Owner recalls shift from rocky start to smooth sailing

By Rashmi Vaish

It's been a long and often rocky ride, one that began on a not quite auspicious note when he walked into the office the first day to discover that more than half his staff had given notice, including the then managing editor who also doubled as a reporter.

But with a keen eye for business, opportunity and a dedication to journalism ethics, former reporter and editor Blank was well-equipped to take over and begin building a successful group of community newspapers with a circulation of now approximately 46,000 in Queens.

“I was working at my father's consumer electronics chain at the time,” said Blank, recalling his reason for buying a newspaper, “and I was looking at advertising for some of the stores.” But he found that the dailies weren't giving him what he wanted as an advertiser. “The Daily News only had a 17.5 percent penetration in Brooklyn and Queens at the time, so I'm thinking, how do I reach all the other people?”

The seeds of an idea were sown, and he embarked on a quest spanning 18 months that finally ended “after protracted negotiations,” with Blank's buying Queens Publishing Corp. from David and Carol Allison. The Allisons had inherited the company from their mother, Pat Allison, who was a saleswoman at the paper and had bought it from its founders in 1948.

The company held quite a few attractions for Blank: “They had a paid circulation, and from an advertiser's point of view I knew I could verify the numbers. The newspapers were getting into the households where people made their buying decisions. (They were) established in the communities and had a good name,” in addition to being in Queens, which is known to be the most ethnically diverse county in the United States.

Said Blank, “Queens was particularly well-suited because nobody in Queens said they were from Queens – they said they were from Bayside, Forest Hills, Little Neck – so you had that strong community identity existing among the people.” Combine that with all the problems associated with a place like New York and you get an excellent field of coverage in terms of news and advertising revenue.

But business wasn't his only motivation. Born in Washington Heights, brought up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in journalism from Boston University, Blank started out in the time of Woodward, Bernstein and the Watergate scandal.

“It was an idealistic time,” Blank said. And one of the reasons he got into publishing was that as a reporter he, too, had done controversial stories and had experienced the politics involved in writing such pieces. So as a publisher, he wanted to make it a point to not interfere with stories on financial or political grounds.

“I've always felt good journalism is good business,” he said. “If we operate the way daily newspapers are supposed to operate – which is a separation of church and state, keeping advertising separate from editorial – and if we really make a serious and sincere effort to provide quality coverage uncompromised by political or financial or advertising reasons, people will read the paper.

“I've maintained that separation and I think it's given confidence to our readers and at the same time has attracted quality people in journalism because they know that they're not going to have to compromise their ethics.”

Blank hasn't compromised on his ethics either, he said. “Having ethics is like being pregnant,” he explained. “Either you are or you aren't. Being ethical is not doing the right thing some of the time; it's doing the right thing all of the time. I go back to the boxing promoter Bob Arum, who once said, 'I was lying yesterday, but I'm telling the truth today.' Once you've lied, it's hard to know when you're telling the truth. Everything you say becomes suspect.”

He has abided by that philosophy and has not regretted it, he said, even from a business point of view when some advertisers have gotten mad at certain stories and stopped advertising. The editorial quality brought them back. And most importantly, “I can sleep a lot better, feel good about the paper,” Blank said. “I think that's one of the reasons for our success – not having compromised on those ideals. In newspapers, credibility is everything. If you have doubt, you're not going to read the newspaper.”

It is this thinking that has brought the TimesLedger 75 state and national awards in the past two years alone. “It's proved that we've put together a top management team on all fronts over the years,” Blank said.

“In running a business and having a family you get the same feeling of parenthood. It's like trying to single out children,” he said. “I look at all the departments and all the different achievements and it's almost like I don't want to pick one child over another. I'm proud of all of them.”

All the elements are now in place, Blank said. But that doesn't mean he sits back and relaxes. He's happy but never satisfied, he said. “We haven't won the Pulitzer yet, so that's still something to shoot for.”

Reach contributing writer Rashmi Vaish by e-mail at [email protected].