The Profile

Last man standing

September 24, 2020
Adobe Stock

George Fiala wants the Red Hook Star-Revue to be the next Village Voice. Fiala, who is sixty-six, wants you—hopefully a connected millennial—to pick up the latest issue and feel the weight of the monthly’s thirtysomething pages. He wants you to flip through and discover things you didn’t realize you cared about—how a Senegalese drum-maker learned his craft, or how zoning laws shape communities. He wants you to look forward to what his writers have to say each month because they’re incisive, witty, and cool. And he wants to do it all while reacquainting you with the magic of print.

The trends don’t bode well. Only 13 percent of adults in the greater New York City area prefer to get their news from print, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study. TV, news websites, and social media all scored higher. But the Red Hook Star-Revue was an anachronistic project from the get-go. In 2009, the year before the paper distributed its first issue, more than a hundred local newspapers across the country closed, while others began scaling down or going digital-only.

The Star-Revue has a website, but it’s rather bare-bones. Will Jackson, the paper’s part-time sports reporter, tends to upload articles only in the weeks after the print issue is delivered. To Fiala, scrolling through a phone makes for a myopic reading experience, anyway. Reading on a screen is less enjoyable than reading from the page, he says, and algorithmic content curation only exposes readers to topics they’re already interested in. “It’s less adventuresome,” adds Fiala. Print offers people the chance to discover ideas they might not have otherwise come across.

Running a free community newspaper supported by ads is about as profitable as it sounds. “Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to sell a Model T to someone who’s looking to buy a Tesla,” says Jamie Yates, who’s in charge of advertising at the Star-Revue. These days, Yates says, most of the paper’s revenue comes from ads placed by city agencies, which, as of 2019, are required to allocate at least half of their advertising budget to “community and ethnic media.” That’s still not enough for the paper to pay for itself, though. The Star-Revue’s operations are largely propped up by the cash flow from Select Mail, the mailing company Fiala runs from the same offices.

I like to think that I’m doing something important in the history of the world. Nothing is that important. But you know when people say, ‘What are you gonna leave behind?’ I leave behind my bound volumes of the Star-Revue.

Moving his mailing business to Red Hook a decade ago inspired Fiala to start the paper in the first place. Because of the neighborhood’s remote location—it is notoriously hard to reach on public transport—it has historically been an afterthought in the minds of public officials and the media. But its insulation arguably makes life there more intimate, and its pace a little slower; people who grew up there tend to stay, and many know each other. In an ever more impersonal city, Red Hook is a rare pocket of community—the perfect place, Fiala thought, to start a newspaper. [Disclosure: The author, who completed this profile in August, began freelancing for the Star-Revue this month.]

Publishing wasn’t exactly new territory for Fiala. He was the general manager at The Villager, a weekly based in Greenwich Village, for the better part of the seventies. He landed that job after giving up on his first love, music. Fiala, who plays the drums, never thought he was good enough to play for a living. He settled for playing the airwaves as a DJ on 92.7 WRHY. It was the golden age of radio, before stations limited their repertoire to tracks people already knew, he says. “A newspaper,” he muses, “is like an album”—each format gathers several offerings into a single medium. But the standardization of commercial radio, says Fiala, did to stations what online echo chambers have done to the written word: sucked the life out of it. He began writing music reviews for The Villager instead.

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In 1986, Fiala took what he learned running mailroom operations at The Villager and the Phoenix, a now-defunct Brooklyn newspaper whose operations he also oversaw, and started his mailing business. By the time he moved his company to Red Hook, in 2010, he had saved enough to put out the first issue of the Star-Revue. He’s never had a lot of money, he says, but for thirty-five years, he’s also never had to work for anyone else. “So I figure that’s a success.”

For Fiala, publishing his paper is a way to reconnect with the spirit of the counterculture he grew up with in the late sixties. He misses bastions of subversion like the Village Voice, and says the Star-Revue enables him to approximate what he loved about such publications. He admits his paper’s odds of achieving widespread recognition aren’t good, but says the experience of putting out a new issue every month is reward enough. “I like to think that I’m doing something important in the history of the world,” he says. “Nothing is that important. But you know when people say, ‘What are you gonna leave behind?’ I leave behind my bound volumes of the Star-Revue. I just have to find a place that won’t put them in the garbage.”

In the early days, Fiala and his founding partner, Frank Galeano, had to do all the work themselves. Fiala wrote about subjects including the real estate developments around rapidly gentrifying Van Brunt Street, while Galeano reported on the happenings at the Red Hook Houses, New York’s second-biggest public housing complex. But after Hurricane Sandy devastated Red Hook in 2014, bigger news outlets took notice. Publications like Gothamist, the Brooklyn Eagle, and DNAinfo began going after the same stories as the Star-Revue

All this new attention was a good thing for Red Hook, says Fiala, but to him it signaled the time to shift gears. To avoid duplicative coverage, he pivoted the paper toward music and the arts. Today, he’s striving to find a balance between catering to civic-minded locals and to the upwardly mobile New Yorkers who move to Red Hook. “What I want the paper to be now is a place for ideas.”

George Fiala

Fiala “is an ideas guy,” says Brett Yates (no relation to Jamie), who joined the Star-Revue in 2018 as its only full-time reporter. Yates is one of the people tasked with turning those ideas into compelling stories. His work ranges from opinion columns to in-depth explanatory pieces on public policy, all of which are pleasing to his boss. Yates’s takedown of Governor Cuomo in an op-ed titled “Do Not Let Andrew Cuomo Become President,” which appeared in the April issue, made Fiala chuckle.

Recently, the publication’s scope has widened to include other areas of Brooklyn. Yates sees it as an opportunity to export Red Hook’s unique sense of identity beyond its borders. “We want to reach the people who don’t typically experience culture or community on a local level.” Many New York residents, especially transplants, he says, see neighborhoods as collections of consumer options—bars, restaurants, shops, maybe a few art galleries. Similarly, the subset of cool, politically engaged hipsters Fiala wants reading the Star-Revue follow national politics closely but know little about the policies that shape their neighborhoods. “They don’t realize how much things like land use decisions affect their day-to-day experience,” says Yates. Attracting these readers with the types of cultural coverage and criticism they’re already interested in is an opportunity to acquaint them with other narratives unfolding around them, he says.

Features reporter Erin DeGregorio provides some of this local color. Every month, Fiala assigns her stories centered on a theme. In January, it was wigs. The result was a series of articles on the wig industry in Brooklyn, with titles like “Where There’s a Wig, There’s a Way.” April struck a more sober tone with the arrival of covid-19; both DeGregorio and Yates focused on the effects of the pandemic on Red Hook residents and other Brooklynites. 

Not everyone familiar with the newspaper necessarily reads it. Yates, Jamie this time, recalls a post by another local to a Red Hook Facebook group: Did anybody know where she could get her hands on a copy of the Star-Revue? The pages fit perfectly in her cat’s litter box. The paper has garnered more positive attention, too. Every year, it nabs awards at the New York Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest, and it has received recognitions from the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the cuny School of Journalism.

Generally, Brett Yates describes Fiala’s approach to each month’s issue as intuitive. When Yates goes into the office, Fiala usually throws fifteen different topics at him. “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do this?” Ultimately, however, Fiala trusts him. That’s not to say he won’t let Yates know when he thinks something’s missing. Fiala has strong opinions, which he communicates in a heavy Queens staccato; he grumbles loudly about things he doesn’t like and can be argumentative with people he disagrees with. Regardless, Yates says, he’s not an authoritarian boss: “He’s very casual.” Yates was promoted to assistant editor in March—news of the promotion was relayed to him through a friend, who saw his new title on the paper’s masthead that month. At the office, Fiala had made no mention of it, but he did add a little extra to Yates’s paycheck.

Yates was uncertain he would see that paycheck again in May, due to the pandemic, but Fiala says that whether to keep printing was never a question. Publishing during times like these, he says, that’s when things get exciting, and when it matters most. Fiala’s mother was a Holocaust survivor; her experiences, he says, instilled in him a sense of what real hardship could look like. If the Star-Revue still exists, it’s only because Fiala wills it into existence every month when he lays out the latest issue and gets into his van to distribute all twelve thousand copies at two hundred fifty locations across the city. “There’s something called the last man standing,” he says. “You never know when your day will come and everyone will say, ‘You know what? We’ve missed the Village Voice, and this paper’s not too bad.’ ”

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Jorge Bello is a freelance reporter who writes about the environment, public policy, and urban planning.