A Comedy of Hers
The brief, bizarre tale of Her New York, the nation's first daily for women, is no laughing matter to its former staffers and owner Steven Hoffenberg's many creditors.
By Gene Ruffini
Gene Ruffini, a former New York Post reporter, is now a freelance writer based in New Jersey.
Managing Editor at Large Mark Kramer was on the telephone conducting an interview when the receiver was taken from his hand. He looked up in surprise as a team of dour men pulled the phones from their moorings and hauled them out the door.
The day before, the computers had gone the same route, leaving Kramer and a handful of colleagues standing among the disheveled remains of what had been Her New York, the nation's first daily newspaper for women.
Somebody – namely owner and publisher Steven Hoffenberg – had run out of credit. After four months and 30 issues, the first newspaper of its kind had become the first newspaper of its kind to fold.
Her New York's brief and bizarre history is one of ambition, gall, lies, anger, tears and, naturally, disappointment. It's also a lesson on how not to run a newspaper.
Debuting on October 1, Her New York published a mix of hard news, style, fashion and health stories. Its first issue featured an op-ed column blasting the ABC program "NYPD Blues" for its stereotypical portrayal of New York women; a report on robbers holding hostages (two women and a man) inside a Brooklyn bank; and the arrest of eight women at Vogue magazine for protesting fur advertisements. The paper also printed television listings, a two-page sports section, and syndicated columns by writers such as Linda Ellerbee and Molly Ivins.
Three weeks after its inaugural
The weekly would limp along until February 7, but not before it chewed up five editors in chief, dozens of staffers and freelancers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hoffenberg did me a favor by laying me off so early in Her New York's aborted run.
Steven Hoffenberg hatched the idea for a daily aimed at women readers during his brief stint as publisher of the New York Post in early 1993. But he wasn't in a position to bankroll a hot dog stand, let alone a newspaper.
At the time, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman, he was battling the agency over charges that he had cheated investors in his now-bankrupt debt-collecting agency, Towers Financial Corporation, of some $450 million since 1987. (In February of this year, he pleaded not guilty after being charged with securities fraud and obstruction of justice and was freed on bail.) A U.S. district court froze Hoffenberg's assets in February 1993, barring him from investing his own funds, according to the SEC. At one point, Hoffenberg told reporters he had secured $3 million in credit to launch Her New York. Later he would say that his uncle, Eugene Sherman, the paper's president, was sole owner.
Regardless, Hoffenberg hyped Her New York in classified ads as "a fabulous full-color daily women's tabloid" under the helm of "one of the saviors of the New York Post."
The ads and publicity surrounding the venture attracted thousands of applicants, among them Marcia Cohen, who had been an editor at the New York Daily News and written a well-received book on the women's movement, "The Sisterhood". She says that after she was hired as editor in chief, Hoffenberg displayed her book prominently on his desk.
But Cohen says that within minutes of arriving on her first day on August 25, she got the impression that her new boss had little idea what he was doing. Leading her through his corporate offices on the 15th floor of Trump Tower, they passed scores of people on telephones trying to collect money for Towers Financial. A tiny back room with two desks and a folding table covered with a green cloth would be the Her New York newsroom.
"It was crazy, bananas," she says. "I said to him, 'Are you sure you want to do it this fast?' " Hoffenberg told her he wanted to have the newspaper out in time to attract Christmas ads.
Cohen immediately suggested Her New York might work best as a weekly. But Hoffenberg was insistent. "It became increasingly clear to me that he wanted to bury the Post and the News," she says. "He wanted to show them up, tangle with them, bury them."
Despite the chaos, Hoffenberg continued to boast that the paper would be an instant hit, telling the New York Times he expected circulation to reach 400,000 within a year.
Meanwhile, Cohen tried to make some sense of her mandate.
While Hoffenberg gave his editor a free hand over editorial content, he provided little money, insisting that she rely heavily on freelancers. Cohen says she and the other editors decided to offer $200 to $600 for each article, depending on its length an* the writer, with Hoffenberg's approval. These amounts later became a sore point among writers who found that Hoffenberg refused to pay them at those rates.
Two weeks before the first issue appeared on October 1, Hoffenberg finally leased offices for the newsroom in midtown Manhattan.
A week later, I joined the paper as one of three city reporters. We worked under City Editor Causewell Vaughn, a Daily News veteran. We were told by the ever-present security guards (supervised by Hoffenberg's chauffeur) that if we didn't sign in each morning, we would not be paid.
Those last prepublication days were spent researching and writing stories, most of which were never used. Meanwhile, a single fax machine spewed copy sent by freelancers, much of which was misplaced.
There was no library and, in the beginning, a shortage of file cabinets, chairs and supplies (I had to bring in my own stapler and desk calendar). On September 29 and 30, the days before we went to press, Managing Editor Sue Byrom was still frantically laying out the first 80-page edition. The reason: No one at Towers Financial seemed to realize that the ads determined the size and shape of the news hole, and many were still trickling in.
An hour before the Thursday 5:30 p.m. deadline, only half the pages were laid out while the production staff waited for ads. When the paper was finally finished, at 9 p.m., it was too late to print it on schedule at the Record in Hackensack, New Jersey. Instead, we had to publish early Friday morning at a Long Island printer. The planned press run of 100,000 fell to 60,000.
The paper did appear the next day, October 1, giving Hoffenberg a chance to crow on page 3 that during his brief time at the Post he had learned that "it was almost impossible to convince most editors (male, of course) to give major space and attention to women's news or subjects of interest to women." The mission of this new publication, he wrote, was to address problems such as job advancement, sexual harassment and the plight of working mothers.
He also insisted on competing with the other New York dailies on spot news stories, a nearly impossible task because of our early afternoon deadline. When I covered hearings on police corruption, for instance, I had to leave each day after the morning testimony to file my story. When I was assigned to cover late-morning news conferences, sometimes the best I could do was grab the prepared remarks and rush back to the office.
The final day of daily production came and went without Cohen, who had taken an indefinite leave of absence to protest Hoffenberg's refusal to buy libel insurance (she had also taken the editorial staff off the masthead in an effort to protect us from liability). "Any lawsuit could skip right over him and hit me and everybody else down the line," says Cohen, who spent that Thursday on the phone with insurance companies.
Anne Mollegen Smith, the former editor of McCall's, Working Woman and Redbook magazine who had been working at Her New York as a consultant, took over while Cohen made calls. By the end of the day, Hoffenberg had purchased insurance and Cohen had agreed to return. But he never forgave her. She quit two weeks later because she wasnt being paid.
After Cohen left, Smith took over again as editor. Looking back, she says that the paper never had a chance as a daily.
"There was no serious business plan," she says. "We started publishing before our equipment was ready. There was also no sophisticated advertising effort and a constant turnover in the ad sales department."
Smith stuck it out until November 8, when she resigned partly because she says Hoffenberg refused to pay the paper's freelancers.
Hoffenberg then turned to his managing editor to lead the now-weekly paper. But Sue Byrom, a veteran magazine and newspaper editor, had similar problems. She says Hoffenberg told her that he hadn't authorized the freelance rates established by Cohen. At her insistence, Byrom says, Hoffenberg agreed to a weekly payment schedule. When he didn't follow through, Byrom resigned.
Next in line was Meme Black, the former lifestyle editor who had been dismissed when the paper went weekly. Her first issue, published on December 20, featured "former porn star-turned-pleasure activist" Annie Sprinkle on its cover. The headline, in pink, pitched a review of "the year in sex." A dialogue balloon from Sprinkles mouth had her saying: "Thanks for the mammaries."
"offenberg "went wild," Black recalls. "He thought it was too smutty.... He said to pull back and that we have got to be more middle of the road."
What came to be known as "the Sprinkle issue," was followed by another with a first-person article by Black about her experiences with the antidepressant Prozac. Hoffenberg told her he loved the issue, Black says, and that she should stay home the next day to write a press release.
His request turned out to be a kiss of death. Hoffenberg summoned Black to Trump Tower the next morning and fired her.
Gary Osius, the paper's computer systems director who was later promoted to copublisher, says that partly because of the frequent staff changes, the paper had trouble keeping its focus. "Hoffenberg seemed to operate by whim and the direction of the paper seemed to depend on whoever he had had dinner with the night before," he says.
During the weeks before the paper died, Hoffenberg made one last effort to fashion a New York presence: He followed Black's editorial lead. During a 90-minute meeting with four of the paper's 17 newsroom staffers at his new corporate offices (financial pòoblems had forced him out of Trump Tower), Hoffenberg said the paper was "too highbrow for the working woman and [like] an upside-down Cosmo." What readers wanted, he said, "was a mixture of the Globe, the Star, the Enquirer and McCall's."
"That was my concept all along," Hoffenberg told the group, according to a staffer who attended. "I couldn't get it no matter what. This time I am going to get it."
He rehired Black on January 8 to replace Lois Anzelowitz, the arts and entertainment editor who had been promoted to the top spot. This time, for what it was worth, Hoffenberg promised Black editorial control.
By then, the papers newsroom staff had dwindled to five. Still, Black felt confident enough to boast in what became the final issue that it was "our best yet." Among other features, it included a section called "Bitch, Bitch, Bitch" in which women expressed their dissatisfaction with everything from people who chew gum on the subways to bad movies. Another article was titled "Penis: The Word We Love to Say."
As that issue, with a cover date of February 7, was reaching newsstands, Hoffenberg called Black with the bad news. He was folding what was left of the paper. Days earlier, creditors of Towers Financial Corp. had filed their $450 million lawsuit.
In a meeting the next morning, Hoffenberg told his editor and two other staffers that they could use the newsroom to put out another issue if they were willing to volunteer their time and recruit new investors.
Believing the paper's mission was an important one, Black agreed. Hoffenberg didn't give her much time, however. On her return from lunch the next day, she encountered "these goons with handtrucks taking away the computers." The phones were removed the next day.
It was over. In what had become a tiresome activity during her numerous hirings and firings by Hoffenberg, Black later tried to retrieve her belongings and was stopped at the door.
Despite Hoffenberg's predictions, former Circulation Director Robert J. DeBono says Her New York's daily newsstand sales never rose above 14,000 (there were no subscription sales). Weekly paid circulation peaked at 10,000. A former editor says that as a daily, editorial costs were $7,500 to $10,000 per issue. As a weekly, editorial costs averaged $28,000 an issue.
The total liability of Her New York for its owners has yet to be calculated, but Hoffenberg left a trail of debts with the paper's landlord, distributors, suppliers, haulers, computer firms, promotion printers and at least 60 writers. Many editors also say they have yet to be paid.
Hoffenberg declined to discuss Her New York. "I do not give interviews," he says. There was no response to a list of questions faxed to his office. Eugene Sherman, the paper's president, also declined comment.
Amidst the debris Hoffenberg left behind was the enthusiasm of many talented journalists who believed women readers would benefit from a newspaper like Her New York. Some of those staffers spent as many as 17 hours a day to make it happen.
"One of the good parts about working for Her New York," says Smith, "was the terrific challenge to make it come out at all." Among the disappointments, she adds, was "the black eye it gave to women journalists because so much attention was paid to the paper when it failed. I still think a weekly newspaper for women in New York would work."
A few weeks after Her New York died, Hoffenberg phoned Smith and offered to license her the paper's name and masthead – if she was willing to find investors. Smith says they "did not have a very serious discussion."