By KATIE HOOS
Driving across the country in a beat-up 1973 Mustang, feeding his insatiable post-college wanderlust, a then 22-year-old Phil Reisman had a striking thought.
Before speaking on April 4 at the League of Women Voters’ Annual Luncheon in Larchmont, Phil Reisman details his start in journalism and the 37-year journey toward his tenured role as columnist at the Journal News.
“Maybe I’ll apply to journalism school,” he thought as he made his way back east toward his native Westchester.
Not yet realizing the monumental impact of this idea—which ultimately never came to fruition—Reisman began his 37-year-long, seemingly haphazard, journey to become one of the county’s most notable and respected career journalists.
If you don’t know Reisman’s work, chances are you know his name.
As a columnist for the Journal News—a newspaper that covers Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties and is owned by the Gannett Company, Inc.—Reisman has made a name for himself as a political pundit and veteran journalist in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Interviewing everyone from elected officials to area residents for his weekly web broadcast and delving into his personal life for his tri-weekly column, Reisman’s work is rife with sharp-tongued repartee and skillful interpretation of local current events that intrigues and educates.
In essence, he has achieved the long sought-after dream of many young journalists looking for the creative freedom and stability that comes with writing a column, and he knows it.
“Unless lighting strikes and I get a columnist job at some other newspaper, this is what I want to do,” he said, noting that his 15 seasoned years as a columnist have been a privilege.
Currently living in Yonkers, Reisman, 56, the son of Anna and Philip Reisman, Sr.—a famed screenwriter and television writer best-known for his work on “All the Way Home,” a film adaptation of James Agee’s novel, “A Death in the Family’’—grew up in the Town of Mamaroneck. Pursuing a liberal arts education at Lafayette College, a small school in Easton, Penn., Reisman admitted he wasn’t thinking about his career at the time.
“I went to college with a mindset that most people don’t have, even back then, which was, I was just trying to get an education and broaden my horizons, which I know is considered insane now,” Reisman said.
He took a sampling of classes, ranging from English to chemistry to government.
“By the time I was a junior, there were three department heads that thought I was
majoring in their areas,” he said.
Reisman’s exploratory educational pursuits were mirrored in his cross-country hitchhiking adventure during the summer between his junior and senior years of college, as well as his solo road trip “bumming around the country” after graduation in 1976.
“When I got out, I didn’t have a job and there were no prospects of getting one,” he said.
When he returned home to Westchester in spring of 1977 from sufficient soul searching on the open American plains, Reisman, in between odd jobs as a cab driver in Mamaroneck and as a janitor at the now defunct B. Altman’s department store in White Plains, decided he would, in fact, pursue a career in journalism.
“I always thought writing was something I’d end up doing somehow, if I was lucky,” he said.
He applied to several graduate schools, including the University of Missouri, Columbia University and the University of California Berkeley, but, upon his acceptance to Missouri, he shied away, realizing he could not afford tuition.
Reisman got word of a new newspaper starting up in New York City and jumped at the opportunity.
The Trib, a daily paper with a conservative backing, hired Reisman as a copy boy—a “glorified gofer” as he described it, fetching sandwiches for John Denson, an editor for some of the nation’s leading publications, including Newsweek and the New York Herald Tribune—for $200 a week.
The paper tanked after just four months.
“The start-up period to actually get it going lasted longer than it was in publication,” Reisman said. “It was like the Titanic; it launched with a lot of fanfare and it went right down the drain.”
After the Trib’s descent into extinction, Reisman landed a job as a reporter for the Forum, a bi-weekly newspaper in Hackettstown, N.J., where he covered Sussex County. Describing the job as “boring” and having a “revolving door of reporters,” Reisman lasted only six brief months there.
He ended up drifting back to his hometown, where he was hired as a reporter for the Daily Times of Mamaroneck, a Gannett paper that, in October 1998, merged with other local dailies, like the Daily Item of Port Chester, the Herald Statesman of Yonkers and the Standard Star of New Rochelle, to become the Journal News.
First focusing on local stories and eventually working his way up to the metro bureau covering county-wide news, Reisman was a reporter for eight years, writing stories now embedded in Westchester history like the 1983 riot at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, in which more than 600 inmates held 17 correction officers hostage for two days.
He was promoted to metro editor, overseeing the production of stories throughout major communities in the Hudson Valley, and held the job for four years.
“It really is a job you shouldn’t have for more than two years,” Reisman said.
He settled into his less stressful current role as metro columnist, which he says he much enjoys over reporting and editing.
“When you’re writing a column, you have to have a little more spirit in it,” he said. “You want to own it a little more and to do that, you have to feel right about it. I found that it was fun.”
Not only has Reisman been able to report important stories across the decades, he’s lived through the technological transformation the industry has endured, from writing on typewriters to streaming web broadcasts. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Reisman was starting out, reporters and editors relied on the archaic system of cutting edits and pasting them onto the actual stories.
“We wrote on typewriters with copy paper and the editor would take scissors, cut out edits and paste in a sentence or two. My editor literally had a jar of paste on his desk,” Reisman said.
He described the newsroom of that period as a noisy, smoke-filled, open-floor plan resembling that of a government office.
“At one point, the guy who sat in front of me smoked cigars, which really offended some people,” he said.
When personal computers were becoming commonplace in office environments and newsrooms in the late 1980s, Reisman said the addition, although tremendously useful, was still problematic.
“The first computers we had were so primitive,” he said. “You were writing on one of these things and someone with a sweater would go by and the static electricity would blow up your story. It would just disappear. That’s how bad the system was.”
Reisman recounted a journalism of a different time—one he does not view as better or worse than the present—but a distant era when reporters went to libraries to conduct research for their stories, editors frequently screamed at their staff, telephones had to be answered due to the lack of voicemail convenience and marriages often failed from the late hours and salaciousness of the business.
“I’ve gone through just about every generation of computer and now we’re in a digital world with tweeting, Facebook, videos,” he said. “It’s really changed and I’ve seen it all.”
Accompanying the vastly changing newsroom atmosphere, Reisman said the energy at the Journal News has changed over the years.
The newspaper’s in-house printing press—which closed in 2010, eliminating 160 positions resulting in the outsourcing of the paper’s printing—added a now missing element to the journalistic method.
“I felt that I was in a real process,” he said. “I had sort of a white-collar job that was part of the blue-collar operation. You have real hard-working guys in the press room running the machinery, and that’s all changed.”
Rounds of layoffs have also plagued the editorial side of Westchester’s lone daily paper, most recently in August 2013, when 26 staffers—17 from the newsroom—were let go as part of a series of personnel cuts at Gannett. The cuts reduced the total staff count from 232 employees to 206, an 11 percent loss.
In 2011, the company laid-off 47 staffers, seven of whom were in the newsroom.
Of the cuts, Reisman said it’s been tough and no one loves them, but the role of the dogged reporter lends itself to easily roll with the punches the industry throws.
“They’re survivors, but they’re survivors for a reason because they’re good at it,” he said, noting his admiration for the role of a reporter, a task he admits he was never quite good at.
For now, Reisman said he plans on staying put; he’ll be working on his column and his webcast and is looking forward to covering the latest news on Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s bid for governor, an event Reisman calls “a gift for all of us,” providing months of good stories ahead.
He is also contemplating writing a book, but has yet to find the time to do so or even think of a worthy topic to explore.
When asked to dish out advice for young journalists who are hitting the pavement day-after-day, sitting through countless hours of City Council meetings and feeling the pressure of writing on deadline, Reisman said to keep moving.
“Work on your writing skills for certain, but also, don’t do what I did,” he said. “I think it’s good to move around, take a lot of jobs; don’t stay in one place too long and get out of the town you grew up in.”
Reisman advises young journalists to travel; explore the country and meet new people, maybe even take a road trip like he did.
After all, that’s what got him where he is in the first place.