"The Party's Over": Life in Big Publishing Before Digital's Rise

When I began working in Manhattan for General Media (the corporate name of that publishing company always amuses me), I worked for a vice president, a ruthless man who probably would've made a good mobster.

As local New York City coverage continues to dissipate, guess who benefits

I will call him Don. Considering his age back then, I am certain he's no longer with us. Although I was unable to confirm, I believe he departed this world for whatever is next, if anything...

Aside from the fact that he wrote informed stylized stories for one of our titles about the Mafia, he also exhibited certain characteristics that reminded me of wiseguys. Or what I imagined wiseguys were like.

He was a tough, tough guy, not very tall but he compensated for his lack of height with glinting, sharp eyes, an aggressive intellect and a swagger to his walk. His grayish-silvery hair was thick, and his weathered, rough-hewn face was not unhandsome, though it belonged more on, say, a construction foreman than a corporate executive.

He'd been a journalist who covered the contentious 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago where the Chicago Police Department and Illinois National Guard, apparently so pissed off at the crowds, rioted and started cracking heads. Network newsmen Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, and Edwin Newman even were physically assaulted -- inside the halls of the Democratic Convention center.

Don also authored a book about the '68 convention, among other things. He wrote several books about jazz music -- and unbelievably, multiple children's books. He knew how to make a buck, Don did.

He wore the finest clothes, owned the most expensive brands of everything. I recall once writing and editing a menu for a dinner party he and his wife were throwing. He spent a fortune on the paper he wanted the menus printed on. The printer thought I was nuts, despite the outsized profits he no doubt accrued from the transaction.

Don carried a pistol, allegedly had a permit for it, no easy task for a Manhattan resident. He visited a shooting range often enough to make me curious if he was interested primarily in defense or offense. I've no doubt he was a crack shot. (He brought in the signed targets -- and framed and hung the bulls-eyes in his corner window office in the company's Upper West Side headquarters. The ground floor of the building was a massive Tower Records.)

And he always carried wads of cash -- all crisp hundred-dollar bills. Many times he'd pull the brick out, peel one, two or more off, and send me out to buy whatever for him. Usually it was bottles of scotch (for him, a bottle was always in his desk drawer) or flowers or jewelry, gifts for the "hers")

He had a lot of friends always asking him for help. The standing order was that when anyone called for him from outside the office, unless it was a family member, the caller was to be told Don was traveling overseas. (Still, he once footed the bill for a woman's cosmetic surgery. Don't know anything about the procedure, but I know she wasn't his wife. He also paid to have a guy's harelip fixed.)

Rumor had it that Don had met Bob Guccione (that's the biggest hint I will give you about General Media) at a cocktail party...

Despite Don's massive salary --all these years later I can still only imagine how many zeros each of his paychecks ended in -- he had a scam going on for years. A side thing. He was found out by the corporate office, but he only got the proverbial slap on the wrist, if that. He was bringing in many, many millions and in them days, a VP performing at that level could pretty much do anything he wanted.

Rumor had it that Don met Bob Guccione (the biggest hint I will give about General Media) at a cocktail party. Back then, Don held a top position at a rival publishing company in the Windy City run by a young ex-advertising man who'd been reborn as a magazine dynamo named Hugh, giving Don instant credibility, perhaps, in Guccione's eyes.

 The British Sicilian who spoke in a voice so rough and husky, it seemed faintly otherworldly.  Bob had starved trying to earn his keep painting (as in portraits, not houses) when he finally made his name and fortune by essentially ripping off Hugh, wholesale, and launching his own brand of men's sophisticate (what they were called, seriously) in the UK before landing in America and settling in Manhattan. (In the process, he also married a South African exotic dancer (read: stripper) who one day ran one of the world’s largest publishing companies (and was the guiding force behind high-profile nonsense published in a magazine called Omni that people actually took seriously, yet the same people doubted the veracity of the Penthouse Forum letters. They existed; proof is in my possession. Penthouse Variations had more credibility, even when Marco Vassi edited it.)

Anyway, as the maybe apocryphal story goes, Don succeeded. But his success was so great that —by the time I arrived years later, a wet-behind -the-ears college graduate — he’d already been granted corporate autonomy and was given for his domain most of the sixth floor, which we shared with ABC News. (For years I regularly nodded hello at the urinal at Sam Donaldson as we stood side by side. Also I knew, informally, Diane Sawyer, a very classy lady. )

Guccione could say anything and sound authoritative. Here he discusses how to identify Arab prostitutes, hint: footwear, among other topics.

One of the perks he had (which I myself also had, to a lesser degree) was a the right to spend company money. In those days print publications were veritable cash cows. Major consumer magazines (the trade name for magazines sold at newsstands, to the public, verus, say, B2B publications) in addition to having an army of in-house staffers often paid a stable of freelancers a princely sum to help out with content creation.

Anyway Don had hired a freelancer who wrote regularly for us. I edited that freelancer's work.We'll call him Jack. I truly enjoyed his stories, some of which were about the Mafia. I knew his name only and that he lived out in the Midwest. And at the end, I found out that Jack, who wrote first rate work and was paid around $4,000 a month (this was years ago, too), had a lot in common with Don.

In fact they were the same person.

Despite earning hundreds of thousands a year (?), he was pulling in a handsome supplementary income using a willing participant (a cousin, I think). Don sent me the stories from Jack and GM sent Jack the check -- and Jack gave Don the cash, maybe minus a gratuity, maybe not. Don didn't fuck around when it came to money.

During a meeting after that little story about Jack went around, Don told me during a private meeting -- as if justifying himself to me -- that he'd done what he'd done because "I couldn't find a writer who could do those stories better than I could."

He punctuated his words with a shot of scotch.

I seem to recall us doing shots at his desk, which was typical for closed-door meetings.

He was absolutely right. The magazine was not as good after he stopped doing his pseudonymous freelance writing.

But to get to the point of this story, magazines, newspapers, all print publications, are nothing like they used to be in today's digital world. The place where I worked and am writing about here was made long extinct by the rise of the Internet. For a brief period prior to the web, phone sex was viewed as the next big thing -- and it was a pretty big thing, for General Media, another exponential increase in corporate revenue. Not sure how that market since panned out, but with the tons of free porn distributed on the web, it must be a shadow of its former self.

In-house staffs are minimal at most national magazines and are constantly reduced. Freelance budgets are laughable, except at a very few top magazines, like Vanity Fair.

Even they ousted their longtime editor, G. Graydon Carter. The Sunday New York Times recently reported:

"The state of the magazine industry has changed dramatically since Mr. Carter became Vanity Fair’s editor in the summer of 1992, and its financial challenges have not spared Condé Nast. The company, which expects to bring in $100 million less in revenue this year than it did in 2016, has slashed the budgets at its titles and is in the middle of laying off 80 employees. Earlier this month, it said it was reducing the print frequency of titles like GQ and Glamour and shutting the print edition of Teen Vogue completely.

"Whereas magazine editors of yore could swan about the city in Town Cars and take long martini lunches, they must now devise ways for magazines to survive in a fraught climate. Instead of devoting much of their working hours to holding the hands of temperamental writers or overseeing the designs of print pages, they now help organize gatherings and coordinate video production."

Don was actually my first role model, though I didn't know it at the time. He introduced me to the pleasures of reading, how one can continually expand their intelligence by reading. (He introduced me to a lot of things, actually, but we'll stay on point.)

He introduced me to a whole new world of words -- magazines, books, newspapers. He introduced me to the New York Observer, then a hot new publication. It stood out from all other newspapers in terms of quality -- but also because of a cosmetic tweak. It was printed on salmon-colored paper and rather than photographs, it ran hand-drawn sketches. It was a wry, witty newspaper written and edited for professional writers by some of the formost wordsmiths.The paper was probably best known for publishing Candace Bushnell's column on Manhattan social life. Her Observer pieces were the basis for the long-running tv series Sex and the City.

The peach-colored broad sheet.

I recently found myself thinking of Don, which actually was his first name, after learning about what happened to a digital news site I've been reading for years.

DNAinfo had a distinctively New York flavor. It wrote New York stories that won't be found anywhere else.

As a HuffPost report noted:

"New York has a street-level reporting crisis at the moment. Major print publications like the New York Daily News and The New York Times have made steep cuts to their local newsrooms and lost some of their local coverage. Gothamist and DNAinfo were among the few remaining outlets that gave locals a community, helped shape the discussion on convoluted systems, and provided a soap box to bloggers who broke news in their neighborhoods."

DNAinfo was edited by the great Murray Weiss. I was surpised to see DNAinfo had let him go months prior to the recent  closure.

It is a bitter story that angers me. The editors and writers unionized, and the billionaire owner, out of spite, closed both DNAInfo and Gothamist a day or two later. He even closed down the entire archive of each publication -- thus robbing the editors and reporters of years of their own work, meaning they will find getting another job that much more difficult. Fortunately, he put the archives back.

I have no personal use for unions, but I believe two things: 1) we need them to protect the interests of some workers; and 2) America's great labor movement which sprouted in the 1930s and probably helped to preserve American democracy, is near dead today. Thank Ronald Reagan.....

DNAInfo provided me with a few story leads, not a whole lot, really, when I take count. I think Gothamist gave me more, now that I consider the finally tallies. One of my favorites was a Gothamist story about Albanian mobsters.

We love how the gothamist wrote this one up:

"What with all the massive busts and small-time stabbings, the mob just ain't what it used to be. Nowadays nobody takes any pride in their work, as evidenced by a recent Albanian mob hit gone awry in the Bronx. According to the Post, Bajram Lajqi was upset at an associate who had helped him smuggle drugs so Lajqi set out kill the man as he left the Tosca Cafe. After he and a partner slashed their target's tires, the plan was to wait for him to leave the restaurant and quietly kill him before he could escape. At the last second Lajqi felt this wasn't an inspired enough plan, and ended up punching him in the face in the restaurant. A punch? Where's the ice pick? Where's the head-in-the-vice?

"Lajqi was able to neutralize a bouncer by pulling a gun, but by that time the man was fleeing on foot, so he had to settle for some not-so-quiet gunshots as a last ditch effort. He must be a halfway-decent shot, because the victim was "hit in his left and right thighs…but was somehow able to run away." In case Lajqi wanted to play Monday-morning quarterback, the entire incident was on the restaurant's surveillance camera. Maybe Lajqi would be better off joining the nitrous mafia."

Still I loved the reporting and read both publications on a near daily basis.

I quote from a story that ran in the New York Times:

"Reporters, for all their flaws, tend to understand what’s happening in their own newsrooms. It’s their job to try to see things clearly. Often, what they see in their workplaces is low salaries, inept management and poor communication — ills that plague many workplaces across America. For more than two years now, online media outlets have been unionizing as a way to make our industry better. This week, we learned just how horrifying some rich people find the idea of employees coming together to improve their workplace.

"Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, is worth more than $2 billion. He is the owner of DNAinfo, a local news site that covered New York City and Chicago with unparalleled skill, as well as Gothamist, a network of city-oriented websites that DNAinfo bought this year. ....

"Six months ago, reporters and editors at DNAinfo-Gothamist announced their intent to join the Writers Guild of America, East. This is the union that my colleagues and I at Gawker Media joined in 2015, and the union that has organized major online media companies like HuffPost, Vice Media, Slate and Thrillist in the past two years. In that short amount of time, unionized “new media” workers have won substantial raises, editorial protections and other improvements that writers at more mature companies take for granted. In defiance of the conventional wisdom that unions are outdated, this young, high-tech industry has been one of the most visible recent successes for organized labor in America....

"...  (E)mployees last week voted 25-2 in favor of unionization. And on Thursday, Mr. Ricketts abruptly shut the whole place down.

"It is worth being clear about exactly what happened here, so that no one gets too smug. DNAinfo was never profitable, but Mr. Ricketts was happy to invest in it for eight years, praising its work all along. Gothamist, on the other hand, was profitable, and a fairly recent addition to the company. One week after the New York team unionized, Mr. Ricketts shut it all down. He did not try to sell the company to someone else. Instead of bargaining with 27 unionized employees in New York City, he chose to lay off 115 people across America. And, as a final thumb in the eye, he initially pulled the entire site’s archives down (they are now back up), so his newly unemployed workers lost access to their published work. Then, presumably, he went to bed in his $29 million apartment.....

"The business of journalism has always been fickle and grim. It is an industry full of idealist workers scrambling to cobble together a living at publications owned by a shifting group of cutthroat capitalists and incompetent rich dilettantes. The careers of most journalists feature constant uncertainty and heartbreak, interspersed with periods of life-affirming work that you hope make it all worthwhile. That uncertainty is why The Los Angeles Times, whose owners have been famously anti-union for more than 100 years, is now in the midst of its own union organizing campaign...."

However, a challenge is the same thing as an opportunity, depending on who's doing the viewing. Here's to an excellent as-yet unknown local newspaper/website that will one day more than fill a void. Maybe Murray and some of his people will do it, maybe someone else...

Don't give in to cynicism, ever....

In fact there's more to the story. Digital is an easy, effective way to reach people. It's the perfect medium, at least today. Print publications entail costs so prohibitive that I'd never have been able to start Cosa Nostra News as a newspaper. There's space issues, an editorial versus advertising ratio formula. Then you need distribution, meaning places where people can buy your product, such as newsstands. You need subscriptions, for revenue but also for the numbers--the data to show the advertisers you're courting. You yourself would also have to use advertising, which includes a creative component and a sales component. So in addition to hiring a staff to write enough stories to fill the paper, you'd then need a printer, a distributor, an ad agency, PR agency, and the price tag grows to incomprehensible levels.

Today, I write a story, publish it then share it on social media. That in a nutshell is it.

Smaller local and niche news sites are thriving. The void in local reporting will eventually be filled.

Either staffed or one-man (or -woman) websites already cover New York City at various levels. Websites depend on advertising revenue from platforms like Adsense. They also sell ads. One I recently read about charges $1,000 a month for a banner ad.

Then there's "sponsored content," which excites me the most. One news site ran a Halloween piece, “Tips on Surviving Tonight’s Candy Onslaught,” from Crunch Gym.

Sponsored content is digital publishing's new frontier.....