Q&A with Art Zimmer

Walt Shepperd 06/16/10More articles
After a quarter century, Art Zimmer leaves the New Times

You were trying to sell the New Times for some time. Are you relieved to finally make the sale?
I wouldn’t use the word relieved, because running the New Times was always a fun job. You were there for years, and you know it’s a better place to work than Channel 9 or the Post-Standard. So it’s not a sense of relief. It’s just a time to move on. I’d been there over 26 years. I turn 72 this year.

Looking back 26 years, and looking at it now, what’s different?
The growth of the New Times was more than I ever anticipated. The impact on the community is far more than I ever anticipated. It has grown into the most popular newspaper in Central New York, eclipsing the Post-Standard substantially. I never thought that would happen. It has grown into the largest weekly newspaper in New York State outside New York City.

Did you really buy the New Times so you could get your ski column published?
Well, you have to remember that I was writing the ski column for the Post-Standard, and the Post-Standard fired me. The reason was probably incompetence. I never knew how to write. When I wrote my first column, and turned it in to Bob Atkinson, he said, “This is garbage. I can’t print it.” I begged and pleaded with him, because I needed to have a ski column. He said he would make a deal with me. If I turned the column in three or four days early, he’d make it presentable.

That’s how it went for almost five years. I wrote eight columns a year and got $10 a column. It made me a “professional” ski writer. As a professional ski writer I got into this association which gave me opportunities to ski around the world.

Was that how you got to ski with Hall and Oates in Argentina?
It was only one of them. I don’t remember which one. What a fabulous trip that was. I went to Austria five times as a guest of the Austrian national tourist agency because I was a professional ski writer. Then Bob Atkinson had the audacity to get himself promoted. He moves upstairs to senior editor. In comes the new replacement, who calls and says, “Art, I know what’s been going on between you and Bob, and I’m not going to do it. You’re finished.” Then the only other game in town was the Herald-Journal, and they had a good ski writer.

So I went and talked to a bunch of people who looked like you, at a thing called the New Times.

They were going bankrupt at the time and weren’t really interested. I wandered around for a few weeks, and one day I was driving home down Route 81. Just before LaFayette, there’s a spot where it says “No U Turn,” where you can make a U Turn. So I made a U Turn and drove to the New Times. I walked into the office and asked what was going on. They said they were going out of business, so I bought it.

My only aspiration at the time was to get to where it broke even. Just to print my ski column and not lose any money. The rest, as you know, is history. It just took off.

What happened to make it take off?
The first thing that might have happened was some money to be invested in. It was a chicken and egg. You can’t sell ads if you don’t have circulation. You can’t have circulation if you’re not selling ads. I invested some money from my real estate, kicked up the circulation before it was justified by income, hired staff before it was justified. Right within the first two or three months I kicked circulation up to almost 20,000. It had been 2,000 or 3,000 for the previous two or three years. Then I instituted business practices. In the past it had been run by people who were more interested in ideology.

Originally defined within the genre of alternative newspapers, some people now see the New Times as the new establishment. How do you define it?
What has happened, say, over the past ten years, all media, including the Post-Standard, have moved toward what the alternative used to be. And the alternative has moved more to what was established press. There’s still a difference, but whereas for many years the Post and Herald sales reps told their clients, “Don’t advertise with the New Times, they run those terrible personals,” five, six years later, the Herald and Post start running personals. They only ran them for a year, because they couldn’t make any money out of them. But it shows the swing. You read articles now in the Post that ten or fifteen years ago would only have appeared in the New Times: piercing, tatoos, alternative lifestyles.

You pledged not to interfere editorially, but you did twice. Once prohibiting criticism of the first Gulf War, and then prohibiting drug references after a marijuana brownie recipe was published.
There had been drug references right along, and I bit my tongue on them. But when the marijuana brownie recipe was published, I said, “That’s enough.” And it wasn’t so much criticism of the Gulf War as criticism of the soldiers.

Whether you agree with the President on sending the soldiers, they were there putting their lives on the line.

The one I remember was when I started the Zimmer Motor Car Company manufacturing locally, I thought it was a major news item, and regardless of who was doing it, me or Joe Blow, it deserved publicity. I wanted a feature article on the cover, and {then editor} Mike Greenstein was adamantly opposed to it. Adamantly. He put his foot down and said, “Absolutely, No.”

I put my foot down and said, “Mike, one of two things. You as editor will do that article, or my new editor will do it.”

He did it.

What is the future of print?
All print is suffering, but the alternative press is suffering less. (New Times) has such a strong niche, and such a strong presence in the community, that it won’t be anywhere near as negatively effected as other print media.

Secondly, we have to admit that there is readership that is going to the web. In recognition of that, 15 years ago we started a website. A week after Al Gore invented the web, the New Times had a website. Now it gets over a million hits a month.

CATEGORY: News & Media
TAGS: Walt Shepperd,Art Zimmer,New Times Syracuse,Mike Greenstein,City Eagle Syracuse
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.4/5 (5 votes cast)

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