Friday, February 29, 2008

Newsday and the Daily News (No, not that one)

So much of what happens in the newspaper business is terribly sad, and one does not wish to offend by appearing to be disregarding someone's trauma. We've been down this road in our own shop.

From a story on this round of cuts at Newsday:

"The whole history of this being a great national paper, this is definitely the death knell," said one shell-shocked insider.

I remember admiring Newsday when I was younger. It was the great newspaper success story of the postwar era. I remember reading of the legendary Community Affairs Department and how it could answer any question or problem relating to Long Island. I remember being told that one of the things that made Newsday great was that every reporter had some local jurisdiction to cover; you might be the national military reporter, but you were still responsible for some local piece of real estate as well. You had to stay connected to local news and government on Long Island, and that this lasted until the paper started opening national and foreign bureaus. Those things might be apocryphal or overstated.

But in the 1970s, what seemed to me to make Newsday great was that it was the best local newspaper in the country. Nothing moved in Long Island to which Newsday did not pay attention. And that attention was paid by some of the best reporting and editing vision in the country.

Thus I looked forward to reading Robert F. Keeler's history, "Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid." And it is a thorough history, warts and all, even though it is copyright by Newsday itself and was published in 1990. But it presents the world view as Newsday saw it then.

And that world view was: Newsday had grown beyond being a Long Island newspaper. Newsday was too good of a newspaper to be confined to covering Long Island. Newsday could compete with the Times and the Post on selected international and national news and could be a New York City newspaper as well. Newsday was a playah.

As one mention of zoning put it: "The need to fill these daily and weekly regionals has created a demand for the kind of local stories that most of these new reporters thought they had outgrown before they came to Newsday. ... 'I didn't come to Newsday to write stories for 40,000 people,' one Long Island reporter said."

And of course, in terms of the ability of its editors and writers, it could compete with any newspaper. It was one of the country's 10 best. But had the readers outgrown those stories? Or was it just that journalists had?

That's not to closed-mindedly defend 1980s-style Neighbors. As noted, what Newsday made its reputation on in the 1950s and 1960s was "trying to broaden out stories: If something happened in Islip, the editors pushed reporters to find out if the same thing was happening in other towns and write a story that was interesting to people beyond that community."

By the 1980s, Newsday's increasing focus, as the book makes clear, was on being seen as a viable newspaper in New York City and as a rival of the L.A. Times, the Globe, the Inquirer as a journalistic heavyweight in that just-below-the-Times-Post-Journal category. That doesn't mean it neglected hard-hitting coverage of Long Island. That meant that it saw its focus broadening beyond Long Island. We all thought this was good. Heck, back then, if we could have figured a way that the Opelika Daily News could have done national reporting, we would have thought that was good. A newspaper owed it to its readers to put its own staff to work on the biggest stories of the day, whatever and wherever they were. After all, weren't readers buying the paper for the work of the newspaper's staff?

But along the way, readers had to start asking themselves: Just what is Newsday, anyway? It's not the Times and it's not the Southampton Press.

Newsday's increasing focus on covering the city, the nation and the world and its confusion about how to cover the suburbs would have been more understandable if it was a typical city newspaper trying to cope with the 1980s. But it was a suburban newspaper.

Yes, the suburbs were changing, becoming more like the city. But still, much of the staff didn't go there to cover the suburbs. And the customers are like us, right?

I know far less about the Los Angeles Daily News, whose recent travails are summarized here. It seems to me that the Daily News has kept its original identity far more -- down to supporting an effort to have the San Fernando Valley secede from Los Angeles. (Way deep in this story, if you want to look.) It has had to bear the burden of covering a gigantic home base that has no independent municipal identity.

I remember seeing it when it was the Valley News & Green Sheet, with the section fronts on green paper and little but local press releases. (A Wikipedia entry notes: "The Green Sheet name is used today as an insult by veterans of the Los Angeles Times to refer to the days when classified ads outnumbered the pages of news, and when the newspaper was given away for free.")

Tribune Co. bought the paper, made it more professional, sold it to Jack Kent Cooke, and now it is in the hands of Dean Singleton. No defense of Singleton's management techniques will be found here. And editor Ron Kaye clearly has the admiration of much of his staff.

Still. At some point the newspaper stopped thinking of itself as the "Valley News" and started thinking of itself as the "Los Angeles Daily News." Perhaps that was just to help the advertising department. Kaye noted that the paper would try to "plug along as an alternative to the Times" even with a newsroom down to 100 people.

One has to ask in utter ignorance: Did the readers of the Daily News want a "Los Angeles" Daily News? Or was it the people who worked there? Clearly putdowns from the L.A. Times rankled. Did their customers want a journalistic alternative to the Times -- or did they want a paper about the Valley? Maybe they got both. As I said, I know very little about the Daily News. And with these cutbacks as well as more in Boston, it is another sad week in the newspaper business.

But this morning I got a letter from a reader who was upset because in a story we had referred to a lettered street (like X Street) as a lettered avenue (like Avenue X), and questioned our overall reporting chops and probably our parentage as a result. I know no reporter, editor or newspaper wants to get anything wrong. I also know that journalists in general would see that as a small fact that does not impinge on the meaning of the larger story. The reader doesn't know much about our story, but he knows it's not Avenue X. He wants to know we care about his world. So I know we don't think like readers.

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