Eli Isenberg began his career in journalism by selling newspapers on a street corner in Boston. During journalism school at Boston University, he paid his way by selling newspapers and working as a laborer on public works projects. In his senior year, serving as associate news editor of the BU newspaper carried a stipend.
He was a staff writer for the Lynn Telegram-News, covering obituaries, high school sports, council meetings and other local affairs. He served in the Navy during World War II and was assigned to publish the Asheville, N.C., base newspaper.
In 1946 he and wife Josephine (Jo), with son Jeremy, moved to Los Angeles. The Isenbergs used inheritance money to purchase the Monterey Park Progress, a weekly serving a community of about 10,000 on the east side of Los Angeles.
The couple worked for the first five years as a publisher and editor team. Eli often said of that period that it was his most difficult, as he was prepared neither for managing the business side of the paper nor for selling advertising. His newspaper operation eventually became tremendously successful, and he ultimately became a management consultant, sharing his knowledge of community newspapering with other publishers.
The editorial policy of the paper was activist and populist, doggedly defending Monterey Park’s right of home rule against the encroachment of county and state authority. The Monterey Park Progress won numerous awards for its news coverage and editorial excellence. Eli is credited with helping prevent the construction of a county landfill in Monterey Park, and he helped convince the city to form a city manager form of government.
In his column, It Seems to Me, he once wrote: “A newspaper’s primary responsibility is to involve citizens in community affairs. Not only to inform but to prod and kick – when that’s necessary – to persuade them to assume civic responsibilities.” In retirement, Eli wrote a version of It Seems to Me for CNPA’s industry publication, California Publisher.
Isenberg was editor and publisher until 1978, when a sale to Scripps-Howard closed out his 32-year term. Circulation had grown from 2,000 to about 60,000. He remained active in publishing for several years, consulting for half a dozen community newspapers in Southern California and mentoring emerging newspaper leaders.
Eli and Jo were passionate animal welfare advocates. They founded Protectors of Animals, a San Gabriel Valley non-profit offering animal adoption, spaying and neutering services.
"Eli was an amazing man who taught me everything I knew about the business in my younger years,” veteran publisher Will Fleet, one of Isenberg’s mentees, wrote in remembrance. “He was a kind and wonderful man who was relentlessly optimistic, and a legendary leader in Monterey Park. His favorite phrase was ‘sense of community.’”
Loyal to his friends and family, capable of startling bursts of humor, romantic in the sense of seeing and believing the best in people, clear-sighted in his ability to see how a little breezy news might become a whirlwind of change, Isenberg knew and treasured his place as a big fish in a small pond.
From his column: “The greatest tribute any newspaper can hope for is to be read. The Progress is looked forward to each week because of its editorial and advertising content. It’s nice to win prizes. It is more important to be read.”
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*