By Diana Sochor
True confession: when I drove up from Downsville, NY, to interview for the position of editorial assistant at The Reporter in late April 1996, my Dad drove me. He was worried (with a lot of justification) that I’d get lost once I got off Route 17 and into the “big city.” Plus, he missed those long drives home from or headed to Wells College when it was just the two of us in the car talking about everything and nothing. (And let’s face it, if it weren’t for smart phones, with Google Maps or Waze, I would still get lost trying to find places these days... and that includes here in town.)
I lucked out, and despite having pretty much no computer layout experience, and not being the fastest typist interviewed, then Executive Editor Marc Goldberg hired me, and I moved up to Vestal and started working in May 1996. I can’t remember the exact words, but when I asked him “why me” a few weeks in, he said something to the effect that I wasn’t the most qualified person he and then Associate Editor Naomi Shore had interviewed and tested, but I was the best fit. Which was funny, because my other new co-workers had almost immediately started a pool on how long I’d last. (Joke’s on them, I’ve outlasted them all!)
The weekly secular newspaper I’d been working for part-time was still cutting and hand-pasting columns of typed text, photos that were developed in the in-house darkroom and the ads onto large sheets of newspaper template pages, and then hand-delivering them to the printer. The Reporter was still using those same sheets, and a courier to get them to the printer, but by the time I started working here the articles and photos were being laid out on a computer, then printed out to be waxed and pasted as one large sheet on those templates, with the ads placed individually on the pages in spots reserved for them. (I do not miss the noxious smell of the wax machine.)
Was the learning curve steep? You bet it was. Learning to use the computers, the various programs (especially the layout program PageMaker), the time sheet (I do not miss having to keep track of what I did for which paper for how long each day!), The Reporters’ tracking/coding system for getting out all the newspapers it was doing for different communities at the time.... to say I was drowning in an overload of information is probably putting it mildly (and probably why those coworkers had that bet going). Did I ask a lot of questions? Yes, and probably so many, about so many things, including the Jewish community, culture, traditions, etc. etc. etc. that I know I drove Marc and Naomi crazy. After the umpteenth question one day, Marc brought in a fairly thick book – I think it was called “To Be a Jew” – and said, “Here, read this. If you still have questions, you can ask us.” I had questions, questions that sometimes cracked the two of them up. But they took the time to answer every single one of them, which I am still very grateful for to this day.
Some of those questions, though, were related to the paper itself. My very first Chanukah at the paper, the holiday’s name was spelled three different ways in four articles on the same page of the paper I was proofreading. So I asked, which spelling is right? The Reporter already had a Hebrew/Yiddish style guide, but the holidays at the time weren’t on it. Marc and Naomi settled on the standard spelling going forward of Chanukah, as in 1996 that was the more common spelling. Over the decades since, especially the last few years, Hanukkah has become the favored spelling, but I still prefer Chanukah. I just might be set in my ways.
And some of those community questions were essential for getting the job done, particularly who was the contact where. (I still miss the old program Instant Recall. That program was great for tracking everything, which the packrat in me truly adored. Our newer program is OK, but it’s not quite the same.) Being handed the 1996 Community Guide after only a week or two on the job and told to contact all the community organizations for their updates was pretty overwhelming, but Marc and Naomi must have already decided I could handle it, even if I was having doubts. Heck, I was so worried about mailing those letters and copies of the articles out on time, I took a dozen or more copies of the guide home to my studio apartment to cut articles out and work on them for more than a few evenings. (And yes, mailing, as in through the Post Office. It’s so much easier these days, since we just copy and paste all of the articles and information for each organization into an e-mail and hit “Send.”) Happily, despite how stressed out I was over potentially messing up such an important project, it came together and looked pretty darn good.
That wasn’t the only major issue my first year: Marc had negotiated for us to take over publishing the then-biweekly Syracuse Jewish community newspaper, which, if I remember right, we started around Rosh Hashanah just to add to the holiday schedule madness. We were also doing papers for Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Poughkeepsie at the time. Going from a single, secular, weekly newspaper to a small newspaper empire, and trying to keep the information for first four and then five communities straight in my head, along with the schedule of what was getting done when, was occasionally a struggle. Fortunately, we had, and still have, a calendar telling us everything we need, from editing deadlines, to layout dates, to holiday closings, and more, which Naomi had managed... until she turned it over to me with a too-gleeful smile on her face. Can’t remember if that was for the year 1997 or 1998, but it’s been my baby ever since.
In late 1996-early 1997, we also started work on The Reporter’s 25th anniversary issue, to come out at the very end of our 25th year in November. I thought it was funny that the newspaper and I had been born in 1971, but at opposite ends of the year. On top of helping with the layout of that special issue, done magazine style and on better quality paper than newsprint, Marc also tasked me with writing some of the history articles that appeared in it, including for families that had been in the community for generations. Talking to people and finding out how their family’s history intertwined with the community’s was fun, but also a bit stressful, because I really wanted to be sure I had those family articles right. All hands were on deck and there were a few late nights to get that issue laid out and to the printer on time, so it could be printed and inserted in the November 18, 1997, issue of the paper. For the record, our 40th celebratory issue went a lot easier (of course it did; we’d saved material from the 25th, so most of our research was already done!) and came out just before our 40th anniversary, again on a November 18. I’d guess it went more smoothly because by 2011 we’d been doing everything on the computers, including shipping the pages to the printer electronically, for awhile. No more late nights for us!
Those technology changes haven’t been the only thing that’s morphed over time. Every executive editor (I’m on my fifth, but who’s counting) has had a slightly different style (managerial and editorial) and interests. A few really wanted to highlight national and/or international hard news, while others wanted lighter stories highlighting good things happening in the world. Some waited until the last possible millisecond to choose non-local stories to fill space, others had a prioritized list at the start of layout. One, who only lasted a few months, went to town sweeping out cobwebs to help things run more efficiently and insisted that with our small staff and modern technology, there was no reason for anyone to be sending in, or hand-delivering, articles we’d then have to type up ourselves; all articles were to be e-mailed from then on. Heck, when I first started, articles from other communities were being faxed or mailed on a disc to us, and photos were sent via snail-mail and then scanned. No longer having to type up articles was a real time saver, and certainly helped cut down on errors caused by illegible hand-writing (hey, I have trouble reading my own hand-writing at times!). Now that we have an even smaller and mostly part-time staff, that longtime edict is really appreciated.
Executive editors also have had different ways of dealing with the varied communities we’ve served over the years. Some have loved schmoozing with other Federations’ executive directors or community liaisons, even when the incoming call was a complaint, while others dreaded those calls. (After all, who wants to get yelled at for something that wasn’t an error on their part? No one.) A fair amount of the time the complaint was (and still is) how long it took for papers to get into people’s mailboxes – sorry, but that’s on the Post Office; once the paper is dropped off at a bulk mail office, it’s out of our control, and as time has passed, the PO has been given longer periods of time to deliver our periodical and nonprofit standard class newspapers. And the staff at some Post Offices in some towns do take their time with delivering the paper. The worst instance was during the aftermath of the 2011 floods, when no one in town got The Reporter one week. Why? Turned out, it had been shoved in a corner in the large Syracuse bulk mail facility – no doubt because someone thought, gee, why ship it down to Binghamton when it can’t get there anyway with all the roads closed – and forgotten about until we called.
Sometimes, though, those executives in other communities have preferred talking to me, whether by e-mail or phone, and why, I don’t know. Rachel will tell you I have a phone/e-mail persona that can put people at ease – or at least not scare them – regardless of who is sitting in the executive editor’s chair, and particularly during those times we had a new executive editor (and sometimes that didn’t go over well with the new boss, sigh....). Sometimes the requests coming in were ones I knew, because I was doing the bulk of the layout, wouldn’t work, and I admit, I had few if any qualms in saying so. The trick was, and still is, to say “no, that won’t work, but this should...” Being told, on too many occasions to count, that we were lifesavers was really, truly satisfying. In fact, one Federation exec so enjoyed working with us that, when he moved to a different community, he called up and asked me if we could fit another, new monthly paper he felt his new community needed into our then busy schedule. Of course, after a quick consultation with my boss, the answer was yes, so for a few years we were producing six different community newspapers (our weekly, two biweeklies and three monthlies). Alas, now we’re down to two: our now biweekly Reporter, and the now monthly Reporter we do for the Jewish community of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
With all the changes over the years – including the decisions by various communities to end their contracts with us and the resulting downsizing of staff and hours – someone not long ago asked me why I was still here. I jokingly said I’d be going down with the ship, but the truth is, I’m a creature of habit. So no matter how crazy things have gotten at times, because I love the rhythm of the Jewish year and our production schedule, and working with people I’ve come to know through the paper, I’ve never seriously thought about going elsewhere. And I’m really hoping that The Reporter (and I, and Rachel!) will still be around in 2031 for the start of its 60th anniversary year.
Editor’s note: Diana Sochor began working as an editorial assistant at The Reporter in May 1996 before becoming its layout editor. Neither job title accurately captures all the work she does for the paper.