Past Chronicle leaders remember the way it was
Chronicle standard bearers mark six decades of publishing
Barbara Befferman Danes might be remembered as the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle’s former CEO but, as she recalled, she began her career “at the lowest post on the totem pole.”
Thanks to the new Career Development Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services (now Jewish Family and Community Services), Danes was hired as an advertising coordinator at the Chronicle in 1984.
“It was a wonderful thing for me,” she said. “I worked there until June 2011.”
When first hired, Danes’ tasks included intaking obituaries and pasting classified ads into the paper’s layout by hand — an antiquated process that ceased to exist in the era of desktop publishing.
Danes said it was easy to recognize her early work in the paper.
“If you look back on the classified ad page in that time period, whole pages are crooked,” she said. “I don’t know why. I’m very good at hanging pictures. But I just had a hard time.”
While the ads might have looked askew on the page, Danes said she had a better record when it came to a more important part of the job — “getting the right ones in the paper.”
“I loved the job,” she said. “I loved the Chronicle from the very first day.”
Danes eventually took over as the paper’s business manager; when her mentor, Albert Zecher, retired, she was promoted to CEO.
At that time, the Chronicle had 11 employees, including those filling bygone positions of the publishing world, like typesetters.
Danes’ tenure coincided with changes in the newspaper business, mainly the start of the internet age, which she remembered as lean years when the paper had to readjust to find its footing.
It was also a time of transformation for the Chronicle, as the paper moved first from Bellefield Avenue to Baum Boulevard, then eventually relocated to its present home at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Danes said the Chronicle was an institution people wanted to be a part of, and where community members would often come to share story ideas or good news.
“I remember a young woman came to place her engagement announcement. Her fiancé had just given her the ring in the car, and she made him drive her to the paper to share the news. I don’t even think she told her mother yet,” Danes recalled with a laugh.
The Chronicle, Danes said, holds a special significance for her.
“It literally saved my life,” she said. “When I started working there, I was a single mother. My daughter was 5 and my son was 2. We closed at 2 p.m. on Friday and I was able to pick my kids up and be a real mother. I had the holidays off when they were off, too. On the weekends, when I had to go in and balance the books, the kids would come and play. The Chronicle had all these great games. I can’t say enough about my years there.”
Former editor Joel Roteman fondly remembers when he started at the Chronicle as an assistant editor.
“It was in 1967, right before the Six-Day War,” he said.
He spent the next 35 years at the paper.
The editorial staff was small during Roteman’s tenure, a fact his editor wanted to keep from the public.
“You weren’t allowed to have two bylines in the same issue,” Roteman recalled. “He didn’t want people to know how small we were. So, we had to make up a fake name. Mine was Leo J. Nametor, which is Joel Roteman backwards. No one ever figured it out. It sounded like it could have been a real name.”
When Roteman became editor, the paper’s circulation was approximately 15,000 households, 50% of which had Squirrel Hill addresses.
“We had a loyal readership back in those days,” he said.
Roteman said he particularly enjoyed writing celebrity profiles.
“My favorite was Phyllis Diller,” he said. “She was coming in for a Hadassah Spectacular. I did a phone interview with her, and we started feeding off each other’s jokes and laughing throughout the interview. It was a terrible interview, but it was so much fun.”
On a more serious note, Roteman recalled interviewing Yitzhak Rabin’s widow, Leah, after his assassination.
“I remember speaking with her about his smoking habit,” Roteman said. “I said he always had a cigarette in his mouth. She said, ‘It wasn’t smoking that killed him. It was a gun.’”
There’s another gun that persists in Roteman’s memories — the one in the waistband of a young man who took him hostage, a former Chronicle intern who became radicalized about the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
“I got a call from a teenage boy who said, ‘Such-and-such is coming over and he has a gun. He has taken me hostage.’ I said OK. I thought it was a hoax. Then he showed up with a scared 15-year-old.”
Roteman said he could see the outline of a gun in the waistband of the hostage-taker. While his secretary quickly shut her door and made calls trying to connect with the boy’s family, Roteman attempted to reason with him.
“He said, ‘I’m leaving for Israel tonight. You have to print my story as is or I’ll blow your head off.’ I said, ‘If you blow my head off the story is going to be “Chronicle editor gets his head blown off.” They won’t even look at your story. Besides, I wouldn’t even promise the president I would print his story word-for-word.’”
Eventually, the boy’s family came and took him home. No charges were pressed.
Roteman said the Jewish community has changed since his time with the paper, noting that it’s older and more affluent.
“I remember when we made a big deal because the Federation campaign made $6 million. That’s not such a big deal anymore,” he said.
Former editor Lee Chottiner said that he viewed coming to work at the Chronicle as a profound step in his life.
“I had been an active Jew forever,” Chottiner said. “I had been to Israel a couple of times. I was active in my synagogue. I followed Jewish issues. I thought this was a way for me to write something that was more meaningful than a township meeting or police blotter.”
Chottiner particularly remembered the 9/11 issue he oversaw during his tenure.
“We were preparing for the High Holiday issue,” he recalled. “It was a Tuesday morning. We were called into the publisher’s office. There was the burning tower in New York. At first, we thought it was an accident.”
The decision was made to include a story in that week’s paper. Chottiner sprang into action, calling writers to report from the paper’s entire coverage area, as well as including an editorial cartoon on the front page instead of the typical High Holiday cover.
“A few people criticized us,” Chottiner said. “At least one wrote me a letter saying she was looking forward to an uplifting cover.”
Chottiner also recalled covering the story of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut on the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated at the end of its final flight in 2003, killing its seven-member crew.
Of course, the paper also included the bread-and-butter issues its readers cared about.
“We did a story about handicap accessibility to Jewish facilities,” Chottiner said. “We wrote about how non-Jewish funeral homes were getting into the act of Jewish funerals.”
When Chottiner became editor, he said, the paper was in a period of transition.
“I wanted to take it in a different direction than Joel [Roteman] had it, a more news-oriented direction,” he said. “I’m sure Toby [Tabachnick, current Chronicle editor] has taken the ball and is moving it down the field,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]