The ProsenPeople

Editing the Smallest College Daily in America

Thursday, July 25, 2013 | Permalink
An anthology of fifty-plus years of Ron Rubin’s published commentary on topics of import to world Jewry, A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry (Syracuse University Press), is now available. Ron and his anthologist, editor Peri Devaney, have been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Read earlier posts here.

Despite the contributions of the internet, turning out a college daily newspaper today still requires human ingenuity and dedication, as it did more than a half century ago. Computers left to themselves don’t write editorials, accounts of student council intrigue, reviews of drama society productions, or play-by-play accounts of intercollegiate sports events, and they don’t know how to meet a deadline!

In my senior year at NYU’s Bronx (“uptown”) campus—way back in 1960-1961—I wrote a lot about the facets of collegiate culture mentioned above. I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Heights Daily News (HDN). Since the newspaper covered a campus of only 2,000 students enrolled in NYU’s two uptown colleges—liberal arts and engineering—the publication held the distinction of being “the smallest college daily in America.” (By contrast, the Columbia Daily Spectator, which covered the comings and goings of tens of thousands of students and faculty at Columbia University’s campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section a dozen miles to the south, had many richer and more provocative sources to draw from to produce its daily miracle.)

Whether or not NYU’s small Bronx oasis warranted a daily newspaper is not up for debate, especially since the HDN had already chalked up almost thirty years when I took over as editor. During my tenure, we put out a commemorative “Thirtieth Anniversary Issue,” and on the cover was a congratulatory telegram I received from President John F. Kennedy lauding our “EXTRAORDINARY VITALITY AS THE SMALLEST COLLEGE DAILY IN AMERICA.” In researching the trajectories of my predecessors during the preparation of the commemorative issue, we learned that many of them were quite successful. Two of my editorial board colleagues that come to mind today are a US Federal judge in Texas and a big-time real estate developer in New Jersey.

The HDN consisted of four pages—page one contained general campus news; page two, editorials, letters, features and opeds; page three, some more news, but mainly nationally matted ads (often cigarettes); and page 4, sports.

Though I hope our readers never noticed, producing the campus daily came with big difficulties. Fifty-plus years later, three obstacles stand out:

  • Getting News: If the essence of news in American journalism was controversy, not much of a newsworthy nature was happening on campus in the complacent early 1960s. I often ended up “making news” myself by digging behind the scenes, interviewing would be troublemakers, and doing what would be termed today “investigative journalism.”

    I wanted to keep the newspaper pure, focused on the Heights campus and keeping out stories on national or municipal politics. We reported on campus academics, student activities, college financial issues, the comings and goings of faculty. To give the HDN more depth, I arranged for various series such as “The Future of the American University,” for which nationally known educators and thinkers—including U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, political theorist Russell Kirk, and novelist Leslie Fiedler—penned original pieces.

    But not everything we wrote was so heavy. On a lighter note we started a “Miss Heights Daily News” contest in response to the campus having gone coed.

  • Getting Reporters: Few Heights students were bent on careers in journalism, so attracting staffers was always a problem. Sometimes the lure of a byline, or an editorial title such as Assistant Features Editor, helped, but not very often. What we never had a problem getting were sports reporters because many students were drawn by the prospect of attending games and traveling with the team at no cost and with preferential treatment. Ditto for filling the positions for reviewers of campus drama and musical productions.

  • Heights Daily News to the Stands: Unlike in today’s digitized world, every word we published back in the early 1960s was typed by hand and edited by hand. Every photo was cropped by hand, every page laid out by hand, and the pressmen printed everything by hand.

    Delivering copy to Citywide Printing, at the other end of New York in lower Manhattan, always proved a hurdle. The early delivery run was at 4 p.m., and a Heightsman, usually a Lower East Side local (these were days when most students lived at home) was paid $3 to bring material to the printers. Office staff tried to finish by a 7 p.m. deadline, and on a once-a-month rotation one of us travelled to Citywide, usually by subway, to deliver the rest of the next day’s issue.

    Delivering final copy meant staying at the printer’s until midnight or 1 a.m. waiting for the entire issue to be printed and proofread. Sometimes we had to wait for last minute sports results or drama production reviews to be phoned in and then we had to type it up for the pressmen. If articles came out too long or too short, headlines needed to be rewritten and captions changed. Remember, these were the days when print jobs had to be “typeset”—before word processing and page layout programs enabled us to know in advance how things would layout.

    The camaraderie of the earthy, cigar-smoking printers served as a diversion for the tired, volunteer HDN tombstone shift.

The press run of the Heights Daily News ended about fifteen years after I graduated, when NYU sold its Bronx campus. I owe this deceased newspaper a great debt. The thousands of hours I put into its life greatly enhanced my people, communication and writing skills and set the groundwork for my interests in political science.

And more importantly, while my definition of excitement may be insipid, more than a half century later I still consider the challenges of the nine months between ages eighteen and nineteen, as editor of the Heights Daily News, among the most exciting times of my life. (And yes, for those of you who noticed, I was already a senior in college at age eighteen. As Peri quotes me in the book’s Preface, “I wasn’t brilliant, but ambitious…”.)

A Jewish Professor's Political Punditry: Fifty-plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin is now available.

Becoming an Anthologist

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Ron Rubin wrote about visiting the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union and Peri Devaney wrote about working on the Postcript for her anthology, A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press). Today, Peri discusses organizing the material for the anthology. Peri and Ron will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Thank G-d for Excel!

Having worked with Ron Rubin in an editing capacity since 2003, I thought I was well aware of how prolific a writer he was when he asked me if I would put together an anthology of his works. And then came the boxes of newspapers, magazines, journals and other various and sundry periodicals.

And then came the emails with e-versions of his more current articles, and an occasional new article showing up even after I started working with the material.

As I said in my earlier blog, political science and history are just not my bailiwick. So how was I to get through, select, and organize as much of this material as possible into an interesting anthology focusing on topics related to Judaism and Israel?

One article, op-ed, book review, paper and letter to the editor at a time, I skimmed through it all and created an Excel spreadsheet with columns for listing where the piece fit in Rubin’s biographical timeline, the date of publication, the piece’s primary subject and secondary subject, its title, the name of the periodical that published it including the name of the column when applicable, and the type of article.

Eighty-seven pieces in all were listed, with about sixty of them clearly fitting into the Jewish theme. It was the remaining twenty-odd pieces that stumped me. Did an editorial Ron Rubin wrote in 1961, as the NYU daily newspaper’s editor-in-chief, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the campus fit in? Was the fact that he was a prominent supporter of Israel and Soviet Jewry, a fact not mentioned in Ron’s editorial, enough? (My decision on that one was “no.”)

In addition to topical considerations, I also needed to keep in mind the publisher’s “400 page, courier font, 1.5-spaced” maximum manuscript size, so it was time to start OCR scanning and formatting the resulting Word documents to see just how many manuscript pages the printed material translated to. (This was not an easy job considering the age and condition of much of the material, and the fact that most of it was in either oversized publications or magazines that wouldn’t lay flat for a clean scan.)

And then the fun began. I had to read all of the articles, one by one, word by word, or should I say letter by letter, first to proofread the scans and fix all the l’s that scanned in as 1’s, rn’s that scanned as m’s, w’s that became double v’s, and so on—and then to actually get to know the material. To this day I’m not sure if the OCR scanning was easier than typing in all of the material or not, but I do know that although I did find some of the material a big yawn, a lot of it was actually quite interesting.

Next came the job of getting reprint permissions to include the material I wanted to use—a topic that could warrant its own blog or two or three! As noted in my Acknowledgements, only one publication (not named) gave me any trouble, the rest willingly granting the permissions and waiving (or, in one case, greatly reducing) their normal reprint fees.

In the end I was able to include sixty-seven of Ron’s pieces in the anthology, four of them in abridged form, two summarized, and one intact except for one large section I needed to research and rewrite because of the permissions problem. By now I was getting the hang of online research and found the re-written section at least as good as the quote it replaced.

Figuring out order and presentation turned out to me easier than anticipated once it was all in the spreadsheet. I simply put the material in order using Ron’s biographical timeline and the articles’ topics. And so came to being:

  • “Part One: The University Student, 1957-1965,” featuring Ron’s editorials from the Heights Daily News and material he wrote during grad school;
  • “Part Two: A Young Professor in a Young School, 1965–1969,” including a chapter on “The Plight of Soviet Jewry” which is the topic of one of Ron’s blogs;
  • “Part Three: An Established Professor and Author-At Home and Abroad, 1970s and 1980s,” with more on Soviet Jewry and much more;
  • “Part Four: The Turn of the Century, 1990–2008;”
  • “Part Five” (which is actually called “Conclusion”); and
  • the “Postscript” discussed in my last blog.

Putting together this anthology might just make me politically-minded after all!

Check back all week for more from Peri Devaney and Ron Rubin.

Ron Rubin on Visiting the Soviet Union

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Peri Devaney wrote about working on the Postcript for her anthologyA Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press). Today we hear from Ron Rubin, the prolific professor she anthologized. Peri and Ron will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve had four opportunities to visit the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union over the years, the fourth being the trip I’m preparing for as I write this blog that JBC will be posting online while I’m physically there.

Each trip had a different setting, successively bringing me closer to my Jewish brethren. In looking back I realize how fortunate it was that along the way I was never thrown out!

My first trip, as a twenty-six-year-old single in 1968, was mainly exploratory. I wanted to check out the terrible press reports, leave behind some Jewish books, and instill some hope. In this pre détente era when tourism between the USA and the Soviet Union was virtually unknown, I signed up with the Dutch Student Travel Organization, NBBS, for a two week all-expenses-covered trip costing $250. I was the only Jew and the only American among the thirty travelers. The railroad that left Amsterdam took two days and nights to reach our first stop, Minsk. At the intersection between the two Germanys, bloodhounds came on board to search. Crossing Poland, I recognized the names of towns like Bialystok, well known in Jewish history. Were these the same tracks used a quarter century earlier to bring Jews to the concentration camps, I wondered?

The student hostel in Minsk was so primitive that the toilets contained no running water. We were shown the local concentration camp site where, I told myself, there was a good chance some of my father’s father’s relatives perished. Our guide helped me arrange for private taxis to take me to synagogues in the three cities we visited, Minsk, Leningrad and Moscow, where I surreptitiously left behind some Judaica and tried to make myself understood using Yiddish and Hebrew.

On my next trip, in 1973, I accompanied a New York State Congressman as his “expert” advisor. By then my book on Soviet anti-Semitism, The Unredeemed, had been released, but fortunately Soviet surveillance was not keeping abreast of the American publishing industry. Ostensibly, our mission was research on the excellent record of the USSR in preventing crime, but we were really there to raise the issue of Jewish suffering at the highest levels. In addition to secretly meeting refuseniks, we explained to the Mayor of Moscow and officials of the Soviet fisheries ministry how relations between the two superpowers were being hurt by differences over the Soviet Jewish issue. They seemed surprised at the connection, but at least we got through to them. Our biggest success was meeting the head of OVIR, the police unit in charge of emigration. Not only were we the first Americans to meet that official, but he accepted a list containing the names of ten refuseniks, a diplomatic nicety he didn't need to do. Six months later, one of the refuseniks listed was given permission to leave for Israel.

The parameters of my third trip were clearly supply and inspiration. Sponsored by the Chabad Lubavitch organization, Lishkas Ezras Achim, two young rabbis and I spent two weeks there. We brought few personal effects, but at a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights our suitcases were stuffed with Jewish books and sundry ritual items ranging from Shechitah (kosher slaughter) knives, kosher yeast and burial shrouds. On the plane, we spoke seriously of the possibility that our goods would be confiscated at Soviet customs and that we could be either thrown out of the country or arrested. On that trip I saw one of the young rabbis secretly circumcise an adult male who was lying on a simple table.

Recalling this heroic chapter in Jewish history, I want to make the point that God’s miracles are not limited to splitting the sea. Even the starriest optimist would not have predicted forty-five years ago that despite the most totalitarian regime in history, one million former Soviet Jews would now call Israel home, menorahs are now displayed in Red Square on Chanukah, and . . .

The purpose of my upcoming trip to Russia with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) is to explore Jewish and Russian life in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I plan to meet with leaders of both Jewish communities and to get an update from Chabad and other groups on their activities to strengthen and sustain Jewish life . . . something we can now do openly, because . . .

Miracles do happen today as well!

Check back all week for more from Ron Rubin and Peri Devaney.

Putting Myself on the Line

Monday, July 22, 2013 | Permalink

Peri Devaney’s new book, A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press), is now available. Peri and Ron, the prolific professor she anthologized, will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As a book editor, my work had always been behind the scenes. When Ron Rubin (an author I had previously edited for “behind the scenes”) asked me to come out from behind and have my name appear on the cover of an anthology of his works, I never considered the possibility I might wind up putting myself on the line.

As I understood it, my role as anthologist would be to cull through the anthologized’s published materials, decide which pieces fit the anthology’s theme, create “abridged” versions for some of the tangential works, organize the material in a sensible pattern, and write a preface and filler blurbs to provide a biographical background and help the reader move through the book.

All went as expected, the manuscript was submitted, and then …

Surprise!

A reviewer for the publisher’s acquisitions department gave the book a “thumbs up” but suggested adding a bridge between the last of Rubin’s published commentaries and the book’s production. Syracuse University Press’s editorial committee agreed, I discussed the idea of a “Postscript” with Dr. Rubin, and he informed me he would gladly help me write it.

Now it’s true I’ve been involved with three books written by political science professors—two of them on historical subjects and the third a more contemporary topic—but political science and history are just not my bailiwick. The research for those books was all done by the authors before I ever saw the manuscripts, and any fact-checking was done by the publishers’ editorial teams. My bachelor's degree in math, computer science and secondary education did not require much research … what little it did require was done more than forty years ago … and the only research I did as founding editor of an IT trade association’s magazine more than 20 years ago (when I was also the association’s Executive Director) involved brainstorming with the president to figure out what topics would interest our members and industry and which of our vendors, members and technical staff to approach to write the articles.

My bailiwick is the re-organization and re-writing of sentences, paragraphs and chapters originally written by others. I’ve taken a 600-page manuscript and without removing any content condensed it into the “maximum 400-pages” manuscript that publisher wanted by simply rearranging and rewording the material. I’ve printed out a 365-page manuscript in order to cut it up into sections—some as small as one sentence—so I could put the pieces together in a way that would grab the readers’ attention and keep them interested through to the end.

What writing I’ve done personally has been mostly for promotional, marketing or fundraising purposes; the few published articles I’ve written were based on personal experiences; and if I were to write a book myself, it would almost definitely be fiction, probably of the fantasy or mystery genre.

So the task of writing the Postscript to an anthology filled with fifty years of political commentary was daunting, to say the least.

Thank G-d for the internet … for the enormous amount of pro-Israel, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic “junk email” that came into my Outlook as then-administrator of a high-profile Jewish organization and gave me a good feel for the current atmosphere … for the emphasis the organization placed on critical thinking … and for Ron Rubin’s help. It was actually fun Yahoo!ing and Googling and sorting through the legit news sources and junk; linking to, reading, evaluating and quoting material from congressional and White House reports; delving into Knesset and IDF websites; and more. Once I finished writing the Postscript—“The Obama Years: On Whom Can We Rely?”—I realized I had enjoyed the accomplishment, but it was still quite nerve-racking to realize my personal political leanings, such as they are, would be in print for others to question, challenge or praise.

And then came the cuts! Both Ron and the publisher liked the piece, but what I considered one of my two most well-researched and creatively presented sections was taken out by the publisher completely. After a lot of explanation on their part, I sort of understand their concerns, but I think much of what they left in has an even greater potential to create a stir than what they took out. Sometimes it scares me to think about the exposure—I even thought about writing with a pseudonym—but for the good of the book…

I put myself on the line.

And now it’s on to the next project…

Check back all week for more from Peri Devaney and Ron Rubin.