This continues a series of interviews with the paper’s founders conducted to mark thirty years of the Nass.
The Nassau Weekly: Could you tell me about the circumstances of the paper’s founding?
Marc Fisher: Well, it started when I was a junior. A bunch of us from press club started up a paper called Friday, which was intended to do a couple of things. The Prince at the time did not do any features — any sports features, any arts features — they were just strictly news. So we thought there was an enormous gap that could be filled. Friday was also conceived of as a way to — all of us who started it were in the Press Club, and we were frustrated that we didn’t have an outlet on campus where people could read the stories that we were writing for newspapers in New York and Philadelphia and throughout N.J., so we decided that we would start a weekly paper called Friday that would be very oriented towards the weekend, things to do on campus, the arts, sports. We started Friday in the spring of my junior year as kind of a trial run to see if we could do it, to see if we could afford it — just to see if we could get it going as a pilot. And it was a lot of fun. We thought it was something we could move forward on, and all of us who were involved in the project were writers, and we didn’t have anyone with a business mind, so we took the summer between my junior and senior year to figure out how to do this in a sustainable way. So we needed to recruit some people with more of a business mind to get it going in the fall, and so by the time my senior year rolled around, we had to change the concept a little bit, change the name to Nassau. We had recruited a couple of business types who were very different personalities. There was a guy named Andrew Carnegie Rose ’82, and another named David Bookbinder ’82. They could work on producing the paper as well as getting advertising, getting the typesetting machinery and all the stuff that we needed. One I think we recruited from Business Today, which was a sort of business-oriented magazine that was — I don’t know if it still exists…
NW: Yeah, it’s still a big deal on campus.
MF: Un-huh. Well, I don’t know where we got the other one from, but somehow we figured out that he had sort of a business mind. And that did the trick. We got the production machinery that we needed, and we had a business plan, and we had salesmen going out and selling advertising, and we got office space, and we just started rolling and started bringing in some new writers who we recruited from the creative writing program, more literary publications on campus, the arts groups on campus, from the McPhee class and the other Humanities Council classes where there was a lot of creative writing going on — and basically reached out to those folks and said, you know, here’s a place where you won’t have the restraints that you have at the Prince, and you could write essays and criticism and features and all that.
NW: Were the other guys that are now associated with the paper’s founding, like David Remnick ’81 and Bob Faggen ’82, in on the ground floor with Friday as well?
MF: No — well, David was, to some extent, because he was in Press Club. But the main folks who were behind Friday were, aside from me, Steve Reiss ’79 and Alex Wolff ’79. And we sort of recruited other Press Club members to provide content. But the three of us were the main movers behind Friday.
NW: So Faggen and Remnick came in your senior year, once the paper had become Nassau.
MF: Yeah. And Bob was somebody I knew from high school, and I thought of him as someone who could combine a good business mind with a good journalism mind, and thought of him as someone who could keep this going, because most of us who were involved in putting it together were seniors by that point, and so we were looking for some folks from the class below us to be in from the start but who would make this a lasting venture.
NW: When you say you knew Bob Faggen from high school — did you two go to the same high school?
MF: Yes, we both went to Horace Mann in New York.
NW: So where was this first office space they got you guys?
MF: The first office was in a little room up above what was then Commons, in the tower right next to Holder Hall. The University gave us far more space that we needed, but it was great to have a newsroom where we also did production. It was a big sprawling room — we had our own typesetter. This was in the early days of cold type, so there was a separate computer that would then spit out the type, and when we were really in a crunch we would actually write the stories directly onto the typesetter, rather than write and edit them in advance.
NW: And did Nassau stay at that location for the rest of your time at Princeton?
MF: Yes. I think it was there for several years — I don’t know how long after I left.
NW: So it sounds like you were looking to found a lasting paper from the get-go.
MF: That was the idea, because we wanted a lasting place for Press Club stories to be read and seen on campus, and we also wanted to fill this gap that existed because the Prince was such a dull and narrow newspaper. So there was this panic that set in at the Prince, and they immediately started up a features section once a week on Fridays to compete with us. So they did start writing some features, they did starting covering some arts events, but they were totally unwilling to go the way that we went, which was a much more discursive and irreverent path. In those first years there was not this emphasis on funny stuff that Nassau got into later on — it was probably a more serious, journalistic paper than it became. But by the standards of the times, we were pretty far out there, compared to the Prince.
NW: I see. So the original intent was almost to beat the Prince at its own game.
MF: Yes. It was to feature more magazine writing, more non-fiction literature, whereas the Prince was your basic wire service, who, what, and where approach.
NW: Sure — but you thought of yourselves as “journalists.”
MF: Oh, absolutely. And a lot of what became the standard features of Nassau were very reporting-based. Like the Verbatim column, where we were very rigorous about checking that everything that ran had really happened. So we were definitely trying to apply real newspaper standards to the paper, even if we were trying to get into the — you know, this was the period of the New Journalism, the ’70s, there was a much more aggressive and irreverent approach from magazines like New Times and New York and the National Lampoon, and so on — so we were very much swayed by those new magazines.
NW: It’s appropriate that you use the word “irreverent,” because that’s one thing about the Nass that hasn’t changed. Did you all ever have any notable run-ins with the powers that be on campus in that first year?
MF: I don’t think we really did. The run-ins tended to be more with the Prince. The Prince was not happy with our existence. They didn’t want us to be getting the talented writers on campus; they didn’t like the fact the University was giving us rooms to work in. And then we also had some internal squabbles and problems, such as the fact that our business manager managed to wrap his car around a tree, and he was the only guy on the staff that had a car to get the pages to the printer each week. But the University was very pleased to have us there as an alternative to the Prince, and so they started feeding us advertising for campus events, that really kept us going. They were happy to have us there as a prod they could use against the Prince.
NW: Speaking of advertising, it sounds like you guys had a functional business model — advertising covered your costs.
MF: Pretty much. We did not get any direct outlay from the University except for the free office. Although I think we may have gotten money to buy the typesetting equipment. But we didn’t get any operating dollars from the University … Looking back on it, it’s kind of miraculous that we were able to just start up and get moving, and the only real challenge we had each week was filling the damn thing. So there were plenty of production nights where we were just writing stories to fill space, right on deadline. But the financial side seemed to be working okay, at least that first year.
NW: So it sounds like the Nass was very much an extension of your extracurricular life, and did not emerge so much from your studies.
MF: No, not at all. It was really almost entirely a selfish desire to have all these stories that those of us in Press Club wrote about issues and people on campus appear on campus. It was a way of helping ourselves, because when we were calling up professors or administrators for the stories we were writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer or the New York Times or the New York Daily News, they were always confused, because Press Club has this very strange relationship with the University. The University never knew quite what to make of us because we were not quite professional journalists and we weren’t quite students, but we were writing for these big newspapers. So it was a way for us to get the stories out, have our friends and the adults on campus see what it was that we were writing.
NW: Would you print articles that you were running in, say, the Inquirer, in the Nass as well?
MF: Yeah — they would have to be changed, as we had written them for an off-campus audience. So to just turn around and reprint those stories wouldn’t quite work — nor would it be terribly ethical. But it was a way to double up on the use of the same reporting. So you could go out and do a bunch of interviews if you were writing about drug busts on campus, and use the same interview to write for the Trenton paper and then write something for Nassau. Obviously you’d write it in a different way — you’d probably go out and do a little more work, talk to students in a way that you wouldn’t need to for the big newspaper. So it was not simply a matter of putting a carbon copy of the Trenton Times story in Nassau.
NW: So it was recycling the journalistic legwork as opposed to the articles themselves.
MF: Exactly. And it very quickly moved beyond that model. Within the first few weeks, we were getting a whole new bunch of writers on Nassau who had nothing to do with Press Club. And it also turned out to be a huge time drain, because folks in Press Club in those days were spending 20 to 40 hours a week just on Press Club, and to throw the conceptualization and production of this newspaper on top of that was just way over the top. So we were quickly looking for people to come in and take over Nassau from us. So we all kept writing for it, but we very quickly found a new cadre of people to do the production work.
NW: So even though Nassau began as a kind of appendage to the Press Club, it intentionally and very quickly became its own entity.
MF: Exactly. And I don’t know if we had foreseen that, but it became obvious very quickly that that was what had to happen. And that was fine, because it was still a fun place to write stuff that we couldn’t write for the newspapers that we worked for.
NW: Any notable anecdotes from the first year of the Nass-Prince rivalry?
MF: We had no problem with using writers from the Prince, but the Prince was totally vindictive about this, and banned anyone who wrote for Nassau from writing from the Prince. So we had some writers who were in a really difficult position, where they wanted to write for both and that simply wasn’t allowed. We had some people who started writing for us that got recruited by the Prince — I think Lisa Belkin ’80 was one of those. She wrote her first story for me when I was editing the paper. It was a profile of the conductors of the Dinky. It was just this beautiful, elegiac piece about these sad couple of guys who ran the train back and forth all day. It was one of our first stories — beautifully photographed. The Prince editors noticed it and recruited her, and we had a little back-and-forth about that. It was mostly a friendly rivalry. We felt enormously superior to them because we were totally open to people doing whatever they wanted, and the Prince was much more anal about it, and wanted to only have their exclusive staff.
NW: Was there an eating-club angle to the Nass? Did Nassau people tend to be in certain clubs?
MF: The Prince had a very strong relationship with… which club was it…
MF: No, it wasn’t Tower. It was the one sort of across from Colonial.
MF: No… also starts with a ‘c,’ right?
MF: Not Cannon, but the next one down… something ‘Inn’?
MF: Yeah, it was Cloister. There was a very strong Cloister connection. We had a story that totally pissed off the Princetonian editors about the incestuous relationship at Cloister between the Student Government students and the Princetonian editors. We portrayed it as this club-within-a-club where the powers that be on campus came together and socialized and plotted what the issues the Prince would cover. And probably our story was too conspiratorial — the Prince editors were deeply upset by this. Nassau people, on the other hand, fancied ourselves more misfits and outsiders, and most of us were not in a club, independent, or in one of the two residential colleges.
NW: What departments were you guys in?
MF: I’d say most of us were in History, English, Comp Lit. Politics, some Wilson School. But there was definitely a heavy humanities focus. And there was definitely a McPhee mafia that formed the spine of Nassau. Virtually everyone in Press Club was a John McPhee acolyte, and that was very much true of the Nassau crowd as well. His influence was just pervasive. Which was curious, because he’s not exactly a radical when it comes to writing styles — in fact, he’s fairly conservative. But even in that period of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, and this crazy new kind of journalistic writing, we were enraptured with that, but also grounded in this rigorous, reporting-rich journalism that McPhee preached. What’s curious to me is… I’ve never really quite understood what the pivot point was when the paper went from being a very reported, more traditional journalistic paper to the even more irreverent, more comment-focused paper it became over the years. It became much funnier, and that became much more the focus. In its best years, it was really good at that. But that beginning identity as more of a heavily reported, newsy paper vanished. That became less of a focus after just a few years. And that may be because the Prince started to play catch-up.
NW: Did you ever think this thing would last thirty years?
MF: No — I don’t think I ever thought that far ahead. But we definitely wanted to figure out a structure that would last beyond our senior year — that was our main goal. I don’t think any of us were really thinking much beyond that. But we did think the Prince had left this enormous gap wide open for us, and even as they tried to fill that gap, there were a lot of things we could do a lot better. And so I think we felt that so long as Press Club was around, there ought to be a lasting alternative paper. But I’d be shocked if anyone you talk to says they thought it would last decades.