Inspiration

TOTAL IMMERSION

By Eli Holtzman

The following talk was given by veteran newspaper editor Eli Holtzman on Oct. 20‚ 1998‚ to the Metuchen Friends of the Library.

I write by total immersion. I sink myself into my subject‚ and become as knowledgeable as possible about what I’m writing.

And at all times I am thinking‚ thinking‚ thinking. Even as I go about other tasks. I’ll be writing something in my head  — turning a phrase‚  making sure all the “i’s” are dotted‚ and the “t’s” are crossed.

And after I write a draft and print it out — if there’s time —  I’ll have a copy by my nightstand‚ and look at it in the morning‚ checking it out again.

I find that in doing one story‚ there usually are leads for others — if I ever got to do them.  Such as I found when I was working on the Friends of the Library story‚ which appeared  Thursday‚ Feb. 5‚ 1998. While talking to Bern Bransfield‚ I found that her husband Bill was ‚ like myself‚ a veteran of World War II — but he was at Iwo Jima  and saw  action there‚ while I was in Europe  in the closing days of the war‚ waiting to go to the Pacific to invade Japan.

A story of Bill Bransfield‚ might be in the offing — if he agrees to talk.

Most people have a story to tell. Many don’t even realize how interesting it may be to others — especially if it is presented in the proper manner.

Of course — the proper manner is the key thing.

WHAT is the proper manner?

The way I tell the story — it is  the manner of human interest.

I’ve been told that  people like to read my stuff because it’s not  about crime  or people killing each other or sex‚ or stuff like that.

It’s about life‚ I guess.  And has to be told  — these days — in my limited space‚ in about 1‚000 words.

How do I get stories?

Well‚ of course there is the aforementioned method. And then there are other ways. People call me and suggest subjects for a column. I appreciate that. In most cases I will check it out‚ and at least put the idea down in a file‚ to be called upon when I am able to get to it.

One of the problems‚ as well as a plus‚ I suppose‚ of my present manner of work‚ is that I spend a lot of time  checking out and refining. It’s a variation of Murphy’s Law — in which work fills the allotted time. In my case‚ it’s Holtzman’s Law. So that when it’s done‚ the product will look like I just knocked it off in ten minutes.

When I was working as a regular editor-feature writer on the old News Tribune‚ I also produced a  column on a more personal basis. I used to like to do that and felt that some of the best things I wrote were in that column.

I wrote in a more personal vein — telling about growing up in a poor home with many children — nine — and often describing my father —  Pop — and his love affair with life and America and Jewishness. And  about my late‚  sweet retarded son Josh‚ whom many of you may have known.

When I was a young newspaperman‚ I realized that every town has the ability to produce good news stories. The dynamic was there: people. I already had attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism and had a good grounding in news.

Before working for The News Tribune‚ which I joined in 1966‚ I had worked for weeklies as a newspaper editor. And prior to that had worked for almost two years as a copyboy  on the New York Times‚ running copy for Brooks Atkinson‚ the drama critic and Olin Downes‚ the music critic. Some of you old timers will remember those names. Another person  I worked with — as a copy boy  — was Gay Talese‚ the writer. But my favorite writer at the Times was Meyer Berger‚ a wonderful feature writer.

But good writing still goes on at newspapers. And I’d like to think I’m part of that good writing. I know that I appreciate good writing — even if I am sometimes envious .

If my writing raises your spirits‚ I am glad‚ because it raises my spirits‚ primarily because I usually feel I am writing about something that is interesting that other people would want to hear about.

When I first met Tom Clark‚ I asked him how he had received the burns on his face‚ and he told me a story of how being a good Samaritan can sometimes blow up in your face‚ literally. A radiator cap had popped off while he as helping a woman with an overheated car. But that didn’t dissuade him. He continues to help people.

Here are some other stories I have worked on:

I have walked with the Menlo Park walkers early in the morning‚ before the stores opened officially.

I have written of 93-year-old Joe Harko of Rahway‚ who still did his vaudeville soft-shoe routine;

And 90-year-old Bill Byrnes who marked his birthday by swimming 90 laps — a mile and a quarter — at the Metuchen YMCA pool.

I wrote about Anne DeMarco‚ one of the remaining four of the five DeMarco sisters ‚ who are a part of show biz history. They sang in the 40’s and early 50s. Anne now lives in Linden and still performs‚ appearing at seniors homes and at veterans homes with her husband‚ musician Jimmy Rose.

I want to let it be known that I am not merely writing about seniors‚ but as it turns out‚ seniors have stories to tell‚ and experiences to relate. If only someone would listen.

I’m a listener‚ and a schmoozer‚ and a note taker for future use.

I wrote about Nick Dudas of Edison‚ who knows how to put his time to good use.  Nick‚ a retired plastics engineer‚ is a handyman and a beekeeper‚ and also is the  person in charge of the Braille tags program of the Union County Life Member Association  of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

The tags‚ small and made of aluminum‚ can be sewn into clothes and have Braille markings  which indicate color.

I wrote about Toni Stern‚ a former Edison teacher‚ who has made a second career of traveling aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 as a harpist.

I wrote about Anna Cornell‚ who worked 62 1/2 years in the Metuchen school board offices and ran what she called the “Dawn Patrol‚” calling in substitutes. She is an archive and a historian. Her grandfather worked for Thomas Edison. She’s still helping out‚ from home.

And about  Bob Abrams of East Brunswick‚ who was a veteran of the China Burma India campaign in World War 2. Abrams is now head of the Garden State unit Basha of the China Burma India Veterans Association.

Mustafa Kilic is from Turkey but has made his way in the states as an entrepreneur. He is the owner of the Cornucopia Restaurant in Keyport‚ but more recently  has  been involved in transforming a cruise ship from the Great Lakes  into a dinner cruise ship based in Perth Amboy.

Many of you know Jim and John Shershick‚ two Metuchen brothers who work together as taxidermists  in an old garage at South Main and High Streets.

Jim Izenberg of Metuchen  traced his roots to a Jewish Utopian agricultural enterprise in South Dakota‚ where his mother was born in a sod house. My story told of the hardships of the experiment‚ and of the visit with his wife Shirley to the area. Shirley Izenberg herself would be a good column subject at some point. Through the Jewish Family Service‚ she was directly responsible  for resettling more than 1‚000  Russian refugees in Middlesex county.

I wrote of a 90-plus year-old woman  Adella Wotherspoon of  Watchung‚ who  is one of two survivors of a major ship disaster rivalling the sinking of the Titanic. Wotherspoon was aboard the General Slocum‚ which caught fire and sank in the East River on June 15‚ 1904‚ with a loss of life between 1‚021 and 1‚031. Eight years later‚ in 1912‚ the Titanic sank  with more than 1500 losing their lives.

One of the problems of writing these pieces is breaking out of the immersion‚ once the story is done. You may get the bends as you break away.

But I have to go on to my next story.

It is work I love.

EXPENDABLE? THINK AGAIN.

By Elias Holtzman

The News Tribune‚ in Woodbridge‚ N. J.‚ went out of business on Oct. 9‚ 1995.

Another newspaper down the drain‚ and with it‚ the vitality that came with coverage of a local community‚ the uniqueness of its own brand of journalism‚ the vitality of competing‚ and beating the competition‚ and all that the newspaper meant to the communities it served.

The News Tribune was merged by The Home News of New Brunswick‚ itself owned by the Asbury Park Press. The News Tribune was acquired by The Bergen Record in 1985. It became The Home News and Tribune.

Under contract of sale‚ I was told‚ there were to be be no farewell issue‚ or farewell columns‚ and thus this submitted column‚ or others similar to it‚ could not be printed in the dying publication.

The column was turned down by editor Jim Flachsenhauer.

“Nothing misty-eyed‚” I heard one staffer say.

And thus the slide into the disappearance of a newspaper was made to appear to be seamless‚ as though there was no emotion about the death of an institution.

I am a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism‚ where I went to school after serving in the Army in World War II. My first job after college was editing weeklies before I joined The Perth Amboy Evening News‚ which later changed its name to the News Tribune when it moved to a new plant.

I have worked in various capacities for The News Tribune since 1966 – wire editor‚ suburban editor‚ city editor‚ photo editor‚ copy desk chief‚ and now a feature writer and weekly human interest columnist‚ writing about growing up Jewish and poor and about my service in World War 2‚ or about people like Peter Jurman‚ who while visiting in Austria in the early thirties‚ shook hands with Hitler at Berchtesgaden‚ or about subjects I come upon while shmoozing with readers .

Among the people I worked with at the News Tribune were The New York Times’ Serge Schmemann‚ when he was with our paper before he joined AP and later The Times and won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I also am a former New York Times copyboy‚ and worked alongside Gay Talese‚ among others. I ran copy for Brooks Atkinson and Olin Downs. Meyer Berger‚ the great feature writer‚ was at the Times when I worked there‚ and was my idol.

I was a long-time‚ paid-up and active member of The Newspaper Guild‚ which I believe helped improve the working conditions and salary of newspapermen and women‚ many of whom loved the business so much they would have worked for nothing.

I am a former president of the North Jersey Newspaper Guild.

I was one of the people not rehired by the new newspaper‚ which decided it did not need my services.

However‚ after my column did not appear‚ public reaction was such that the new paper decided to buy my free-lance human interest features as a column for their Neighbors section on a once a week basis.

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The following is the column about the demise of The News Tribune of Woodbridge‚ N.J.

We die hard as newsmen and newswomen.

Reading the stories of the “merger” was like reading your own obituary.

We have reached the point where we will join other illustrious former newspapers‚ Jersey and elsewhere‚ in limbo. Somewhere out there are the ghosts of newspapers past — The Newark Evening News‚ the Atlantic City Press‚ the Daily Journal of Elizabeth‚ the Paterson Evening News and Paterson Morning Call. They are beckoning to us.

Halloo out there!

And those who collect back issues of defunct newspapers‚ will be able to add the final edition of The News Tribune‚ scheduled for Oct. 8 (1995).

Most of us here at work are really in a state of shock‚ oddly exhibiting magnificent good humor‚ as though the world hadn’t suddenly cascaded in on them after that hurriedly called three o’clock meeting‚ and all of us standing‚ like sheep‚ and being told‚ Yes‚ there will be interviews for all of you and we will do our best to accommodate you.

The bottom line is — there it is again — the bottom line — the bottom line is that our newspaper‚ because of market forces‚ cannot be sustained in this economy.

Does that make us special in any way? Count us among the other newspapers which have gone down‚ like The Sun.

Look at the daily product this newspaper produces‚ and will produce to the very last day. It is a marvel of writing skill‚ excellent local and sports coverage which has reached deep into the community and neighborhoods and schools‚ innovative photography and art‚ intelligent and responsible editorials‚ clever headlines and good makeup and use of color.

We are not being folded because we failed to produce a good newspaper. We produce an excellent newspaper‚ every day. The fact of the matter is‚ we are — and were — pawns in a battle of giants. We are‚ it seems‚ expendable.

We are victims of the bottom-line philosophy.

A community newspaper — a good newspaper — is disappearing. And more’s the pity for the reading public and the loyal supporters and the staff.

When I joined this newspaper back in 1966‚ it was known as The Perth Amboy Evening News‚ and was located in a red brick building at the corner of Jefferson Street and Madison Avenue in the heart of the city.

It had its advantages. You could go out for a cup of coffee or a sandwich and not be in a parking lot. There was walking and talking to be done in town during a break and you could run into real people.

Our newsroom was on the second floor‚ and had a combination of old wooden desks and metal filing cabinets

We came to work in white shirts and ties‚ and rolled up our sleeves.

I was the wire editor‚ with the Associated Press machines almost on top of my desk. Downstairs was the business‚ circulation and classified offices and the press room.

It was a classic daily newspaper‚ serving the community in the ways that newspapers did. Then as now we covered the area towns‚ reporting on board meetings and police news as well as controversies. We recorded the dynamics of people interacting with people.

Old-timers who got the paper called it “The Perth Amboy Paper.” Some still call it the Evening News.

In the office‚ there was a sense of the immediacy of the wire news as it came clickety clacking in on the AP machines with a series of bell signals indicating urgent‚ or Bulletin! news.

All of us kept our ears tuned to the bells‚ which pervaded the newsroom‚ until the machines were put in a special little wire room.

We were an afternoon paper‚ printed in hot lead by operators who translated our copy line by line‚ and some would say‚ “followed it out the window‚” like good printers. In those days –before the technology which has virtually eliminated the composing room — there was already an indication of the beginning of major changes.

We had to keep moving up our deadlines in order to come out earlier and earlier in the day to meet and outdo the competition.

When I started in Perth Amboy‚ I began work at 7 a.m.‚ and as time went on‚ I was required to come in an hour earlier‚ and then an hour earlier than that‚ and yet an hour again until I started coming in at one in the morning .

We moved to our current plant in Woodbridge in 1969‚ and advanced technologically‚ but as is the case in many instances of progress‚ we gave up something. We lost that sense of immediacy and being of the city as well as writing about it.

But it wasn’t all black and white. Our reporters still got to the towns and covered their beats and walked the streets and talked to the people. And we got out a good daily newspaper.

We were all working in a dynamic that produced a daily product we could feel proud of.

Veterans of this newspaper have gone on to great heights‚ among them the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting‚ won by Serge Schmemann‚ of the New York Times; John Curley‚ the CEO and president of Gannett Corporation‚ and his kid brother‚ Tom Curley‚ (whom I helped break in and who now is the president of USA Today.) Naomi Rock‚ who worked on our paper back in Perth Amboy‚ left to join the Associated Press and was in on the dawning of the Age of Aquarius‚ more or less‚ when she described for AP the happenings leading to — and then — the Woodstock festival itself‚ back in 1969.

Our veterans are all over the place. Linda Deutsch reports on the OJ trial. She’s a product of the Perth Amboy paper.

So was David Wilentz‚ the late Democratic leader and prosecutor of Bruno Richard Hauptmann‚ convicted kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. Wilentz worked for a spell as a sports writer when he was a young man. For that matter‚ Wilentz’s granddaughter‚ Amy Wilentz‚ also worked here and went on to join Time magazine‚ and then to write authoritatively about Haiti as a person on the scene during its days of turmoil.

Pete Urban‚ a former sports editor‚ now in retirement‚ resides in the Colonia section of Woodbridge and periodically drops in for a visit or fills us in on local history.

Joyce Purnick‚ in the column‚ Metro Matters‚ in The New York Times of Monday‚ July 17‚ writes: “Losing a newspaper means losing an enterprise whose daily practitioners do not think about bottom lines and advertising and revenue…Serious reporters‚ editors and photographers — and they are to be found in every newsroom — are dedicated to peeling away the hypocrisy and the hype‚ getting at the truth‚ and sharing it with the public.”

Purnick was writing about the demise of Newsday‚ which followed shortly after the announcement of the upcoming death of this newspaper.

“That is why the departure of New York Newsday hurts‚” she wrote. “It means the loss of a competitor whose work made every other newspaper in the city a better newspaper. It means the loss of a partner.”

She could have been writing about this newspaper.

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