by JIM KNIPFEL
May 14, 2017
Behind the Scenes at the New York Press, Part 3
Note: I was recently hired to write the introduction for a massive new anthology which gathered together all the film reviews Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz and Armond White had written for the New York Press from 1991 until the paper folded. I’d always had an inkling that one day I wanted to write a book about the paper, so considering this would likely be the closest I came, I went a little nuts. In the end my intro was chopped in half and extensively rewritten, so thought I’d run the original long version over a four-week stretch, if you don’t mind. JMK
Now, in May of 1997, the editors announced they were bringing on a third film critic. Things were going gangbusters at the Press. They were exciting times to be around the office. The paper was still growing, and we’d even forced the Voice to go free in order to compete. Still, there was a bit of head-scratching at the announcement. Godfrey Cheshire and Matt Zoller Seitz seemed to have things well in hand, everyone liked and admired them a bunch, so why bring in this Armond White?
The reasoning was simple. In accordance with the well-established attitude of the paper, Armond was brought on to piss the hell out of cinephiles, casual moviegoers, and even people who hadn’t seen a new film in years. Being the genetically contrary sort, he seemed to do this with ease. An intellectual African-American film critic who attacks African-American filmmakers while heaping praise on Steven Spielberg? That’s just crazy talk! Why, I oughta . . .
Later in 1997, mostly because we needed more space, the paper packed up, left the storied Puck Building, and moved into a new office on the fourteenth floor of 333 Seventh Avenue, a couple of blocks due south of Madison Square Garden. Again I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that with the move, things slowly started to change.
The freewheeling open office of the Puck suddenly became a honeycomb of cubicles, separate wings for each department, and lots of closed office doors. It was a bit like moving a rambunctious carnival sideshow into the headquarters of an insurance underwriter.
Things grew much quieter. The paper’s various departments were now isolated from one another, and interaction was kept to a minimum. As the receptionist at the Puck, I was privy to everything that was going on at the paper via simple osmosis. I learned a helluva lot more than I wanted to sometimes. Up in the new Chelsea digs, separated from the rest of the office by a heavy wooden door, I only learned what was happening when someone passing through the lobby decided to fill me in.
There were a few of the inevitable staff changes, some for the better, others less so. There was a revolving door of publishers and ad sales people. Associate editor Sam Sifton left to take a job at the new glossy Talk magazine, and was replaced by Andrey Slivka, who himself was replaced a year or two later. Art director Michael Gentile was let go, replaced by Jeff Koyen (see next week’s entry). In 1998 I was finally allowed to leave the reception desk to become a full-time staff writer. In time I was even given a fancy private office. The paper changed its format and logo a few times. Sections came and went. Even the traditional post-work bar conference fizzled in the new location, which suddenly seemed so far away from what had always been the Press’s street level life blood in the East Village. But crazies kept finding their way up to the fourteenth floor, the writers and artists kept at it, and the paper still came out, and still delighted, dismayed and disgusted readers in equal proportions.
When the twin towers came down in September 2001, two things happened. First, that year’s Best Of issue, slated to come out the following week, required an immediate emergency overhaul. A new cover illustration was needed pronto, and someone had to go through the entire issue, excising any entries that denigrated the cops, firemen, EMTs, the towers themselves, or Steve Buscemi. They also had to make sure no entries seemed to encourage a terrorist attack on NYC, since stories advocating that type of thing were not unheard of back then. The paper would get back to the business of equally offending everybody soon enough, but it was agreed it wasn’t the time.
More important, and on a more far-reaching scale, Russ Smith, who lived just a few blocks north of the WTC, began thinking it was time to move his wife and kids back to Baltimore. Since he was the paper’s owner and president as well as editor-in-chief, this raised one very large question.
In December 2002, he called the entire staff together for an impromptu meeting. Throughout the paper’s history, he’d only done that once before. The first full-staff meeting was a victory rally to announce that the Voice had buckled and decided to go free. A lot of us were pretty certain this one wasn’t going to be so rah-rah.
After gathering us all together, Russ announced he’d just sold the paper to a small media company that put out a handful of gay publications, including the weekly New York Blade. As he was making this announcement, someone else put in a call to Strausbaugh, the man who made the paper what it was. Strausbaugh was on vacation in Florida at the time, and when he answered his phone he was informed he’d just been fired. He’d never been given any hint the sale itself was in the works. Strausbaugh had always been the heart of the paper, and no one knew what was going to happen after he was gone.
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