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We were softer then, but not for long

The Brooklyn Paper
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The first issues of The Brooklyn Paper, back in 1978, were nothing like today’s.

I was looking for an opening in Brooklyn’s newspaper market and found one Downtown, where no weekly publication served the area’s tens of thousands of office workers (daytimers, we called them, most living in various Brooklyn neighborhoods). We figured we’d leave residents of the ’hoods nearest Downtown to the existing publications.

Our product was “soft,” featurey but not fluffy. Even so we ran into some trouble right away. Our first edition featured a roundup of lunch spots — since our readers left the area at 5 o’clock, lunch was the big deal. In an otherwise complimentary review of Capulet’s on Montague Street, our critic mentioned that the wait for service at lunchtime was a long one. The proprietor was displeased.

Fortunately, others were happier. A Montague Street retailer knew exactly which day The Paper came out — around noon, office workers would beginning showing up with his ad in hand.

Our preview issue’s cover pictured a secretary about to pour a pot of coffee over her boss’ head. We were big on office worker features, which in those days meant women. When “9 to 5” came out — the movie in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton play a trio of office workers who wreak revenge on their (male) boss — Features Editor Laurie Brockway took some secretaries to the movie and chatted over coffee afterward. We’d hand flowers to arriving office workers on National Secretaries Day in April and we sponsored a Best Secretary Contest, which generated a tremendous response.

Giving out free flowers was great in cementing our good relations with Downtown’s gatekeepers, but it compounded a challenge particular to that period.

Two things coincided with The Paper’s launch.

First, within a few weeks, the city’s daily newspapers were closed by a lengthy strike, and some people assumed we were a temporary “strike” paper. (In those days, New Yorkers we so desperate to read a newspaper every day that when the dailies would be struck shut, which happened with some frequency, entrepreneurs would start “strike” papers, employing some of the strikers and giving readers their daily fix. One publisher, an old acquaintance operating on the tightest of budgets, borrowed time on our typesetting equipment; when the Pope died on deadline, their cover featured a picture of the pontiff and this headline — “Pope dies, details tomorrow.”)

The second thing involved the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, self-proclaimed Korean messiah, right-wing political aspirant and cult-leader whose legions were dispatched throughout the city distributing Moon’s literature — and flowers.

We were the first major “free” newspaper in Brooklyn, and many people didn’t understand the concept — how could we make money, giving it away? In our first weeks, as we offered Papers to passersby, more than a handful wouldn’t stop, thinking us “Moonies.”

The free concept, however, was destined for widespread acceptance, and it now dominates the weekly newspaper business — there are even several free dailies, though not in New York. Acceptance did not come overnight; getting there required creativity and determination. Stubbornness, really.

Meanwhile, our featurey and Downtown-centric approach lasted about two months. More on that in a future column.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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