We Can’t Charge for This — An Oral History of ‘Coffee News’

Continued from PART ONE — The Indianapolis Imbroglio:

PART TWO: The New York Napkin

Coffee News hit New York like a depth charge in 1970. During that decade, the paper was literally everywhere and became not only a must-read but a physical backdrop of the city. Hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed for free, sometimes twice a week.

The paper’s reporting was everything to everyone. Part tabloid, part investigative journalism redoubt, part broadside, Coffee News was thoroughly woven into the fabric of the blood, tumult, and joie de vivre of New York City in the 1970s. As that decade drew to a close, however, the lavish spending of the paper and the collective lifestyle of its staff were taking their toll.

Stan Mason, Owner & Editor-In-Chief, Coffee News, 1969–2006; President of Mason Publishing, L.P., 1978–84; Chairman & CEO of Mason/CNG Publishing, Inc., 1984–2006: The first thing we learned was we had to shit-can all that Midwestern Aunt garbage. Funny quotes, recipes, cute stories, Cub Scout meetings. All that shit had to go. This was New York. We needed balls.

Walter Fine, Managing Editor, Coffee News, 1978–1993: We waited to publish for a few weeks while I called guys from the old Sun, guys from the Daily News, the Post, the Star-Ledger. We weren’t going to get guys from the Times and I didn’t want guys from the Times. I brought in a team. Some guys I bought. Some guys were available for whatever reason. It was a team you couldn’t believe: John Tait — everybody called him Jack, Jack Friedermeyer, H.D. Newman, Tully Tullman, Ray “Saint Jack” St. John, Elliot Pape, J. Barrett Eagleton — he went by Jack, Jack (Giovanni) Martinelli, Ollie Weyerstern, J.J. “Jack” Peterborough, Will O’Hair, and Phyllis Schein — we called Jackie because it was easier. Those were just a few of the guys — and gal — the vets. Then I brought in some hot shot new kids, anybody with their own typewriter who who would do what I said; I could teach them to write. It helped if they knew where to buy reefer. I don’t remember any of their names. I didn’t want to get too close.

Once I got them all in we went everywhere all at once. We didn’t care about printing costs or distribution costs. We were one page. We were free. We wanted to be the wallpaper of the whole city. That was Stan’s idea.

Melvin Alberts, District Superintendent, Manhattan South, The City of New York Department of Sanitation, 1967–74: That rag was everywhere. It filled up the trash cans in hours. It clogged up the sewers. It tangled up the street cleaners. It was blowing in little tornadoes in the skyscraper canyons. The ducks in Central Park, they made their nests out of it. Winter of ’70, it was cold, I saw one squirrel who had one as a little cloak. Cutest thing. Homeless people too. Yeah, I heard the one about the blanket. I had my own joke, “What do you call two hundred thousand copies of Coffee News? Lexington Avenue on a Monday.”

Gerry Miller, delivery boy, Coffee News, 1970: We had orders: Ask, but don’t listen. If they said yes, great. Put it by the Half & Half. If they said no, put ten copies on every table, a hundred in the bathroom, throw ten in their face, and put the rest by the Half & Half.

Dave Stolhanske, owner of Coffee News, 1960–69: The tan paper was my idea. I wanted to stand out, but didn’t want to offend or get mistaken for the Financial Times or anything. Not that we would have. Main thing was the stationer had the tan stuff for half the price of white. The fact that it masked coffee stains was a coincidence. He never stocked more than about half a ream at a time though. That ended up being a limiting factor.

Stan Mason: That was just one of the things with moving to New York. My stationer could get as much tan paper as I wanted to buy. He even had this softer kind. It was my idea to get that. Made it more versatile. They called Coffee News “the New York Napkin.” And the more tan paper we bought, the cheaper it was per page. Then I went straight to the paper plant in Schenectady. Cut out the middle man. In the ’80s we set out to buy the paper plant, but that’s another story.

Nancy McAndrew, Professor of Economics, NYU: It is actually one of the earliest clear case studies of the social-harm potential of externalizing costs. Here, you have a newspaper that is free. And it is quite literally dumping itself all over a city, yet bearing absolutely none of the cost of disposing of those papers, let alone recycling them. I’ve concluded that the increased costs to the City of New York related to the disposal of Coffee News in the early 1970s amounted to a little less than two cents per paper. That might not sound like much, but it totaled about five hundred thousand dollars a year in Mr. Mason’s pocket at the expense of the City. Sure, other papers externalized those costs as well, but because they cost money to buy, they were less like to end up being used as napkins, or toilet paper, or paper airplanes, or shoe shine cloths, picnic blankets, or tourniquets. They had no monetary value to the consumer. Coffee News was basically designed to be litter.

Coffee News was basically designed to be litter.

Stan Mason: I didn’t care. We had the Vonnegut royalties keeping us afloat until the ad dollars came in. My theory was we wanted to be literally everywhere. Like radio you couldn’t turn off. Under your feet. At your table. In the waiting room. On the train. Everywhere. It worked.

But that was only half the plan. We sold big ads on the theory that you could see them even if they were in the gutter while you were waiting for the bus. We sold smaller ads on the theory that people would read this thing because it was free and always at their finger tips. You didn’t have to turn the page, you just flipped it over. Whatever was there that day, we put into people’s brains. But we had to get them to pick it up. That’s where Walt’s team came in.

Walter Fine: We went after everybody. The pols on the left. The pols on the right. Celebrities. Athletes. Society people. The Irish. Everybody. Half my writers were literally armed Maoist revolutionaries — and I mean literally literally — like machetes and AK-47s at their desks. The other half were in the bag for Nixon.

Just as an example, one of our reporters went under cover with the Weather Underground for a story. It turned out he was using us as cover. He set the bomb that blew up at NYPD headquarters in June of ’70. At the same time, his office mate was an FBI agent undercover for COINTELPRO. He covered the bombing for Coffee News. They ate lunch together every day. I don’t think either of them ever knew. I did because it was my job to know that type of stuff.

Ephraim Goldman, reporter, Coffee News , 1971–74: There were shouting matches every day. You had the flat-topped Nixon-loving flacks writing takedown pieces on Abbie Hoffman and celebrity sex gossip. Then you had a bunch of hippies writing communist agitprop, exposés on city financial corruption, and recaps of Mets games.

Thomas C. Dowdy III, FBI agent, 1965–88; fashion editor, Coffee News, 1971–72: The way I saw it, half the people in that newsroom should have been arrested and executed after a show trial.

Stan Mason: That was the way I liked it. Our staff were involved in the Hard Hat Riot — fighting on both sides and covering it! Every day, our editorial politics were completely different. We got mixed up one day and called for Kissinger’s assassination and the extra-legal execution of Tom Hayden in the same issue. On Monday after the ’72 election, we called on Nixon to dissolve Congress indefinitely and for he and J. Edgar Hoover to lead as two kings. That Wednesday, we called for Hubert Humphrey to form a government-in-exile in Puerto Rico and to begin mustering a people’s army. And our hockey reporting was the best in the city.

We got mixed up one day and called for Kissinger’s assassination and the extra-legal execution of Tom Hayden in the same issue.

I don’t know if the political divisions fueled it, but I would say that after the first couple years, the drugs were getting to be a problem. But maybe it helped. It might have been the only thing keeping the staff together.

Walter Fine: Yeah, I won’t sugar coat it. It was bad. People thought I was the responsible one because I was older, but I’d gotten hooked on amphetamines during the war. So for me it was pills to get up, booze to come down. We were only a few blocks from Madison avenue, so we would party with the ad guys at lunch. Then the Lampoon guys would zip-line over in the afternoon. And at night, we were all over the city for stories, most of which were undercover pieces on buying drugs. During the day, the office was like the Merchandise Mart of illicit substances. Powders, pills, leaves, liquids, gases, plasmas. It was a newspaper, a chemistry lab, and a disco. And not always in that order.

Roy “Mack” McWilliams, reporter, Coffee News, 1972–75: I graduated from Medill in 1972. I’d had a few offers from “the bigs,” you know, the Sun-Times, the Times, the good Post, the Fresno Bee. But what drew me to the Coffee News was it’s ideological flexibility. I was later diagnosed as schizophrenic with multiple personality disorder, so that suited me fine.

The editors didn’t particular care about your politics as long as you had some. Your views could change freely, even daily, but you had to pick a side and wage unconventional war until the object of your ire was dead or you switched sides — whichever came first.

The first piece I did for Coffee News was an 800-word freelance bit about Vietnam. To be perfectly honest, It was — pardon my language — a fucking masterpiece. In 800 words, the piece framed, grappled with, distilled, and resolved almost every key issue surrounding the conflict — Laos, Mai Lai, Nixon — all of it. I fucking nailed it and, yeah, they loved it, ran it, and it killed. I don’t remember any of it. I was eating benzos with bourbon like cereal when I wrote it.

This was NYC in the ‘70s. NYC before the bond market ripped its soul out and before AIDS ended all the carefree sex. It was unbelievable. This was Peter Hujar’s New York. In one day you could get mugged by a heroin addict on Fifth, shaken down by the cops on Sixth, and still have enough in your pocket to pay rent in the Village.

But it was the salad days too. Coffee News paid. In ’75, I was living in Alphabet City in an abandoned police paddy wagon with Tom Verlaine of Television. I also had a farm in Vermont and an MG.

Phyllis Schein, op-ed editor, Coffee News, 1974–81: I remember P.J. O’Rourke used to come over from the Lampoon. He was looking to leave there and was sniffing for a job. And coke. He’d always hit on me. Such an awkward guy. Ugly and cocky. He also would always be smoking everyone else’s shit, but never brought any of his own. One time we made up a fake invoice for thirty-five hundred dollars for marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy and sent it to [National Lampoon publisher] Matty Simmons. He said he’d give us P.J. free for six months as payment. We said no.

Wayne Katz, political cartoonist & humor columnist, Coffee News, 1973–77: The Lampoon guys — outside of P.J. [O’Rourke] — were great. I loved partying with those guys. One quick story to illustrate the difference between the National Lampoon and Coffee News though. In ’74 or ’75, the Lampoon did a piece called “The Teenager’s Guide to Buying Drugs” or something like that. It got passed around the office at Coffee News. We all loved it. It was hilarious. But it was all satire and fictional and goofy and over the top. The next week, we put out a piece called “The Teenager’s Guide to Buying Drugs in New York.” It was a highly detailed guide to the cheapest, youngest drug dealers who operated closest to every high school in the five boroughs. It had price lists, maps, code words, cover stories to tell the parents. Everything. We had all that information already. We wrote it in a day. It was not a joke.

Stan Mason: We opened in Philadelphia and D.C. in ’72, Boston in '73, Chicago in ’74, and Los Angeles in ’75. In ’76 we set up in San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami. Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati in ’77. Baltimore and Charlotte in ’78. We were rolling out. These were all company-owned operations. We hadn’t even thought of the franchising angle then. But the money was just pouring in. Most of the material was coming from the New York bureau all the way through into the ’80s. We did have small local reporting outfits in each bureau doing city politics. We had a larger group in L.A. doing the Hollywood thing. I heard they were expensing prostitutes. Not even hiding it. I didn’t notice.

Anne Wong-Garza, Controller, Coffee News, Mason Publishing, L.P., 1975–84: The L.A. bureau was out of control. I had orders from Stan. Pay everything. I wouldn’t sign the checks with my name or anyone else’s. I had Stan’s assistant stamp them. I shouldn’t have stayed so long.

Linnette Miles, literary critic, Coffee News, 1971–88: The sexual proclivities at the office were — how to best put it?— legion. The only difference between the hippies and the Nixonistas were that the fascists smelled better and asked you not to tell their wives.

Neil Pettersen, crime reporter, Coffee News, 1979–85: I was doing a piece on sexual violence at Rikers Island. I had set up everything with the Department of Corrections to go undercover as a guard. Walt Fine came up to me and said it wouldn’t be real enough. He wanted me to go in as a prisoner. I said I would set it up with the D.O.C. He said that wasn’t real enough either. So I did what he said to do instead: I went to Central Park, got high, mugged some rich couple, and turned myself in.

I was doing a piece on sexual violence at Rikers Island . . . [to go undercover] I went to Central Park, got high, mugged some rich couple and turned myself in.

I did six months at Rikers. At that time, I was twenty-two, blond, and weighed a hundred and thirty-two pounds. Let’s just say I was well qualified to write the piece by the end of my sentence.

When did it run? It got cut, actually. It was replaced by ‘Manhattan’s Literally Shittiest Awnings — 1980,’ I believe. Later, Walt said I’d gotten too close to the subject matter and had lost my objectivity. That wasn’t all I’d lost. I’m not bitter, though. Walt was the best editor I ever had.

Anne Wong-Garza: Money was coming in. Lot’s of it. We had huge advertising numbers. But it was going out faster. We printed as many issues as we could physically distribute. We were literally throwing them out of our windows and onto the street. Our payroll was out of control. We had over one hundred reporters. We had photographers. Editors. Dealers. Groupies. Bouncers. Hangers on. The drugs beggared belief. How people got the idea they could expense that stuff I did not know. But they did. And I was told to let it go. So I did.

Also, the paper was free. So that was a big opportunity cost.

Walter Fine: I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted to produce the best paper we could. We brought down John Lindsay. We brought down Abe Beame. We took on the unions. We took on the mob. We took on Bob Moses. We took on the lawyers, the banks, the longshoremen, the doormen. We were writing about AIDS when the only people who had it worked in our office.

We were writing about AIDS when the only people who had it worked in our office.

Our circulation peaked in ’78 at about one and a half million. How many of those were read, we didn’t know. We didn’t get a lot of pass along reads because there was always another one around, so why give it to someone else, or even carry it with you? You’d read one part in the morning at the coffee shop and the rest from a different paper in a diner at lunch. You’d finish on the train, you’d just grab one off a seat. We were doing two editions a day at times. Our delivery guys would just ride down the street in vans or on bikes just tossing them out like a ticker tape parade.

Stan Mason: Looking back now, yeah, it was unsustainable. But back then, I just couldn’t see it. Every week we had more advertising money coming in and when we were short, I had other sources I could turn to.

Roy McWilliams: Yeah, we’d see mob guys in the offices from time to time, but that was at a higher level. We’d do hard-hitting stories on the mob all the time. But it was one family at a time we’d focus on. So maybe we were getting played. I don’t know. A couple of times, they’d find one of our reporters in a trash can or under a pier. Jake Montini. Pat Pasco. I always thought they got too close, but maybe they just didn’t know who was on our side, if you will.

Stan Mason: I knew people. Guys from Indianapolis had introduced me to some people back East. So when I needed some quick cash to make payroll, I didn’t have to go to Chemical Bank. Let’s put it that way.

Anne Wong-Garza: By the early-’80s we were hemorrhaging cash. Hemorrhaging. Sometimes guys would come in with briefcases that looked heavy. When they went to leave, they’d set them down and they’d sound hollow. I didn’t ask questions. We had a safe delivered one day. It was the size of a truck. They put it in the basement. They figured I knew what was going on. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.

Around that time, I remember Stan coming into my office and asking what I knew about junk bonds. I didn’t know anything. But my cousin worked at Drexel, Burnham, Lambert. So I gave Stan his number.

Frank Chaffee, bond trader and investment banker, Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, 1978–88: I said, Stan, you are sitting a gold mine. He said, I’m losing my ass. I said, “That’s because it’s your ass!” I said, “I have three words: Other people’s money.” He said he had some guys that had to get paid back first, off the books. I knew what he meant. [gesticulating] Ay! [gesticulating, pinkie finger extended] Oh!

I have three words: Other people’s money. — Frank Chaffee, bond trader for Coffee News IPO.

Stan Mason: I said, if this doesn’t work out who gets left holding the bag?

Frank Chaffee: I said, “I-B-G-Y-B-G: I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone.” Fuck ‘em.

Walter Fine: It’s fair to say things started to change a bit in the ’80s.

Neil Petterson: I remember right before I left it was less about Coffee News and more about “the company.” The partnership was going to dissolve, we were all going to get shares in this new company. We were all going to get rich. I didn’t care. I got a job at the Times and left. They eventually published my Rikers Island piece and I won the Pulitzer, so I didn’t care.

There was only one place I wanted to work. Coffee News. They paid the most and their reputation was out there … [T]he employees were going to make a fortune when it went public. Plus you could do coke at your desk. — Coffee News reporter, Nick Gutkowski

Nick Gutkowski, Coffee News reporter, financial desk, 1984–1994: I graduated from Mizzou in ’83. There was only one place I wanted to work. Coffee News. They paid the most and their reputation was out there. My brother worked at Drexel so I had heard all about how the employees were going to make a fortune when it went public. Plus you could do coke at your desk. I wanted to do six things in life at that time. Get high, get laid, buy stock in shady companies, write flattering stories about those companies in the financial section of a newspaper to inflate the value of said stock, sell said stock, profit, and party. Maybe seven things. I got to do them all at Coffee News, or, as it would become, Mason/CN Publishing, Inc.

Stan Mason: The ’80s. Yeah. I made some money. We remodeled the offices. I bought a house in the Hamptons. And a helicopter. And a Sumatran rhinoceros.

Troy Schillhabel, enforcement agent, Securities and Exchange Commission, 1975-2003: I got wind of Stan Mason and Coffee News around '82. I kept my ears open. By ’83, I had a file. After the IPO in ’84, I had a case.

Concluded in PART THREE — Riches to Rag:

The preceding, in case you are a lawyer for Coffee News, is a work of fiction and satire. The views expressed herein are not those of Coffee News, the wonderful, widely available, franchise, local-advertising publication. No character herein is real or has any basis in any person, including those with anything to do with Coffee News. Except for Kurt Vonnegut. He was real, but is fictionalized here. He was an awesome writer, a public figure, and had nothing to do with Coffee News. Thank you.



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J.P. Melkus

J.P. Melkus

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]