Newspapering has lost a pair of giants
Within a week I've lost two mentors, men who contributed so much to the world of journalism.
First it was Al Romm, the former editor of The Times Herald-Record in Middletown (NY), and now Jim Ottaway has passed.
While both were my bosses for more than 20 years, Jim, as founder of Ottaway Newspapers which owned the Times Herald and later the merged Times Herald-Record, was the boss of bosses.
And a marvelous man as well.
I remember the first day he came into the Times Herald. "Hi, I'm Jim Ottaway," he said smiling and extending his hand in greeting. Always impeccably attired and very much the gentleman, he had a wry, if not understated, sense of humor that became more evident in later years in social gatherings and at seminars.
He also had either the most fantastic memory for names, families, events and places or the best social secretary in history. But for the longest time, his greeting was always, "Hi, I'm Jim Ottaway," as if we all didn't know who he was.
Later, of course, he'd skip the more formal greeting, but he always seemed to know something about the person with whom he was speaking.
His thing, it always seemed to me, was quality community newspapering. "Tell people what's going on in their communities. But make sure you get it right."
He also believed in local autonomy -- even though corporate headquarters was a mere 10 miles from the Times Herald-Record. So when he came across a story he thought might be interesting, his suggestion invariably came with an apology that probably we already knew about it.
Clearly, he was a money man, but a man who had a sense of what was news and what people wanted to know. To be sure, he was also was an advertising man, but always he was a man of vision, and concerned about the newspaper group he founded. When some newspaper chains were getting bigger and bigger by gobbling up smaller ones, he opted to take his newspaper group to Dow Jones and old friends, where he was sure the quality on which he insisted would be continued.
As for Al, to most outside the news business his name may mean little. But to those of us who grew up in the Al Romm newsroom at the Times Herald-Record, this was a giant, a man whose news instincts helped to make the paper so great.
It became clear during my time there, that many outside the newspaper failed to realize how much Al cared about the people who read the Record. He wanted so very much for the people of the region.
He wanted good government, fair government, balanced government. He wanted help for the poor and the ailing, he wanted anyone who sought employment to have an equal opportunity. He wanted good schools.
But he also wanted the area to grow and prosper. He too umbrage when insiders promoted growth for their own benefit, and I remember a time when a Chamber of Commerce promoter bounded into the office to proclaim he was now the leading candidate to become the Record's annual citizen of the year.
Why? "Simple, I've just convince a major industry to relocate here," he told Al and the assembled sub editors. Well, the questions that followed produced more balderdash and poppycock from that C of C type than any good dairy farmer could use to fertilize a couple of hundred acres. Turned out that the big industry was going to pay its workers minimum wage.
There were other issues, too. He believed that if the Record was going to champion social causes, including integration, it ought to start at the newspaper. So he embarked on a hiring program that produced immediate success in the sports department where it always seemed the opportunity was more important than the money.
As for news, try these Rommisms on for size. When promoters announced the first Woodstock Festival, Al decided to check out the site in Bethel. After visiting, he determined that getting in and out could be a problem so he convinced the publisher, in what most considered a major coup of the day, to spend for an on-site trailer-office, telephones and teletype. Al and his then-wife Ethel headed the around-the-clock reporting team.
That led, of course, to an "extra" as the Record printed nearly 50,000 copies on the Sunday before the first Sunday Record. Al's instincts were so keen that the wire services and other reporters came to that trailer at Bethel and to the office in Middletown to move their copy. And would the Sunday Record be a success? Well, the extra sold out in about an hour, although clearly it was the Woodstock celebration that did the trick. And Al was ecstatic some years later when he learned that the Record's coverage of Woodstock had finished "a very close" second for a Pulitzer.
Another Al Romm foray led to a raid on Big Nell's, a Newburgh brothel well known far beyond Orange County's borders. Romm, who will be remembered as a cigar-smoking, paper-chewing teacher-editor, always reveled in telling about the representative of the then-tainted Newburgh Police Department who arrived at Nell's and demanded to know what was going on. A trooper responded: "We're raiding Nell's." The cop reported: "No one told us." And the trooper opined: "Obviously."
Of course, there's more to that story. Record reporters had told Al sources assured them that the brothel was operating. Two volunteered to infiltrate but not partake. They took along a free-lance artist. The evidence they gathered was enough to convince the district attorney, at Al's insistence, that a raid should follow.
Ultimately, the State Police got more involved and that led to indictments and convictions of the Newburgh police chief and members of his department. And behind it all was an editor who believed in his reporters, even when their zeal at times proved a tad embarrassing.
While Al was known as a bridge master, it took a little coaxing to get him into a poker game and he also could be convinced, if the stakes were appropriate, to play gin rummy as well.
Certainly there were some rough spots. They happen. But curiously, it was a trip to President Nixon's Washington that got Al in trouble with some at headquarters. Ethel was a liberal's liberal who was aghast at Nixonian politics and said so in a social gathering one afternoon with Mrs. Nixon and other editor's wives. That night, Al and the Mrs. were invited to leave the reception line at the White House. Their loyalty to American ideals, apparently, was in question. Shade of McCarthyism.
Al fumed. He wanted to write an editorial. But Ottaway had just been acquired by Down Jones. And who was the new president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which arranged for the White House visit? Warren Phillips, editor of the Wall St. Journal, the DJ flagship. So a muted editorial was written, but clearly some at headquarters felt embarrassed. (Ed note: For Ethel's side of this story, click here.)
History now shows, of course, that Al was right about the Nixon paranoia, although being politically correct never was part of Ethel's demeanor.
In later years, Al would smile that clearly he knew he had been right. He always had this wonderful ability to sit back, listen, digest, and speak profoundly, although occasionally his discourse could be roguishly humorous. He could not abide fools, hoever. I recall him telling a reporter who had made anti-Semetic remarks about Al that he did not think he could "hold a viper to his breast." He thought it over for an hour or so and then called the reporter to his office and fired him. He never acted rashly.
In later years at the Record, after being removed from the daily firing line to the editorial page, Al aspired to corporate office and ultimately moved to Ottaway headquarters as a vice president in charge of news quality. I guess thaat's what he though he wanted, but the day he left the Record was the day some of the zest left the product.
Good newspapers, it seems to me, never can afford to lose great ones -- like Jim Ottaway and Al Romm.
Barbara Bedell's obit obit.html