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From AJR,   June 1998  issue

Score One for the Little Guys of Riverdale   

The 14,000-circulation Riverdale Press wins a Pulitzer for its editorials.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

The words "feisty," "crusading" and "hard-hitting" have often been used to describe the Riverdale Press, a 14,000-circulation weekly in the Bronx. Now add "Pulitzer prize-winning," thanks to Copublisher Bernard L. Stein's ever-so-spirited and sometimes controversy- sparking editorials for the family-owned paper.

Stein, a Pulitzer finalist in 1987 and 1988, has carried on the tradition of aggressive reporting and empowering editorial writing started by his father, David Stein, who founded the paper in 1950.

The Pulitzer board says his portfolio included "gracefully written editorials on politics," but Bernard Stein favors a broader description. "They're all grounded in the belief that ordinary people can govern their own lives," he says. "What they try to do is to give them the confidence that that's really true. And to give them a belief in their own power."

Bernard, now 56, and his brother Richard, 50, who oversees advertising, production and printing, took over as publishers in 1980, and took full control of the paper, which covers the middle- and upper-class, largely Jewish community of about 65,000, when their father died in 1982. Their mother, Celia, still writes a recipe column and the occasional obituary, while Bernard's writing serves as the editorial voice of the paper, alerting the at times dissenting community to social issues in its midst.

Always an activist, Bernard fled New York City in the '60s to join the civil rights, anti-Vietnam and free speech movements in Berkeley, never planning to return to run his father's newspaper. Richard, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and a licensed architect, resisted the pre- chosen career path as well. But in the late '70s emotional ties pulled the two back as their father started negotiating with buyers.

In one Pulitzer entry, "The Crime of Hatred and the Sin of Silence," Stein reacts to the relatively small community outcry to an incident in which a young black man in Riverdale was held at gunpoint without cause by a middle-aged white man claiming to be a police officer.

He implores: "In our homes and schools, we need to tell his story to our children so that they'll understand that racism is not a phenomenon of America's past but a present threat to our own lives. The thugs who assaulted this young man insulted all of us. They assumed we would applaud what they did, or at least regard it with indifference. Don't let our silence prove them right."

John Seigenthaler, founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and chairman of the Pulitzer editorial writing jury, says Stein's writing "had two absolutely compelling qualities. One, it had a clarity of style that rang bells. And two, he always had something to say, and he said it with such forthright candor that the bells rang again."

The judges in no way sought out small papers for finalists, Seigenthaler says, but this is the second year the editorial prize has gone to one. (Last year's winner was Michael Gartner of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa.) Such winners, he says, "suggest that there is outstanding writing going on in many places in this country."

Stein, whose paper has been named the country's best- written community paper by the National Newspaper Association for two years running, hopes the win will encourage more community journalists to enter the Pulitzer competition.

"I really think that community journalism is a very important kind of journalism and one that needs to be recognized as doing something important for the country," he says. "I don't feel I'm playing in the minor leagues."

His winning collection of 10 editorials covered environmental preservation, school overcrowding, the relationship between City Hall and the young and the disadvantaged and Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie? Well, yes, that's an annual editorial Stein has written since the firebombing a drastic, and unexpected, reaction to a Press editorial.

The backlash came February 28, 1989, five days after Stein wrote an editorial hedidn't find particularly controversial against the Ayatollah Khomeini's condemnation of Salman Rushdie and the subsequent removal of "The Satanic Verses" from the shelves at three major bookstore chains. (A bookstore in Riverdale continued to sell the book.)

The Press' Plexiglas windows, which had replaced rock-shattered glass, proved to be highly combustible and fanned the flames of two Molotov cocktails. Luckily, the paper was printed elsewhere, and Bernard and Richard rushed to cover the fire for that night's deadline. The next day's issue hit the streets just a few hours late, with the paper's own catastrophe and a scrappy "We will not be silenced" editorial defiantly gracing page one.

On his latest news-making day, Bernard didn't quite believe the early information from Richard that he had won the Pulitzer, so he sent a reporter to Columbia University to make sure. By the time the reporter's phone call came, the entire two dozen member staff had gathered outside his office. "I let out a yelp," he says, "and they burst into cheers."

The outpouring of congratulatory messages and shared joy from Riverdalians, Bernard says, has been unbelievable. On a recent trip to the doctor's office a man likened the win to " 'the home team hit[ting] one over the fence,' " Stein says. "So many people claim ownership in the prize and it's true."

In 1997's "Why Rushdie matters," Bernard emphatically concludes: " 'How fragile civilization is; how easily, how merrily a book burns!' wrote Salman Rushdie as he watched demonstrators in York [England] consign 'The Satanic Verses' to the flames. The need to defend our fragile civilization remains undiminished. The ashes are not yet cold."

It's doubtful the fiery spirit of the Press will let the ashes grow cold. Bernard speaks of an FBI agent who, while reading back issues for the firebombing investigation, yelled out, "There's a hundred things in this paper every week that would make somebody want to bomb it."

It remains one of his proudest moments.