Pressing On: Robbie Woliver

babychickWe 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…

Thank you.

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.

Hosing Down Green Street

Newsday blows it again and green washes with black ink.

hosingstreetYears ago, our company produced several outdoor concerts and events. This experience led me to vow never to host an event exclusively held outside. Mother Nature is a cruel and unforgiving partner in such enterprises. Her ever-dwindling patience with our species is certainly not without cause, mind you. Perhaps this is why I felt as though we were in the clear by celebrating Mother this past weekend when the Press hosted the second annual Green Living Expo at Suffolk Community College. While the Expo is technically dedicated in her honor, I stayed true to the vow of hosting events indoors in case she was having a bad day on someone else’s account.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature’s lesser-known, ne’er-do-well cousin, “Murphy,” decided to intervene and delivered to us perhaps the warmest, sunniest April weekend on record—not exactly optimal conditions for hosting an indoor affair.
Not to be undone, redheaded stepchild “Insult-To-Injury” came along as I opened up my Newsday on Sunday to find their new Green Street LI section. Surely this will appear to be sour grapes on my part—or disingenuous criticism at best—but understand that I have also been a staunch defender of Newsday in this column before. In an era of downsized newsrooms nothing in our little world is more important than supporting good journalism. The problem is that this isn’t journalism. Not by objective standards or even their own admission.

This new endeavor actually runs a disclaimer that states it “does not involve the reporting and editing staff of Newsday.” Instead this weekly feature is compiled by the Community Affairs division with some content “provided by advertisers.” The Press shares many of these advertisers in common, actually, and most have something important to offer to the green movement. I should also mention that it is commonplace for newspapers to run special targeted advertising sections that include “advertorials.” The problem here is the altruistic packaging and the conspicuous absence of any real journalism. The mere fact that this disclaimer-laden piece is compiled sans Newsday’s editorial staff is greenwashing at its worst and boldest.

The economy alone is taking enough of a toll on the green movement that many now deem it a luxury, even though it is the ultimate necessity. This is not something to trivialize by slapping together strictly well-worn ad-supported tips. This is a topic that needs research, investigating, thinking. This moves beyond a top-five on “Why Composting is Good”; this requires coming up with a plan to make Long Island sustainable and taking down local polluters, even if they are potential advertisers.
Having spent the weekend with the true grassroots leaders on Long Island who work tirelessly day in and day out to move a positive environmental agenda forward, I can think of no greater insult to them than to have our only daily newspaper trivialize their work. Surely our fragile ecosystem, the air we breathe and the soil beneath us deserve better than this.

When I founded the Long Island Press seven years ago my father offered simple advice to me that I have never forgotten. Having lived and worked in media on Long Island for most of his career he told me that if the Press did nothing more than give Newsday a conscience, it would be a great success and enormous public service. So while gnawing away at this behemoth is my favorite pastime, this is personal for all of us. The very first issues of the Press featured lengthy editorials on renewable energy and investigative pieces on companies and government agencies that polluted the Island. Since then we haven’t wavered one bit. If Newsday has finally decided to grab a mitt and get in the game, then play ball like you mean it. If not, take a seat on the bench and leave the environmental reporting to us.

Fifty/Fifty

This is the 7th year of the Long Island Press Power List. The 7th year of deciding the only fifty people that will talk to me for a whole year.

presspowerpicIt’s that bittersweet time of the year again when I shove Dale Carnegie to the side and lose friends trying to influence people. Our annual Power List issue ranks the 50 most influential people on Long Island, thereby forcibly diminishing the number of people who will take my call. Hopefully, the 50 people on the list find their bios flattering enough to take my call, though there are still some who will be dismayed at their position. 

In the past we have seen the Power 50 jokingly referring to one another by their number on the list. We have also fielded angry phone calls from publicists and flacks for politicians and businesspeople who feel as though they have been wronged by their position—or worse, their omission. We have been criticized for a lack of diversity on the list despite our warnings that the list is presented as a mirror of the movers and shakers on Long Island and not as a popularity contest. Sometimes placement on the list is a dubious distinction, but more often than not it is a reward for bold actions and initiatives by members of our community who put their jobs and reputations on the line fighting for what they believe in. 

Those who know the Power List committee personally know well that the more they lobby for a spot on the list every year, the less likely they are to be chosen. Those who don’t know us well enough continue to lobby aimlessly every year wondering why their pleas seemingly go ignored. The reason for this is quite simple, actually. If you think about it, the truly powerful individual requires no lobbying efforts, as their actions throughout the year speak much louder than their words ever will. 

Assembling the list is a daunting task because there are several Long Islanders who have global reach but do little for Long Island. Then there are big fish in our curiously small and incestuous pond who impact our lives on a daily basis. We strive to find a balance between billionaires and advocates, religious leaders and educators. All together, the list represents a broad cross section of passionate and hard-working “Type A” individuals who are relentless in their pursuits—whatever they may be. 

The only firm guideline we have in choosing our Power Listers is that they live here. After that, the process is clearly subjective and there is always furious debate over who should be considered, and even more heated discussion about who makes the final cut. It’s more difficult than you might imagine. Several personal contacts and friends are cast aside for people we barely know. Further soul searching is done about perennial Power Listers who did great things but whose accomplishments were simply overshadowed this particular year by people who may be one-timers on the list. While we would love to include everyone who makes a difference, at the end of the day there are only 50 spots for 2.7 million of us. 

The gauntlet we throw down to every Power List member is to view this honor as a challenge to continue the work they started, and not to see this as some sort of congratulatory culmination of career accomplishments. Because this is an annual list, it is a living, breathing and ever-changing ranking that could look very different in just a week from now. But for today, here they are. Warts and all. 

Anyway, I’m off to see if James Dolan will take my call. Surely he must be looking to add a weekly newspaper to his collection of media companies…

All the news that's fit to keep printing…

newspaper
Advertise In The Long Island Press (Subliminal Caption)

As a fortunate son born into a family broadcast business, I did what any good Gen-X media executive would do with the advent of the internet: I started a newspaper. Pretty cutting edge, no? Currently I’m working on a patent for a new, sleek horse-drawn carriage. Stay tuned. It should be big.

Being acknowledged as such a new-media pioneer has afforded me the opportunity to speak on a few panels lately with discussion topics such as “The Dying Newspaper Industry” and “How to Keep Your Newspaper Alive in a Depression.” Good times. Good times.

 

 

My own experiences and my colleagues on Long Island have taught me, however, that newspapers aren’t dying. In fact Long Islanders are consuming more news than ever—yes, including print. Long Islanders and all Americans can’t get enough news and information it seems. The difference is that they demand it constantly and in multiple forms. This has confounded the news gatherers who struggle to maintain the integrity of the written word and stressed the news gathering process given our voracious appetite for it.

This is a good news/ bad news scenario for news organizations whether they be community focused, national outlets, broadcasters or this alternative newsweekly. The good news is that our product is being consumed with greater frequency and interest. The bad news is that there are more ways of receiving information and they are mostly free. The real bad news isn’t increased competition from talking heads and bloggers or the commoditization of information by search engines. Rather, the information glut has diminished the perceived value of advertising dollars businesses are willing to commit.

The prospect of search in an Orwellian sense is that all information is and will be available to everyone immediately. While the portal to this information is narrowing to the point where we will all someday reside somewhere inside the googleplex, the sources of information have become increasingly fragmented. The present danger in the googleplex is the blogger being seen as an equal to the newspaper reporter who must report stories that are vetted through time-tested systems. The long-term danger (which is like dog years in the googleplex) is that traditional reporting that is right and trustworthy will not receive enough advertising support to exist for much longer.

With several daily newspapers on the brink and a few already beginning to fall, Eric Schmidt of Google has already peered into his crystal ball and is afraid of what he sees. He doesn’t want to be responsible for killing the journalism trade. Besides, as Tim Knight, Publisher of Newsday, astutely pointed out on a panel this week – if the newspaper are gone, what will we google? Imagine a giant information vacuum that consists of bloggers critiquing other blogs and talking heads on television covering their critiques while politicians succumb to viral conspiracy theories left unchecked.

In a “Gladwellian” sense (I hope that term make it on Wikipedia!) newspapers have always played the roles of both maven and connector. As mavens we generate the news stories that serve as connectors around the water cooler and dinner table. While still playing the role of maven, we are no longer the connectors. When society reaches a point where our children text message each other while in the same room and our Facebook updates take the place of a phone call, we have officially surrendered the connector role.

Therefore, newspapers must seemingly leave the connector role behind and continue the work of mavens. But it is exactly our roles as connectors that advertisers pay for. And there’s the rub.

The salvation of newspapers will be in the people and businesses that value the credibility of information and the quality of the people who are reading them. The smart business owner will realize that in the information age, newspapers are still one of the best places to advertise because we offer a wealth of original and creative information that still matters to the interested and engaged public. The businesses that will miss the boat, particularly during a recession, will believe the hype that no one is reading newspapers any longer. After all, if you’re reading these words and have made it all the way through this diatribe, you’re one of them. And I bet there are businesses out there that are wishing they knew how to find you. If only I could introduce you to them…

Inspired Journalism

When seeking inspiration I often meander down the aisles of local bookstores and invariably spend a great deal of time in the magazine section. I’m a Gen Xer who cannot seem to get enough of the printed word and there’s a level of satisfaction I receive when reading newspapers and magazines. I trust the printed word.

More than that, print vehicles inspire feelings in me that other mediums rarely convey. They beautifully blend art and commerce in neatly prepackaged and visually appealing masterpieces that are at times too important to let go of. My home office is packed with a wide range of specialty and general interest publications from Vanity Fair and Gentlemen’s Quarterly to Foreign Policy and Ring Magazine. Investigative pieces from alternative weeklies are mixed in among this disparate collection of personally idiosyncratic interests.

More than bookmarking a page on the internet, the dog eared pages of these papers and magazines take me back to where I was when I first read them; like a familiar smell from childhood has the ability to instantly transport you to a faraway time and place. They chronicle the jagged path of personal growth in a way other media outlets simply cannot do.

Recently I uncovered articles I had written for my college newspaper. It’s where I caught the bug that would fuel my desire to launch the Long Island Press. While my style is somewhat recognizable, I barely know the person who authored the pieces. Back then it seems I was somewhere lightly to the right of Stalin – no doubt a youthful attempt to swim against the stream of liberal ideology I was surrounded by on campus. There is a famous saying (erroneously linked to Winston Churchill) that says “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” My personal evolution has been the antithesis of this to say the very least.

There’s something comforting about reading about past events in an article that begins with something other than “wiki”. You get a sense of where the writer really was both physically and emotionally. A newspaper article may collect dust on my shelf for years before I revisit it, but I almost always get more out of it with new and older eyes. Context is essential in understanding the information from articles and stories from yesteryear. Looking at advertisements on adjacent pages, columns from the talking heads of the day and the look and feel of the product speak volumes about the era the words were originally authored in and tell us something that an archived blog post can never fully offer.

So here I am – a member of generation X already reminiscing about a near-forgotten era of yellowed newspaper pages and dog eared magazines. I am self aware enough to recognize that this feeling comes from a place tinged with sadness. The industry I love is dying – or should I say changing forever. Most of the changes are important, necessary and irrevocable and we are working to be a positive force in this change as are many of my colleagues. But any catharsis is not without casualties. Great newspapermen and women, revered journalists and important social commentators are being cast aside, retired early or marginalized. I suppose this is my way of saluting every one of them whose service to our nation is no less important than our armed forces because the journalist-as-truth-seeker is part of the fabric of our democracy our soldiers defend.

I will continue to pay tribute to these great heroes of democracy long after they lay down their pens as their words will live forever on my bookshelves and the archive of my mind.