Katie Duggan: So can you just tell me a bit more about the circumstances of founding the Nassau Weekly?
Robert Faggen: Sure. I had been writing for the Princetonian, and I found that to be a little bit of a straitjacket. It was just very confined in the kinds of articles and journalism that you could do. It wasn’t bad—it just wasn’t that interesting. I was friends with people in the Press Club—Marc Fisher [‘80], who introduced me to Alex Wolff [‘79] and David Remnick [‘81]. We started to get together and talk about the possibility of an alternative newspaper, but there were differences amongst us about what kind of paper it was going to be. You know, I think that some of the members of Press Club wanted to do a kind of more incisive, and frankly irreverent, journalism that would front campus questions and issues that the Daily Princetonianjust wouldn’t take on. And my take was that I was a little bit more interested in having a kind of lively journal of the arts and sciences—not academic, but getting at the intellectual life of the university. So those were two different perspectives that came together in the initial creation of the newspaper. Now, having said that, a great deal of my task was logistical. You know, where do you house this thing? How do you produce it? Remember of course, in 1978-79 when this was being hatched, there was no internet. So there were serious costs involved. You had to typeset the newspaper, and you had to print it. I don’t know whether you’re still printing copies of the paper or whether it’s only online?
KD: Yeah, we still print.
RF: Okay, you still print. Well, you know, that has costs. But when you add to that, the typesetting… We bought a computerized typesetting machine that took up about half of a small room. So you’d sort of sit at a computer monitor and type in your copy—the machine looked like a Xerox machine basically, a big, corporate Xerox machine—and you’d typeset the columns, and then you had to lay it out and paste it up. You’d print out the galleys, as they were called. Then you’d paste it up. And we were very concerned, of course, that the paper looked good. I mean, it wasn’t supposed to be all about appearances, but we wanted people to take it seriously. And we were very blessed to have some very good design people at that time. There were a lot of production factors. Scott Oran [‘83], who was the design director, was superb. He designed the logo that we had then, that was very effective. And so, in addition to trying to get stories to come in on a regular basis, so that we really were weekly. There was some sense, like, “Oh, they’re going to get out an issue and then they won’t do it again.” I think the Princewas taunting us a little bit, that way. But then another issue came out. And then another one. And then another one. It kept coming. But that meant, as you probably know, that meant a few of us really being on it every week. […] And initially, of course, we didn’t have the institutional prestige of the Princetonian. We were relying on a kind of cadre of people from the Press Club and also from other places who were never that interested in the Princetonianto contribute. And so, just the logistics of it were very demanding. We got offices—the university was kind enough to give us office space in what’s probably a residential college now. But in Holder Hall there used to be a dining room, there still probably is, a dining room connected to Holder, up on Nassau Street. We had an office space upstairs there, a nice little suite of offices. […]Nassau Weeklywas very carefully conceived. We had to establish ourselves as a nonprofit company. That was another thing I had to do, it had to be a 501(c)(3). So part of my task, in addition to seeing the editorial through, was also working to make sure that we had facilities, that we had typesetting, that we got to the printer—I mean, all the logistics of producing a newspaper.
KD: Yeah, there’s a lot that’s involved that we don’t even have to think about now, but I can imagine that it was so much just to establish it and get it off the ground.
RF: Yes, there was a lot to do.
KD: And can I ask also what your process was like for assembling the staff of the early team? Was it mostly reaching out to people you knew from Press Club, or…what was the process like?
RF: Well, the Press Club people were really interested. So Marc Fisher, whom I had actually known from high school, was the first editor, and then David Remnick was doing the arts editing. You know, it’s interesting—Marc Fisher is now a senior editor at the Washington Post, and of course David is the editor of the New Yorker, and Richard Brody [‘80], who was also writing for us in the beginning, is one of the major film critics of the New Yorker. Todd Purdum [‘82], who was also in the Press Club, was sort of a writer-at-large for us, and Alex Wolff, who became a writer at Sports Illustrated, was our sports editor. I mean, it was a very, very, accomplished, very serious and talented group of people who were initially writing for the paper. One person we had was Howard Gordon. Howard Gordon is now an executive producer in Hollywood, he produced Homeland, he’s a producer and writer. And so we had the Press Club. And Robert Wright [‘79], who’s written a number of books about religion and science, The Moral Animalis his most famous book. We had very great interest from the Press Club, because generally the Press Club is only writing limited articles about things that happen on campus that are of interest to papers, regular newspapers. They were stringers, you know what that is. And they wanted to dig into stuff that was on campus, and so they were very eager to do this. And it was very exciting, but it was very demanding. I basically served as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for the first two years, because I thought having some real continuity in the beginning to keep it going was essential. Now, I didn’t manage everything brilliantly, but you know, I was a student. The main thing is that the paper kept going.
KD: And can I ask what the early business model was like? How did you have the resources to keep it going?
RF: Well, we raised money from alumni and Malcolm Forbes, who of course was one of the main founders of Forbes Magazine, maybe it was his father. But, Malcolm Forbes, who was generous enough, gave us some initial money to help. But we were also granted some money by the Undergraduate Student Government, some seed money. And we were selling ads. Mainly, we had to sell ads. And we also sold subscriptions to people off-campus, alumni.
KD: And you mailed them issues?
RF: We did indeed. Because we were non-profit, we were able to get special bulk mail rates. So we mailed out a lot of issues, but that was part of the operation. So I found myself worrying constantly about where we were going to get the money to pay the printing bill, and some of us were throwing our own money into it. Not much, I mean, because it was too much. In a way we realized that it was not a sustainable model, and that we had to sell ads. And we ran up some bills—we wound up with a big phone bill, and we got behind in our printing bill once or twice. But somehow, we always managed to keep going. And I guess it’s great that WPRB bought it, you know, as long as it allows for editorial independence, which it seems to do.
KD: Looking at the Nass today, do you think it’s very different from the initial vision that you might have thought?
RF: I think we had a sense that we were going to do a combination of in-depth reporting—and I think we probably did more in-depth reporting than you guys do, to be honest. We were interested in digging in and investigating things, so we had a combination of investigative reporting and also features, profiles of people, general cultural feature articles, as well as opinion pieces. But definitely, that sort of balance of features and investigative assignments.
KD: Can you maybe talk a bit about after graduating from Princeton, what your path was like? And how the Nassau Weekly, everything you learned from that process, maybe shaped your career and future writing?
RF: That’s an interesting question. I decided at the end of my Princeton career that I wasn’t that interested in becoming a journalist per se, and that I wanted to go on and study literature at the graduate level and become a professor. However, while I never ended up creating a newspaper again, or a magazine, I did learn a great deal about journalism from working on the paper and learning from my colleagues at the paper. I wound up contributing rather extensive interviews to The Paris Review, which is a combination of kind of literary journalism, and I’m working on a biography now that involves a great deal of journalism. But it was just an exciting thing to do, you know. Of course, and you may be talking to some of the other people, obviously Marc Fisher went into journalism, David Remnick went into journalism, and I think they were very excited and inspired by what Nassau Weeklywas.
KD: Yeah, and I would say that’s the impression I get from the current staff as well, while not necessarily everyone is envisioning a career going into journalism, just the excitement of creating something every week, and going through the editing process, and everything that goes into just having this exist every week is a really significant experience.
RF: Yes, absolutely. And I’m delighted that you’ve been able to maintain this and that it continues to attract students to contribute to it. And that it is something of a significant campus presence. Whereas the Princetonianis something that the university touts in a way, Nassau Weeklyhas always been a little bit on the edge. […]I’m sure the Princetonian has been affected somewhat by the presence of Nassau Weekly. You don’t want to wind up doing the same things, but I can see even looking at their website that the Princetonian has probably amped up its investigative and features work because of Nassau Weekly. Another thing about the Princetonian—they used to have a process of vetting their reporters, that is you came in and, I forgot what it was called, it was some sort of vetting process and I went through it too, where you write articles and then you become a staff member. Sometimes it’s good, and especially when you’re dealing with students, ambitious students of the kind you get at Princeton, they like to join something where they feel they have to, where it’s a bit of a club that they have to get into. And I think Nassauwas always much more open, it didn’t have a kind of vetting process quite the same way that the Princetonianor the Press Cub had.
KD: We still continue that to this day, I mean obviously there are applications to become a masthead member, like if you want to become an editor or something, but anyone can write for us. I believe the Prince, if you want to be a staff writer, you have to apply, but the Nass, it’s still a bit of a self-selecting group, but I think that enables us to have writers who represent a broader part of the community because someone can write just a few pieces. They don’t have to commit themselves so early on to the vetting process, which I think works in our favor.
RF: I had forgotten actually, because I’m so immersed in something that I’m working on I kind of remember when it occurred to me that Nassauhad been around for 30 years. I remembered that. And now 40 years. I’m flabbergasted. I’m really… flabbergasted. It’s really gratifying that something that you were involved in establishing at the college still exists, you know, 40 years later.
KD: And I mean, it’s really important to all of us. We all love doing it, so we’re all so grateful.
RF: That’s very gratifying to hear, I assure you.
KD: I assure you that everyone really loves being part of this publication, trust me when I say that we really enjoy doing it.
RF: That’s great. That’s the important thing, and it sounds like it continues to have momentum, and of course now it has financial stability. Trying to get it financially stable was very, very demanding. The Daily Princetonianhas a certain niche market, because there are people who want daily ads and who want to advertise on a regular basis and classifieds. But thePrincetonian has for years had its own building. […]And of course, there have been many distinguished editors and contributors to the Princetonian, I’m thinking from before my time… The biographer Robert Caro [‘57] was an editor of the Princetonian. And in my own era, Barton Gellman [‘82], who wrote for years for the Washington Postand is a very distinguished journalist, he was the chairman of the Princetonian, I think in my class. But of course, Nassau Weeklyalso had its contributors. As you know, I’m a professor, and that’s what I wanted to do, but we had some terrific journalists.
KD: Yeah, it is really exciting to see as well the alumni of the Nassau Weekly, who have been doing so many great writing-related things, some more traditional journalism, some in academia, some writing novels and things like that… and it is really exciting that people are involved in excellence in writing in all facets, and that the Nasshad some part in nurturing that creativity.
RF: Right. I think the author and translator Daniel Mendelsohn [‘94], who teaches at Bard College, did his first writing, his first articles as a graduate student in classics at Princeton, and he started writing for the Nassau Weekly. He told me that when he was visiting Claremont [McKenna College]. He’s very distinguished. But, you know, you probably have a better list of the contributors than I do.[…]In the early days, we made sure we had volumes bound and delivered to the library, to get them started on the idea that this was something to be bound and collected.
KD: Yeah, I mean, I think the Nasshas probably been the single most important thing for me at Princeton, just in terms of giving me a platform to write, and work with editors, and figure out what kind of writing I want to do, has just been really huge.
RF: Well, is there anything else I can help you with right now?
KD: Um, I don’t think so, unless you have any final words of advice for the current Nass staff, as we’re continuing to produce issues, as well as celebrating this anniversary?
RF: No… just, carry on! I’m obviously very gratified to know that this thing which was kind of “let’s put on a show” all those years ago continues to be a source of fun and learning for students, I think that’s wonderful. So thank you for reaching out to me, I appreciate it.
KD: Thank you so much for talking to me, and obviously thanks so much for creating the Nassau Weekly.
RF: My pleasure, there were a lot of all-nighters, and I’m sure you’re familiar with that. And you know, I have to say, looking back all these years… it was worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Robert Faggen ‘82 was the co-founder and first Publisher of The Nassau Weekly. He is currently a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.