It is not unusual for journalists to discuss the importance of a free press and lament the verbal attacks against it, but for one of the Chestnut Hill Local's newest board members, this principle is not academic.
It is not unusual for journalists to discuss the importance of a free press and lament the verbal attacks against it in recent years, but for one of the Chestnut Hill Local's newest board members, Richard Stein, this principle is not academic.
On Feb. 28, 1989, his weekly newspaper, The Riverdale Press in The Bronx, New York, was firebombed after publishing an editorial defending author Salman Rushdie during the controversy over his book “The Satanic Verses.”
According to news reports at the time, two men stopped their car on Broadway south of West 251st Street, in front of the offices where Stein was publisher, and hurled two Molotov cocktails through the front plate glass window. The building, which had housed the newspaper since March of 1967, was set ablaze and severely damaged. (Rushdie, now 75, made news again last year when he lost the use of one eye and one hand in an August knife attack by a Muslim extremist in Chautauqua, N.Y.)
After the tragedy, Richard’s brother Bernard “Buddy” Stein, who was editor of the paper, said it wasn’t the first time The Press had been threatened.
“In the months before the bombing, somebody had been shooting BBs or .22s into the plate glass window in the front,” he said at the time. “And there had been phone calls and nasty notes.” New York's daily newspapers joined with the city in offering a $50,000 reward, but no arrests were ever made.
For Richard and Buddy Stein, the Riverdale Press was a family business. Their parents, David, a former Associated Press editor, and Celia, started it back in 1950, when the community numbered just 3,000 families and had a semi-rural character. Then the postwar years brought a major building boom, and the newspaper grew as the community did – eventually going from a 12-page tabloid into a 36-page broadsheet with a circulation of about 15,000.
It was also a labor of love. According to Richard, his father was uniquely suited to run a community newspaper. A talented writer, editor and designer, he was also genuinely fond of the people that his paper covered.
“My dad was a warm, friendly person, and he had a good relationship with just about everybody – even the politicians he was skewering,” Stein said.
His understanding went so far, in fact, that he came up with a novel solution when a local businessman whom he knew well got arrested for running a $40,000 scam on some of his fellow business owners. The man pleaded with him not to run a story.
“He actually said to the guy, ‘Tom, I can’t ignore this, but why don’t you tell your side of the story?’ and that week the front page had a bylined article by the Bronx district attorney and a bylined article by the defendant side-by-side on the front page.”
Both David and Celia were convinced that their two sons would one day take over the business, and both boys worked there while growing up.
But the boys had other ideas.
Richard, who wound up in upstate New York during the Vietnam War because his conscientious objector status required community service work at least 50 miles from home, majored in architecture at Cornell University and started a small architecture firm nearby. Buddy, who is six years older, majored in English at Columbia University and went on to graduate school at the University of California. His activism as a member of the college’s free-speech movement led to his arrest during a sit-in at the President’s office and his withdrawal from graduate school. He contributed articles to an underground newspaper, The Berkeley Barb, before finding work editing scholarly editions of Mark Twain's writings for the Mark Twain Project at the university’s Bancroft Library.
“Buddy and I were determined when we were young not to work at the paper,” Richard said.
But then came 1976, when their father, who had a chronic heart condition, became very ill.
“I went back to New York with the goal of putting the newspaper up for sale,” Richard recounted. Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine, was eager to buy. “Before signing on the dotted line, he wined and dined me at The Palm restaurant and peppered me with ideas for the paper, but insisted that I stay on after the sale. I kept thinking, ‘If I stay on, why do I need him?’
“During a long phone call, my brother let me know how unhappy he was with his job in California and offered to join me at the paper – temporarily,” Richard said. “That temporary arrangement lasted 31 years.”
That was the start of a life in the business that, by any description, turned out to be somewhat charmed – for both brothers. Buddy Stein became a mentor for budding journalists who now populate the newsrooms of major daily papers and broadcast websites across the country, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Several of his reporters earned the New York Press Association’s Writer of the Year or Rookie of the Year honors, and the paper won more than 100 state and national awards. Buddy himself won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1998.
Richard, meanwhile, handled advertising, production and design. The Press won so many overall graphic design awards from the NYPA that, when he retired, the award was named the Richard L. Stein Award.
Buddy’s Pulitzer renown opened new doors for him. In 2003, he was recruited by Hunter College to teach in its communications department. That gave him the chance to realize a long-held dream of bringing community journalism to neighborhoods that couldn’t afford it. With his students, he started publications in two of the poorest areas in New York City, the Hunts Point Express and the Mott Haven Herald. Richard designed both newspapers.
With Buddy cutting back at The Press, Richard took on the task of editing the paper before selling it to Richner Communications, a family-owned newspaper group, in 2007, right before the economy crashed. Richard stayed on with Richner, editing the websites of their Long Island newspapers while consulting at The Press.
“Staying involved with The Press and coming to the office every day were really important to our mother,” Richard recalled, “so we had promised each other that we just couldn't sell the paper as long as she was still alive. Who knew she’d live to be 91?”
Four years ago, Stein moved to Chestnut Hill so that he and his wife, Hilary Baum, who is now a member of the Weavers Way Co-op Board, could be near their daughter, Annie Baum-Stein, and her two children, Anaia Daigle, 27, of Mt. Airy, and Luca Daigle, 18, who lives on the Temple University campus. Both are Temple students.
“I came to Philly not expecting to be involved in news again,” Stein said. “But shortly after we got here in 2019, we heard about an organization that offered street trees in front of local houses for free. One of the volunteers who came to plant our three sturdy oak trees turned out to be Jean Hemphill, wife of Local board member Bob Warner. I guess she planted the idea in Bob’s head that I might be useful to the paper.”
And just like that, he’s once again a newspaperman. He’s not putting out a paper anymore, but he and the other board members are working hard to help this one stay in business.
“I am very impressed by all the people on the board,” he said. “And I am impressed by the Local itself. There are all different kinds of community newspapers, and they range in quality. What makes this one stand out is that — under the current leadership of Carla Robinson and John Derr — it is committed to serious journalism. It is an essential part of the community, which would be severely diminished if the Local was not there.”
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com