Quirky and Beloved, the Canarsie Courier Pushes on Into Its 90th Year

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The neighborhood weekly struggles to adapt to changes in both the media climate and the local population

The neighborhood weekly struggles to adapt to changes in both the media climate and the local population.

Photo courtesy of the Canarsie Courier

“Teenager Shot on Avenue J” blares the front-page headline. “Burglars Rob and Ransack Avenue L Deli” reports the following page. “Three Injured in Remsen/Avenue K Crash” rounds out the week’s lead stories. At the end of each article, Charles Rogers, author of them all, invites anyone with information about these incidents to call the 69th Precinct Detective Squad.

Full-page, black-and-white photo spreads commemorate the week’s special events: a performance by the Caribbean Big Drum Ensemble, P.S. 268’s Fifth Annual Art Extravaganza, and a local adult daycare center’s Health and Fitness Day. Foreclosure auction sales and advertisements for new beauty salons abound, while the “Contest Corner” on page 28 offers readers the chance to win tickets to concerts, comedy clubs, and Brooklyn Cyclones games.

As evidenced by the issue of June 2, 2011, one chosen at random, such is the local flavor of reporting in the Canarsie Courier, Brooklyn’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper. Every Thursday since 1921, its staff has delivered a selection of neighborhood news that both serves and reflects a handful of communities on the borough’s southern edge.

“I read it all the time,” said Diana Castellano, 56, a social worker who has lived in Canarsie for 43 years. “They’re at every street fair, every church event, every crime scene.”

Already small in size and scope, the Courier is getting smaller. Circulation recently dropped to about 5,000, though the paper’s website cites an out-of-date number of 10,000. The Courier still costs 50 cents, but prints fewer pages per issue, down to 48 to 52 pages from about 60 a decade ago. Its main competitor, the Canarsie Digest, not only offers a thicker issue at equal cost and distributes free copies at several locations in town, but also aggregates its content for free on BrooklynDaily.com, an online presence of News Corporation’s Community Newspaper Group, the city’s largest group of neighborhood newspapers. In its 90th anniversary year, the Courier finds itself struggling for survival amid a changing community and a changing industry.

“We’re battling like mad,” said Rogers, who declined to say whether the paper’s balance sheet runs in black or red. “We’re counting pennies. I want to punch our business manager sometimes, but she’s just doing her job.”

With only three full-time staff members, himself included, Managing Editor Charles Rogers has kept the Courier afloat for more than two decades using a time-tested formula of bloodthirsty headlines, syndicated columns, classified ads, street surveys and marketing gimmicks.

“I’m always very pleased when I come in on Monday and find out that there’s been two murders over the weekend,” said Rogers. “Crime sells!”

Originally from Ohio, Rogers is “old enough to have been doing this for a long time.” He moved to New York in the 1960s, when he landed a job as a field producer for NBC News. Eighteen years later, tired of the constant travel, Rogers settled in Canarsie and took over editorship of the Courier. Housed in a square, black building in the middle of a quiet, residential block, the paper shares office space (and a receptionist) with the law offices of its publisher’s husband, Alessandro Marra. Most of Rogers’s work happens here, in a small, wood-paneled newsroom with desks for each of the Courier’s nine employees. A smaller, windowless alcove in the back offers a conference table for the occasional interview.

Managing Editor Charles Rogers and Features Editor Neil Friedman run the newsroom (Photo: Peter Madden/The Brooklyn Ink).

Features Editor Neil Friedman, a longtime Sheepshead Bay resident and former public relations specialist, functions as Rogers’ No. 2 and trumpets an abrasive take on local politics in a column entitled “This Week’s Attitude.” A police scanner chatters incessantly from above his desk. Business Manager Catherine Rosa squeezes profits from paychecks and ad pages. Contributing writers from Marine Park, Mill Basin, and Georgetown call with tips and story pitches, and the Courier relies on its patrons for pictures.

“Attention residents: If you see it,” reads an ad on page 24, “snap it.”

And so the next issue takes shape. The office is closed on the weekends, so staffers scramble on Monday and Tuesday to fill the paper with news from Saturday and Sunday. Each page is laid on wooden shelves at the front of the newsroom to be collectively tweaked by staffers with red markers before the two-person “Production Department” transfers the layout to the computer. The issue goes to print on Wednesday and hits newsstands on Thursday, leaving Friday to clean up and start over.

Shifting demographics and the rapid proliferation of digital media outlets have prompted Rogers and Friedman to make changes to remain competitive. Originally populated by middle-class whites of Italian and Jewish descent, Canarsie has experienced an influx of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, especially from Haiti and Jamaica, since the 1980s. Rogers and Friedman watched readership drop as their core constituents moved to Staten Island, Long Island, and New Jersey, leaving the Courier to struggle to appeal to a new audience.

“We made some concessions,” said Friedman, “but we don’t want to make it a Caribbean newspaper. We’re trying to serve the community as a whole.”

Limited attempts to reach out the community’s new population with reprinted AP reports from the Caribbean and coverage of international cricket matches failed to increase readership, but the duo hasn’t stopped trying. When the earthquake struck Haiti earlier this year, the Courier provided extensive coverage of the disaster and followed up with features on refugees who had received extended visas so they could stay with their families in Canarsie.

“We might not have done those stories a few years ago,” said Friedman.

“That wasn’t dictated by sales,” added Rogers. “We said, ‘This neighborhood needs this story.’”

As more and more people advertised on Craigslist and found free news online, the paper also expanded its web presence. The Courier offers a yearly subscription to its online version for $25. A digital archive is also available free of charge; only the most recent two issues exist behind a pay wall. Fearing a complete abandonment of the print issue, however, the Courier resists uploading its classified ads.

Times are indeed tight, and Rogers must mitigate the tension between offering a quality product and keeping his business solvent. Limiting himself and Friedman to four-day workweeks, signing advertisers to long-term deals at slashed rates to guarantee income, and arranging sales-boosting contests with prizes in exchange for free advertising, called barters, have stemmed the leaks for now. But even as the celebration of its 90th anniversary prompts a look back over the past—the Canarsie Historical Society is offering a $1,000 reward for a copy of the first issue—questions about the future loom. Will the Canarsie Courier adapt quickly enough to see its 100th?

While reading the Courier may be a fixture of the weekly routine for some older residents, in its own profile of its readership, the paper estimates that only 21 percent of its readers are under age 30.

“It’s mostly advertisements,” said Eric Ali, the young Manager of the Sammy & E Minimart on the corner of Rockaway Parkway and Avenue L. “Only the first few pages are about things that happened in Canarsie.”

Rogers believes the paper’s tradition of commitment to Canarsie will help him weather the storm.

“We’re sophisticated,” said Rogers. “Neil and I like to think we’re as sophisticated as The New York Times.”

“People trust us,” he added. “We’ve been around a long time.”

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3 Responses to “Quirky and Beloved, the Canarsie Courier Pushes on Into Its 90th Year”

  1. Mary Monaco
    August 9, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

    Excellent article! Communities need local papers. Hopefully the Canarsie Courier will weather the storm and survive another 90 years. The author wrote the article in such a way that the reader really wants the Courier to survive.

  2. Lacey Keane
    August 14, 2011 at 12:24 PM #

    Love it!

  3. pam grieco
    September 13, 2011 at 7:26 AM #

    great job Pete you have a gift for writnig keep using it .

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