LI Press building sits quiet

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There’s an old, empty, unimpressive three-story building on 168th Street in downtown Jamaica that most people pass by without noticing. The once clean red brick walls are faded and dirty and the big electric sign over the front entrance has been gone for many years.

It’s a wide building off of Jamaica Avenue that goes through to 167th Street. It has a large freight loading dock on the left side.

At regular intervals big trucks used to unload huge rolls of newsprint there and several times a day smaller trucks would carry away stacks of freshly-printed and bundled newspapers labeled in black gothic print, “Long Island Press.”

The same name in the same gothic print was on the big sign hanging over the front door.

It’s just a deserted old building now, a faded memory to the thousands of Queens readers who once depended on the Long Island Press for local news they got nowhere else and the several hundred, myself included, who were once on the Press staff.

I joined the Press after World War II Army service and put in more than 25 years as reporter, feature writer, copy editor and political writer/editor with a seven-day-a-week byline political column for 10 years before breaking for some political public relations work and coming back again for a second brief tour of duty with the Press.

A lot of Long Island history was chronicled in that building, most of it about Queens. But a lot of post-World War II history of its fast-developing eastern neighbors, Nassau and Suffolk Counties, filled the pages of one of the Press’s four daily editions and spilled into the Queens editions if it was of broad Long Island-wide interest.

The Press was one of many good, lively, well-read daily newspapers that once thrived in New York City -- the only one published in and devoted to Queens. A lot of once great newspapers -- the World Telegram, the Sun, which later combined with it, the Journal-American, the Daily Mirror, the Herald Tribune, two reputable local papers, the Brooklyn Eagle and the Bronx Home News -- are gone now, casualties of the growing dominance of electronic news, television and radio, rising production costs, union problems and shrinking advertising revenue.

The Long Island Press managed to survive for a while, then, sadly, went the way of the rest. Press had no pretensions of being a national and international newspaper with overseas offices and foreign correspondents. But it had teletype hookups to the three major news services, Associated Press, United Press and the International News Service, and its own bureau staffs in Washington and Albany, the national and state capitols, and it carried all the big stories of the day, plus some big name syndicated columnists.

Its forte was local coverage. Together with the smaller Star-Journal published in Long Island City -- two Queens units of the growing national newspaper empire built by the famed newspaper tycoon S.I. Newhouse -- it served the people of Queens who wanted to read about local politics, their clubs and civic associations, what was going on in Borough Hall and City Hall, Queens crime and court news, who was born, who graduated, who was married and who passed away.

The Long Island Press was the quintessential home-town daily newspaper.

In its prime in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s it drew advertising from what was once of New York City's most prosperous shopping streets, Jamaica Avenue, and its big department stores like Gertz and A & S. The ornate Loews Valencia was the super movie palace on Jamaica Avenue then.

The first floor of the Press building held the display and classified ad departments. If you visited the city room on the second floor, you walked into a scene out of the classic newspaper play and movie, The Front Page.

Typewriters and teletype machines clattered noisily, the din punctuated periodically by a loud bell announcing a bulletin on one of the bank of teletype machines along one wall. The editors and copy readers around the big desk at one end of the large room shouted across to reporters at their individual desks and to copy boys. Telephones jangled loudly and the floor was cluttered with crumpled copy paper and cigarette butts that overflowed waste baskets and ash trays. Steel rulers and paste pots were standard equipment.

The Press city room needed a good sweeping at the end of the day before the night staff came on to add to the clutter.

It was a far cry from today's newspaper office, a quiet place where stories are written and relayed to editors on almost silent video console keyboards. The atmosphere is almost cathedral-like compared to the old newspaper city room pandemonium.

And if you went into the composing room of the old Press through a side door of the city room you walked into another kind of bedlam, the ear-shattering clatter and roar of a battery of machines setting stories and headlines into heavy slugs of lead, then put together by hand in heavy metal page frames.

The big massive presses, in another part of the building, created their own racket.

Today's electronic photo offset process, sometimes not even in the same building, is a staid, dignified operation.

The Press building had one other noisemaker, a large automated “morgue,” newspaper talk for a clipping library, up on the third floor. It was a wide room-filling drum with clippings stored in envelopes in compartments that rolled around to you when you looked in the card directory for what clippings there were on a particular story, located its place on the big drum and pressed the right buttons that activated the drum and spun it so that it stopped with the desired envelope handy to lift out.

A wall of steel cabinets housed thousands of old photos, indexed and catalogued.

Clipping and photo files are all microfilmed and computerized these days.

A major annual public event on Long Island was the Long Island Press Distinguished Service Award Dinner held in the old Garden City Hotel, a black-tie dinner in which a plaque was presented to a famous Long Islander for some special achievement.

One dinner I recall vividly saw the award presented to the legendary park, highway and bridge builder Robert Moses, Long Island State Park Commissioner, with Governor Nelson Rockefeller as guest speaker. Another year, the award went to the late John F. English, Nassau's scrappy Democratic chairman. A personal friend of his, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was guest speaker.

I think about the Long Island Press in its heyday and names and faces flash through my mind -- editor and publisher Norman Newhouse, S.I.’s brother; veteran city editors Ed Gottlieb and Dave Starr; Washington Bureau honcho Andy Viglietta; George Douris, the Press's man in Room 9 in City Hall; Jackie Villa, the Press's peppery Gal Friday and entertainment editor.

Vivid in memory is Nassau-Suffolk political columnist Fred Clausen, who I eventually succeeded, a huge jovial man who lost both legs to diabetes and knew more of what went on in the political scene from a wheelchair in his New Hyde Park house than many a reporter walking around on two legs. A feature of Fred’s daily column was a birthday greeting to scores of public officials and politicians daily from his huge file of birthdays.

I think of knowledgeable Queens political reporter Bob Mindlin, a close personal friend: Walter Kaner, the Press gossip columnist and restaurant critic; Mike Lee, the Press sports editor; Leo Meindl, who took care of details like police press passes, special license plates, tours of the Press building by Queens public school classes.

After the Press folded, Leo arranged and presided at the annual staff reunion dinners held for several years until they died out.

And there were lots more, too many to mention.

I miss the old Long Island Press. It was once a big part of my life. It was once a big part of Queens’ life.

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Reader Feedback

Ned Newhouse from Nassau says:
Thank you for such a detailed memory of the space and importance that the LI Press held. I spent half my childhood there up until I was 18 when the paper was no longer capable of making money and folded. I cherish the memories of being a boy in the big manufacturing world of newspapers, where editors took great care and responsibility for the written word. It's been 10 years since you wrote this, the building was knocked down, its now a Home Depot. Long Island of course is Newsday, and having its share of financial issues even as the only daily since the LIP's demise.
Feb. 3, 2012, 9:42 am
Edward Pymm from Ridgewood says:
I was a carrier for the LI Press from around1962 to 1964. I remember a "sports nite" event around 1957 when Mike Lee was the Master of Ceremonies. Can you confirm thiss?
Dec. 5, 2013, 5:10 pm
Mike Dyer from Buffalo NY says:
I was a news/sports reporter for The Press from 1966 to its closing, March 24, 1977.
I have only fond memories of the years.
April 22, 12:07 pm

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