Happy anniversary, gray lady

The Daily Freeman, our hometown newspaper, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month. A once bustling enterprise first in Rondout (1871-1974), then Hurley Avenue until last month, the once proud gray lady, a victim of corporate greed, has been reduced to the backroom of a bookstore/bar (Rough Draft) in the Stockade District of uptown Kingston.

The small space it now occupies housed Kingston Academy in Colonial days, later, the Kingston Daily Leader and radio station GHQ.

I had the privilege and the lucky timing as a young reporter of being on the staff that published the Freeman’s 100th anniversary edition in 1971.

Hometown newspapers were an integral part of their communities in those days. Reporters roamed the halls of government in search of news, rather than waiting for some politician to put out a press release. Editorials and columnists commented on the events of the day. Rarely did opinion invade the “news side.” Reporters who slanted stories didn’t last long.

Photographers were at every major event and plenty of small ones, too.

Next-day sports coverage was a big part of the paper as well as what was then called “society news.”

Editors came up through the ranks, steeped in the history and habits of the community. A continuing discussion among editors was whether it was better to have experienced reporters on long-assigned beats or newcomers with fresh ideas. Most staffs featured a combination of both.

People knew people at the paper.  

Criticism went with the job. People love to complain about their newspapers; it goes with the First Amendment. Some called it the “fish wrapper,” but far more subscriptions were cancelled over delivery issues than content. Grouse they might, but most couldn’t wait to read the obituaries and police news.

The two most common pleas for mercy: DWI arrests and shop-lifting.  

I had been city hall reporter for about four years when the staff was called into a meeting during the summer of ’71 to plan the centennial edition. Editors made it clear that the 100th would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to produce “something special.” It would include the histories of almost every institution, agency and business in the area. Many published their own histories through paid advertising in the paper. Congratulatory messages poured in from the president down to the mayor.

Politicians got into the act, as they usually do. Republican chairman Pete Savago hated the newspaper for its aggressive reporting of what he called “party business,” but still posed for a frontpage grip and grin photo with the publisher marking the occasion.

Modern Freeman readers are used to 12-page or maybe 20-page editions. The centennial ran to 96 pages in four sections with the 65-35 industry standard for paid advertising.

Most of them are gone now, either to that great city room in the sky or to parts unknown. I must say we got a little full of ourselves. We were proud to be participating in what was clearly an historic project. Our comeuppance (or at least mine) was not long in coming.

City fire chief Jim Brett was one of Kingston’s many memorable characters. A self-taught man, he was said to memorize five or six words from the dictionary every day and practice them on staff.

Chief Brett was no doubt a bit irked that the Freeman was celebrating its 100th anniversary when his (paid) department at that point in time was only 63 years new.

Freeman photographer Bob Haines and I went to the chief’s office to interview him. I was sitting on the couch taking notes in front of his desk when he got to his feet and walked over.

“This is the Freeman’s 100th anniversary?” he said to me.

“That’s right, chief,” I said. “And we’re all very proud of it.”

Brett smiled, stroked his chin, shook his head and said, “You know,” he said, “after a hundred years, you’d think you guys would begin to get some things right.”

Epilog: I was glad to see last week’s Freeman 150th edition feature veteran photographers Bob Haines and Tania Barricklo. Tania to me is a marvel. I’d call her the best newspaper photographer I’ve ever seen; except I have to come home at night. Bob Haines was Ol’ Reliable, steady as they come and with good rapport with subjects. (Like Tania.)

The sentimental side of me wishes they’d also mentioned former Freeman photographer Bill Madden, John Kruh and Pete Powell. If I too have forgotten someone, shame on all of us.

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POLY-BIZ – Ike used to say all plans fail at execution. Here’s another example.

It wasn’t my idea to interview county legislature candidates Phil Erner, Suzanne Timbrouck and Dave Donaldson from Kingston on live radio last week. It was Donaldson’s.

“What do you think about having all three of us on your radio show this month,” Donaldson asked a few weeks ago.

“Haven’t really thought about it,” I said. “Sounds like a good idea.”

“Is it a call-in show?”, Donaldson asked. Right away I got an idea where he was going with that.

“Yeah, we’re on every other Friday on GHQ,” I said.  “I’ll try to get all three for the 15th.”

It took some juggling of schedules, but up until the night before the broadcast I thought we had a show.  

Erner called me at home about 8 p.m. Had I seen the flyer Donaldson had put out that day?

No. (It was actually under a pile of junk mail delivered to my house that afternoon.  I looked it over after getting off the phone with Erner. My snap assessment: standard stuff, no big deal.

“It’s full of lies and misrepresentations,” he said of what he called an “attack ad”. “He claimed in the flyer that I have been in town for only a year. It’s two years.” (Donaldson, now in his ‘70s, was born and raised in Kingston.) ”I’m sorry,” he said, “but I will not appear on a program with a man who acts like that.”

He was bailing for what amounted to a slap on the wrist ten hours before the show was to start? I had never heard of such a thing.

I don’t usually offer political advice to politicians, but the whole point of this show was to have all three in the same room at the same time responding to questions from me and Mario (Catalano) and anybody who called in. I was pretty sure that Donaldson, a seasoned political operative, would maneuver to stack the call-ins.

“Phil”, I said to the first-time candidate. “This is not going to look good for you. You get some criticisms from your opponent and you cut and run?

“I’m sorry, but”, he said before I interrupted.

I pressed. “You’re new to this business”, I said. “Politics is a contact sport. If you can’t deal with criticism from an opponent, how are you going to act as an elected legislator?”

I suggested he talk it over with his campaign people and get back to me that night.

I’m still waiting.

We went with Donaldson in-studio and Timbrouck phoning in from Kingston High School where she teaches higher mathematics. It was OK, but Erner was most conspicuous by his absence and for the lamest of excuses.

I suggest voters take that into consideration when they go to the polls on Nov. 2.

2 thoughts on “Happy anniversary, gray lady

  1. Hugh, great take on both stories. When Erner didn’t show on Friday I began to realize that he is actually just running for a pulpit and doesn’t want to be elected to serve, but to speak, unchallenged.Hopefully the folks in District 6 will figure out this is more about Erner and less about them. They have two other decent options.

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