How the Rutgers Targum achieved independence
Birth of an alumni association — and an independent Targum
Note: J.D. Lasica gave the keynote address at the Targum 25 Gala Dinner in New Brunswick, NJ, on April 1, 2005, celebrating 25 years of Targum independence.
By J.D. Lasica
In many ways, the story of the Targum Alumni Association’s birth is tied inextricably to the paper’s drive for independence. And both came about largely as a result of a seminal journalism convention and alumni reunion held on the Rutgers campus 25 years ago today.
I was chairman of that maddeningly difficult gathering and thus had a pretty good seat as the fast-paced chain of events unfolded during those years. But first, let’s briefly set the stage for our story.Up until the mid-1970s, the relationship between the Targum and Rutgers University seemed cordial enough. And yet for various reasons, editors in every decade since the 1930s toyed with the notion of snipping the umbilical cord to alma mater. In a 1957 editorial titled “Give Us Liberty,” for instance, the editors cited problems with Targum Council and a prohibition against staff salaries as compelling reasons for independence. The effort came to naught, as did a similar move in 1973.
While the Targum always prided itself on its independence from university control, to some extent that independence was illusory. Although Rutgers had almost never exerted overt censorship, there had been infringements on editorial prerogatives over the years. The dean of students threatened disciplinary action against the editors if the paper endorsed a mayoral candidate in 1974; a few years later he threatened similar action unless the editors stopped running ads for term paper companies. And in 1975 the Student Government Association, upset at sparse coverage, forbade the payment of honoraria to Targum editors. (Prior to that time, editors sometimes received stipends of up to $300 from year-end profits as remuneration for their efforts.)
By June 1977, with the 16,000-circulation paper having turned a handsome profit on an operating budget of more than $300,000, sentiment grew for another try at independence. On the second floor of a sparsely furnished Highland Park apartment, editor-in-chief Norm Weisfeld (RC ’78) and this writer (RC ’77) considered long-term solutions to the paper’s habitual production problems, its hit-or-miss reporting and uneven design, and the continued prohibition against payments to staffers. Only a panel of distinguished alumni serving as a publishing board could help rectify the situation, we believed. Seasoned journalists could serve as an educational resource, advising the staff on copy and layout improvements, while business professionals could streamline the paper’s production and financial operations.
The goal, in short, was to advance the paper’s professionalism and to make the Targum the best college daily in the East.
Toward that end, we hit on the idea of hosting a major journalism conference and alumni reunion. We found a suitable candidate in Samuel G. Blackman (RC ’27), retired general news editor of the Associated Press and former Targum editor-in-chief, who modestly assented to be honored at such a convocation.
Research conducted for the conference turned up a trove of riches.
We determined that the Targum, which began monthly publication on Jan. 29, 1869, is the fourth oldest student newspaper among today’s college dailies, behind The Dartmouth, Brown Daily Herald and Indiana Daily Student.
We data-mined the origin of the paper’s name. (Translated from the Chaldean tongue, “targum” literally means interpretation. The term was often used by the president of Rutgers in his lectures on Hebrew scriptures, and it became a voguish term on campus for anything strange or unique. Its adoption by the newspaper staff for their new publication seemed inspired at the time.)
We learned that the annual Mugrat tradition dates to 1927, when the spoof edition reported that a Rutgers professor was being held at the county jail pending trial on a charge of cruelty to animals.
And we unearthed the names of some illustrious alumni who toiled on the Targum staff, including the poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer (RC ’08); Nobel Prize winners Selman A. Waksman (RC ’15) and Milton Friedman (RC ’32); Putlizer Prize winner Roy F. Nichols (RC ’18); U.S. Senator Clifford P. Case (RC ’25); television commentator Martin Agronsky (RC ’36); and many others.
The conference and reunion on April 8, 1978 turned out to be a smash. It drew nearly 1,000 attendees and such speakers as Daniel Schorr, Lesley Stahl, Sally Quinn and Richard Reeves. Between speaker fees, travel, food and other expenses, we had to raise $17,000 to pull it off.
Four months later, spurred by the success of the alumni reunion, a core group of 20 alumni met in the Targum offices and laid the groundwork for the creation of a Targum alumni organization. Key alumni driving the effort (besides Weisfeld and this writer) included the journalists William P. Barrett (RC ’74), Leonard Goldblatt (RC ’43), Edward Mack (RC ’55), Anthony Mauro (RC ’71), Robert Weiner (RC ’61); attorney Dean Paranicas (RC ’73); and Playboy promotions director Walter Joyce (RC ’54).
On Nov. 16, 1978, over dinner at the Alumni Faculty Club, the group officially chartered the Targum Alumni Association, adopted bylaws and elected officers. An announcement accompanying the formation of the association said: “The group’s chief aims are to increase the professionalism of the Targum through the advice of established publishers, editors and businessmen; to provide a mechanism for holding regular reunions, social affairs, seminars and conventions; and to support the Targum’s drive for independence.”
In April 1979, a year after the convention, a 10-person panel commissioned by the association issued an 82-part report recommending that the Targum incorporate as a non-profit enterprise. The group took pains to make clear that the students running the Targum, including editor-in-chief Greg Sedlacek (RC ’78), were driving the effort. The study envisioned an alumni board of trustees to replace the Targum Council, lending the paper continuity and expertise. Independence would enhance the paper’s professionalism and perhaps remedy a severe staffing shortage by permitting gratuities to editors, the report said.
In the months that followed, the Targum editorial board, now led by editor-in-chief Nancy Greenberg (who has since changed her name to Greenburger, RC ’80), pushed the proposal to a vote. Rutgers President Edward J. Bloustein and the university Board of Governors essentially punted, ruling that independence could proceed if endorsed by a student referendum and the faculty’s University Senate, of all bodies. In December 1979 the Rutgers College student body overwhelming gave its approval to independence. A short while later, after a heated faculty debate in which the motives and role of the Targum Alumni Association were questioned by some, the University Senate signed off on the plan, after adding the proviso that seven of the 12 board of trustee members must be students.
On July 1, 1980, with the filing of articles of incorporation in Trenton, the Targum Publishing Company was born. Officially, the Targum became independent on Oct. 8, 1980, when the university treasurer transferred nearly $100,000 in assets from the now-defunct student organization to the 3-month-old corporation. (The chronology of events leading up to independence was detailed in the December 1980 issue of Rutgers Alumni Magazine.)
The Targum became the 28th independent college daily, with editors now free to chart their own course. And the Targum Alumni Association acquired a new role: to steady the paper as a fledgling business enterprise and offer help to the paper’s editorial operations when called upon.
It’s a formula that still works, two decades later.