National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: 20 Years as My Own Boss

A couple Fridays ago, I gathered together a group of nine for lunch at The Palm, the renowned restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the incorporation of my own news service, called Century News Service, Inc. at first, but officially switched to Benton News Service, Inc. in 2002.

It was on Oct. 17, 1987 that I was officially "in business" for myself for the very first time in my life as an adult, notwithstanding that I invented and published my own newspaper, The Benton Star, at age 7 and did a number of other ventures of that type, including founding the newspaper at my junior high school, which did not pay all that well.

Leading into the 20th anniversary of Benton Communications, Inc. this month, I'd given thought to a more elaborate celebration. But preoccupation with the day-to-day running of the Falls Church News-Press, which I founded in 1991 and is well into its 17th year, and other distractions left that idea on the back burner. When the time approached to celebrate in some fashion, at least, I think the lunch at The Palm was most appropriate and completely sufficient.

First of all, The Palm is routinely ranked as the Number One "power lunch" destination in D.C., which in recent years had become a favorite of mine if only for its fresh soft shell crabs. I need not "name drop" to identify the political-type celebrities we often encounter there.

Secondly, it was while in Washington, D.C. and covering the White House press briefings on a daily basis, that I made the move to go into business for myself in the fall of 1987, so being at a famous D.C. political haunt made sense.

Thirdly, my particular company that day had special meaning for me. It was composed of my priceless managing editor, Jody Fellows, seated to my left, and Simon Van Steyn, seated to my right. I'd hired both Jody and Simon while they were in high school to work at the News-Press more than a decade earlier. In 2001, after graduating college, Jody came on full time and has made a world of difference. Simon has become a good personal friend and is often my companion at special D.C. events. Then there were my friends Bob Burnett and Ruben Rodriguez.

Then there was Frank Kameny, a man in his 80s now, who is recognized as a pioneer of the gay liberation movement, as outspoken still now as I ever was when I was also a pioneer (though not as long ago as he) for that movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. I am very proud to say that I can count Frank among my friends at this point in our lives.

The final three guests at the table were the chief local executive for the Washington Blade, Jake Spencer, long-time Blade staff writer Lou Chibbaro, and Blade news editor Joey DiGuglielmo, all of whom I'd come to know through a variety of friendly encounters during the past year or so. The Blade serves the gay community in Washington, D.C., along with the Metro Weekly (the owner of that, Randy Shulman, also being a friend of mine). Their presence affirmed a level of candor and integrity for me, at the same time as it reflected our unique shared world of alternative weekly newspapers. There were a couple others I wanted to be there, but who couldn’t.

It was a revelation for Joey to learn that the circulation, mostly in Northern Virginia, of my Falls Church News-Press at 36,500 matched, almost exactly, the circulation number of The Blade. Simon presented me with a gift, a vintage 1972 vinyl 33 1/3 recording of an early Bette Midler album, called "The Divine Miss M." Simon knows how much I love Bette. I did not hesitate the next day to buy a special frame for it which now is up and displayed in my home.

As if to honor the 20 years, I had the 20-oz. aged bone-in New York Strip, a The Palm specialty, and Jody matched me with a gigantic rib eye. Frank had two small sirloins and Bob a steak. Others were more health-conscious in their choices, including Lou with a salmon steak, Jake and Joey with salads, Simon with crab cakes, Ruben with a Japanese bento box. Some also had the Louisiana craw fish soup, and big side orders of scalloped potatoes and sautéed and creamed spinach were passed around. It was Friday, so celebratory cocktails were in order for some. The waiter said that James Carville was in the house, and a TV crew from PBS was wandering around filming the lunch crowd.

But this was our very personal celebration, and for me it could not have meant more. The anniversary, the location, the friends. Perfect.