SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 21, 2017

Behind the Scenes at the New York Press, Part 4

 

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

 

It was a rough few weeks after the paper was sold. No one knew what was going to happen as the new owners moved the staffs of their other publications into the Press offices and undertook the first of what would be several rounds of firings and pay cuts. A number of regular contributors walked in solidarity with Strausbaugh, and over the next few years most of the writers and artists so closely associated with the paper would disappear for one reason or another. The “Best of Manhattan” issue continued to come out, though it grew smaller and more tepid, and those wild parties became a thing of the past, just a fond and distant memory. Although I wasn’t fired as expected (thanks to the lamb’s blood I smeared over my door), I was informed I was no longer allowed to smoke in the office. I ignored that.

            Lisa Kearns, who had been the managing editor as long as I can remember, was named interim editor. Lisa was one of the kindest, smartest and most competent people you’d ever want to meet, but she had no interest in being front and center as the position required. After a few weeks, she was replaced by Jeff Koyen,

            I knew Jeff from way back. In the Eighties he put out the acerbic and hilarious ‘zine CRANK, and had been the Press’s art director after Michael Gentile left. I thought he was the perfect choice not only because he knew the paper and was fearlessly eager to offend everyone imaginable, but also because I knew he wouldn’t fire me.

            Jeff brought along Alex Zaitchik and Matt Taibbi, both of whom had worked on the expatriate alt weekly The EXILE in Moscow. They likewise had the proper Fuck You attitude, and were anxious to rekindle the Press’s confrontational spirit, which had started to wane some in recent years. Problem was, “confrontation” was not exactly what the new owners had in mind when they bought the paper. Controversy was bad for business and scared off advertisers.

            Despite countless warnings, admonitions and reprimands from above, Koyen, bless him, being a snotty punk at heart, charged forward anyway, launching among other things an annual “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” issue. During the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, there were serious plans afoot to put out a fake “Bush Assassinated!” issue disguised to look like the New York Post. The entire issue was written and a mockup was pasted together, but in the end it was decided that all the ensuing arrests, federal prison terms, and immediate shuttering of the paper probably weren’t worth the joke.

            The final straw from the owners’ perspective came with a Taibbi cover story entitled “The 50 Funniest Things About the Impending Death of the Pope.” Well, let’s just say that raised a bit of a shitstorm, with both Hillary Clinton and that weasel Chuck Schumer publicly condemning us for daring to say such awful things about that beloved John Paul II. The mainstream media labeled us Very Bad People.

            As affirming and hilarious as we all found that, Koyen and Taibbi were both summarily canned, and Zaitchik was made the new editor. What’s more, the Press editorial staff was booted from their fancy offices and shunted over into a string of shabby cubicles in a hidden and forgotten wing of the office. It was becoming clear the owners considered the paper an embarrassment, an unruly adopted kid who needed to learn how to shut up and behave.

            Zaitchik was smart and radical but much more serious and low-key than Koyen had been. During his brief run as editor, he published a couple of investigative pieces that went national, but it didn’t matter. Alex was too independent, too political, and was in possession of too dry a sense of humor, so the owners were already interviewing replacements on the sly.

            In 2005, Zaitchik and his team were replaced by Harry Siegel, then in his late twenties, who brought along his own equally young editorial staff. I liked Harry. He was a gruff idealist and Romantic. He also didn’t fire me, though I found myself sitting in my cubicle all day feeling more and more like that resigned elderly Italian in Catch-22. By that point, at age forty, I had officially become the paper’s Cantankerous Old Man.

            Harry loved the idea of being a New York newspaper editor, and played the old school Hollywood stereotype to the hilt. He smoked and drank hard, and had fantasies of the paper’s writers getting together to loudly debate issues and ideas. Yes, well, I knew that would never happen, but didn’t tell him that. Two or three days a week I’d get into the office about seven, only to find Harry groggy and hungover after spending yet another night on the couch in his office. I also didn’t bother telling him what all kind of nastiness had transpired on that couch over the years.

            Siegel’s dream didn’t last long, either. Amid the violent international controversy surrounding the publication of those satirical cartoons of Muhammed, and noting every major U.S. newspaper was too cowardly to reprint them, he decided it was morally obligatory for the Press to take a strong First Amendment stance by plastering them all over the cover. When the owners caught wind of the plan minutes before the paper went off to the printers, they informed him no such thing was going to happen, and nixed the cover. In response, Siegel and his team quit on the spot. It was the first time in the paper’s seventeen-year history an issue didn’t come out.

            After that things just got sad. More editors came and went, each one more incompetent than his predecessor, but more in tune with the owners’ vision of transforming the paper into a bland penny saver that offended no one. The page count began shrinking. A memo was circulated instructing the writers (in direct contradiction to the Press’s strict longstanding policy) to shamelessly plug advertisers in their stories whenever possible. As the sole staff writer, I found myself assigned pieces about coat sales and flower shows. Niceties like “copy editing,” “proofreading” and “fact checking” went out the window. When what would turn out to be my last cover story appeared, someone had seen fit to lop off the first two paragraphs, so the story opened with the word “Yet.”

            In June of 2006, I was called into the then-editor’s office and fired. He explained I was being canned because I was “not a team player.” I told him that had he asked me thirteen years earlier I could have told him straight out that I wasn’t a team player, thus saving everyone a whole lot of grief. But of course he hadn’t been around back then, and back then being a team player was the last thing anyone was looking for at the Press.

            It was kind of a relief, after all, though it took me a few days to realize it. It just wasn’t fun anymore. The only two writers left from that Golden Era in the late Nineties were J.R. Taylor and Armond White, both of them friends of mine. But since the editor who canned me (accurately described by others as “a paranoid moron”) had decreed the office off-limits to freelancers (he was convinced one might be carrying a bomb), I never saw either of them anymore. I had little or nothing to say to the blank-eyed little twenty-year-old urchins who surrounded me in the office. Plus I was tired of writing about coat sales.

            Ironically enough, as I was carrying my box of meager belongings to the subway after leaving the office for the last time, I ran into Armond on the sidewalk. He was just on his way into the office to pick up his mail, and I told him what happened. We stood there on Seventh Avenue and talked for a long time. It was good to see him. Only recently did it occur to me that my tenure at the paper began with Matt Seitz (I’m still clinging to that story), and ended with Armond. In an odd way it made sense.

            The Press was sold again shortly after that, and shortly after that it simply vanished. It’s worth noting that after it folded and the domain name was sold, any and all online archives of the New York Press vanished, and even the New York Public Library collection of back issues is spotty at best. The Press, in it’s eighteen year run, may well have represented the last truly great and important expression of the possibilities of an honestly independent underground newspaper. The fact it’s been so thoroughly erased in the Internet age says something about us. We may have left behind the last literate era we may ever know. I think it may also say something about what’s become of New York in general that the stately Puck building, where all this began, has since been completely gutted, and as of this writing is home to an upscale clothing store.

            Regardless of the dispiriting decline in those final years, the New York Press did leave behind a fairly remarkable legacy, with so many who’d gotten their start in the pages of that scrappy little downtown weekly going on to some mighty big things. Long before he became the darling of the NPR crowd, David Sedaris debuted in the Press after Strausbaugh edited a sloppy collection of handwritten notes on loose-leaf paper into a story called “The Santaland Diaries.” William Monahan became an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director. Jonathan Ames likewise moved to the West Coast and created “Bored to Death” and other TV series. Other Press alumni have gone on to win Emmys, Pulitzers and Pushcart prizes. A number of stories that first appeared in the Press have been included in the annual Best American Essays anthologies. Contributors have worked on hugely popular cartoons, written award-winning bestsellers, and taken high-profile jobs at the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the National Enquirer, the New York Post and New York magazine. It was a bit like Hollywood in the Seventies, when Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Robert DeNiro, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles and so many others came out of the Roger Corman school of no-budget indie filmmaking to quietly infiltrate the major studios. Pretty amazing to look back now and see the long-term effects that snotty little underground paper has had on mainstream culture, considering when we all started out, our primary goal was to give that same culture the finger.

 

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