editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Journalism mourns a loss

February 20th, 2008 · 6 Comments

Journalism, specifically newspapers, lost a champion and I lost a friend and mentor Tuesday night when Jonathan Maslow lost his year-long battle with cancer.

Jonathan, 59, was assistant city editor at one of my former newspapers, the Herald News of West Paterson, NJ. But that experience doesn’t come close to describing his career. By the time that I interviewed him for the then-open position of features editor, Jonathan was a noted author, naturalist, environmentalist, filmmaker, world traveler and award-winning journalist and journalism educator. I new that he was something different when at the start of that interview he asked if “we were going to be long” and then summarily removed his shoes and made himself comfortable in his chair.

Thankfully, we didn’t hire him as features editor and in the coming years Jonathan became a senior and valued member of my team, a colorful leader in our newsroom and a mentor to dozens of young reporters.

Jonathan didn’t flaunt his career, rather choosing to teach and guide young reporters using their own experiences. He didn’t cite his experiences in Bolivia Chile, Turkmenistan or his “8,000-mile journey through Russia’s remote provinces.” And, even after returning from shadowing an Iraqi-American making the dangerous journey back to Baghdad in the early days of the war, Jonathan didn’t express any sense of reporting seniority.

To say that he was a character based solely on his sitting in bare feet during his interview robs the rest of you of the entire experience that was Jonathan Maslow. Here was a guy who, in warm weather, routinely road rode a second-hand bicycle (purchased at a local police auction) to work and in cold weather walked miles from his local home to the office wearing one of his many Russian-styled fur hats that could have likely housed a small family. His desk was a whirlwind of papers and books, assorted dead bugs mounted on index cards, organic foods, a reproduction of a nude painting, strange looking drinks housed in unusual bottles and a scary looking tumbler that he used to store the effluence from his chewing tobacco. He wrote (yes he used a computer, but when he could, Jonathan still wrote by hand) in colorful and visually striking style full of sweeping letters. He was an avid reader and seemingly always had newspaper clipping full of notations stuffed into books, pads or even his pockets.

Jonathan cared deeply about the communities we covered, but even more so for the reporters he worked with. Sure at times he raised his voice in that old-school journalism way and sure there were those who saw his mannerism as gruff and unpolished, but none could doubt his sincerity. He truly wanted his reporters to succeed and he celebrated their victories and mourned their defeats. He was the driving force behind the establishment of our best practices mailing list and was supporter of our coaching and feedback-based approaches.

For me, Jonathan was great team member and a better friend. While we didn’t always see eye to eye, he would always hear me out even when that meant hours of rambling. We stayed in touch and close even after I left the Herald News, as he struggled with the paper’s new leadership and as he launched his own online project. In recent years, we unfortunately talked less and less. The last time we spoke in person was before his formal diagnosis but after he had already started to feel sick. We sat in his home and talked about our individual lives and the future of the Herald News and journalism. He was optimistic about everything.

By the time we spoke next, just a few months ago, that optimism had faded and our conversation was punctuated more with anger and frustration then encouragement and understanding. It was a call that I did not enjoy but that was necessary and that I accepted. So when I received the call that he had died, it was far from unexpected.

Personally, I’ll remember Jonathan for the years that we spent working together, the lessons that he taught me and insights the he shared. I know that he was always thankful for the opportunities that journalism had given him and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity to have had him as a colleague and friend.

Tags: In Memoriam · Industry · Leadership

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tracy Bodoff // Feb 20, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Jonathan Maslow was an administrator’s nightmare. His time cards were always late (not to mention dirty and crumpled), emails were rarely read and never returned and HR paperwork was just flat-out lost. If you wanted something from him (something that was not related to a story, a source, a lede) well then you had to hassle, harass, harangue him and then . . . just give up.

    He brought strange things into the office – smelly fish, “homemade” yogurt, carrots with dirt still falling off of them (as if he’d picked them from someone’s garden on the way to work. Oh yes, and a bird in a box. Really. One day, early in his career at the Herald, Jonathan brought an injured bird (that he’d encountered on his way to work) into the newsroom. A good deal of fretting, phone calls and an hour of one of my editorial assistant’s time later, the bird was safely deposited at a wildlife sanctuary.

    Obviously, he was not the usual stodgy editor. Often, I would find him talking intently to one of my editorial assistants. I would ask him later “Is everything OK? Were you giving so-and-so work to do?” “I was just encouraging them” he’d answer, leaving me to inanely respond “But . . . but . . . but we don’t DO that here.” In a fast-paced atmosphere of deadlines and criticism, Jonathan had quickly figured out what many of us had forgotten about.

    As an office-support worker, you learn to deal with all kinds of folks. Often times, you do your best to try to get them to change their habits to suit your needs, your timeline — in short, you drive yourself crazy. Jonathan was a great editor, a mentor to his staff (and to mine) and an all-around fascinating guy. So, his time cards were smudged — we knew he was always there. So, he didn’t respond to email — we just had to talk to him face-to-face. And as far as the odd animal, mineral and vegetable matter that he trailed with him wherever he went — well they were just opportunities to hear a great story from him, should you choose to ask.

    I had never encountered anyone quite like Jonathan Maslow before the Herald News, and have not met anyone remotely like him since I left there. For this, I am both grateful and sad. Could I handle working with another eccentric, free thinker like him? Probably. But, will I ever encounter such a person again? Well . . . that is why I am sad.

  • 2 Claude Deltieure // Feb 21, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    I think Jonathan was a throwback to the days when:
    * using a typrewriter meant learning the art of pure writing first — so you didn’t have to do all that cutting and pasting that’s so easy now with computers.
    * most people in America were just “getting along” economically and so money was not such a huge barometer of how well you were doing. What counted most was what you amounted to in character, not the amount you had in the bank. It’s no coincidence that pictures taken at Yankee stadium during the Great Depression shows nearly everybody in a suit — probably the only one they owned in those hard times. It was the Average Joe saying “I may be broke, but I still have Class.”n Jonathan cared a lot less about money than about projecting personal class.
    * A time when schools emphasized composition, mostly hand-written, as well as book learning. You want to be Jonathan-esque wiggy brilliant and informed? Read, read, read, read. And then grow old and read some more. There’s no substitute for a lifetime of applied learning. Along the way you are bound to stumble upon an ideal, or two, or three, that you can embrace as a life mission. Which speaks to:
    * The courage of conviction. Reading Jonathan’s obit, it’s clear he was crazy with conviction, to the point of habitually being willing to risk his life. I recall a soldier from World War II who spoke of his actions in combat, and when asked how he could have risked death continuously and not gone nuts, he said “Perhaps life was not as precious back then.” Indeed, not as precious as the principle you’re pursuing at the moment. Jonathan seemed a prime disciple of the concept.
    * a time when orneriness was as unpleasant as it is today, but far more tolerated as part of mainstream character. Who did not have heated disagreements with Jonathan? But they were never the “Why do I need this extra BS” kind of disagreement. They were turf battles of the mind, and a twist on that Voltairism: “Lovers’ quarrels are a remanifestation of love” — meaning that whatever you were arguing with Jonathan about, it was something that was near-n-dear to both of you.

    I knew Jonathan only briefly, but I hope I can offer some solace to others by saying that I recognized him instantly: The human being trying to live the human ideal. There’s lots of them out there. Make sure they’re a part of your life. Jonathan would be so honored to know his small life is being distilled as part of that pantheon. He’d be even more honored if each of us tried to join him there.

  • 3 Duayne // Feb 21, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Nice tribute As an old newspaper hand, I, too regret the loss of such characters that once gave our newsrooms, well, character.

    I didn’t know Maslow, but I knew men like him well enough to mourn him from afar.

    (One copy editing nit: He may have traveled on a road, but “he routinely rode [not road] a second-hand bicycle…”)

  • 4 Sarah Buttenwieser // Feb 21, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    These stories (in the piece & the comments) were just great… I so enjoyed every meeting with him, which often occurred during very busy, bustling events & yet conversations with Johnny really stopped time & took place in a protected space. His enthusiasm & focus protected you from distraction.

  • 5 Eric Schwarz // Mar 12, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Jonathan “replaced” me at the Cape May County Herald, when I went up to the Herald-News, and then came to the Herald-News a few years after I left, so we never worked together.

    I read his stories with a great respect for the heart and soul that he put into his work. I remember once visiting back in Rio Grande and he scoffed at the color-coded Rolodexes that I had left him. I was a straight-laced young reporter intent on getting the Five W’s and H into every story (pretty well, I think, and sometimes with a catchy turn of phrase), and he was someone very different …

    Check out Al Campbell’s tribute to Jonathan:
    http://www.capemaycountyherald.com/article/21803-former-herald-reporter-jonathan-e-maslow-59

  • 6 Maja Eymann // Apr 14, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I just finish reading “Sacred Horses” the second time and wanted to know, what his newest book is. It makes me so sad, to learn he died. What an immense loss.
    Maja Eymann

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