NYACK, N.Y. – Once upon a time but for a long 50-year run, there was at 53 Hudson Avenue in the downtown heart of this Hudson River village a thriving newspaper which daily gave birth under the masthead The Journal-News. It was blessed with many “Front Page” characters over its decades, perhaps a karmic tribute to the famous Ben Hecht/Charles McArthur play written just up Broadway.
In the mid-1970s, The Journal-News would add to its wonderfully odd roster one Jon Murray, then toiling in the trade at The Reporter Dispatch, a sister paper across the Hudson in Westchester County. Once destined for pro baseball but sidelined with injury in the way hopefuls are, Jon first was a sports writer, since he had to do something with his love of the game, and he was a good one at that. But he was also an artist, not the sort who makes a living at painting, but one gifted with creative graphic design. The mini-gods who ran the RD saw this talent and moved Jon from sports to the copy desk, assigning him to “dummy” or lay out newspaper pages.
And Jon was good at that, too, quickly becoming known for eye-catching front pages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when newspapers were getting away from cover pages with lots of gray type and small photographs. Jon made these presentation fronts sing, adding grabber headlines, big photos and creative typography.
When a position opened up at The Journal-News in the mid-1970s, Jon took it and eventually became chief copy editor, the “slotman” job, the person who, in pre-computer days, sat in the slot of a horseshoe-shaped desk and parceled out pages to be dummied, stories that needed headlines and photographs requiring captions. He also did the front page, always the key design element.
The man was unflappable on deadline and constantly gracious. He ordered no one around. On busy days, say when a heavy Wednesday paper, replete with many ads, had to be dummied, Jon would simply say to his copy editors or deskmen: “Put your sneakers on.” And they did.
Jon’s daily rhythm began with a ritual. His first task wasn’t his tea, or the initial look at that morning’s wire service material or getting his desk in order. Jon began his day with a trip to the pencil sharpener, where he slowly but deliberately put a fine point on his No. 2 pencils, precious tools to this artist. That task took about a minute, and the deskmen (and women), already in their seats, laced their sneakers at the sound and sight of Jon readying his pencils. The race to deadline was next, and all knew it.
This newspaper artist would remain with The Journal-News for about two decades, and his ritual stayed the same, even after the paper gave up pencils and layout sheets for computers. Jon continued to rout hand-drawn design to his copy editors, who then filled in the blanks on the monitor screens, and the sound of the pencil sharpener was, as ever, the factory whistle.