Retiring Editor recalls early days at Indy.

Walk Down Memory Lane: In The Newsroom In The ‘90s




Jan Marie Mackin

“How come there’s never anything about Springs School on the school news page?”

“They don’t send it in the right way.”

“What’s the right way?”

I never dreamed this brief interchange with Josh Lawrence, a reporter for the East Hampton Star, would launch a career as a community journalist, one that comprised almost a quarter century of finding stuff out and telling people about it.

In 1994, at the time of that conversation, I was a full-time mom and housewife. A member of the PTA, I was an ardent supporter of my son’s school. So, when I found out “the right way” to submit school news to the Star, I started going around the school every Friday, interviewing teachers, and writing up a little column.

The Independent was just about a year old and, as a promotional strategy, it sent a copy of the paper to every postal patron in East Hampton. I read it and was pleased to note its coverage of a school board meeting reported exactly what happened at the meeting. A nice person back then, I called to compliment them and got to chatting with the office manager, Kristy. She invited me to send school news to Indy.

Within a few months, Indy’s editor, Tom Clavin, called to offer me a job as a “stringer.” I had no idea what a stringer was, or did, but I liked to write, so I agreed to give it a try. After my first byline appeared, the folks at the Star called the school and said they’d no longer print any school news submission by me. Ssshhhh, don’t tell David, but I kept writing it and we sent it over with another PTA member’s name attached.

My first real feature was to be about Bud Jones, an 80-year-old man going for his pilot’s license after a lifetime of loving aviation. Tom was very laid back and offered little in the way of direction.

So, I had no idea what to do.

I’d certainly read interviews before and knew people usually taped conversations held over lunch. I wasn’t about to buy a real tape recorder. Who knew how long this gig would last? I showed up at the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton with my son’s red Little Tykes recorder. Playing the tape back later, the sound of dishes drowned out most of the conversation. Next, I met Bud at the airport for a second interview and ride in the plane; him behind the controls, me in the passenger seat.

It took days to write that one feature. We had a PC and a fax machine, but there was no internet back then, no cellphones. Distrustful of technology, I wrote my stories out by hand, then typed them up, printed them and faxed them over for the beleaguered typesetter to handle. Working remotely, I didn’t meet the typesetter for a while. When I did, she softly admonished, “Why don’t you put your stories on a disk?”

“What’s a disk?” I asked.

As a stringer, I covered the Amagansett School Board and Citizens Advisory Committee. One day I opened the paper to see my story had been changed. Tom or Indy co-founder and culture queen Bridget LeRoy had the audacity to edit my copy! From then on, I “stopped by” the newsroom during Tuesday night production to see my stories on the page before they went to press. I was there “visiting” for months before Tom offered me a staff position in 1996.

The Tuesday night newsroom was a bustling cacophony of typing and laughter, telephones ringing, “pages” coming out of the waxer for Meg to cut and paste onto giant boards that my mentor and managing editor Kari-Lisa Brangan would drive to Yaphank to be printed, often during the early hours of Wednesday morning, our distribution day. We used “blue streaks,” special markers, to make corrections on the boards. They’d be typed up, put through the waxer, sliced with surgical precision, and pasted over the error. It was exacting work, yet Meg and Ro in production still found time to crack jokes. If there was breaking news that night, you could find Jim Mackin in the bathroom-turned-darkroom developing photos.

Throughout that first year as a stringer, I kept waiting to get fired. Surely, Tom and Bridget and Kari would realize I had no idea what I was doing. One Tuesday night, they sent me to a school board budget meeting. I raced back to the office, breathless with the scoop. They passed the budget. “Ok,” said Kari, ever serene in the midst of the smell of deadline pizza and hot wax. “What’s the tax rate?”

“Uh,” I replied. “What’s a tax rate?”

In the spring of ’96, Clavin called. I answered nervously, expecting, as ever, to be let go. He informed me that first feature was up for a press club award. We all piled into a limo to attend the ceremony at a fancy upisland venue. Clad in the heinous powder blue polyester suit he wore for every formal occasion, Clavin took my arm as we walked into the joint. “These are your peers,” he whispered. Took me years to really feel that.

The piece took second place in the highly competitive features category. I thought that was not too shabby for a newcomer. In the ensuing years, I’d get some more awards — for breaking news, headline, editorial, police, politics, government, schools, science, and environment. I never got an award for sports writing — though I did it when staff was out sick — or photography, because I was and continue to be, really bad at it. Shoot a parade and I’ll have as many pictures of my feet or the sky as I will of marchers. I always blame the camera.

Planning and police were my main beats once I joined the staff full time in 1996. I was in the planning department every Thursday morning trying to learn the lingo and figure out what on earth occurred the night before at the meeting. Marguerite Wolffsohn, JoAnne Pahwul, and Jodi Walker helped me so much.

Glen Stonemetz was village chief and held a press conference every Monday at 9 AM sharp. He’d thumb through a sheaf of incident reports officers wrote on little notepads, occasionally looking over his glasses with a big grin, and offering, “Here’s one for you, Kitty.” My heart broke a little when he retired, shredded when he passed away.

Todd Sarris handled the press for the town cops. We had a standing telephone date every Tuesday morning. They’d have a packet ready on Mondays. I read through page after page and faxed over questions. I’d be on the phone first thing Thursday morning if I saw additional details in the competing paper.

“Why didn’t you tell me {whatever}?” I’d demand.

“Because you didn’t ask,” he’d reply. From then on, I finished every conversation with, “What did other reporters ask that I haven’t?” And that’s how I learned to do cops.

Over these years, conflict arose when information I felt should be public was denied. Officials who withheld information weren’t keeping it from me; they were keeping it from “my people,” the community, the readers. My people have a right to know. Refusals without good reason could elicit rage.

“Don’t piss her off,” one spokesman warned his boss. “She will mess with you for sport.”

Overheard on another occasion, an elected describing me to a colleague, “She’s good. But whatever you do, don’t lie to her.”

I took these comments as compliments, a source of pride, cherished as one Sarris offered. It was something I heard from him for the first time, then heard a bunch more times from a bunch more people over the last nearly two and a half decades, “You may have published things I wish I hadn’t said, but you never misquoted me.”

And that’s a legacy I figure is not too shabby.