Nassau—the “Nass” nickname came much later—was born of three parents: the University Press Club, the group of Princeton students who wrote for newspapers in New York, Philly and New Jersey, wanted people on campus to see their work; the Prince, though dutifully reporting the news, had missed out on the bold new era of feature writing; and an experimental campus weekly called Friday produced one issue and promptly died.
In 1979, journalism—hard as it may be to believe now—was in a boom phase. Reporters were breaking out of tired old habits and latching onto writing styles borrowed from the world of fiction. A raft of magazines and alternative newspapers were staking out more overtly adversarial and confrontational attitudes toward powerful people and institutions. On campus, students drawn to journalism were itching to push beyond the traditional form taught at the Prince and Press Club.
In the spring of my junior year, a handful of us who were in Press Club decided to bring to Princeton some of that new energy we were seeing in national magazines and papers. We were happily writing about campus doings and raking in nice checks from the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Trenton Times and a dozen other papers. But—this is all way pre-internet—hardly anyone on campus ever saw our work.
We saw a big opening in the limited vision of the Prince. The campus daily did an excellent job of covering the news, but they rarely published long, probing features, arts criticism and essays, or sports writing that dug beyond the games. So, in spring of 1979, a group of Press Club writers, led by Steve Reiss ’79, Sue Korones ’79 and me, created Friday, which sought to fill those gaps. The paper was chockablock with ambitious features, sharp reviews, a dash of snark and a dose of overwriting. We profiled the leader of the campus anti-apartheid movement. We examined the tendency of women to enroll in traditionally female majors. Josh Kornbluth ’80 wrote a Dadaist analysis of a Commons food fight. We reviewed a new album by Elvis Costello. We took readers on a road trip to Asbury Park. Friday had plenty of promise—except for one thing: We hadn’t the foggiest notion how to build or sustain a business. The money we had raised from the university and advertisers was enough to last one edition. And one edition was exactly Friday’s lifespan.
That summer, we decided our cluelessness about running a business could only be fixed by people who actually knew what they were doing. We approached two eager entrepreneurs, David Bookbinder ’82 and Andrew Carnegie Rose ’82. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, but I was enraptured with the concept of creative tension, because I’d read that the legendary Ben Bradlee ascribed to that management style at The Washington Post, which I worshipped. Plus, Rose owned a car, which meant we would have a way to get our paper’s pasted-up pages ten miles away to the printer. (Rose would wrap his car around a tree within the first month of Nassau’s existence, which nearly killed the paper, but we managed to recruit another wheels-equipped business staffer to save the day.)
The second incarnation of Friday needed a bolder look, a more Princeton-related name, and a staff that reached beyond Press Club. Amazed to find that no campus publication had used the name “Nassau”, we grabbed it. We brought on a wizard of a graphic designer, Scott Oran ’83, and he developed our bold Nassau Weekly logo, with a nod to People, the then-fairly new and cheeky Time-Life publication. We put together what we only years later realized was something of an all-star squad, including publisher Bob Faggen ’82 (who became a literary biographer and English professor), sports editor Alex Wolff ’79 (Sports Illustrated writer), arts editor David Remnick ’81 (New Yorker editor and writer), arts critic Rick Brody ’80 (New Yorker movie critic), sportswriter Hank Hersch ’80 (Sports Illustrated editor), reporter Lisa Belkin ’82 (longtime New York Times reporter, now at Yahoo News), and reporter Todd Purdum ’82 (New York Times and Vanity Fair writer).
Nassau, in its early years, was quite different from today’s Nass. We put a heavy emphasis on reporting rather than essay writing and memoir, which later became the paper’s stock in trade. Some of our best stories were deeply reported features such as Belkin’s elegiac profile of the two veteran Dinky conductors, or a controversial look at the incestuous ties between student government leaders and Prince editors at one eating club, or investigations, such as our examination of how and why the Princeton Borough police chief chose his wedding anniversary to stage annual raids on campus dorm rooms in search of illegal drugs, or our look at anti-Semitism in bicker choices at the selective clubs.
But some of Nassau’s personality has remained consistent—the first issue emphasized the paper’s humor (Wolff riffing on the revelations to be mined from the Firestone card catalogue), passion (Purdum’s powerful rant against the anti-democratic core of Bicker), and sense of outrage (Carol Phethean ’81 revealed how Princeton University Band alumni had censored the current members’ raunchy halftime shows). The paper was cheeky from the start—our first year included a meaty guide to the art of picking a gut course, even as the administration insisted that there was no such thing.
Year One of Nassauwas a weekly adventure. The university gave us two rooms at the top of Holder Tower, and we scraped together enough money to lease a huge machine that spat out camera-ready cold types we could paste onto pages—an early phase in the computerization of print production. By the second week, I had figured out how to write stories directly onto the typesetting machine, an unforgiving process in which a single error in composition or keyboarding would require retyping the entire article. It was kind of thrilling—you had to be there.
We launched features that lasted decades: Verbatim, those found bits of campus dialogue, all guaranteed authentic, suddenly had professors watching their words in lectures; and PrinceWatch was our stab at creating a cross-campus rivalry with the daily paper.
I have no idea if we made or lost money. Somehow, we just kept printing. We dropped copies in front of every room on campus. People read the thing. University administrators reacted: they were glad to have an alternative to the Prince, so they bought ads in Nassau, and they were sometimes appalled by what they viewed as our immature, cheeky and sometimes irresponsible journalism. That pleased us no end. Spurred by the competition, the Prince started writing features, even created a weekend section that mimicked our approach; we liked that too.
Eventually, running Nassau and maintaining a full workload for Press Club, not to mention actual school work, became too much, and the other Press Club members and I found other strong writers on campus who gradually took over the Weeklyfrom us. Our main goal was to build something that would last beyond our senior year. Looks like that actually happened, give or take 40 years.
Marc Fisher ’80, a senior editor at The Washington Post and author of “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power” and three other books, was Nassau’s founding editor.