By Douglas Feiden
In 35 years in New York City newspapers, I never once received a Christmas bonus. No aggravated reader ever berated me on the street. No source ever strolled into my office to hand-deliver a box of fresh hot crème brulee donuts. No pretty stranger ever kissed me in a coffeehouse by way of praising one of my stories.
All those small, and not-so-small, delights happened in my tenure at The Sag Harbor Express, and quickly it dawned on me: I wasn’t merely covering a community, I had become part of a community. In the big-city tabloid culture I grew up in, no such commonality of purpose exists. But in this singular village, I had found such a place.
Here, you actually meet the people you write about. Their quotes don’t spring from cyber-space or disembodied telephone voices. If they don’t like what you’ve written, they let you know. They show up, unannounced, at your desk. Or buttonhole you on Main Street. Or grouse as you take notes at a trustees meeting. Or write a letter to your editor. And oh, yes, they lavish praise, too, when they think you’ve got it right and write it well.
It’s called accountability. And it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It keeps you on your toes, and fosters trust, and provides continuity with the grandest traditions of hyper-local journalism. That phrase is much bandied about these days. But in many respects, it had its origins in places just like this — where a village founded in 1707 entrusted a newspaper founded in 1859 to cover its affairs.
And so we have, for 157 years — from the dusk of the whaling era to the birth and death of our factories to the latest conflagration that gutted a chunk of Main Street — and through it all, a simple truth has abided: If you serve your readers honorably, creditably, faithfully, offering guidance, creating a true historical record of their community, they will, mostly, return the favor, with good will, and yes, even a dollop of love.
Cathy Creedon once spoke of a “lovely nearly-untranslatable word” in Danish — “Hygge” — that refers to the warmth or coziness that occurs in a home that has welcomed you in. The context was the library’s “One for the Books!” fundraising dinners, held in private homes, often by the glow of candlelight. But I borrow the word to relate the embrace I got from both Sag Harbor and its newspaper.
It starts with a life-force we all call “Georgie,” and her amped-up enthusiasm for all stories, large and small, her boundless drive, reservoir of curiosity, and a core that radiates love for family, staff, readers, advertisers and villagers generally. Kathryn G. Menu, as our masthead will tell you, is co-publisher and editor.
But what the official titles do not say — actually, what they don’t say is immeasurable — is that she’s also the education reporter, chronicler-in-chief of the life of Sag Harbor, and, along with her husband Gavin, and a gentleman I’ll mention later, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the village.
As for Gavin, officially, he’s co-publisher and advertising director, but he also doubles, or trebles, or more, as sports reporter, liaison to the business community, co-impresario of the whaleboat races, private chef, hoister of five-gallon jugs for the office water cooler, shoveler of snow outside our Division Street door in February, and, in Georgie’s endearing words, “Best husband ever.”
In a village replete with family-owned enterprises, The Express, under the Menu aegis, fits right in. It’s a mom-and-pop, albeit a sophisticated one, in which a mom-and-pop-husband-and-wife tag team runs what amounts to three separate businesses — the newspaper, its website and nine magazines a year.
Central to their operation is Stephen J. Kotz, the managing editor, dogged reporter, guidepost and friend. A keeper of institutional memory, he began covering the East End in 1990 for The East Hampton Star, possesses a healthy skepticism, and is blessed (or cursed) with a restless and lively intelligence. Unsurprisingly, he got to the fire at 6:50 a.m.
Of course, Michael Heller got there first. He’s our photographer, but he’s also a firefighter with Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 in East Hampton, which sounded a 6:18 a.m. alarm that brought him to Main Street at 6:25 a.m. First, he stretched hoseline into the street and backed up a lone firefighter on a hose to give him better control over the nozzle.
Then, as icicles formed on his helmet, wind-whipped spray soaked his bunker pants, ice encased his camera, he started snapping away. Michael took close to 2,000 photographs that day, editing 129, and his extraordinary image of a kneeling fireman beneath the smoke and heat, leading hose into a blazing Cinema, its celebrated sign shrouded in vapors, graced page one last week.
If there’s a better example of covering a community, while being woven into the fabric of a community, I’d be hard pressed to find one.
And that brings me to a former actor, bartender and cabaret manager named Bryan Boyhan, who became the paper’s editor in 1988 and publisher in 2000.
To Bryan, now publisher emeritus, The Express, and fidelity to its readers, was always a sacred trust. And service to community was integral to that vision, would could mean reviving the Old Whalers Festival, now called HarborFest, in 1991, or attending wakes and funerals, and the party for the park, and the book brigade for the library in 2016. Inevitably, it also meant covering our fires.
When I was starting out at The New York Post, I was told the great model template for a lead, the opening line of a story, is the first 10 words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It sort of says it all, doesn’t it?
But I can now offer a close second: “Sag Harbor once again fought with the demon that throughout its history has repeatedly risen from some netherworld to consume its buildings.”
No, that lead wasn’t written after the December 16 fire, though it could have been. Bryan wrote those words in 1994, after the Easter Sunday blaze devoured the Emporium Hardware store.
Flash forward 26 years, and as memories of that earlier fire returned, I stood with him on Main Street and watched the claw of that giant yellow Komatsu crusher tear into the façade of the cinema.
“I don’t know if I can bear to look at this,” he said. Why not? Well, he was grieving along with his heartbroken community. But of course, as a collective gasp went up, he did look. Why? Bryan was also a newspaperman plying his craft.
Douglas Feiden, who covers Sag Harbor and is stepping down for family reasons on New Year’s Day, bequeaths to Christine Sampson, his lucky successor, a wonderful time covering a storied villager from her berth at a glorious newspaper. He suggests a possible assignment: Figure out who plants the white roses at the gravesite of ballet master George Balanchine in Oakland Cemetery.