|1946: Triumph of the underdog
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
| It came into this world like a newborn baby howling for attention, an 18-page tabloid which spoke the news in the language of black, blunt headlines and gutsy attitude.
From the moment The Trentonian first rolled off the rotogravure presses of South Broad Street as a daily, on Aug. 12, 1946, Trenton could tell its new newspaper was a different creature.
Common sense dictated the creature would not live long. After all, the Trenton Times, the city's one-time monopoly paper, was providing the lordly competition, and the guys at The Trentonian were supposely nothing more than Times castoffs.
A strange thing happened, though: 53 years went by, and The Trentonian did not die. It held its own, grew, doubled in circulation and doubled again. It even won a Pulitzer Prize along the way.
Newspaper historians are still shaking their heads today trying to explain how Trenton, population 84,000, continues to be one of the smallest cities in America to have two competing papers.
The answer to that puzzle lies deep in Trenton's blue-collar heart.
The city was a manufacturing town back in the '40s, booming with World War II-fueled prosperity, and the labor was resurgent. Trenton Times typesetters belonged to the International Typographical Union and refused to cross Teamster picket lines in 1943. As a result, the paper shut down for a month.
In 1946, the ITU asked for wage increases and more vacation time, only to be rebuffed by a Times management tiring of its antics. When the ITU walked out on Jan. 12, the Times responded by printing anyway, using mimeographed copy instead of lead type. Then it refused to rehire the 40 striking workers.
It was a move that backfired immediately. The ITU decided to strike back at the Times — by competing with it.
Step 1 was to buy an existing paper. That paper existed in the form of a little-read weekly, The Trentonian, which a hustling businessman named Sam Jacobs had founded in June 1945 with $1,300 in war bonds. One of his first hires was a returning Army veteran, Thomas Accongio, who became The Trentonian's first sports editor under the pen name Tommy Cargo.
"It was a throwaway," recalled Accongio, now 78 and living in Southern California. "Sam Jacobs would load 400, 500 copies into the back of a station wagon, give some kids a few nickels and ask them to toss the paper on doorsteps.
"One week he would be starving, one week he'd sell an ad and get by. He got $15,000 from the ITU for that paper, and it was worth zero."
That first Trentonian crew included burly union pressmen; hard-bitten Newspaper Guild reporters from New York and Philadelphia; ITU typesetters still smoldering over the Times strike, and a few homegrown journalists like Accongio. But they all had one common purpose from the old office at 128 S. Warren St.: get the paper out!
First The Trentonian became a twice-weekly paper, then three times a week. Aug. 12 is listed as the paper's first daily.
Right away, you knew something was different about this paper:
* "SUICIDE NEAR DEATH." "OUTLAW A-BOMB NOW." "N.J. BOOKIES LINKED WITH PRO PIGSKIN 'FIX.'" Every front page had a 200-point, boldfaced headline known as "the black line" or simply "the line."
Snappy, sometimes slangy, the line had to be compelling, not always easy on a slow news day. City editor Bill Blitman had his way of dealing with that. "Get the mayor on the phone," he once instructed a reporter. "Ask him what he'll do about all this crime." Voila! The next day's line: "MAYOR WARS ON CRIME."
* No event in Trenton, from lost dogs to fender-benders, was unworthy of The Trentonian's attention — and breathless hype. Here, for instance, is a report on a Labor Day 1946 burglary:
"An overwhelming lust for ice cream led two juveniles to the brink of ruin yesterday when they looted a luncheonette owned by Paul Beitler of 541 Hamilton Ave. and escaped with $30. The youths were apprehended after they had spent half of the swag on an orgy of ice cream and other dubious delights."
* Trenton's "City Hall fatheads" and "pipsqueak politicians" came in for a daily dose of razzing by the impertinent editorial staff. The political column was entitled "Looking Down on Politics," with the explanation, "There is but one way for a newspaperman to look at politicians, and that is down."
* The paper carried a daily entertainment column filled with the ramblings, puns, zany zingers and random typings of Trenton's own Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs, who sometimes came to work wearing pajamas and bathrobe, wrote with gusto about the city's bustling night life and movie at any of 16 theaters. Within a decade, Kovacs would become an entertainer himself — a pioneer of early television comedy.
All of this from an overworked staff who — for the first six months — didn't even have their own printing press.
That formative year of 1946, a copy boy drove all news stories, ads and photos from South Warren Street to a commercial press on South Broad Street. From noon to the midnight deadline, the frenzied courier would speed nonstop through the streets of Trenton — never once getting a ticket from the city cops, who apparently saw his breakneck missions as a public service.
The Trentonian's next office, at 306 E. Front St., had the virtue of owning a printing press, even if it had little else to recommend itself.
On the first floor, the press clattered loudly; on the second floor sat barrels of boiling lead used to make the linotype. On the third floor, the news staff toiled in simmering heat, without benefit of air conditioning.
"Some of us would strip down to the waist, it was that hot," said Joe Logue, a rookie part-timer of 1949 who is now the sports department's most veteran writer. "The worst was the bugs. They attacked in squadrons."
To publicize itself — and attack the Trenton Times and its editor, James Kerney Jr. — The Trentonian went to theatrical lengths. Once, Accongio recalled, the ITU rented a truck with loudspeakers and sent it downtown blaring an anti-Times ditty: "Old Jim Kerney hired a bunch of finks! Everyone knows the Trenton Times stinks!"
But the classic example of Trentonian impudence in those early years came on Jan. 29, 1947, when the paper carried a front-page photo of one of its reporters placing a bet with an elevator operator in the State House.
The feisty tabloid did it to show up the Trenton Times, which had been crusading to close down gambling houses. Well, The Trentonian said, why don't you just shut down the seat of government too?
The governor, Alfred Driscoll, didn't think it was so funny. He ordered The Trentonian banned from all newsstands on state property, and for two years any Trentonian reporter was persona non grata with the Republican administration.
How on earth did The Trentonian survive? It nearly didn't. Circulation was stagnant through the '40s. Display advertising — and the rich revenue it afforded — was virtually non-existent.
The road to success began in 1949, when Edmund Goodrich bought the paper off the ITU. Goodrich was a respected New York journalist with a gambler's instincts who thought The Trentonian presented "a challenge."
Goodrich's bet paid off. The paper was in the black within four years, and in 1965 it moved to its present location at 600 Perry St. A new generation of journalists came on board: Emil Slaboda, the homespun managing editor known as "the Bull," and F. Gilman Spencer, the executive editor who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for editorials assailing corruption in New Jersey government.
Circulation soared: 25,000, 40,000, 50,000. Today, under ownership of the Trenton-based Journal Register Company, it is 57,000.
"We were bottom dog for a long time," said Ed Hoffman, who was Goodrich's circulation director and eventually became publisher, from 1973-89. "It took hard work and an earnest effort to build up connections and respect."
The Trentonian has come far from its scruffy infancy of the '40s. One thing that hasn't changed: it's still a tabloid, with a tabloid's huge headlines and feistiness when it comes to attacking hypocrisy and dishonesty at every turn. And it's still a community paper, dedicated to bettering its home city of Trenton and the surrounding suburbs.
"Sometimes it seems that The Trentonian keeps reinventing itself every few years," the paper observed in 1995, "although never at the expense of losing what makes it The Trentonian."
And what makes it The Trentonian?
"It has a survivor's spirit," said Spencer, now a writer in New York City. "I never thought we were doing anything exceptionally brilliant. But The Trentonian seems to be smarter than any person who works for it."