‘It’s been a fascinating career’

Cliff Richner, longtime Herald publisher, retires after 36 years in the news business

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“It’s been a fascinating career — I feel very lucky to have lived it,” said Cliff Richner, co-owner of Richner Communications and the longtime publisher of Herald Community Newspapers, who retired last month after 36 years in a family-run company that has left an indelible mark on local community news on the South Shore. “I think we’ve managed to do well, and do some good along the way and help people.”

Richner, 66, remains an owner of the company with his brother, Stuart, which they joined in 1982 and ’83, respectively.

“I started working there as a kid in 1964,” he said. “I grew up in the business. Now seems like a good time to retire. I leave behind a strong, talented and energetic staff, and I feel like we accomplished a lot. I’m leaving primarily for personal reasons — I want to do some other things that the demands of the job won’t let me do, while I’m young enough and healthy enough to do them.”

Richner announced the move to the Herald staff before his retirement on June 30. His career spans an ever-changing media landscape that saw the company grow and adapt in a digital age where many other local publications struggled to stay afloat. He also played a lead role in saving the company after a devastating fire threatened to put it out of business in 2004.

Today, Herald Community Newspapers boasts the largest community newsroom on Long Island in its Garden City offices, which opened in 2006, and includes a chain of more than 30 weekly publications.

Joining the family business

A Five Towns native, Richner grew up working in a company owned by his late parents, Robert and Edith, which they purchased in 1964, starting with the Nassau Herald and Rockaway Journal, and operated out of the company’s former office at 379 Central Ave. in Lawrence, where newspapers had been produced and printed for 77 years.

Leatrice Slote-Spanierman, the company’s first executive editor, recalled a boy who was fascinated by the news business.

“I invited him to join me in covering a political campaign tour,” she said. “He was an enthusiastic 12-year-old and I was on the cusp of being chosen for the top job at the company. I took him along on a lark, and was amazed that with his simple schoolboy camera, he hit the mark, shooting some solid photos. After completing his education, and pursuing a career in the law … we were permanently linked by our shared philosophy that grass roots, community journalism is the purest and most rewarding branch of the media.”

Richner earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, and worked as an attorney at two large law firms in New York City for five years.

“I really wasn’t enjoying working in a big firm environment, and I had considered other law options,” he said. “But ... my father was at the point where he kept saying that if we weren’t interested in the newspaper, he was going to sell it. So Stuart and I talked about it, and decided that we’d give it a try.”

In 1987, Cliff and Stuart were named publisher and president of the company, respectively, and have continued to expand it from a small group of community newspapers to 32 weekly publications, a slew of niche and specialty print and mail products, and a high-volume, commercial print and mail house. The publications span from Long Island to the Bronx.

“If all you’re looking for is a business opportunity, there’s easier ways to make a living,” Cliff said. “It’s a great opportunity to, as they say, do well and do good. Hopefully we mostly did good.”

Richner was, and still is, involved in a number of community and industry organizations. He sits on the boards of ERASE Racism and Long Beach Aware, and is the former chairman of the Local Media Association and a past president of the New York Press Association.

Linda Weissman, the assistant dean at Touro Law School — where Richner has been a member of the Board of Governors for more than 20 years — first met him in 1989, when she was executive director of the Five Towns Community Chest.

“I realized how dedicated to the community he was, and he’s a visionary in many ways,” she said. “At Touro, he really understood the law students and wanted to help them, and it became a calling for him. He established a scholarship for Touro students.”

A commitment to quality journalism

A commitment to quality journalism and hyper local news, Cliff said, turned the Herald into a chain of award-winning publications.

“We made a very conscious effort to invest in the product,” Cliff said. “We spend a much greater percentage of our revenues on the editorial product than most local papers do. We certainly have been recognized for it, but we don’t do it to win awards — we do it because it’s good business.”

As the business grew, Cliff played a lead role in the newsroom, where his legal expertise and talent as a writer informed the direction of countless stories, front-page layouts and other editorial and design elements of the paper, both current and former employees said.

“Cliff is incredibly hands on, but at the same time, he gives you the freedom to be a journalist,” said Executive Editor Scott Brinton, who’s been with the company for 25 years. “He’s also a brilliant writer – I think that gets overlooked. You’ll write a whole editorial and he’ll add three paragraphs, and you’re like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

Richner regularly spent late-nights collaborating with the editorial staff, reading over stories, editorials and more as editors and reporters worked to put the papers to bed.

“Cliff has also always set an example in the newsroom that reflects the values that our parents instilled in us: truth, fairness, justice and transparency,” Stuart said. “It’s these qualities that make him such a respected leader in the industry.

He’s successfully captained our news team through the stormy waters of an industry being disrupted. He’s been a great partner, and I’ll miss not only his industry expertise but also the chance to work alongside a good friend each day.”

Working at the Herald helped launch the careers of many young journalists, and Cliff was known as a mentor to reporters and editors. “That’s one of the best parts of the job,” he said. “I think it’s a great place to learn your craft because it’s hands on and you have to get out there and learn on the job.”

The personal trauma of 9/11

Of course, one of the Heralds’ biggest stories was the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. “We’ve had several big, catastrophic stories,” Cliff said. “9/11 was probably the most persistent and longest-lasting, and it affected all of our communities. Everyone at the paper was covering an endless stream of memorial services and people who couldn’t be found. The entire staff was traumatized. It was heartbreaking.”

Just a few days after the attacks, Robert Richner died. “My dad added to the personal trauma of 9/11,” Cliff recalled. “On 9/11, he was in the rehab unit on the fourth floor of Long Beach Medical Center — you could see the smoke from his hospital window. And in fairly short order, he was moved to New York Hospital. Dad was kind of a news junkie, and he spent the last week of his life watching CNN replay all these horrors over and over. We were dealing with our own personal drama in the middle of that.”

Rising from the ashes

In 2004, Richner faced the biggest challenge of his career when a fire destroyed the company’s longtime headquarters in Lawrence, where newspapers had been published since 1927. The fire not only destroyed the paper’s print and photo archives, including bound volumes from 1895, but also threatened to put the company out of business. Still, Cliff said, there was never any talk of giving up.

“First and foremost, at that point, we had an obligation to our employees,” he said. “People needed to work, we needed to work and we wanted to continue.”

The very next day, the Richners found a temporary warehouse space in West Hempstead, and the 150-person company didn’t miss an issue.

“The fire presented all sorts of logistical problems,” Richner recalled. “It was very traumatic but the staff really came through. When it counted the most, people all pulled together and we got the paper out that week. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve never missed an issue.”

Two years later, the company moved into a state-of-the-art building in Garden City, where the Heralds and other publications are printed.

Looking ahead

Both Richner brothers said they have confidence in the future of the company.

“Everyone on the staff works very hard and takes the responsibility of getting those papers out on time very seriously,” added Cliff. “I really think we made a difference through a lot of stories. We’ve helped a lot of groups over the years — we’ve closed power plants and helped people preserve open space — and we try to make a difference in the things that people are passionate about.”