonian — an 11 by 17 tabloid, exactly what it is 30 years later.
How to arrange editorial copy, headlines, photographs, and ads (all-important ads, since they were the only source of revenue) was another matter. I had no idea but listened to Larry’s advice about using ads to create a well in which stories could flow, and whether presenting editorial or advertising copy think about type “hierarchy.” Large type for headlines, medium-size type for explanations of the headline (think of a pullquote in an article), and small print for the details.
Determined to squeeze as many ads as I could into each issue, I produced layouts that were a hodge podge of graphics. But amazingly enough I never heard a complaint from any readers. Instead I began hearing favorable comments about the stories. For a while I discounted the favorable notices — either the person expressing the view was trying to be polite or the person was not someone whose opinion you would value. Eventually I overheard people saying nice things about the content to someone else, and I began to think we were on the right track.
Negative reviews were received, however, from a succession of graphic artists and newspaper designers eager to sell their services. I entertained a few of the pitches but came away greatly skeptical. The big problem: the artistic “makeovers,” with their bold graphics and glittering typography, all ignored one essential component of a sustainable publication: ads.
I eventually met one artist, Stan Kephart, who presented me some design ideas on pages that also included ads. Other than the input from Kephart, I ignored most of the professional advice, packed in as many ads as we sold, and then put in the stories, arranging them to make it as easy as possible for the stories to actually be read. From my own experience and what I hoped was common sense I looked for each story to have some sort of treatment that would signal where it began, and I made sure that treatment was pretty much the same for each article in any given issue. (Most city magazines, in contrast, make the beginning of each article a showcase for the idiosyncratic design of the art directors. I look at them and often have a hard time telling the articles apart from the ads.)
I also insisted on making it clear where the stories ended. Readers would stick with an article longer, I thought, if they knew what they were in for.
If a story jumped more than a page, or from one section of the paper to another, I insisted on running another headline on the page it jumped to. The reader following the trail of the story would appreciate the bold marker.
I tried to extend the concept to the words themselves. If you are telling the reader that something is happening on November 25, make sure you include the day of the week, as well. If you are writing an article about an upcoming event, be sure to include the contact information at the end so that people who want to attend can do so easily. We are a free newspaper, but readers pay for it with their time.
Make it easy for people to do what you want them to, the director of an ad agency told me in the early days of U.S. 1. I applied that lesson early on to the editorial side of our operation. We wanted people to read, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible.
At some point I decided that reader was our customer, not the advertiser trying to reach that reader, and certainly not the design guy trying to sell us on the latest and greatest design ideas.
That approach did not endear U.S. 1 to the newspaper design community. A year or so ago I stumbled across an article in a trade magazine in which a couple of consultants observed that the community papers that were thriving in the economic downturn and advent of online communications were those that had a percentage of community content. (Rule 1 of the two rules stated above.) I pointed that out to my partners to help explain why I am so adamant about drilling down to make every community connection we can.
The partners read the consultants’ article, and then commissioned them to critique all 10 of our publications — tell us what worked from their first impressions of each paper.
Within a month the critiques came back. U.S. 1 — the oldest of the 10 papers, the most frequently published, the single greatest generator of revenue — came in pretty much dead last in the consultants’ design review. The report card was so bad that I can still recall the one begrudging line of praise: We had brightened up our event listing pages by including photographs on almost every page.
Otherwise it was bad, violating almost every rule of modern newspaper design. The next to worst thing was the body type — yes, the Times Roman font that is in place for each and every letter you are now digesting is out of date. The consultants suggested some alternatives — typefaces with names I had never heard of. I wondered how many years would pass before they, too, would be out of date.
Possibly the worst thing of all was what the consultants called “the flag,” what I have always referred to as the “logo” (but what do I know?). The U.S. 1 flag at the top of the front page was terrible and it should obviously be the highway department’s road sign — the iconic shield with the U, S, and 1 in it.
I wished the consultants could have been there in 1984, when a few of us were sitting at a kitchen table having this very obvious debate. The iconic shield said it all, a newspaper named after a highway. But the shield was also a two-edged sword. Not everyone was happy with the highway, and I had a fear that the bulk of the paper’s potential advertisers would come from downtown Princeton and other retail centers that were a world away from the highway.
We went with a variation of the logo — sorry, flag — you see today, except we connected it to a dotted line that passes through the center of the state’s outline. I was still mindful of that visit with Sam Hamill of the MSM Regional Council. This was going to be a regional paper.
I obviously took the consultants’ report with a grain of salt, but what was most disturbing was that anyone could recommend such a dramatic makeover of a newspaper’s front page without a single reference to the publication’s readers.
My response was — and is — that the readers count more than design consultants. But I didn’t have a catchy phrase to describe it. Then I read a story in U.S. 1, of all places — a Survival Guide article in the October 1 issue on a process called “empathic design.”
The article quoted Michael Ventura, CEO of a New York design firm that had come to rely on that basic human skill: empathy. “The objective at most agencies is to find information that meets the client’s needs, and as it gets further along in the process, you start to think about the customer,” Ventura said. “We hear the objectives of the client, then we go to the complete other end of the spectrum, and really understand the customer; what their behaviors are like, and we work backwards using a strong sense of empathy.”
The Harvard Business Review took notice of the empathic approach in its November, 1997, issue. “At its foundation is observation — watching consumers use products or services. But unlike in focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of traditional market research, such observation is conducted in the customer’s own environment — in the course of normal, everyday routines.”
Unlike focus groups? Yup. I thought back to my original interview in the “sneak preview” edition of 30 years ago. Even then I scoffed at the idea of focus groups or some outside firm telling an editor how he or she should best serve their community. In a mock interview with myself I raised the questions that were being asked of me in the days preceding the first issue.
One question was “what kind of market study did you undertake?” The tongue-in-cheek answer: “I had Young & Rubicam in first — their people did a thorough market analysis, demographics, development projections, the whole bit. Then I paid a small fortune for a design work-up. This is a classy crowd out on Route 1 and you can’t just throw anything at them.” I was kidding, of course.
If I were a different kind of businessman, my biggest regret would be simple: Not listening to all the geniuses who approached me in the earliest stages of U.S. 1 and gave me a lesson in geography. U.S. 1, they would say, goes all the way from Maine to Florida, and even on to Key West. We (at this point the focus would switch from me to me and them) could put out a paper at hundreds of communities up and down the east coast.
But knowing myself better than that, and pretty certain I didn’t want to be a partner in a fast-growing media empire, I have no such regrets of that sort.
Instead I look back and see only some editorial regrets, each and every one painful in its own way. One regret was not following the lead of the Daily Princetonian and converting from the 11 by 17-inch tabloid size to broadsheet. The large format broadsheet — the ‘Prince’ is now 12.5 by 23 inches — essentially is a way to double down on print. If you are going to give readers an alternative to reading the news on their iPhones or other gadget, you might as well go big.
In the beginning the deterrent to that format was the mechanical process of cutting and pasting text, photos, and ads onto a page. You needed a lot of room to produce a broadsheet. By the early 2000s, it could all be done on a computer screen. I look at some of the imaginative and dramatic layouts in the Sunday New York Times and feel some genuine envy.
Other regrets are even more basic, the frustration of sitting on the sidelines while good stories flashed in front of me. Three examples:
1.) Sometime in the late 1990s, I was summoned to jury duty in Trenton. Like everyone else in the jury pool, I did not want to be there, and I wanted to be selected for an actual trial even less. When the jury was selected to hear the case of a Princeton insurance man charged with defrauding several area businesses and institutions, I was on it.
The trial lasted three weeks. I did what I could at the office in the early morning, dashed off to the courthouse in Trenton, and then dashed back to work. As instructed by the judge I took no notes, but I collected a ream of mental notes. I soon realized I was an eyewitness to a fascinating slice of American life. If the trial got bogged down in the intricacies of insurance and re-insurance, the jury deliberations were pure human emotion.
One of the witnesses was the personal secretary of the accused businessman. She broke into tears as she offered the testimony that removed any of my reasonable doubts about the man’s guilt. I saw the witness as a loyal employee, torn by her need to tell the truth, the whole truth. In our deliberations several of the women jurors saw a totally different reality: Did you see her cry, they asked. Obviously she had a crush on the boss, he had rejected her, and now she was getting her revenge.
While I was arguing for conviction, and others were arguing for acquittal, the lone black person on the jury, a young man, sighed and said, “a white guy stealing from a bunch of other white guys — what’s the big deal. Acquit him.”
Once the trial was over I began emptying my mental notebook into my computer at my home office. After a few weeks of effort, I left town for the weekend. While I was gone the house was burgled, the laptop stolen. I became a crime victim, and lost all my notes as well as my energy for what would have been an excellent story.
2.) A few years later, in the winter of 2003, I smelled another potential blockbuster. A young man had escaped from Tenacre, the Christian Science care center on the Great Road in Princeton. In the middle of the night he had entered the nearby home of investment banker William Sword Jr., and attacked him with a 12-inch kitchen knife. Sword and his brother-in-law, swinging a frying pan at the attacker, were able to fend him off.
Four police officers arrived and surrounded the barefoot attacker in the snow-covered yard. When he refused to drop the knife and appeared to lunge at them, they fired. He died at the scene of wounds to the groin, stomach, and head.
The episode occurred at the height of a controversy over the deer population in Princeton and how best to control it. Birth control measures were weighed, along with radio collars and ear tags to chart the movement of the does. Bow and arrow hunters were considered. So were sharpshooters. A net and bolt method was much discussed — trap the deer in nets, and then shoot a bolt into their brain at close range. The bolt, I assumed, was viewed as favorable to a bullet because it would have less range.
But while this debate raged in the pages of the Town Topics and Princeton Packet virtually no one asked if there was no possible way for the four township cops surrounding the barefoot suspect to subdue him without killing him. Not to be glib about it, but could they have summoned the net and bolt squad, and netted him, but then held back on firing the bolt?
I envisioned an article called “The Killing Fields of Princeton Township.” But once again the press of business overwhelmed the reporter. I eventually wrote a column on the subject in 2006. But no major reporting effort and story for me. Just one more regret.
3.) Around the time of Hurricane Irene, some of us Princeton residents began to follow an online news site called planetprinceton.com, which was issuing frequent updates on road closings, flooding conditions, and so forth. Planet Princeton seemed to deliver critical details even before some of the police agencies.
Run by former Trenton Times reporter Krystal Knapp, Planet Princeton began to do on a regular, reliable basis what I had dreamed U.S. 1 might do with its online news effort. But as successful as Knapp was with her hurricane coverage (repeated later during Sandy), I did not envy her position. To turn that kind of coverage into a sustainable business, it seemed to me, would require a steady stream of disasters.
I did take special note, however, of an in-depth follow-up story that Planet Princeton developed, about the circumstances that led to the death of an EMT rescue worker as he tried to approach a car stranded in the surging waters of Hurricane Irene. Due to a set of unintended consequences, or perhaps a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, the rescue teams had obtained information about the car before they received the additional, critical news that the people in the car had abandoned the car — as the authorities had recommended. As the rescuer pursued his ultimately fatal mission, the people he thought he might rescue were at the Nassau Inn.
I argued with myself over whether I should ask Knapp if we could arrange to reprint the article in U.S. 1. If we did would our readers think that we were too lazy to gather such an article on our own? Would they question the reliability of an online news site most of them have never heard of before? But if we did print it, wouldn’t the impact of the story, especially with photos of the people involved, diagrams of the accident scene, and so forth, be even greater in print than it had been online?
Like most arguments with yourself, no one won. Time passed, the opportunity was lost.
But as one opportunity was squandered, another presented itself. Earlier this year one of our reporters stumbled across another online story that had the potential to be of interest to our readers. It was by Michael Graziano, a Princeton University professor, and it recounted Graziano’s efforts to get the public school system to recognize and properly respond to the special needs of his child. He called the 3,900-word piece “An Inconvenient Child.”
This time I skipped the internal debate and, with the permission of Graziano and the British website where it had been posted originally, moved the piece into U.S. 1’s March 26 print edition. It was widely read and intensely discussed by parents who had similar issues with the school system.
The experience has made me re-think some of my more than 30-year attitudes toward outside writers. In the early days, no self-respecting journalist would give anyone an open platform in their paper, unless it was on the editorial page. If a guy like Graziano had an axe to grind, a reporter was lurking in the background, ready to inject the countervailing point of view presented by the school officials.
But sometimes an argument is so complex that a reader needs to absorb it, without the distraction of other opinions. The editor needs to set the stage for the discussion, provide the readers with the background information they need to appreciate the discussion. The reporter, in this case, may simply need to get out of the way.
In a recently published book titled “Saving Community Journalism — the Path to Profitability,” Penelope Abernathy argues that publishers of print newspapers need to adopt a “cross platform” approach and add an Internet presence to their existing operation (see sidebar, page 36).
I think we will also see online media expand their reach by working cooperatively with print. How will we know what works best online, and what is most suited for print? The readers will let us know.
So what kind of media will my third grade friends be reading 30 years from now, when they are in their late 30s? Will they have faint memories of a long-ago chat about print newspapers, and their quaint concern about where that funny stuff called paper comes from? Will they be tethered to various gadgets and wearables, consuming their news in handy nuggets that appear on a screen that looks like a bike geek’s rear view mirror?
Or will they be doing all of that, but also stopping for some reflective moments for some in-depth reading of something that closely resembles a newspaper or magazine of today?
Looking back at the last 30 years I would say that it doesn’t matter. We started out as content providers and still are content providers, sharing stories with readers wherever we find them.
Print newspapers are not the only media facing disruption. The October 17 New York Times had a front-page story about “cord-cutters,” television viewers who are now dropping cable TV like a bad habit and instead paying only for what shows they want when they want them — all Internet delivered, of course. As CBS executive Leslie Moonves told the Times: “It is an important part of our future. Our job is to do the best content we can and let people enjoy it in whatever way they want. The world is heading in that direction.”
If the number 30 raises the specter of trust for some people in my generation, it also has another connotation for those familiar with the history of journalism.
For reasons that have never been fully explained, journalists and public relations writers have ended their pieces with the number “30” at the bottom. One explanation that makes sense to me, thinking back 49 years ago to my first job in professional newspapers, was that as editors were yanking stories page by page from reporters’ typewriters, the guys working those linotype machines needed a clear signal that they had reached the end.
The “30” below marks the ending of this article (good news for me and for those of you who have stayed with me to this point — as always, thanks for reading.)
But it’s also just a beginning for my younger colleagues at U.S. 1, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, and the eight monthly publications that make up Community News Service, and for those who will inhabit the brave new world of the 21st century, our third grade journalists at the Princeton Charter School.
– 30 –