Stuyvesant often boasts to prospective students that the hundreds of clubs and publications the school offers allow students to experiment and develop new interests. For many students, the extracurricular activities that they dabble in simply provide some respite from schoolwork. For Tom Allon (’80), a former member of the Spectator, what began as a nice alternative to sports—after being denied a spot on Stuyvesant’s baseball and basketball teams—became much more than just an after-school activity. Journalism became his passion, his life’s success story. Today he is recognized as President and CEO of Manhattan Media Company. He publishes several local newspapers and magazines that together cover news across the entire city.
Born in the early 1960’s, Allon grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. However, in 1973, his parents uprooted him from Manhattan to Munich, Germany so his father could start a business with his brother, who lived there. It was in Munich that, at age 11, the power of journalism first made an impact on him. “The International Herald Tribune was my lifeline to the United States,” Allon said, recalling his fond memory of the newspaper. “I would cherish the half an hour I had to read about what was going on.”
Soon after returning to Manhattan in the mid 70’s, he enrolled in Stuyvesant. He attempted to join two of the school’s sports teams, but received crushing rejections from both. However, as he said, “as one door closes, another one opens,” and his inability to pursue high school sports prompted him to join The Spectator, where his innate writing ability helped him flourish. After writing just one article, he was selected as Sports Editor and, by his sophomore year, was the Editor in Chief, a title he held for the rest of his Stuyvesant career.
At a time before computers, producing a newspaper at Stuyvesant was no easy feat. “Students would come in. They would hand in an article. I would edit it on paper by hand. It would then go to our type-setting department, which was part of the printer. The printer would type it up on galleys, and we would then take a blue pen and make corrections on galleys. It would go back to the type-setter. When it came out perfectly, somebody with an Exacto knife would have to cut it out, put glue on it, paste it up on the board. Everything was intricately laid out,” Allon said. Due to these complications, the paper came out every two months instead of every two weeks, as it does today.
After graduating from Stuyvesant, Allon attended Cornell University, where he majored in History, giving him a deeper understanding of American culture that would later aid him in his journalistic exploits. However, he “really majored in the Cornell Daily Sun,” he said, as he spent a great deal of his time working as Sports Editor of Cornell’s newspaper. Looking back on his experience at the university, he recalled the joy he got from his job: “I’d leave the office at eleven o’clock at night and five hours later [the newspaper] was at people’s doorstep.” He also gained his first experience in publishing at Cornell by creating his own newspaper, The Point. Starting in his sophomore year, Allon threw himself into the project as he financed, wrote, and delivered for the left-wing publication that covered campus affairs—his college “labor of love and craziness,” as he describes it.
Although he enjoyed his experience working for various newspapers, Allon never expected to become a professional journalist. “It was too much fun. I didn’t think one could possibly make money for having so much fun,” he said. He attempted a career in law, but quickly quit upon deciding to pursue his true passion. He soon applied to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he earned his Master’s Degree.
Instead of immediately going into a full time career in journalism, in an unlikely turn of events, Allon found himself back at Stuyvesant teaching English. The then Assistant Principal English, Bill Ince, spontaneously called and asked Allon to teach a class on his day off from working as a clerk at The New York Times. “Just for a day?” Allon asked Ince, whom he had kept a friendly relationship with since his days as a student. Though Allon did not have a teaching license at the time, Ince was eager to get Allon started as soon as possible. “No, I’d like you to teach it for the semester,” he said to Allon over the phone.
“I woke up thinking I was a journalist, and by two o’clock that afternoon I was standing in front of thirty-five sophomores,” Allon said. He taught mainly upperclassmen, making use of his own personal trick of using novels with adult themes to encourage uncooperative second term seniors to attend his class.
Allon said he enjoyed his time teaching at Stuyvesant, but journalism beckoned to him once again; he was offered a position as editor at The West Side Spirit, a newspaper based on the Upper West Side that he publishes to this day. While he did take the job, he did not immediately leave Stuyvesant. Instead, he continued to teach one section of a Journalism class and serve as The Spectator’s faculty adviser part-time along with another teacher, Tim McDarrah.
However, Allon’s days as a teacher at Stuyvesant were numbered. In an exposé similar to many he later went on to write over his career, he oversaw a Spectator investigation on how Stuyvesant students at the time were being paid to take the SATs for other students. He allowed the executive editors to take the test, having registered with false identification, in order to document how easily the breach of security could be achieved, though only after confirming the legality of their plan with a lawyer. “They got a fake I.D., they took the exam that Saturday, cancelled their exam scores right afterward, but were able to get right past security,” Allon said. The story and his encouragement of the investigative journalists soon reached the national media and subsequently got him fired from Stuyvesant.
Luckily, Allon’s journalism career was well underway before his involvement in the scandal. From 1986 to 1991, he worked as editor of The West Side Spirit. In 1991, at the age of 29, he moved on to become the publisher of the newspaper. Though he referred to publishing as the “dark side” of journalism, the switch came as The Spirit became part of a chain of newspapers in a company that eventually evolved into Manhattan Media, and the higher pay enabled him to support his growing family more easily.
Today, despite no longer working as an editor, he still has a “finger in a lot of different pies,” he said, referring to his involvement with the several newspapers and magazines his company publishes. While a majority of his time is spent financing the paper, he also finds time for marketing and managing his many publishers and editors. In addition, he makes sure to still be part of the action, having recently conducted interviews with major figures such as former governor Elliot Spitzer.
Beyond his professional life, Allon is a devoted husband and a father of three. He met his wife, Janet Wickenhaver, at The West Side Spirit, where she worked with him as an associate editor before their marriage. Today, his family lives where he grew up, on the Upper West Side. Allon said he considered living outside of New York, but decided, through his travels, that the City was the best place to be both a journalist and a father, and that he has no interest living, “anywhere above 96th street or below Canal Street,” he said.
As a veteran journalist, Allon is prepared to adapt to follow our technological era. He sees the shift toward digital media as a gratifying one for readers and a competitive one for journalists, as they must “give [the audience] good information for free,” albeit with online advertising. Having found creative ways to make his free print newspapers and magazines flourish over the last 25 years, Allon is eagerly anticipating the next big story.