The Woman Who Launched a Newspaper During WWII
On the Messy First Issue of Alicia Patterson's Newsday
When Alicia Patterson started to tell her New York friends about her newspaper plans, some listened (as friends do) without listening, but many others, especially those in the media, all too quickly rejoined, “Oh, just like the Connecticut Nutmeg,” referring to the urbanely amusing, sophisticated little Lakeville, Connecticut, weekly published by the famous columnist Heywood Broun and his wife, featuring poems by Dorothy Parker and assorted contributions by the Algonquin set. But this was exactly, precisely not the direction she intended to go: a top-down, self-conscious, writerly, and inevitably money-losing entertainment for exurbanites. Even her usually savvy friend Neysa McMein thought that, when it came to naming the new paper, a cute title like “The County Irritant” would be such a giggle. Fortunately Alicia had burly, no-nonsense Max Annenberg to keep her head in the right direction, besides advising her on mundane details of circulation and machinery. She also had Harry Guggenheim’s business skills on her side, something of a mixed blessing then and evermore. On the one hand he could be good with numbers, which she knew were important, for example right at the beginning cleverly arranging (through his lawyers) to fix a purchase price with Newhouse of a modest 50 thousand dollars “for all plant and equipment”; at the same time he often drove her crazy by his preoccupation with feasibility studies, surveys of one kind and another, his “spreadsheet mania,” as she called it.
Mostly, though, she had her own instincts and impulses. At a time when the term “market research” did not yet exist, whatever someone could figure out by nosing around, checking out stuff that made sense to check out, Alicia was already doing; walking the streets of Hempstead, driving the country roads, trying to figure out her potential readers: small-business owners, housewives, scallop fishermen, potato farmers. For staff, Harry had already installed the research consultant Bill Mapel as business manager; Mapel in turn had hired a personable, talkative, young ex-Foreign Service aide, Stan Peckham, whom Alicia took a liking to and made her assistant. Bit by bit things began falling into place. The seemingly intractable problem of how to get a newspaper to readers in an area where there were no newsstands and no delivery boys was solved by hiring three former newsboys from Brooklyn and Queens to come out and teach local kids the fine points of home delivery—for example, how not to just toss the paper onto the front lawn, where rain or dew would ruin it, but to walk it all the way to the front door. The more fundamental question of the actual form of the new paper, and how to print it on the old presses, took a little longer to resolve. From the start she had wanted a tabloid and asked Max Annenberg for advice; Annenberg in turn went to the horse’s mouth, to her father, who now communicating only through Annenberg, tersely advised that a tabloid could only succeed in a big city besides being entirely wrong for that part of Long Island. Still she wanted it as a tabloid, though of course the presses were a problem, designed for a conventional format. But maybe they could be rejiggered to print sideways? They could, but they would have to be taken completely apart, cleaned, repaired, rebuilt. Months went by in this fashion. Since the ancient presses were being retooled, why not the equally ancient Linotype machines? Harry huffed about all the money going out, no money coming in. Alicia commissioned the art-designer husband of a friend to come up with both a fresh typeface and a new design, aiming at something cleaner and clearer than the standard tabloid clutter of, say, the Daily News; a page with a more inviting horizontal look, wider photos, and no more “rules,” those black vertical lines between columns. Ten days from publication the new paper was still without a name, despite Stan Peckham’s countywide “Name Your Newspaper” contest; back from lunch, Bill Mapel walked into Alicia’s small makeshift office, just off the press room, and wrote one word on her memo pad: “Newsday.” “Yes, that’s it,” she said.
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The day after Labor Day, September 3, 1940, so many of the new young staff, their friends, family members, various well-wishers, assorted onlookers, and so on, had all pushed their way into the new paper’s offices (which still had the look of a car dealership, without the cars) that the press foreman had to blow a whistle to clear out inessential people from the tiny composing room, where compositors were trying to set the last lines of type. “Why can’t I stay?” asked Alicia, who was wearing a new dress for the occasion. “Are you going to make up the paper?” the foreman asked her. “I don’t know how,” Alicia admitted, and backed out into the crowded newsroom. At last she was allowed in again, officially pushed the start button for the two old (and now briefly clean) Goss presses, which forthwith clanged and rumbled into action.
“It was just a horror,” one of the original staffers recalled in Robert F. Keeler’s fine book, Newsday. In a newspaper of only 30 pages, all too many came out ink stained and muddy. Worse still, on the very first page, two photos were printed with their captions transposed. With the presses still running, many of the staff wandered down Hempstead’s Main Street to the Anchor Inn where they had too many drinks and took bets as to whether or not the newspaper would last out the week. On Alicia’s instructions, but without really looking at the paper, Stan Peckham had taken one of the very first copies straight into New York, hand-delivering it to Joseph Patterson’s office; unfortunately it was a copy with numerous pages barely legible, except of course for one clear headline about President Roosevelt’s decision to send 50 destroyers to Britain, a subject that Patterson had been fiercely editorializing against in recent weeks. Whatever the reason, Patterson’s response to his daughter’s first newspaper was minimal, perfunctory: “Thank you for the paper, JMP.” Alicia herself owned up to a sloppy debut. “I’m afraid it looks like hell,” she said of her just-born Newsday. Then she took a page from an editorial her father had once written, after the first error-strewn issue of the Daily News, and published an apology in the next day’s paper, an edition happily containing only two or three small errors. She compared Newsday to a badly behaved child at its first public appearance, promising to make it up to her readers, and concluded with a rough paraphrase of her favorite heroine’s parting words in Gone With the Wind: “Tomorrow will be another Newsday.”
From THE HUNTRESS. Used with permission of Pantheon. Copyright © 2016 by Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen.