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Setting a new Record

Martin Gottlieb returns to his roots
July 18, 2012

He traded Paris for Hackensack? Really? Well, not exactly. As global editions editor for The New York Times, Martin Gottlieb was not living in France, just traveling there several times a year, from his home in lower Manhattan to the office of The International Herald Tribune. Then in January, he became editor of The Record, the northern New Jersey daily, which, in fact, is no longer in Hackensack. The Record was Gottlieb’s first newspaper, 1971 to 1973. He went on to a somewhat restless 41-year career—two stints at the New York Daily News (the second as managing editor); a two-year cup of coffee as editor of The Village Voice (in the late 1980s); and three distinct shifts at the Times. He is known as a journalist whom other journalists enjoy working with—and working for. The Record, meanwhile, seems energized. Mike Hoyt, CJR’s executive editor, spoke with Gottlieb in May.

Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker told students at Yale: “Newspapers are kind of dreary, depressed places.” What do you think?

I put myself in the mind of a young woman who came here to give us some advice about how to proceed digitally. She looked out over our newsroom and said, “What a vibrant place this is!” Everyone was standing at their desks, talking about the news of the day and talking about what they were doing. I was seeing our newsroom through somebody else’s eyes, someone who picked up on the buzz that is the air here every day. There is great young talent here, there is senior talent that is as good as anyone in the country, and there’s a commitment to delivering news that’s important to people, exciting, alive in the writing and fun to read. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

There are places now, given all of the economic pressures, that have to be dispirited. There have been bankruptcies and changes of ownership that have to leave people unmoored. But if Gladwell is going to write off newspapers as a class of organizations, that should be ignored in its entirety.

How’s this one doing economically?

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I think the Web—the number of unique users, clicks, all of that—is growing seriously [10.5 million page views for NorthJersey.com in May, 1 million for the mobile version]. There is a substantial amount of advertising on the website. The family ownership [four generations of the Borg family) doesn’t have to be here. This was a coveted prize that all sorts of newspaper chains approached the family to buy, and it’s too much in their blood to give up. The newspaper has a sister newspaper in the adjoining county, the Passaic Herald News. They’ve purchased something like 50 weekly papers in the area. They’ve started a high-end magazine called 201 that’s such a success that it’s had spin-offs, 201 Family, 201 Health and so forth, all doing well. There’s a second website, called Bergen.com, which is doing pretty well in its own right. The family also owns a big printing plant. In the aggregate, what they’ve done is embrace their locality in a deepening way.

Why did you decide to come back to The Record?

It’s a big jump, coming here. In a weird way, it was a very comfortable jump for me. We did a lot of wonderful things at the IHT, in my estimation. We made the paper better. At a point, I said, “I’ve done what I can do, it’s about time to come back home.” One of my good friends and mentors at the Times, John Darnton, once a year, he would ask, “So, do you consider yourself a reporter or an editor?” And the first four or five years we were together, I’d say, “You know, I like this, but in my heart I’m still a reporter.” By the sixth and seventh year, I had to say, “You know, I’m really an editor now.” The experience at the IHT only reinforced that.

When this possibility came up at The Record, I felt it would give me a chance to test my instincts fully, as an editor, and to be in charge of a news organization with a journalistic heart. The old slogan of this paper was “Friend of the People It Serves.” I could feel it; from my formative experience here 40 years ago, I felt that after all this time, I still knew it well.

The Borg family—Mac, who was the young publisher when I was here and now is the patriarch and chairman; his son Stephen is the publisher; his daughter Jennifer is the general counsel—when I came out here, we all talked. Something just clicked. It was an odd hiring interview because it was listening to three owners talking about how this paper should be tougher and on the case and chasing stories diligently, and that’s what they wanted to see. You put it all together and here I am.

You’re only four months into the job. What are your top goals?

The publisher asked me that. Before I came last December, he said, “Give me your three goals.” The goals I listed were: try to make all of our journalism as good as our best journalism, to pursue investigative and watchdog journalism as vigorously as we can, and to embrace the Web and the digital future as much as we possibly can. Those are three broad goals and then, in the doing, something I strive for is to really energize our report by finding issues, chasing them, not letting go of them.

For example, we talked about the life of a virtually homeless guy whose car blew up in Hackensack because he had emphysema and he had oxygen tanks in his back seat. One thing I’ve been trying to encourage is to stay with a story, to really own it. We had that original story about that incident—the car goes up in this huge explosion, gigantic fire. This guy, much against his will, is pulled out of the car, by a Good Samaritan. It was against his will because he had all his papers and everything in this car and he didn’t want to lose them. Then, what we did was say, “Well, this is one of the richest counties in America. Who are the homeless here? Is this guy representative? Is he anomalous? Where are they?” Same reporter [Stephanie Akin] goes back and does just a classic story in my book about homelessness in suburbia and how this person and probably a few hundred other people people live—cheap motels, cars, staying with friends, trying to keep their lives going. As she told this story, it became more and more amazing—not just what he had to do as a person, but his long roots in the area. His father was working in a factory here that I think closed in 1942.

So then, who saved him? Well, it was a guy who worked in an aquarium tropical fish and aquarium store that was right next to the car.* He saw the car in the parking lot, he saw smoke, and he ran over. What was this guy’s story? He grew up in Bergen County, he got a high school degree, his wife has one. They can’t afford to live in Bergen, so they live in Hudson County, I think in Union City. He wants to go back to college—salt of the earth guy. He says, “When I think about my family and my kid, I honestly can’t tell you I’d do the same thing a second time.” The headline was, “The Reluctant Savior.” We have terrific photography. There’s a fellow named Marco Georgiev, who did work from Eastern Europe for the Times and is here now. He took a portrait of the guy in the parking lot with his arms folded, at a certain time of day.

From the crash, we had a great story, then a great story about what the life of the person in the car represented in our community, a great story about the person who saved them, as a person and what he represents, and then a presentation, the picture—completely compelling.

What are you doing on the Web?

If you look at today’s paper, the prosecutors were recommending a jail sentence in the case of Dharun Ravi, the guy who was involved in the Tyler Clementi situation. What that reporter was instructed to do was the minute you get that recommendation, file two paragraphs for the Web. Let people know that more is going to come. Get it up there. If there’s a press conference, go to that next. If there’s something to be read, do that second. Think Web first. To the extent that we can: be quick, be current, interact with readers.

And we can establish vibrant blogs that readers turn to—let’s say in Trenton for state politics, and for esoteric areas that are hugely popular on our site. We have a pet blog, because pets are a big thing here. We have a blog about the New Jersey Devils hockey team—incredibly popular. It’s really the only team left that flies the New Jersey flag now.

Here’s an example: A young black man was killed by police bullets last year in a town called Garfield. The circumstances were partially known but largely unknown. He showed up voluntarily at the police station, he was there for quite a while; they handcuffed him to a pipe for certain times, and at other times left him un-handcuffed. Then he just darted out of the station, led police on a chase, wound up in a private garage, and was killed by two cops firing guns. They said he was menacing them with tools from the garage. No one knows what happened fully.

Jennifer Borg, our general counsel, went into court to get the tape of his time in the police station, and she won, so we got great police reports and we got the tape. There were great stills that appeared in the paper, but that tape of him darting him out of the station was absolutely remarkable, and that was a Web moment for The Bergen Record, I’ll tell you that.

What excites you about covering New Jersey?

Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle did a terrific job when I was at the IHT of digging into the budget of the European Union. It’s close to $50 billion 50 billion euros a year.* They dug into who’s getting them. Why are they dispersed the way they are? What are the political forces?

What excited me about that story—I could trace it back pretty easily to covering Fort Lee and Edgewater, New Jersey. It was getting into the town deeply, understanding the storyline of the town and what made it tick. What made that town that town? How did that manifest itself in the town’s politics and budget? What were the slices of life that exhibited what was special about the area we’re in? All of that traveled through my whole career.

I grew up on the Lower East Side. When I came to The Record, it was the first extended time I walked through suburban streets. Areas have their identities. They have their cultures. There’s a particular air they breathe. When you look at what it means to tease out the identity of this area to project it and enhance it—to the extent we can do that, we are really doing our mission.

We’ve had great stories since I’ve been here—about Governor Christie’s contacts getting lucrative jobs at the Port Authority, about ways that you can question the state budget, about the mis-portrayal of SAT scores by different colleges around here. In terms of fabric of life, we had a running story about a turkey that lived in the central town traffic triangle of one of our towns for years, and it disappeared one day. We found out what happened. We traced it through its recovery from an animal shelter. Then there was an issue about whether it should stay more safely in the shelter or go back to the traffic circle it called home.

We’ve had terrific stories about high school athletics on the front page. We do have the No. 1 high school football team in the country—Don Bosco—in our area. But the great front-page sports stories also include the coach of the Paterson tennis team, who has a miserable record, like 23 wins and 230 losses. He goes through garbage cans looking for tennis balls. He’s teaching kids how to play tennis. A whole bunch of them are in college now or out of college, and they have a reunion for him, as the greatest coach ever. I’m getting teary-eyed as I’m telling you.

We have a really wonderful team of reporters. One of them is a woman named Lindy Washburn, who’s one of the best healthcare reporters in the country. She notices how many times around the area people take up collections for people who need healthcare. She uses that as a news hook. In her hands, it raises a larger, resonant issue—Why do people have to resort to that to get their health needs met? That’s a perfect marriage of local culture and a profound national issue. To the extent we do that, we’re doing our job. What more could you ask for as an editor?

Correction: The “Reluctant Savior” who rescued a homeless man worked in a tropical fish and aquarium store, not for an aquarium; and the European Union budget is 50 billion euros, not dollars. CJR regrets the errors.

Mike Hoyt was CJR’s executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia’s Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.