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American Journalism Review
Geraldo Bursts Into Print  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1991

Geraldo Bursts Into Print   

The rambunctious Rivera bought a hometown weekly, made himself editor and his wife investigative reporter. "The little paper that roared," he calls it. Not everyone agrees.

By Neil A. Sheehan
Neil A. Sheehan is a freelance writer who lives in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.      

The advertising kit for his newspaper includes a publicity photo of his famous mustachioed face, with his name below it in letters blown up as large as a newspaper masthead. He makes personal appearances at local shopping malls, ribbon-cuttings, county fairs and car dealerships to autograph the latest issue. He publishes a profile of himself on Page One and writes columns about his 44-foot sloop, his $1.6 million home and his new "red hot" autobiography. He prints a house ad that offers readers VIP tickets to his syndicated talk show. Rupert Murdoch, move over: Budding newspaper mogul Geraldo Rivera has arrived.

Rivera – investigative reporter, provocative talk show host, unctuous celebrity, lawyer, author of five books (including his recent grope-and-tell "Exposing Myself") and media critic whipping boy – is now in the weekly newspaper business. And he envisions owning a chain of weeklies stretching across New Jersey – and perhaps the nation.

It seems an unlikely marriage – a mass-appeal TV journalist who's been accused of trafficking in "trash" and "nuts 'n' sluts" programming (Washington Post critic Tom Shales once dubbed him "the Jerry Lewis of investigative journalism") owning a handsomely designed weekly that caters to an elite, high-income crowd. Journalists Connie Chung and Maury Povich live nearby, along with rock stars Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. And innumerable Wall Street executives and Manhattan Yuppies have estates within the paper's target circulation area, where the median annual income exceeds $50,000.

But the paper is catching on, according to Rivera. He claims the $20-per-year Two River Times, based in Red Bank in east central New Jersey, tripled its circulation to 30,000 after he took over as majority owner and managing editor and made his wife, television producer C.C. Dyer, the paper's investigative reporter.

Whether Rivera can contribute anything new to the newspaper business is open to debate. Some critics say the Times's formula isn't much different than that of his syndicated programs such as the sensational "Now It Can Be Told" and the daily "Geraldo" talk show. ("Woe betide the donut shop that goes topless" anywhere near Rivera's new acquisition, one media reporter quipped after learning of the sale.) Others snidely remark that the paper's large 34-inch format (most broadsheets are 27 inches wide) reflects the size of Rivera's ego.

But the 48-year-old journalist, whose only previous newsprint experience was writing a couple of magazine articles and a stint as the sports editor of his high school newspaper, has strong views on what ails his adopted industry.

"One of the things that has happened to newspapers is that they've gotten lazy," he says. "They lost their passion. They abandoned investigative reporting by and large. They fiddled while Rome burned." The Two River Times, he promises, will not stand by while New Jersey falls apart.

Understated he isn't. From his auspicious start as a streetwise reporter for WABC-TV in New York to his highly rated but critically panned prime-time specials complete with on-air drug busts, a search for Al Capone's lost vault (it's still lost), and a study of Satanism, Rivera has always had a penchant for ostentation. He earned his investigative stripes during his seven-year tenure with ABC News's "20/20" and sullied them with a "Geraldo" battle between civil rights activists and youthful hate-mongers in which a flying chair broke his nose.

Rivera bought the controlling interest in the Two River Times with the same kind of chutzpah. Rivera and Dyer came across their new acquisition by chance. They had moved out of Manhattan in 1989 to settle in Monmouth County, just a boat ride from the Big Apple – or a helicopter flight, if Rivera is running behind schedule to tape "Geraldo."

Publisher Claudia Ansorge had founded the Times in September 1990, naming the paper after the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, which both flow nearby. In search of backers, she asked Rivera, who had been one of the paper's first subscribers when it debuted, to invest $50,000.

Given the economy, and the precarious nature of the newspaper business, it was probably not the best time to get involved in a start-up. Rivera was dubious. "I [initially] rejected the idea because I had invested in a bank in the South Bronx," Rivera says, "a similar kind of thing with subscriptions of $50,000, and watched helplessly as it was mismanaged and none of its promises fulfilled in terms of serving the community or returning my investment."

Rivera told Ansorge he wanted majority control or nothing. "He wanted to be managing editor, but that wasn't what I was looking for," she says. Eventually Rivera and Ansorge reached a verbal agreement, and the publisher carefully guarded plans of the sale until all the legal documents could be signed. Before that happened, however, she received a phone call from a wire service reporter who somehow knew all the details.

"He had the exact number of shares Geraldo was buying, all those numbers that I was trying to keep a lid on," recalls Ansorge. "It turns out Geraldo's publicist had provided all the information. I was, you might say, a bit taken aback. But that's just the way Geraldo does things." By late February the deal was done: Rivera would provide at least $400,000 in capital in return for a 75 percent interest.

Critics say the Times is a toy for Rivera. "How can he step into a weekly from the exalted throne of the national media and remain satisfied?" asks Bob Carroll, a former New York Daily News editor who publishes a weekly in nearby Asbury Park. But Rivera and his assistants insist he's serious about print journalism. "He's always been a writer," says Jo-Ann Torres Conte, Rivera's executive assistant. "He would like to retire to the paper and make his living that way."

"It's not a passing fancy, not with the kind of knocks we've had to take and the fact that he hasn't lost interest despite them," says Kevin Fortson, chief financial officer for Rivera's enterprises. Fortson won't say how much money the paper has lost, but concedes, "There were rude awakenings that only people involved with the newspaper business could have foreseen."

Rivera is not worried, however. "Because I've been so successful [in broadcasting], the newspaper's destiny doesn't rise or fall on the bottom line," he says. "All I want is that the Times not lose too much. There are other companies with deeper pockets, but my pockets are ample to sustain the paper until we break even – a year, two years, whatever it takes. We're going to be a multimedia company, and to the extent that it's necessary for television to subsidize the print side, then that's what we'll do."

In the meantime, Rivera has taken to his new assignment like an eager reporter fresh out of school. When a call came in to the newspaper's office one morning that a plane had crash-landed in a nearby community, "that was all Geraldo needed to hear," Editor Cort Smith recounts. "We zoomed down to Sea Bright and he hopped out of the car and bounded into the police station. And of course everyone recognized him. They quickly gave him all the information he needed."

The report, alas, turned out to be inaccurate; the plane had landed on the beach due to engine trouble. "In fact, it looked like it had been there for years," says Smith, who nevertheless was impressed with Rivera's determination.

One staff meeting last July, held under a gazebo in the backyard of Rivera's palatial home overlooking the Navesink River, begins with Rivera in a gray T-shirt, white cotton pants and weathered sneakers fetching drinks for his guests. "I'll take care of the first one but after that it's self-service," he announces.

Once everyone has settled, Rivera pulls a metal chair to one side; his five full-time editorial staffers sit or stand on the other. Editor Smith rattles off a list of the stories in progress, including reports on barge-jumping in Sea Bright, dredging and development proposals in the Bayshore and a Middletown Vietnam War vet involved in an Agent Orange lawsuit. Rivera listens intently, interjecting questions.

Staff members offer story ideas but Rivera is quick to cut them off. The previous week, the word "lightning" had appeared several times in Rivera's column as "lightening." One reporter suggests that the paper hire high school students as proofreaders. "No, no," Rivera responds, shaking his head. He's anxious to move on.

Proofreading errors notwithstanding, Rivera and his staff – 23 full-time employees and 20 part-time reporters – have filled the paper with both style and substance, including lengthy stories on local controversies. But they don't always deliver what they promise.

A Page One article by Dyer, for example, on plans for a Chase Manhattan office complex in the nearby township of Holmdel, caused an uproar. The lead in the piece, "The Battle of Holmdel: A Tale of Drainage, Traffic, Conflict and Love," alluded to "passionate allegations of political payoffs, eyebrow-raising sexual liaisons, possible cover-ups among the local elected officials, and a potential environmental disaster – and that is just for starters."

Up front, Dyer advised readers to get a cup of coffee and sit down before reading further, then quoted a number of "shy" sources who wouldn't give their names, as well as two "nice" and "charming" men who did. She later undermined much of her titillating lead by advising readers to take many of the anonymous charges "with a grain of salt." The "sexual liaisons" amounted to gossip about the elderly town clerk, who married his wife's nurse two weeks after his ailing spouse had died. The nurse and town clerk then rented a costly farmhouse from Chase Manhattan, Dyer alleged, "for the seeming bargain price of $750 a month."

Searing exposé or idle hearsay? Whatever one calls it, Ansorge is pleased. "The paper definitely has more of an edge since Geraldo took over," Ansorge says. "He's willing to tread where others won't."

Others charge that the "edge" is dull. "There were no facts to be found in the [Chase Manhattan] story, but Dyer says [in effect] that 'facts' were floating around town and should be reported," says David Thaler, publisher of two area weeklies that compete with the Times. "I don't know about you, but that's not the kind of journalism I learned in J-school."

Peggy Lasky, the outspoken Republican mayor of Holmdel Township, whom anonymous sources in the Times article described as a puppet of the township clerk, says Dyer never contacted her for comment. "There's been a lot of backlash from that article," she says, including dozens of residents who showed up at planning board meetings to complain.

Edward McKenna Jr., the Red Bank mayor whose name often appears in Times stories, says he's satisfied with the paper's new owner and his philosophy. "Since Geraldo took over they've been focusing more on individual controversies rather than general themes," McKenna says. "The one thing I always feel is important is to check with the sources of information and they seem to be attempting to do that."

The paper has generated controversy not only with its coverage but also with its circulation claims. Rivera tells advertisers his circulation tops 30,000 issues per week. But Ansorge admits that more than two-thirds of the press run – about 22,000 copies – are free samples dropped on doorsteps as part of an ongoing marketing campaign in 18 towns. Newsstand and subscription sales now total about 8,500 copies per week, up from about 3,000 when Rivera took over.

"It's just amazing that he's been able to get away with what he has," says Thaler, who publishes the Bayshore Independent and the Middletown Independent. "He didn't have any circulation audit statements [when he first arrived] and yet claims those kind of numbers."

Thaler is equally caustic about the Times's relatively low advertising rates. "They're lower than they should be," he says. "A lot of that advertising was produced because of his celebrity, but if advertisers don't get results, they'll turn elsewhere."

The area's more affluent residents find the Times "charming," Thaler says. But Lauren Jaeger, who writes for the Bayshore Independent, says many residents feel the paper has become too celebrity-oriented under Rivera's command. "If they want to read about celebrities, they say they can buy People magazine," she says.

"Most people say the paper is trashy," says Thaler. "The people in Holmdel are sophisticated enough to know what's good journalism and what isn't."

The Times has made its share of factual errors. When the town of Rumson passed an ordinance requiring that cats be innoculated against rabies, the Times reported that the law applied to dogs. The Times also jumps all over controversial issues while ignoring less inflammatory but nonetheless important events, according to Rumson Mayor Charles Callman. He maintains Times reporters failed to report the town's anger at state officials for siphoning off much of the town's franchise taxes. "When it comes to government issues, they don't cover us," says Callman. Ansorge disagrees. "Anything we consider important winds up on our front page," she says. "Any [local government issue] would certainly be in the paper if it were interesting."

One subject the Times considers important – very important, in fact – is its owner. Soon after taking over, Rivera began a weekly column named after his home, "Rough Point," which blends together his ruminations about world politics, old-fashioned gossip and tidbits from his personal life. Past columns reveal Rivera's passion for things nautical. One column described the trials and triumphs of taking the ferry to Manhattan every morning. Another recounted Rivera's struggles driving a power boat in a thunderstorm. Still others detailed his sailing adventures aboard his sloop "New Wave." He also plugged his autobiography in a column entitled, "Why I Wrote It," prompting Newsday to ask, "What next? Geraldo interviewing himself on his talk show?" More recently, he asked his wife what she thought about his revelations of his alleged trysts with famous women. "I don't think it has affected our relationship in the slightest," Dyer confided to her husband in the column. "If anything you are more humble, more needy, and more loving than ever."

Rivera and his family pop up on other pages of the paper as well. Although they haven't shown up in the new entertainment or police blotter sections, the new "People" section, which features snapshots from social events attended by town "swells," as Rivera calls them, has included Rivera's wife, mother-in-law and other relatives. To kick off his first issue as owner, Rivera ran his own photo three times.

The Times also may be the only small weekly in the country with a regular celebrity interview on its front page. Rivera initially wrote many of these "exclusives," which have included profiles of Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, Tyne Daley, Mickey Rooney, Henny Youngman, Bruce Springsteen's drummer Max Weinberg, and yes, you guessed it, Rivera himself. That article, written by Smith, announced Rivera's purchase of the paper and plans for expansion. The Times also recently published a four-part tabloid insert of material adapted from Rivera's new autobiography. The excerpts recounted his career but left out his claims of sexual adventures. "For that," says Ansorge, "you have to buy the book."

Despite the paper's celebrity features, Rivera says he has no plans to skimp on local coverage at his "Mom and Pop" operation: "Bill graduated with honors and he works for Bell Labs; there's a dead dog behind the pet store; something happened in the retirement village – those are the prime reasons for the existence of a community paper, the small events, the things that only impact a very local region," Rivera says. "What we've done is taken that principal role and expanded it to include the sophistication of a much more widely distributed newspaper."

"We're not content to take press releases and parrot them as has traditionally been done with community papers," Rivera adds. "We're not content to let the status quo go unruffled... We're fierce in our independence."

Whatever readers may think, Rivera sees his paper as good old-fashioned, two-fisted journalism. In the first issue that appeared after he took control, he bravely predicted that "the little paper that roared" would win a Pulitzer. Ansorge recalls what Rivera told her after he bought controlling interest: "You're getting one of the best reporters in the country."

But is Red Bank big enough for this self-described ace reporter? Obviously not. Citizen Geraldo plans to build a publishing empire and get out of the television business altogether. "I'm 48 years old now," he says. "When I'm 58, I don't want to be on television. I don't want to grow old on TV – I want to run a network of newspapers. I'd love to have 30 [of them]. We're going to go South, we're going to go West. I'd like to march right down the Jersey coast." l



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