The weekly New York Press is loud, vulgar, disrespectful, and unpredictable. That suits founder Russ Smith '77 just fine.
By Dale Keiger
|Opening photo by David Lubarsky||
Bruce Springsteen once penned a lyric about "a rich man
singin' in a poor man's shirt." Now consider Russ Smith
'77. He's rich enough to afford a penthouse in Tribeca,
keep two kids in private school, and complain about estate
taxes. He makes the occasional guest appearance in the
pinstripe-and-white-shirt pages of The Wall Street
Journal, but for more than 14 years he has written for
a journalistic poor man's shirt, a free newspaper called
New York Press.
The Press, which Smith founded in 1988, is a gadfly: loud, vulgar, self-indulgent, disrespectful, and bracing. It has been on the wrong side of journalism's tracks for all of its existence. It raises too much hell, publishes too much crude language, and carries too many explicit sex ads to be mainstream. Yet it prints too much right-wing commentary -- much of it written by Smith -- to be a member of the alternative orthodoxy. If The Village Voice is Joan Baez -- earnest, iconic, and getting long in the tooth -- the Press is the Sex Pistols, loud, crude, and sneering at how predictable and respectable the alternative press, including the Voice, has become.
Every Tuesday morning, 116,000 copies of the Press appear in news boxes on the street corners of Manhattan. A typical issue has about 120 pages, two-thirds of them devoted to listings and advertisements for clubs, restaurants, galleries, theaters, real estate, and the goods and services provided by people who call themselves Mistress Monique and Electra, the "wicked wonder." Editorial content might include a personal essay by a college senior one month from graduation, an article about New York lounge singers, an interview with Motown's Funk Brothers, and comics by Lynda Barry and Tony Millionaire. Plus a weekly feature called "Mugger."
"Mugger" is Smith's signature column. It can veer from political diatribe to vitriolic media critique to accounts of Smith's domestic life, all in one week. Recent samples:
As Mugger, Smith despises the Clintons, the Gores, and the New York Times. As editor-in-chief, Smith brags about how his paper will publish writers of any political persuasion, provided they write well and keep agitating readers. The Press features columns by the acerbic leftist muckraker Alexander Cockburn and gay cultural commentator Michelangelo Signorelli. Says Smith, "I want people who love Cockburn to flip the page and catch 'Mugger,' which they can't stand. I think that's cool."
In the 1970s, a tight core of student writers, photographers, and graphic artists coalesced around Smith and the Hopkins News-Letter. Some of them recently recalled him:
Smith lights a cigarette and ponders what to say. He remembers the dance at Goucher and the bloody shirt. But he's thinking about how much of Daddy's past he wants his two sons to read about in Johns Hopkins Magazine. Then he explains, "We were guest bartenders at this dance at Goucher College. I'd been to the Fells Point Festival, and I'd been tripping and smoking pot, and then drinking as the guest bartender. About one in the morning, me and a buddy of mine were playing catch in the hall. I went running for a pass and tripped and my head hit the corner of a bench. There was blood everywhere. I was pretty anesthetized so I didn't feel much, but my buddy said, 'My god, I killed you.' I said, 'Nah, just give me a cigarette.'" Someone was sober enough to call for medical assistance. The cut required 16 stitches, as Smith recalls, and Hirsch's mother was the nurse who later pulled them out.
Many of the grungy young rebels who founded alternative newspapers in the 1960s and '70s are now, like Smith, prosperous middle-aged parents who stop to think about what they say in front of the children. Alternative newspapers have aged, too. Young journalists used to admire the Voice, Boston's The Phoenix, or San Francisco's Bay Guardian for the thrill of their exuberant iconoclasm, the unpredictable nature of their contents, and their raffish, nothing-to-lose-but-sleep spirit. Now, when the Utne Reader publishes its 2002 nominees for general excellence in the independent press, not one alternative newspaper makes the list, but The American Scholar does.
Ah, but there was a time....
Smith, on the job at the News-Letter, which he
co-edited in 1975.
Photo by Jennifer Bishop
If you were 17 or 18 years old in the mid-1970s, and you'd
devoured All the President's Men, and your heroes were
Woodward and Bernstein and Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe
and Jimmy Breslin and Lester Bangs, and you'd turned not to
your hometown paper but to Rolling Stone for all the fear
and loathing of the '72 presidential campaign, here is what
you did when you got to college. You walked over to the
offices of the student newspaper. Those offices probably
were grubby fire traps, with battered furniture,
indestructible Underwood typewriters, greasy pizza boxes
wedged in the garbage cans, and scabrous graffiti on the
walls. The people there had long hair, pallid complexions,
bleary eyes, and a lunatic fondness for working all night,
and to you they were the coolest people on campus. You soon
found yourself spending your waking hours calling sources,
writing stories, proofing copy, pasting up pages, and
trying to recall if it had really been a week since you'd
last set foot in a classroom.
Smith came to Hopkins in 1973. His father had recently died, and he had hated his New Jersey high school; the day he received his Hopkins acceptance letter was, he has said, among the happiest of his life. Ask him what he studied and he says, "Not much. Back then you were only allowed two D's, and I got them by my sophomore year." He majored in English, more or less, at a time when he could arrange independent study credit for projects on the influence of Bertolt Brecht or Arthur Rimbaud or Robert Browning on Bob Dylan (Smith did all three). When he had to load up on classes to graduate -- he'd promised his mom -- he approached overburdened TAs about work past due and said, "Look, do you really want to read another essay? Let's make a deal. Just give me a C."
One of his two D's came from John Barth, for a course on the rudiments of fiction. As Smith recalls, Barth told him, "Look, Russ, obviously the rudiments of fiction have escaped you, but you've got a real future as a journalist." Smith concurred. His true education was the News-Letter, the Hopkins student paper that in those days came out twice a week. Jennifer Bishop, now as then a photographer, recalls, "He lived and breathed the paper." Didn't just live, but lived at: Craig Hankin, current director of Hopkins' Homewood Art Workshops, remembers when Smith moved into the attic of the News-Letter's offices. The two men had bonded over the comic strip "Nancy." Hankin says, "We probably spent more time talking about Nancy and Sluggo than anything. It was just such a fascinatingly dumb comic strip. By the time he moved out of the News-Letter's attic, every wall was plastered with 'Nancy' comics."
Smith, and much of the News-Letter staff, was fueled by coffee, beer, and drugs. That was part of the student-paper ethic of the time: Burn the candle at both ends, and scorch the middle when you got the chance. The mangier your working conditions, the more authentic you were as a counterculture journalist, and conditions at the News-Letter could not have been much mangier. The paper's basement, which housed production equipment, routinely flooded. Bishop remembers trying to work with her pants legs rolled up as she waded through knee-high water: "We felt like pirates or cowboys or something, just trying to get the paper out." Razor blades and X-acto knives lay everywhere, and Smith seemed particularly prone to cutting his bare feet and fingers. "He bled a lot," Bishop says. "You could always tell what he had pasted up."
|Many of the grungy young rebels who founded alternative newspapers in the 1960s and '70s are now, like Smith, prosperous middle-aged parents.||
It was during his Hopkins years that Smith began to decide
what kind of journalist he wanted to be. "I'd always wanted
to be a reporter, from about 10 or so when I started
reading The Village Voice," he says. At Hopkins, he
thought about becoming a foreign correspondent. But a
summer job at the Baltimore Sun, as a clerk in the
paper's library, disenchanted him and began to shape his
disdain for the daily press: "The journalists there were so
self-important. They treated these middle-aged women in the
library like shit. I didn't want to be part of the daily
He became co-editor of the News-Letter in his junior year, 1975. Eric Garland, now editor of Financial Planning magazine and one of Smith's former housemates and News-Letter colleagues, says, "We got to college right as the student movement was winding down. The Vietnam War hadn't ended, but the draft was over and the main protest surge had gone. So the question became, Now what? The News-Letter became more a vehicle for experimenting with ideas about what you should write about. Russ was into the Village Voice model of covering culture and music and art."
In August 1976, Smith took a leave of absence from Hopkins to work in Denver for the College Press Service, a sort of AP or UPI for college newspapers. CPS subscribed to all the alternative papers of the day, and Smith pored over them. Says Garland, "Russ is a real reader. He is nothing if not soaked in the last 30 years of the big cultural movements in journalism in this country." He came back from Denver six months later with an idea. He gathered his pals from the News-Letter -- Hankin, Garland, Bishop, Hirsch, Blunck, about 15 people in all -- and they launched a paper of their own. It was called City Squeeze and it debuted on Commencement Day, 1977. It had stories about a Marxist professor at Hopkins, a Fells Point restaurant, and the Loose Shoes Rhythm Band. The first issue was so much fun, they did another one, then another. They had no money for production facilities but they did have keys to the News-Letter, so they'd sneak into the offices in the middle of the night to use the paper's equipment.
Smith and Hirsch (with their Hopkins buddies) launched
the City Squeeze on Commencement Day, 1977. With no
money for production, they used the News-Letter
offices in the middle of the night.
Covers courtesy Baltimore City Paper
The City Squeeze staff worked as a collective, hoping each issue would make enough money to fund another one. But Smith and Hirsch looked at the paper and saw a potential business, with staff and a payroll and profits. Alternative newspapers had come and gone in Baltimore -- Harry, Port City News, The City Dweller -- but Smith thought the City Squeeze gang could succeed where others had failed. He finished his Hopkins degree work in December 1977, and the next month he and Hirsch borrowed funds from family members and announced that City Squeeze was about to become City Paper: a company, not a lark. This didn't sit well with everyone. Recalls Hankin, "I think there was bitterness, because the Squeeze had been set up as a collective. Then Russ and Alan decided they were going to be the bosses, and the rest of us were going to work for them."
Most of them stuck around, though, and the first City Paper appeared on February 10, 1978. "I never had any doubt that this one was going to go," says Bishop, who was still finishing her Hopkins degree. "It just had such tremendous energy about it." The new publication came out every two weeks and reflected what Smith admired about The Village Voice: its design, its first-person journalism, and its cultural reporting.
The paper had to overcome some bad decisions, like an experiment with paid circulation from 1979 to 1981, and the 1981 start-up of a Washington, D.C., City Paper. By 1982, Smith and Hirsch owed the IRS about $100,000 and the sheriff was at the door to repossess their CompuGraphic typesetter. But by the next year, the partners had sold most of their interest in the Washington venture and remade the Baltimore paper as a free weekly. By 1985-86, City Paper was prospering.
But Smith was restless and Hirsch was tired. They entertained offers for the paper, and in 1987 sold it to Scranton, Pennsylvania-based Time-Shamrock Communications, a family-owned news company that paid them $3.5 million. They also sold their remaining share in the Washington paper to its majority owners, Chicago Reader, for $1 million. "The timing was perfect," Smith says. "We closed on the deal in September 1987, exactly a month before the stock market crashed."
|Smith (l) with Hopkins buddy Howie Nadari '77||
Hirsch and Smith remained friends but parted company. Hirsch went on to co-found Donna's, a successful chain of Baltimore cafes pervasive enough to be locally nicknamed "McDonna's." Smith, now 32 years old and wealthy, traveled around the world for a few months, then set his sights on New York. To be an alternative press baron in Baltimore was one thing. To make it in New York would be a true benchmark. He saw that his old favorite paper, The Village Voice, had no competition, and he thought a free weekly could give it something to worry about.
He enlisted his brothers to finance half the venture and put up the rest of the money himself. In April 1988, 30,000 copies of New York Press appeared in lower Manhattan, free for the taking. The first issue featured a story about a Mob restaurant in Little Italy. Subsequent papers carried fiction and long pieces of personal journalism. Smith published one story about the water tanks that sit atop many New York buildings. "Only 10 percent of readers would read that story," he says. "But the ones who did would say, 'Jesus Christ, this is only a 36-page paper but they ran a 10,000-word story.'" Press editor John Strausbaugh defined the operative principal: "Identify writers you like, let them write about whatever they want, and you'll come up with a much more interesting mix. Some weeks the paper was just kind of gassy, with everybody rambling about their obsessions. But on good weeks it was a really rambunctious aggregation of eccentric voices."
One of those eccentric voices, eccentric by alternative-press standards, was Smith's column. "Mugger" was a piece of shrewd calculation. The politics of the alternative press, especially the papers that arose in the 1960s and '70s, have always been leftist. "Mugger" came out swinging from the political right, which attracted the attention Smith's newspaper needed to survive. He is a live-and-let-live libertarian on many social issues -- "I just don't give a shit if gays want to get married. Fine. Whatever. I think pot should be legalized, prostitution should be legalized. This is penny-ante stuff" -- but conservative in his politics, especially on fiscal and economic issues. "Mugger" reflected that. And Smith took special delight in critiquing the establishment media. He lambasted the New York Times at every opportunity for what he considers its underhanded bias: "I can't stand the Times. It's an adjunct to the Democratic Party. It's disgusting. I have no problem with bias. The Guardian in London is biased, but it's up front about it. The Times still claims to be objective, but it's not. It's really a disgraceful paper." He loved to savage liberal media figures. In his paper, he has called The Nation's Katha Pollitt "an extraordinarily bitter and despicable human being," and pundit Eric Alterman "an asshole" (in italics, no less).
Smith mans the grill at a City Paper cookout.
After a rocky start, the paper prospered, selling for $3.5
million in 1987.
Photo by Jennifer Bishop
His right-wing Muggerisms caught some of his old Hopkins
friends by surprise. Hankin, who calls the Press
"appalling," says, "Russ was like the rest of us. He was a
hippie. He was a left-leaning guy. When Jerry Brown came to
campus, Russ was all over him." But Garland says, "Russ was
this long-haired kid who looked like yet another college
radical, when actually he was probably to the right of the
three ROTC members in college at the time."
Smith suggests they're both correct. "I came of age in the 1960s. I was for McGovern in 1972. But my first distrust of big government came when my dad died, when I was 17. He worked six-and-a-half days a week" -- he owned a car wash - - "and he died at 55, and the government took the money he'd saved for his kids." Smith says taxes also took $750,000 from the sale of City Paper in 1987. He was no longer living in the attic of the Hopkins News-Letter. He had joined the propertied classes, and the view from there was a lot different.
Strausbaugh says the Press "was consciously crafted as the alternative to The Village Voice, the Voice being a sort of Stalinist committee-of-correct-thinking, very PC paper. We went out of our way to be more eclectic, very anti-PC, and upset the complacent New York City liberal mentality." The Voice may not have noticed the first few issues. Strausbaugh says, "New York Press was kind of a stealth newspaper for its first four or five years." But week by week, the Press gained readers and advertisers.
In 1996, declining revenue obliged the Voice to become a free paper, after 46 years of newsstand sales. Weekly papers all over the country were switching to free circulation and watching their readership and revenue increase. But Smith saw a free-for-the-taking Village Voice as a victory, believing that he had forced it to play on his turf.
The current editor of the Voice, Don Forst, says, "I wasn't here when that happened. But almost every alternative out there is free. Young people who were picking up our paper, our target audience, were used to getting a lot of stuff for nothing. They'd pay a buck-and-a-half for a latte but they weren't going to pay for a paper. Leonard Stern, who was then the owner, decided we'd go free and give up dollars in circulation revenue, betting that our circulation would go up and we'd make up what we lost in circulation revenue with ad revenue. And that's what has happened."
Except for a few remarks from Forst, the Voice went out of its way not to comment on Smith. Hopkins alumnus and Voice CEO David Schneiderman, A&S '69, declined repeated interview requests. Forst did carefully craft this statement, "My quote would be, 'Reached at the Voice, Forst said, "They doth protest too much. They seem to be frothing at the mouth, and the spittle isn't particularly attractive."'"
Smith says he's always been an early riser. He still is, starting his day at 4 a.m. to check e-mail and write for an hour or two before he has to get his kids up and moving. He works in a crowded nook tucked under a stairway in his Tribeca penthouse, and last November he spent a few hours there chatting about his paper. Stacked magazines, newspapers, and printouts from the Internet were all over the floor. Shelves on one wall held dozens of figurines: pigs, cats, frogs, Popeye, stuff from the Boston Red Sox (he hates the Yankees). Pictures of his sons, Nicky, 10, and Booker, 8, were everywhere. His wife, Melissa, is a painter, and some of her canvases were stacked in the living room.
Smith dresses better now than when he was at Hopkins, and wears shoes, and his thin hair is shorter than in his Hopkins days, though it still slips over his collar. He has a ruddy complexion and a facial tic, a sort of nervous squint that on this day hinted at tension and fatigue.
There were rumors that he wanted to sell the Press. The paper was losing money in the aftermath of 9/11, as New York advertising dwindled. Smith still evinced enthusiasm for "Mugger," and insisted that the Press had kept an edge that had dulled at most alternative papers. Yet when he wanted to show off recent work, it wasn't the latest issues of the Press, but columns he'd published in the Wall Street Journal (on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's doomed campaign for Maryland governor) and the New York Sun (on why Columbia University should shut down its journalism program). When asked if he thought alternative newspapers had grown tired and predictable, he repeated that the Press hadn't. But he agreed that many of the papers he had avidly read 25 years ago now had little of their founding energy.
|"I've been doing this for 25 years. I'm just beat. I've had a pretty solid career, but now I'm 47 and I have no time to pursue as much other writing as I want."||
Perhaps that was inevitable. Alternative newspapers once
carried the work of self-styled outlaw journalists on rock
music, dissident politics, and the counterculture. Now,
rock 'n' roll appears on the front page of the New York
Times arts section and counterculture sells Gap khakis. If
there's a trade association for publications like New
York Press -- and there is, the Association of
Alternative Newsweeklies -- then how anti-establishment can
they be? Like so many of their founders, they've become
middle-aged, and find themselves, perhaps to their
surprise, respectable businesses with a sizable stake in
the status quo they used to challenge.
Did Smith want to sell the Press? He would only say that he preferred not to sell during a media recession.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks seemed to be on his mind. His penthouse was so close to the destruction, he and his family had to evacuate and live elsewhere for weeks. He was worried about what the attack and subsequent cleanup had released into the environment, and he was worried about his kids. His oldest boy, Nicky, frequently drew the World Trade Center towers, always with "R.I.P." over them. On September 11, when two of Smith's brothers arrived at the boys' midtown school to get them, Booker had said, "What's wrong? Are Mommy and Daddy dead?"
On December 23, Smith announced that he had sold New York Press to investors fronted by Chuck Colletti and Doug Meadow, whose resumes include specialty trade publishing. Smith declined to discuss who had backed the purchase: Avalon Equity Partners, a private equity fund that invests in media, primarily cable television. Avalon's managing partner, David W. Unger, once owned the largest independent Muzak franchise and is still a director of Muzak LLC. Ponder that for a moment, then try not to see irony in Russ Smith, the formerly barefoot, hard-living alt-press rebel, selling his newspaper to the Muzak-man.
A few days before the announcement of the sale, Smith said, "I've been doing this for 25 years. I'm just beat. I've had a pretty solid career, but now I'm 47 and I have no time to pursue as much other writing as I want. I'd like to write a book." He would continue to write "Mugger" for the Press, he said, and the new owners had stated the paper would not change in character. (The first thing they did, though, was fire Strausbaugh.)
There was one more thing: Smith would be moving his family to Baltimore. "We'd like the kids to have a back yard. New York City is a tough place to live right now."
He paused, allowing for one last question: "How much did you sell the paper for?" (Press reports quoted a figure of $5 million.)
"What, are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm not kidding. I'm a reporter. I'm supposed to ask this stuff."
Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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