The Birth Of Community News
Gary Ackerman loved writing, he loved the news and he loved to be in the middle of things. While at Queens College, he was the editor of the school newspaper The Castle and he described himself as a “full time organization person” on campus.
After graduation, he began teaching at J.H.S. 142 in South Jamaica. His new principal offered him the opportunity to be faculty advisor for the newspaper and – excited – he wondered how a new teacher got to be so lucky. The principal said his daughter went to Queens College and told him Ackerman was the man for the job. Ackerman proved the daughter right, and the school paper started winning awards and then took first place in the Columbia scholastic journalism awards.
Ackerman explained that while he was teaching, he conceived of the idea of a community newspaper for Queens around the same time his wife Rita conceived their daughter, Lauren.
Why A Community Newspaper?
“I perceived that there was a need in the community,” Ackerman explained simply.
“Growing up in Queens and being active in many civic organizations I knew that [those groups] never got publicity for the good things they do. Little space was dedicated to the local stuff” and something was needed to “fill that void,” he said.
But there were obstacles.
One of the biggest was trying to convince businesses that they should take ads in something that didn’t exist yet, and that was soon followed by trying to get them to pay for the advertisements they had run. But Ackerman didn’t let the challenge discourage him. He knew that his newspaper, reaching 50,000 people through door-to-door delivery, was going to cost them less and get them more exposure for their dollar than the dailies with city-wide runs could do.
The Flushing Tribune was launched in February 1970 as a monthly, free distribution newspaper, and Ackerman “called everybody I knew who had kids.” He dispatched an army of Trib delivery kids and worked himself all weekend, every weekend that the paper came out. “I had a knack for it. I don’t know if I did [the newspaper] the right way or the wrong way, but I did it the way I wanted to do it . . . .with community news.”
The first eight-page issue was distributed door to door in downtown Flushing. Ackerman and his two partners, Henry J. Levy and Alan Manheim, would get together in the back room of a real estate office after school hours to assemble the news for the paper. By mid-year, the paper had grown to some 32 pages and was issued on a bi-weekly basis. The paper had begun selling subscriptions to offset the growing costs and to increase circulation and ad revenues.
In time, Ackerman invested in typesetting machines rather than taking the paper to someone to typeset. Once that investment was made, he thought, “Why should these machines sleep at night . . . they could be doing other jobs,” and another revenue stream was born.
And from the first issue there was an overwhelming flow of press releases, volunteer writers and volunteer photographers, all proving Ackerman’s point that his paper was filling a community need. Ackerman described the long list of prominent writers who got their start at the Trib – in either the newsroom or on the delivery route – and said it is common for him to run into “Queens Tribune Alumni” in federal agencies and working for major dailies.
So began the pioneer in the Queens community newspaper world. “We created an industry,” Ackerman recalled, and with that industry came the frightening prospect of competition. The Bayside Times existed in those days, Ackerman said, but they were under different ownership and weren’t doing the good journalism they do today. And when other weeklies started to form, they “got me a bit nervous,” Ackerman admits. But he believes that they only proved “American free enterprise really works. They were out there telling people that weeklies work” and cutting back on the education Ackerman had to give potential advertisers.
“There are now other very good newspapers in Queens . . . all that competition is healthy for business and healthy for journalism,” Ackerman said, and looking back at his third of a century in the newspaper business, he reports that his proudest moment is still “when that first paper came out.”
— Tamara Hartman contributed to this story