Monday, January 21, 2008

Interview: Russ Smith, MUGGER Columnist and Founder of NYPress

Depending on your politics, Russ Smith can either make your blood pressure explode or your face smile with joy. But he doesn't care: he just tells you how he sees it. An unapologetically conservative voice in the media world, Smith writes the regular MUGGER column in the NYPress, which he also founded in 1988 (you know the NYPress, it's the free, funny, colorful newspaper you see each week in those green newspaper boxes on the street). Besides MUGGER, Smith has contributed to the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page and The New York Sun, amongst others.

But Smith isn't just a bold writer - he's also one of the great entrepreneurs of the alternative press. Before the NYPress, he founded the Baltimore City Paper and Washington City Paper and was lighting a fire under the media world long before things Gawker or TMZ came along. Smith sold the NYPress and moved to Baltimore a few years ago but his imprint on the NYPress and the New York press remains strong today.

Smith was kind enough to share his thoughts on journalism, politics, and what he misses about NYC.

What attracted you to journalism and, in particular, the world of alternative newspapers?

I was attracted to journalism as a kid, growing up on Long Island and having access to six or seven newspapers each day. I started reading the Voice in '65, when I was 10, and Rolling Stone when it started in '67, and wrote for the underground paper—The Crux—at Huntington High School. A summer job at the Baltimore Sun when I was 21
convinced me I didn't want to be a daily journalist, subject to the whims of self-important editors and in the company of reporters who wanted to be the next Bob Woodward.

Why did you found NYPress?

I founded NYPress in '88 after selling Baltimore City Paper the previous fall. I felt the Voice, which was still a paid weekly, had overpriced itself in the marketplace and that a quality free weekly could prosper.

You have strong political views. Tell us about your political philosophy and what kind of country you think this should be?

My political views are fairly straightforward: low taxes and tax reform (flat tax), strong foreign policy, steadfast defense of Israel, tort reform, Social Security overhaul and a sensible, humane policy on immigration. On social issues, I'm pro-choice, in favor of legalized gambling and prostitution, decriminalization of marijuana, dodge ball and kickball at recess in elementary schools and allowing gay men and women to marry.

You've been a big supporter of President Bush. Has he done a good job and has the country become a better place under his leadership?

ush's tenure has had its ups and downs, but I believe he'll viewed more favorably in 20 years or so. His administration bungled the Iraq war after the initial invasion but it was the correct decision to get [rid] of Saddam Hussein, something his father should have done, like Bill Clinton as well. Bush had the right ideas about immigration and Social Security but didn't press hard enough for meaningful reform. That he at least partially caved to restrictionists in the Republican party, as well as kooks like Lou Dobbs is one of the huge disappointments of the past few years. His appointment of Roberts and Alito were significant achievements. Getting buffaloed by Teddy Kennedy on education--and backing down on vouchers--was not.

How do you see the 2008 presidential election turning out? Will it be a big
Democratic year or will the Republicans strike back?

It will certainly be a Democratic year in the Senate, if only because the GOP has twice as many seats to defend. Hard to tell, but it seems to me that if McCain isn't the nominee, a Democrat, even Hillary Clinton, will cruise to victory in November. McCain could beat Clinton, but probably not Obama.

What do you miss about NYC?

I miss the bodegas on every block in Manhattan. I don't miss the traffic, high cost of living, Yankee fans or the absurd competition among affluent parents trying to get their kids into the "right" private school. I miss decent takeout food, the ability to buy a copy of The New York Sun at a newsstand, outstanding Italian, Chinese and Thai restaurants, longtime friends in Tribeca and having a super who can fix leaky sinks and toilets.



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