“It’s been a fascinating career — I feel very lucky to have lived it.”
Cliff Richner, co-owner of Richner Communications and the longtime publisher of Herald Community Newspapers — a group that includes The Riverdale Press — retired last month after 36 years in a family-run company that has left an indelible mark on local community news.
“I think we’ve managed to do well,” Richner said, “and do some good along the way and help people.”
Richner, 66, remains an owner of the company with his brother, Stuart, which they joined in 1982 and 1983 respectively.
“I started working there as a kid in 1964,” Richner said. “I grew up in the business. Now seems like a good time to retire. I leave behind a strong, talented and energetic staff, and I feel like we accomplished a lot.”
His departure is primarily for personal reasons: “I want to do some other things that the demands of the job won’t let me do, while I’m young enough and healthy enough to do them.”
Richner announced his move to the company staff before his retirement on June 30. His career spans an ever-changing media landscape that saw the company grow and adapt in a digital age where many other local publications struggled to stay afloat. He also played a lead role in saving the company after a devastating fire threatened to put it out of business in 2004.
Today, Herald Community Newspapers boasts the largest community newsroom on Long Island in its Garden City offices, which opened in 2006, and includes a chain of more than 30 weekly publications. It also maintains offices outside of Long Island, including The Press offices on Riverdale Avenue.
A Five Towns native, Richner grew up working in a company owned by his late parents, Robert and Edith, which they purchased in 1964, starting with the Nassau Herald and Rockaway Journal, and operated out of the company’s former office in Lawrence where newspapers had been produced and printed for 77 years.
Leatrice Slote-Spanierman, the company’s first executive editor, recalled a boy who was fascinated by the news business.
“I invited him to join me in covering a political campaign tour,” she said. “He was an enthusiastic 12-year-old, and I was on the cusp of being chosen for the top job at the company. I took him along on a lark, and was amazed that with his simple schoolboy camera, he hit the mark, shooting some solid photos.”
Later, after he completed his education in pursuing a career in law, Richner and Slote-Spanierman were “permanently linked by our shared philosophy that grassroots, community journalism is the purest and most rewarding branch of the media.”
Richner earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, and worked as an attorney at two large law firms in New York City for five years.
“I really wasn’t enjoying working in a big firm environment, and I had considered other law options,” Richner said. “But … my father was at the point where he kept saying that if we weren’t interested in the newspaper, he was going to sell it. So Stuart and I talked about it, and decided that we’d give it a try.”
In 1987, Cliff and Stuart were named publisher and president of the company, respectively, and have continued to expand it from a small group of community newspapers to 32 weekly publications, a slew of niche and specialty print and mail products, and a high-volume, commercial print and mail house. The publications span from Long Island to the Bronx.
“If all you’re looking for is a business opportunity, there’s easier ways to make a living,” Richner said. “It’s a great opportunity to, as they say, do well and do good. Hopefully we mostly did good.”
Richner was, and still is, involved in a number of community and industry organizations. He sits on the boards of Erase Racism and Long Beach Aware, and is the former chairman of the Local Media Association and a past president of the New York Press Association.
Linda Weissman, the assistant dean at Touro Law School — where Richner has been a member of the governors board for more than 20 years — first met him in 1989 when she was executive director of the Five Towns Community Chest.
“I realized how dedicated to the community he was, and he’s a visionary in many ways,” she said. “At Touro, he really understood the law students and wanted to help them, and it became a calling for him. He established a scholarship for Touro students.”
Both Richner brothers said they have confidence in the future of the company.
“Everyone on the staff works very hard and takes the responsibility of getting these papers out on time very seriously,” Cliff said. “I really think we made a difference through a lot of stories. We’ve helped a lot of groups over the years — we’ve closed power plants and helped people preserve open space — and we try to make a difference in the things that people are passionate about.”