After 40 years, somehow, I’m still doing this

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa

On Sept. 13, 1983, I walked into the newsroom of Suburban Trends in Butler, N.J.  — a twice-weekly newspaper — for my first shift as a sports assistant.

Forty years later, how different things are now seems difficult to absorb.

I was a college sophomore at William Paterson College and had been pestering the editors of The Trends for work since I was 13. While I had a bizarre, abuse-filled childhood, I knew from a young age I wanted to write for newspapers. By the time I was 16, I was stringing — a freelance correspondent — for The Trends, writing up local rec basketball scores, getting as many kids’ names as possible into the reports (which, as it turned out, was good for both the rec league and the newspaper).

Walking into that newsroom for the first time, it had a lot more in common with The Front Page than what we might see in a modern newsroom.

The room was filled with a cloud of cigarette smoke. One than one editor had a bottle of Scotch or Bourbon snugged away in a bottom drawer. Phones rang constantly around the room, punctuated by the local police and fire scanner radio. Loud conversations — some on the phone, the user with a cigarette dangling from their mouth, while typing — added to the din.

It seemed like heaven to this 19-year-old.

I was lucky to have as a boss Sports Editor George A. King III — who would later spend decades on the Yankees’ beat for the New York Post — and a number of veteran journalists who were supportive and tolerant of my questions (some of which must have made them wonder whether I was ever going to catch on).

I split my time between typing in the kind of rec sports stuff I used to write and covering high school sports. The stories, to be polite, were amateurish. My photos were worse, often blurry. Thankfully, my work did improve (and I saved up for a better camera — an Olympus OMG).

I learned every job in that newsroom, from writing obits and police blotter, to learning how to develop film, do page layout and even paste up.

We were lucky (!?) to work on one of the first editorial computer systems — an old Harris system that legend suggested had been purchased second hand from The Washington Post (I have absolutely no idea if that was true, but the idea of typing on a terminal that — maybe — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used was kind of a thrill). Of course, there was a reason the system was sold: it crashed all the time. We got used to saving stories after every paragraph — and the language was pretty raw and the room would become even more filled with cigarette smoke when it crashed on deadline (which it did a lot).

The Trends was a strong publication, with six full time news reporters and five editors, plus a handful of part-timers like me. On average, the paper turned about a 30% profit margin (as a publisher in 2023, that number is mind boggling now). We had paper boys and girls, the paper had its own press. We were owned by Goodson-Todman, best known for TV game shows.

Even though my primary job was in sports, I got to dip my toes into straight news when floods ravaged the Passaic Valley area in the spring of 1984 (half our staff got caught on the wrong side of the floods, so I had to help out with everything to get the paper out) and again, later that summer when Richard Johnson — charged with the murder of an 11-year-old girl — literally busted out of the Jefferson Township Police station, prompting a wide-ranging manhunt (a bit like the current Danelo Cavalcante search, but it was over in two days).

Little did I know those golden few years were really the end of an era.

I moved on to take a job at The Paterson News and Hudson Dispatch — two daily newspapers that shared a sports department.

It was there that I got a front row seat to what would be the beginning of the unraveling of local newspapers (long before the Internet provided the coup d’grace). The former general manager of The News managed to do a leveraged junk bond buyout of both papers from then owner Joe Albritton (his son would go on to create Politico) forming the company MediaNews (a successor of which currently owns The Daily Local News).

But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — the deal left the new company with massive debt service and costs needed to be cut. That meant the end of The News, which merged with The North Jersey Herald News (I would be a columnist and assignment editor for that paper — The Herald & News in 1992-93).

By the fall of 1986, I saw the writing on the wall and ended up back with one of the sister weeklies of The Trends, the (Clifton, NJ) Dateline Journal — by then, like The Trends, owned by Ralph Ingersoll. I was summoned back to The Trends for first a full-time reporting job covering my hometown and then as a bureau chief.

I would rise to Managing Editor before being offered the Editor-In-Chief job at The South Bergenite.

And then…yup, the whole group got sold to MediaNews. I ended up at The Herald & News, but the 12 to 12 days, often six days a week, took their toll and I was done with newspapering, so I thought. I took a job in Philly as Senior Editor at Dealerscope Magazine, a trade mag for the consumer electronics industry. Other cool jobs followed including Executive Editor at Home Theater Magazine, EIC at E-Gear and so on.

When the twins came in 2001, I left E-Gear to freelance and stay home and take care of them. I have rarely worked full time for anyone else since.

Ultimately, in 2010 I started The Times, figuring that I could scale with revenue. It worked great for a while, until we ended up with a digital ad monopoly (Google is facing an anti-trust suit for buying up all of the digital ad networks). I’m not happy with the limited coverage we can afford, but the ad dollars won’t support the kind of coverage we had six or seven years ago (something most of the other publications in this area are dealing with as well) — I had to stop subsidizing the product out of pocket and reduce my hours (I had some health issues, in part, from overwork).

The good news is my original model works — we can continue like this for a while, or of we see a boost in revenue, add content.

I still feel strongly that we need local news and that all of the local publications, digital and print, find a way to sustainability.

I miss those old days, but they aren’t coming back.

I hope there is a new business model and a new generation of journalists to pave the way.

Meanwhile, I’ll still be here for a few more years at least, God willing.

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