Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Sorry State for Newsday

The announcement that Newsday will cut about 120 jobs is bad news for journalism in general and Long Island on particular. Given all of the bad news that has come out of the paper's headquarters in Melville, LI in recent years, it has become easy to forget that Newsday was once a moneymaker and a great regional paper with an international reach.

I can't claim neutrality on this one. I worked at Newsday in the mid-1980s, as did my wife. But long before I labored there, I had admired its intelligent reporting and its economic clout.

At its best, in it Long Island and New York editions, Newsday was much better than even a good regional newspaper. For a while, its publisher was Bill Moyers. My old boss at Newsday, Bernie Bookbinder, created a sociological investigative team that did in-depth reporting on issues like race and politics. Their roster of columnists in the Eighties--which included Murray Kempton, Pete Hamill, Jonathan Schell, Les Payne and Sydney Schanberg--was hard to beat. And their local coverage was solid, a trait the paper brought from Long Island to its New York edition that invigorated coverage of the city's neighborhoods.

As a business, they were profitable in their heyday. In the late 1970s, fresh out of college, I interviewed for a job with a smart bunch of guys who were planning to open an alternative weekly newspaper on Long Island. They backed off from starting the paper, they later explained, because Newsday was just too big and powerful to compete with on Long Island.

Of course, some of the paper's wounds were self-inflicted. As a near-monopoly on Long Island, the paper could be complacent.

But ultimately Newsday's failings were not in its journalism, but in its business side. Mark Willes, the foolish publisher who killed off New York Newsday, never had the brains to match the paper's editorial strengths with a good business plan. And the circulation scandal that recently rocked the paper cannot be blamed on sloppy reporting or editing.

With the new budget cuts, Newsday will become an almost unrecongizable version of the regional paper that once published columnists of national stature, ran a Washuington, DC bureau and maintained a respectable roster of international bureaus. In the new age of the Web, some will say, that isn't a bad deal: let Newsday cover local news and let the Times and the BBC tell us about the rest of the world.

There are three problems with this approach.

One, the Times is suffering cutbacks of its own. And the BBC and Associated Press can't bear the burden of international reporting all by themselves.

Two, as traditional Anglo-Saxon thinking on the press goes, the best test of a truth is its ability to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas. But if the number of competing voices gets smaller in journalism, the competition weakens. And that makes it easier for bad ideas to prevail.

Three, in an increasinly global world there is a need to be local without being parochial. The Newsday that I knew was plugged into the rest of the world. It kept Long Islanders aware of how their lives fit into the big picture and saved them from being narrowly absorbed in their own backyards.

But the Newsday that will appear after these latest budget cuts will have trouble staying smart and relevant on Long Island. In an age when events on the other side of the world can reverberate in our own backyard, that's a bad development. And a sorry turning point for a once-great newspaper.

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