Making Headlines at Fire Island News

By Shoshanna McCollum

Fire Island News is the island’s longest publishing newspaper, as well as the news publication of record. There were newspapers here before we made our appearance. The Fire Island Beacon was in publication about a century ago during the era of our village incorporation. Sadly few of them exist today, and the few that do are rarely in good shape.

In the early 1950s, theatre publisher Leo Shull oversaw the Fire Island Press. At the same time Wolcott Gibbs, the esteemed drama editor of the New Yorker, was publishing The Fire Islander. The two were in competition. Shull’s weekly was full of Broadway gossip, while Gibbs offered an outlet for the random writings of his literary friends. Neither publication extended its coverage beyond the borders of Ocean Beach. A young man we now know as Jay Garfield Trien served as an apprentice for Shull, then later worked for Gibbs, so he had first-hand observation of both establishments. Both discontinued their Fire Island news publications at the end of the 1956 summer season.

The next year Jay took up the torch, becoming the founder of Fire Island News. Still a high school student, he had a broader vision of what a Fire Island newspaper should be. One that would be more comprehensive of all of the residential communities, as well as the common concerns they shared – including erosion, flood control, or what was then the looming threat of a four-lane highway skewering the island.

Of course the heart of the operation was still in Ocean Beach. In 1957, its maiden year of publication, headquarters were set up in tiny room in the rear of Clegg’s Market and Hotel. Core staff included Paul Pugliese, who served as photographer, and David Roberts wrote feature articles. Paul of course became mayor of Ocean Beach three decades later. David Roberts… later known as Tony Roberts, a respected screen and stage actor.

The following year they moved into a prefab building still on Clegg’s property, later the village gave them use of space at the village court, but an unflattering editorial about the village court got them evicted mid-summer… a story that would make the New York Times.

The paper eventually took up residence at Dehnhoff Walk, an office next door to the Albatross, where it existed productively for about 15 years. The office space was on one side of the building, and living quarters for the reporters in an adjacent room. Young journalism graduates eager to get experience and have a little adventure along the way would work and work hard in this unique environment. Some used their published Fire Island News clips to pursue their journalistic careers, while others took other paths but fell in love with Fire Island and adopted it as their own.

Trien himself would become an accomplished attorney, but maintained his island ties and ownership of Fire Island News. His mother Bee Garfield managed it up until 1986, then his wife Ildiko took the reins, adding her touch of European sophistication. Together they raised their daughter Ooana on the beach, all while covering the Fire Island beat, which sometimes had a context of larger importance – including documenting Fire Island’s organized resistance to Robert Moses’ vision of that four-lane highway signaling the ultimate demise of that powerbroker and ultimately the creation of Fire Island National Seashore itself. Chronicling the biased arrests of gay men in Cherry Grove in the 1950s would help lay groundwork for the Stonewall uprising and the LGBTQ movement. They broke the story of the great “Cookie Case” which gained international press when bakery owner Rachel Doering challenged the Village powers about eating food on public streets. And when the national seashore that Fire Islanders championed 25 years before held an “experimental deer hunt” under the cover of winter in the late 1980s, the Triens worked long hours to publish a special winter edition of the paper to spread the word.

Then after 40 years at the helm, the Trien family made the emotional decision to sell Fire Island News. Names that appeared on the masthead in summer of 1997 were that of a young couple named Sean Beqaj and Nicole Pressly. Sean was a Fire Island native son, who grew up living year round in Saltaire. Nicole was his fiancé. The news business was very much in transition when they took ownership: Computers replaced typewriters, digital cameras made photo labs unnecessary, and the internet was changing how business got done.

The Dehnhoff Walk headquarters was vacated for a storefront on Bay Walk next to the post office for the first two summers. However it was their existence on Evergreen Walk that remains most memorable as their elderly dog stood quiet watch over the office. Sean and Nicole parted ways as a couple as well as business partners a few years into the enterprise. Nicole became the sole proprietor of the publication. She eventually wed another, and took on the surname of Wolf. In 2007 she relocated from the Evergreen Walk office for a second floor space above CJ’s. Later that summer, the building on Evergreen that she had recently vacated burnt to the ground in one of the more significant structure fires in recent Ocean Beach memory.

Over the 15 years that Nicole Pressly Wolf was owner of Fire Island News, the publication would witness the tragedy of 9/11, and the Great Recession. It would see the rise of social media, and celebrate when same sex marriages became legal in the state of New York in 2011. She generated meaningful dialogue on all those subjects in her news platform, but Hurricane Sandy proved to be one storm that could not be weathered. 

In truth her business had been struggling for a while as the print news industry faced challenges across the nation. A half-hearted effort was made to go digital in 2013, but without the visibility of the newspapers on the newsstands of Fire Island, public interest fell away.

In 2014 Fire Island News was sold once again, this time to a gentleman based in Cherry Grove named Michael Pittman. He brought back the beloved print editions, and had a decent stable of writers supporting him. Many hoped it would be the reassurance of the newspaper they knew and loved, but the presses halted abruptly mid-summer as a classic Fire Island scandal erupted. Pittman skipped town, leaving unpaid bills in his wake.

In a change of fortunes, Chris and Laura Mercogliano then acquired the paper and we started publishing in 2015. This was no surprise in retrospect. Their Palms Hotel had been thriving for a decade by then, and they managed to resurrect CJ’s two years earlier, which had also been brink of collapse before they stepped in. These were entrepreneurs who could put broken pieces back together again.

Over the seven summers this writer has been editor of Fire Island News we have moved toward a hybrid model, delivering colorful fresh papers to the newsstand every two weeks throughout the summer season, while keeping our website going year round. In 2019 New York Press Association recognized us as a vetted news publication – a first for any Fire Island news outlet.

Our first test came with the COVID-19 pandemic. News publications were deemed essential, but as a small business we faced some real challenges. The fact that we had emerged as an “office without walls” so to speak possibly saved us, because at a time when other places scrambled to adjust to telecommuting life, it had been business as usual with us for several years.

We still proudly carry on the Fire Island News tradition. Our writers, photographers and graphic artists have brought home multiple journalism awards from respected regional and state forums. Young students of the craft gain valuable experience here before spreading their wings, but I also have the pleasure of working with more seasoned individuals looking for a fresh start – because Fire Island is also a place where the next chapter begins. Our story is still very much being written.