Berl Schwartz showed an early interest in alternative news. While in high school, Schwartz and his best friend started an alternative high school newspaper as a counterpoint to the school’s, which was politically incorrectly named “The Tomahawk.”
“We called our newspaper ‘The Machete’ and made fun of teachers,” Schwartz recalled.
Five decades later, Schwartz, 69, is still giving the Establishment a hard time as editor and publisher of City Pulse. On Sept. 29, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Freedman, director of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, will interview him about his career and how journalism has changed over 50 years. The free event is hosted by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.
Over the last five decades, Schwartz has seen a massive transformation of the industry since his first job as a copyboy in the newsroom of his hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade, or later as a reporter for the 700,000-circulation Bulletin, the afternoon and Sunday newspaper in Philadelphia.
“Our newsroom was massive — like the size of a football field — holding 300 journalists,” he recalled. “We had eight editions a day."
Before The Bulletin, Schwartz worked on his college paper at the University of Pennsylvania, where he rose to managing editor.
One day in March 1968, he took a call from an advance man from the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign, which was looking for a location for a speech at Penn. Schwartz made the connection and was asked to introduce Kennedy on stage.
“Ultimately, I didn’t get to introduce Kennedy, but I introduced the congressman who introduced him,” Schwartz said. Two months later, following the assassination, Schwartz was asked to represent college newspapers at the funeral and to ride in the funeral train from New York to Washington. It greatly influenced his career path.
“On the return trip, I was literally staring out the train window thinking this is what I wanted to do,” he said.
His three-year stint at The Bulletin was largely divided between covering higher education and rock music. The former afforded him opportunities to interview such luminaries as W. Averill Harriman, Margaret Mead, Noam Chomsky and Muhammad Ali. The music writing gig meant reviewing virtually all the big names of the era — he declared Billy Joel wouldn’t last — and interviewing the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they were in town for their legendary week cohosting “The Mike Douglas Show.”
In 1975, Schwartz went to Washington for The Louisville Times, a well-respected, liberal leaning daily. Among his assignments was covering the 1976 Republican National Convention, where Ronald Reagan tried to wrench the nomination from Gerald Ford.
“I wrote a lede for a story on the convention that went something like ‘It was Bedtime for Bonzo,’” he said, referring to the name of one of Reagan’s last films. “It did not appear. It was even too much for the Louisville paper.”
It was as a writer for The Louisville Times that Schwartz had what he calls “my most embarrassing moment, by far.” While covering an informal Gerald Ford press conference in the White House’s State Dining Room, Schwartz violated one of journalism’s cardinal sins. He became the news story.
“I was standing seven feet away from Ford, and someone kept putting their hand on my shoulder,” Schwartz recalled. He later learned that it was a photographer trying to get a better angle.
“After the third time, I said, ‘Get your fucking hand off me,’” he said. “A woman shrieked, and the next thing I knew I was picked up by the elbows by two Secret Service agents and deposited in an assistant press secretary’s office. The first thing I said was, ‘I’m on deadline. Can I use your phone?’”
Schwartz hoped his employer wouldn’t hear about the incident, but The Associated Press ran a story nationally about it.
“I heard from people all over the country,” he said.
His embarrassment was somewhat relieved, though, when the paper’s publisher, Barry Bingham Jr., a member of the family that owned the paper, called him to say, “I like a man who fights for his story.”
Schwartz went on to be a national correspondent and then an editor for Scripps Howard Newspapers in Washington, managing editor of The Knoxville News-Sentinel and editor and publisher of the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania, and then Washington bureau chief of United Press International — before he gave it all up.
“I was a very unhappy closeted gay man,” he said. “I knew I’d never work at such levels again in mainstream journalism if I came out, but I felt I had no choice.”
That decision eventually led him to a job as general manager of The State News at Michigan State University. “I was influenced by knowing that East Lansing was the first city in the country to adopt civil rights protections for gay people.”
In 2001, Schwartz started City Pulse, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary.
“It took me over 5,000 miles to get here from Toledo,” Schwartz said. “It’s been a great trip.”
“Fifty Years of Journalism”
An evening with Berl Schwartz and Eric Freedman hosted by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing
7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29
CADL Downtown Lansing Library auditorium 401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing
(517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org