Our Newspaper of Record Through the Years
By Jeffrey Salzberger

A few months ago I was brought aboard as the archivist for The Fire Island News, and already it feels a little bit like home. Settling down at a small desk in the paper’s wood paneled offices on Evergreen Walk, and gazing into the past through their archives, got me to thinking about all the seasons gone by. Fifty years have passed, and for that entire time, The Fire Island News, although not always under that moniker, has been our newspaper of record. Perhaps the best way to kick off this beautiful season, historically speaking, is to take a look at the paper’s past - the good times, the bad times, and yes…the funny times.

Wolcott Gibbs started a weekly paper called the The Fire Islander in the mid-fifties. Gibbs was not only a Fire Island resident but a drama critic for The New Yorker, and the author of the 1951 play, “Season in the Sun,” set in Ocean Beach, just like his paper would be. His associates were real estate man Bill Birmingham and Herman Wechsler.

In 1956, Gibbs and his crew gave up the paper. In a heartfelt, yet humorous goodbye from July of that same year, he wrote, “we cannot say too strongly how delighted we are that it is going on. Beyond that, however, we are as dead as so many dinosaurs.” According to Gibbs, there was not enough time for them to give the seasonal weekly the attention it required. They would, however, remain contributors for years to come. While they were concerned with matters literary, and with the island’s gossip, they had a strong inclination to cover the views of both the “natives” and the “summer people,” and as the short era of these three men was ushered out, they saw that balance as one of their “small triumphs.” This evenhanded coverage would continue under the guidance of a man who would run the paper for over 40 years, sometimes to the chagrin of those in charge of things here on Fire Island.

Jay Garfield Trien worked at the paper through 1956, when he purchased it with the help of public relations consultant Richard Robbins. By the summer of 1957, in a small room behind Clegg’s Market and Hotel, Trien and his staff were in full swing. They had changed the name of the paper to the Fire Island Weekly. Being a 17 year-old high school senior, he decided to hire an editor, Oberlin College freshman Michael Lipsky. Trien was the man in charge of keeping the paper afloat financially, and Lipsky, being the hard-nosed editor, often took stands that were detrimental to ad sales. The two men said that they tempered each other, and the paper remained as balanced as it had been. While the former editors focused mostly on the Ocean Beach news, the teenagers covered the entirety of Fire Island. The paper wove its way into the fabric of the community.

Reporting of this nature was not without conflict. In 1959, Trien changed the name of the paper to The Fire Island News, and by 1960 it was this name that ended up making its way into The New York Times. In July of that year, the offices of the paper were in the Ocean Beach Community House, and were removed by village officials under the pretext that the room was needed for a court session. The editors charged suppression with a front-page headline in their own paper, and The New York Times ran a story on the incident. The paper moved out that day and continued with their operations in a bedroom at the Surf and Sand. In August of 1963, when then-mayor Arthur Silsdorf assaulted Fire Island News reporter Thomas “Oh No You Don’t” Frayne after some words were exchanged at a hearing, The New York Times ran a story on it. It was also under Trien’s command that the Fire Island National Seashore was established, getting significant coverage in our paper before anyone else would touch it. Environmental news and activism have always been important on Fire Island, and was present in the paper when it was edited by Jay Trien’s mother, Bee Garfield and by his wife, Ildiko Trien.

The Fire Island News changed hands again a decade ago, when it was purchased by Nicole Pressly, an environmental journalist, and first-time summer resident of Fire Island and her then-partner, Saltaire resident Shawn Beqaj. Beqaj helped run it a few years and then moved on. Nicole attributes her purchase of the paper to a bout of “momentary insanity,” for which, it would seem, she is still paying the price.

The current staff still prides itself on even-handed reporting of island wide happenings from drag queen shows to municipal lawsuits. But The News gets attention for other reasons as well. The police blotter, or as reporter David Crohn calls it, our version of “the stocks,” provides not only residents of Fire Island, but the world, with gossip. Remember, when you make the blotter here, your story might go global, so watch out! In a 1994 New York Times article, titled “Geraniums and Other Crimes,” The Fire Island News is credited with having broken the “Cookie Monster Case of ’77,” the “Ice Cream Cone Incident of ’78,” and the “Cola Confrontation of ’83,” all of which went international. In the past few years some stories such as the “Ocean Beach Toilet Tandrums” and the :Mayor Sues Residents for Voting” have received national attention. The News plays good neighbor by partnering up with national papers every year who seek help on their FI coverage. What is it they say, any attention’s good attention? Or is it any press is good press? Either way, we’re doing a good job at both.

Events make the news here not because they are big, but because what happens here is often bizarre. I’m sure if you come into the office and ask the chief, she’ll tell you it takes a great deal of perseverance to run a paper like this and quite a bit is needed to keep it going. No matter who runs it, Fire Island is a unique mixture of personalities and communities sure to generate entertaining news for 50 more years.