Wall Street Journal News for and From Roosevelt Island by Louie Lazar

Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
News for and From Roosevelt Island
Louie Lazar
09/16/2015

After loading stacks of newspapers onto his motorized scooter, Jim Bates zoomed through the halls of a housing complex on a recent Friday, tossing free copies of the Main Street WIRE at the doors of about 1,000 units.

Known on Roosevelt Island as “Uncle Jim,” Mr. Bates is one of about two dozen volunteers who fan out across this strip of land in the East River every two weeks with a goal: deliver the news to every household.

The WIRE, the only print newspaper based on the island, was created out of necessity but has become a unifying passion of island residents since the publication’s founding in 1981.

It is published by Dick Lutz, 76 years old, a veteran journalist who operates the WIRE out of his apartment on Main Street, the island’s sleepy main thoroughfare. His small team of reporters and editors chronicle the political affairs, people and happenings of Roosevelt Island, which many residents compare to a small town.

“It’s a community institution,” Mr. Lutz said of the WIRE, which also appears online.

Located between Manhattan and Queens, Roosevelt Island is about 2 miles long and less than 1,000 feet wide. In the 19th century, when it was called Blackwell’s Island, it was home to a smallpox hospital, prison and asylum.

Leased to New York state by the city in 1969 for 99 years, the island was largely desolate until the 1970s, when affordable housing was built for mixed-income, elderly and disabled people.

In 1980 and 1981, the tramway connecting the island to Manhattan was closed for several months for repairs. Travel was difficult, and information was scarce, said Jack Resnick, a physician on Main Street who makes house calls.

“People said, ‘If only we had a newspaper!’ ” Dr. Resnick recalled.

He became founding editor of the WIRE. Its first front-page headline, in March 1981, said, “Tram Scam Drags on and on…”

Dr. Resnick was editor until 1992. His successor ran the paper for several years, but health problems eventually limited his role. For a while, publication stopped.

In 1997, Mr. Lutz, who worked for years in public-television broadcasting, became managing editor.

A steelworker’s son, he had moved to Roosevelt Island in 1981. As editor, he sometimes pedals his bicycle down Main Street to community meetings and to report on island politics.

His reporting and editorials focused on an unusual political structure in which gubernatorial appointees—not elected local representatives—managed much of the island’s services.

The WIRE has led to change, said City Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat, whose district includes Roosevelt Island, by helping hold officials accountable.

Without the WIRE, said resident Jan Fund, 75, “we wouldn’t know what’s going on.”

On Main Street, where red buses adorned with American flags shuttle residents free of charge, people stop Mr. Lutz with news tips or problems they hope the WIRE will resolve.

Mr. Lutz works at a desktop computer behind a big, messy desk in a converted former bedroom at the back of his apartment. He pays writers, from young reporters to retired journalists, between $50 and $100 per article. Others contribute for free.

The newspaper typically breaks even, Mr. Lutz said, with annual revenue between $100,000 and $130,000, nearly all from advertising.

Stories are thoroughly copy-edited, proofread and fact-checked—part of an “exacting standard which is probably a little bit fanatical for a community newspaper,” Mr. Lutz said.

Before sunrise on a recent Friday, 7,100 WIRE copies were printed in Long Island City. They were taken to Roosevelt Island by truck and dropped off at Mr. Lutz’s building. There, inside a community room, about 15 volunteers stuffed papers with supermarket fliers and bagged them.

At one table sat Ms. Fund, a retired elementary school teacher, and Bakul Mitra, 70, a retired credit administrator. Ms. Fund, who also delivers about 300 papers, looks forward to these Fridays. Volunteers socialize as they work and have lunch, paid for by Mr. Lutz.

“I feel like this my second home,” Mrs. Mitra said.

It takes Mr. Bates, 71, about three hours to cover five buildings on his scooter, he said—depending on how many people stop to talk.

By midday Saturday, deliveries were complete. Copies had also reached the office of Dr. Resnick, who is known as “The Roosevelt Doctor.” “To have a newspaper that you start be there 35 years later—it’s a fabulous feeling,” he said.

Mr. Lutz is gradually turning operations of the WIRE over to reporter and managing editor Briana Warsing, 38, an island native.

Sitting inside his office recently, Mr. Lutz reflected on his tenure as “gatekeeper” of information for the people of Roosevelt Island.

“People say it’s my hobby, but it’s far more than that,” he said. “It’s probably my final act of journalism in a lifetime of journalism.”

Issue: 
Roosevelt Island