By: Caren Lissner
The Hoboken Reporter (1983–2019)
In the 1940s, before the newer, bigger container ships of the 1960s required deep ports, small cities like Hoboken 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 stories for the New York Sun in 1948, exposing the problems. 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 mile-square city. “I could have been somebody.”
What a town loses when it loses a newspaper.
Shipping left the mile-square city as the second half of the 20th century wore on, some corruption lingered, and the waterfront languished. In the 1980s, rows of apartments were converted 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 eventually became Maxwell Place condos.
In the 1980s, a small weekly newspaper was bought by a local real estate developer to provide news for the growing community. The little paper thrived. It became a staple of Sunday mornings in Hoboken, landing on porches and in vestibules each weekend. Working out of a basement in an apartment building, writers, salespeople, and graphic artists — doing paste-up on a long table — kept the paper going for more than three decades.
Each week, the Hoboken Reporter included four to seven stories, not just community features but often harder news and the occasional investigative story on everything from voter fraud (I assigned more than a dozen of those stories during my time there) to malfeasance at a local animal shelter.
The paper also chronicled the painful gentrification of the 1980s. Each year, Hoboken has two popular Italian festivals that date back nearly a century — but in the mid-1980s, readers began writing letters to the Reporter to complain about noise from the traditional “feast bombs” that were part of the festivals. This evolved into a four-year-long letters battle that some saw as pitting “newcomers” against “old-timers,” but also symbolized the gentrification of the neighborhoods. People turned to the “feast bomb letters” each week to catch up on the latest insults, and some epistles were so funny that they were complied into a book that’s still taught in college Sociology classes, Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime (1987).
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 then-publisher Joseph Barry (the aforementioned real estate developer who bought the paper in 1983), and the paper’s Hoboken editor, John Derevlany, who has since become an Emmy-nominated TV writer.
In 1994, I joined the Reporter staff in the basement, fresh out of college. I had no idea what I was walking into. But I’d loved newspapers all my life, not just because of the information they imparted, but for the challenge of finding the perfect checkerboard of photos and art, the right headline and best-worded lead to draw an otherwise apathetic or busy reader to a complex story (sometimes it takes a spoonful of sugar to get the hard stuff digested). I didn’t know about the legacy of the paper or that I’d be replacing a popular reporter known for 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 paper, done an internship in Gov. Florio’s press office and learned about political communications from the experts, the tenor of Hoboken politics was new to me. The chain had grown to seven newspapers by the time I got there (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.
I quickly realized I was among a clutch of people with good hearts, sharp minds, and thin wallets — no one was there to get rich, as reporters earned $325 a week to apprise the public of multimillion-dollar contracts and development deals. (Hoboken lies directly across the river from Greenwich Village, so developers and others saw new potential.)
Hoboken lies directly across the river from Greenwich Village.
With the Hoboken beat I had a big responsibility: to give 53,000 people a heads up about who might run their schools or what type of buildings might rise in their back yard. The daily Hudson Dispatch had closed in 1991 (after 117 years), so only the weekly Reporter and the daily Jersey Journal battled to cover Hudson County. I remember heading out of City Council meetings late at night and seeing the Journal reporter drop coins into a payphone to ensure that his story made it into the next day’s edition. Such was typical at the time.
Hudson County is the densest county in the United States outside of San Francisco and New York City, with nearly 700,000 residents and clearly a need for more reporting.
Hudson County, NJ (pop. 691,000) is the densest county in the United States outside of San Francisco and New York City.
In the basement
My first editor in the basement was an Elvis Costello lookalike named Michael Richardson, a Columbia J-school grad and the son of one of the (few?) heroes of Watergate, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson. I also met longtime sportswriter Jim Hague, who gave a voice to teenagers and coaches throughout the county who poured their hearts into local athletics. And I met a now-extinct species: the late-night Classified crew who jockeyed the phones to take “Roommate Wanted” ads before Craigslist.
And I met the paper’s three owners — the founder/developer and his two eventual partners, who had started as office manager and ad sales director. 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 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 been a problem inherent in newspaper funding; a paper can’t be funded by the very government it covers, so to survive, it often has to be owned by someone with deep pockets and other interests. These days, even organizations funded by several investors may draw suspicions, but newer media organizations are trying different models, searching for the best way to thrive.)
The Reporter basement became a training ground for new journalists, with some who transitioned there from a job as a waiter or telemarketer and had always been interested in journalism but needed a place to start. Many eventually moved to larger media outlets or to their own creative writing projects.
As Hoboken changed and grew, the little chain grew with it, moving across the street in 1995 to a sturdy former bank building that had lain unused on a busy corner. The bank vault in the basement was transformed into a darkroom for our lone staff photographer, Rob.
Weekly anti-corruption column
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 was 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 that they’d lose their apartment if a certain candidate won, 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. Is it any wonder that our national political leaders are trying so hard now to discredit the few newspapers left that can fact-check their statements on a national level? Imagine if this was written about you:
“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 often exposed problems that would otherwise go unreported, including two instances in different towns in which officials voted themselves hefty raises at poorly attended meetings. There are hundreds of towns in America right now without a single newspaper covering their meetings — 1,300 communities have “totally lost news coverage,” says Poynter — raising the question of how many raises are slipped through late at night, how many unanswered flyers are slipped under doors in public housing.
1,300 communities have “totally lost news coverage,” according to the Poynter Institute.
A quick look at the national news will tell you that people are still circulating anonymous flyers about Hoboken candidates, particularly an infamous flyer that made the news in November of 2017, falsely calling the new mayor-to-be a “terrorist” (see our investigative reports on that fake news, here and more recently 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. (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.
While the newspaper covered these falsehoods, the paper itself sometimes became the subject of rumors, often spread by ardent supporters of one political figure or another, in order 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 guess what happened in your office last week.) Most of the rumors pertained to the letters page. People would promise a mayor that they’d write an endorsement letter, never get around to writing it, and then would tell the mayor that they sent it to us. The mayor in question would call us, demanding to know why so-and-so’s letter didn’t get in. We always kept our mouths shut, even though it 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 a bias. We didn’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 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.)
A County Copes
In 2001, one of the paper’s owners, who had a background in business technology, was savvy enough to order us new digital cameras from Olympus. They were bulky and cost $800. At press conferences, people would come over and ask, “Is that a digital?” Unfortunately, one of our first uses was on Sept. 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 towers fall and heard people scream, cry together, and pray in a circle.
In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy blew out the power in much of the county, our other owner arranged with the staff at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen to let us squeeze into a room so we could get that week’s paper out. 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.
The last bout
In the last few years, the paper’s remaining two owners, Dave and Lucha (founder/developer Barry had sold his share 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” because we’d only checked a controversial line 49 times and not 50. Once something is in print, you can’t take it out — a fact that holds established media accountable in a way that websites may never be. It also makes newspapers vulnerable to lawsuits and legal threats. I’ve heard people claim that there’s no investigative journalism today, which is silly — there is; it’s just expensive, risky, and only a few organizations have the resources to do it every single day or week (just a handful can, such as the Washington Post or New York Times; what if we didn’t have them?) But well-researched investigative journalism is getting done periodically and quietly in small towns everywhere, away from cameras or fanfare. Yet, 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 2018, our paper’s co-owners sold the chain to a New Jersey-based media group that owns dozens of weeklies in Central and South Jersey. The hope was that they would keep the publications going.
Around that time, I assigned a lifestyle story to our hard-working 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 hits in the first weeks, showing there’s a way to engage younger demographics in local news when it’s relevant to them. Of course, targeted social media 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 area publications have been doing to draw readers, in terms of relevant content and social media outreach. Then, we spent the next several months not discussing it.
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 that things would continue on as before. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as three weeks ago, on Friday, July 26, the owners called a meeting for the remaining staff. They read a list of people to be let go, including three of the five writers and two of three graphic artists, telling them they had a half hour to pack their belongings.
The 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 their 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 to 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 a dead newspaper on social media, while quite accurate and smart, 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.
Once a newspaper is gone — just like when you lose parkland to unchecked development — it’s hard to bring it back.
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 buildings in your backyard before they’re twenty stories high.
“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, but they literally save lives.
Journalists are clealy 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.
“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. Our newest reporter was always put in charge of updating it every year. 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, 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. Just two business days after the North Jersey layoffs, they ran ads to hire two editorial folks at their South Jersey papers, closer to where most of them work. They also continued a series of company social media posts that “Spotlight” only the employees and papers in Central and South Jersey. Perhaps acknowledging the employees and papers in North Jersey would help inspire the remaining staff.
Print still lives — well, clearly the “midnight flyers” do. Will they outlive print newspapers? It’s an unsettling prospect.
Epilogue: May 15, 1998
It was 6 a.m., Friday, May 15, 1998. The phone rang in the little walkup apartment I shared with a roommate. It was my mother (who else calls at 6 a.m.?) She was calling to tell me someone died (why else do moms 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 grew up and where some of his neighbors still lived. This was before cell phones were in wide use, so I couldn’t call work and tell them why I was late. When I 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.
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 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 wrote heartfelt letters, the hard-working mayors who remained patient with our (sometimes amateurish or poorly timed) questions, the public servants who walked us through a municipal budget so we could walk our readers through it; the longtime residents who educated us, and everyone who advertised, stopped by, or just talked to us good-naturedly about our coverage, listened, and gave feedback. We were extraordinarily 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. I can’t count how many times we editorial folks trudged into the graphics department on a Friday 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 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 X-Acto knives. 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 letters or submissions, sometimes almost every single week, solely because they were concerned about their neighborhood, their park, their small 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 for something 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.
Sometimes it takes one person who cares a lot about an issue to wake up the rest of us.
But 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, who had lived in Union City and passed away in her thirties. She probably left so many great poems unwritten. I am grateful to the man who has sent us a letter every December to commemorate Frank Sinatra’s birthday, just because he didn’t want everyone 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.
Originally published on Medium and republished with permission