Asking questions on "E. Nice St." in 1982. Photograph by Deirdre Drohan Forbes.
I reported my first story for hire 50 years ago. I believe this will be my last.
In 1970, I’d just graduated from high school and was working as a copyboy for the New York Daily News. I scored a temporary assignment as a vacation-replacement typist transcribing voicemails for the Action Line column, which promised that we’d solve readers’ problems with ornery merchants and cut red tape with obstinate bureaucrats.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- my hunt-and-peck typing skills, Don Price, a sage-but-crusty editor who’d lost a leg as a paratrooper on D-Day, soon handed me one of those reader’s queries.
I made some calls, discovered that the best way to humanely get rid of nettlesome raccoons was with a Havahart trap, and wrote up the item. I spent the next year learning the reporting trade by grilling town highway superintendents about when they intended to fix a treacherous pothole or cajoling store managers into honoring a warranty.
It’s amazing to think that the long-defunct Action Line, which only served readers of the Long Island edition of the Daily News, also employed two full-time journeyman reporters and two full-time typists, as well as a rotating cadre of reporters-in-training. The newspaper’s owners this month announced that it was permanently closing the entire physical newsroom, which had long ago moved out of the landmark Daily News building on Manhattan’s East 42nd St.
Things certainly have changed in our world of media, marketing and advertising. Things are always changing, of course.
I look a leave of absence from the Daily News in 1982 when my photographer wife, Deirdre, took one of the first cost-slashing buyouts offered by the paper. Among other freelance gigs I took over the ensuing year, I worked as a newswriter for a market test that later became the Prodigy interactive service.
When it was time to return to the News, I told the paper’s assistant managing editor that I’d like to work with a videotex experiment being conducted by the [Chicago] TribuneCompany, which owned the Daily News. He thought the whole concept -- and my request -- was pure folly.
Instead, I accepted an invitation from editor Clay Felker to join Adweek as its chief copy editor -- and, over the new few years, took on more responsibilities. All the while, I continued to push the idea, to anyone who’d listen, that the future of media was online. An Adweek colleague, MediaPost editor Joe Mandese, once quipped that Al Gore and Thom Forbes invented the Internet.
After I left Adweek and its sister publications to freelance in 1990, I spend much of the next decade promulgating the idea that businesses -- and media companies in particular -- needed to get online. As part of my campaign, I wrote articles, a book, spoke at seminars, consulted at media companies, organized conferences and launched a (print) newsletter for the AAAAs called BackChannel.
But in my heart I was, and will always be, a newspaperman. It’s genetically encoded.
My great-grandfather, George Morris Forbes, came to this country in 1870 and got a job as a printer’s devil (an apprentice) at The Pioneer, a weekly based in New Rochelle, New York. He was 14.
“[The Pioneer] is edited by the proprietor, William Henry Dyott, assisted by his Son and other Literary Persons,” William Dyott had written soon after its launch in 1860. “The type is set up by three little girls, his daughters, and he strikes off the impressions himself; he is, consequently, responsible for all errors and will give satisfaction, WITH PISTOLS, to anybody considering himself aggrieved!” he continued.
William and his brother John, an actor who was performing in “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, earlier had been given nine days to depart Great Britain as a response to their Irish nationalist activities.
By the time my great-grandfather started his own newspaper -- in nearby Mamaroneck, New York in February 1879 -- he had apparently learned that being feisty is not necessarily good for business.
In his first editorial, he wrote: “For those whom we long had the pleasure of writing for, in New Rochelle, while connected with The Pioneer, we extend our earnest thanks for their kindness, and regret that some slips of the pen produced ill feelings which we trust are now at an end. All men are liable to err; why not then, youth? and though ‘what is writ, is writ,’ still there has been nothing done which a true man will not overlook and forever forget, and trusting it may be … never to be referred to, more.”
The Investigator failed after a few years, however. So did another startup back in New Rochelle. George wound up as a stringer for several New York dailies. He died at age 50 when he was hit by a trolley car during a blizzard while on an assignment in Jersey City.
George and Mary Connor Forbes had four sons and two daughters, all of whom worked in the newspaper trade in one capacity or another, from publisher to editor in chief to copy reader.
My grandfather, Thomas Harold Forbes, was the fourth son. By all accounts, he was an inveterate ham -- a song-and-dance man who performed in New York theaters at night, but spent his mornings in the shop of the New Rochelle Paragraph, which was owned by his eldest brother, Robert, writing a column of notes and comments.
Within two decades, Harold would merge the two dailies that sprang up in New Rochelle, the Star, which he bought from Robert, and the Evening Standard, forming The Standard-Star. The nameplate existed as part of the Gannett Suburban Newspapers chain well into the 1990s. I have the framed and signed first copy off the press, dated July 3, 1923, in my office. He also published two other Westchester dailies and several weeklies.
Harold or “Spider,” as he was known, met my grandmother, the actress Carrie Bowman, when they were both in the chorus of a George M. Cohan show on Broadway in 1904. Cohan was his hero.
In a 1928 interview with Edwin Hill of the New York Sunday Sun, Harold said: “I started right out putting George M. Cohan methods into the old Star -- not so much jazzing it up as making it really alive and up to date with what people in the community were doing and thinking.”
New Rochelle was a community he loved -- so much so that Cohan, according to two of his biographers, was inspired to write “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” because of Harold’s insistent bragging about his hometown.
Newspapers were changing. Strident political views were relegated to the editorial page. It was important to attract as many eyeballs as possible to sell canned goods and automobiles and winter coats to the emerging middle class.
Harold and his business partner, Francis T. Hunter, a top-ranked tennis player who later co-founded the liquor distributor 21 Brands, sold the chain for a lot of money in 1929. Things got tough as Harold produced a bomb of a motion picture and the Great Depression wiped out a local bank where he was a director.
Harold sold the mansion he’d built on Long Island Sound down the street from the Larchmont Yacht Club to his buddy, Rudy Schaefer, who owned the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company.
Harold published the North Shore Daily Journal in Queens for several years, then started a newspaper with S.I. Newhouse in Nassau County, Long Island, the Nassau Daily Journal. It was the only newspaper Newhouse ever started from scratch and was hit by a driver’s strike early on. They wound up selling the presses and linotypes to Alicia Patterson, the daughter of the Daily News’ publisher, James Medill Patterson. She held a contest to rename the paper and Newsday became one of the most successful suburban newspapers in the country.
When Harold died of stomach cancer at 62, he was still writing editorials -- about barking dogs and the like -- as the owner, publisher and editor of the weekly News Review out of Riverhead, New York. Three of my uncles worked for him there and took over.
My father, Thomas Harold, Jr., attended Colgate University and then became a copyboy at the Daily News, eventually working his way into the sports department. In the late ’30s, he landed his dream job: beat writer for the New York Giants baseball club.
In 1939, the Giant’s star second baseman, Burgess Whitehead, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina, was refusing to leave his farm for spring training camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He'd had a nervous breakdown the year before after barely surviving an emergency appendectomy. My father traveled by train and plane to Lewiston, North Carolina, to talk to him. The result was Whitehead’s return to the team.
I once asked my father what possessed him to intervene in the situation.
“It was just newspaper sense that the real story had to be in Lewiston and not from a manager's press conferences relating phone calls, honest as these conferences I'm sure were,” he emailed back. “[Giants manager Bill] Terry never, to my knowledge, was anything but straightforward and honest, so much so that, at times, it irritated other writers. I just always sat out any outbursts and stayed around if I had the time, and ended up with a good and ‘different’ story.”
Indeed, there’s always a larger, more compelling story behind the story if you talk to people. If you ask questions. If you don’t do something because that’s the way it’s usually done -- and then ask more questions.
Here’s how I learned that lesson.
It was July 4, 1982 at the Daily News. I was working the night shift, 4-12. We were short-staffed and I was a young guy on rewrite.
I’d already churned out a few stories when I was handed a police wire by the assistant night city editor. A guy had been shot dead by a bartender in a social club on the Lower East Side. I called the local precinct and got what information I could from a cursory conversation.
There were at least a dozen murders a day back then. This shooting in a dive bar on the not-yet-gentrified East Ninth St. between Avenues B and C did not seem to be the type of narrative that editors usually wanted more than a two or three-sentence “brief” on. That’s what I wrote. I transmitted it to the night city editor, Joan Nassivera. I was quickly summoned. She was not pleased by my effort.
“Did you talk to the detectives?” she asked.
“They’re still at the scene,” I replied.
“Why aren’t you?” she said.
The story I got by talking to people and asking questions was on the top of page 3 a few hours later with the headline, “Slaying Casts Pall on East ‘Nice’ St.” Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to know both the victim and the bartender who shot him with two blasts from a .12-gauge shotgun in a dispute over money.
“The killing stunned the neighborhood,” I wrote. “‘It’s a beautiful block. I want to have it renamed E. Nice St.,' Sylvester Greene, a custodian with the Board of Education said after the story had spread.”
“It’s sad that with so many firearms in our midst that instead of taking it out in simple fisticuffs, this had to happen,” another neighbor who knew both men told me.
Over the last few years, I’ve stopped writing and editing except for this column for Marketing Daily, which I’ve done in one form or another since June of 2006. There are 10,343 articles with my byline if the search engine has got it right.
It has been a blast, thanks to my wonderful colleagues.
At the same time, as a NASM-certified personal trainer for more than a decade, I’ve been building a fitness business for folks over 49. I trust that expanding that endeavor -- COVID-19 was a wake-up to the extraordinary possibilities of this Internet thing I was so hopped up about 30 years ago -- will keep me fitter and younger longer. From the community aspect, I imagine it as a virtual version of New Rochelle a century ago.
And that reminds me of one more story. Worth Gatewood, the usually taciturn editor of the Sunday edition of the Daily News, once told me from a barstool that “a journalist was a newspaperman who was out of work.”
I guess I’ve made it -- a journalist happy to be lunging and shaking the tree instead of reporting and rewriting. I’ll still be asking questions. While you won’t be reading the answers, I thank you sincerely for all the years that you have.