We all have to leave the nest some time, and it’s our turn at the Press to do so. In this instance, however, the man who wove our home, gave each of us wings and taught us how to use them is taking leave of us.
A few years before I sat with him in the bowels of the Vanderbilt in Plainview, mapping out what would become the Long Island Press, my relationship with Robbie Woliver got off to an inauspicious start. It was the late ’90s and I was working at our then-flagship company WDRE-FM. My partner John and I had just signed a deal with the fledgling Long Island Voice, local spinoff of the venerable Village Voice, to cross promote and sell each other’s products. It seemed like the perfect marriage at the time—the standard bearer in the alternative-newsweekly industry joining forces with the original alternative radio station in the nation. Before the ink had dried on our sales arrangement, the Voice ran a cover story entitled “Why DRE Sucks”…by Robbie Woliver. It was my first real personal experience with alternative journalism and I didn’t like it one bit.
The article promptly signaled the end of this business relationship before it even began, and it would be late 2001 before I would reconnect with Robbie and create what is today the Long Island Press.
It was a very different world following 9/11 and all of us were changed. Taking on the world with a new alternative weekly seemed like a great idea. Beverly Fortune and I were still “cellar dwellers” in the Vanderbilt catering and event hall, and Robbie was visiting us with greater frequency to talk about this project. Good thing, too. My original plan was for a glossy local magazine with quippy editorials and celebrity profiles. In other words, exactly what the Island didn’t need. Instead we formulated a plan to launch a Long Island-centric alt weekly that would inform and entertain readers without alienating them. An alt weekly with suburban sensibilities, if you will.
Fast forward eight years, 150 awards and countless groundbreaking stories and I think we’ve hit our stride.
Robbie’s brilliance as an editor reaches beyond having “good eyes”; it stems more from the fact that you can never really predict how he will feel about any given subject. My appreciation grew to admiration though when I began writing for the newspaper myself. When you fall directly under his watchful eye, his genius becomes startlingly clear. The questions he asks and the way he approaches a story are so unique you cannot help but strive to do better. As we go forward without him, it has obviously left us all wondering what will become of our paper. The chasm that will be left in the halls of the Press is one thing, but what matters most is how we choose to carry the torch he lit in the basement of the Vanderbilt nearly eight years ago.
In truth, no one person is bigger than the Press because it has crossed the threshold from a nubile upstart to a mature product and now belongs to the people of Long Island. This is his legacy—not the awards, the accolades or letters of praise, but the Press as legitimate member of the Fourth Estate. Personally, Robbie taught me how to be a real publisher. How to keep a trained eye on the bottom line while maintaining the integrity of the work. Our business is different than most. As journalists we walk a fine line between church and state, and no one is better at this precarious balancing act than Robbie. When you cross that line and jeopardize your integrity, you break a contract with your readers for short-term gain. That’s the hell of this business.
I could write for days on this subject alone, but he’s still here and managing our word count. Suffice it to say I finally understand why it didn’t matter whether or not I agreed with the premise of Robbie’s article that eviscerated our radio station; the fact is, it needed to run. To understand alternative journalism is to understand that you must be willing to kill your sacred cows, question all authority and provide an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream. (Robbie, I get it now. We all do. But you already knew that, didn’t you?) I know he believes we are truly “there,” otherwise he wouldn’t leave us. It’s as though he knows somehow that his work here is done and that new challenges await that require his attention.
So as our quiet, self-effacing, enigmatic leader moves forward, I can only offer the simplest but most meaningful sentiment on behalf of the thousands who have read his words in our paper, the hundreds that he has mentored during his time here and the one who will miss him the most…
Together the Press staff takes flight, leery of what predators and pitfalls await in this strange new world we will be soaring over. And of course he will be there. Prodding. Guiding. Suggesting without strong-arming. Making sure we never hit the ground or get so full of ourselves that we soar too high and burn our wings on the sun.