Sep 1 1992

Developers Have a Friend at Newsday

Newsday‘s reputation as a promoter of de­velopment on Long Island, N.Y., is be­ing reinforced by publisher Robert M. Johnson—to the discomfort of many of the daily’s reporters and other Long Island media.

Johnson was the principal speaker at an April 7 meeting of top Long Island developers, leaders of business groups and construction unions, who were strategizing on how to over­come a court decision halting construction in the pine bar­rens of eastern Long Island. The environmentally sensitive barrens are considered crucial in protecting the island’s under­ground water supply.

Johnson, according to a source at the meeting at the Huntington Hilton, told the 60 individuals gathered: “You can’t count on Newsday alone to do it all. Letters to the edi­tor and ‘Viewpoints’ are not enough. We must have stories in the main body of the paper to educate people.” There is a “need to create organizations to get stories on the news pages,” he said. “You must learn how to use media.”

The meeting resulted in the creation of the Long Island Society for Environmental and Economic Balance, a pro-de­velopment group that sought to raise $280,000 to conduct a “comprehensive media pro­gram,” as well as lobbying and litigating.

When news of the meeting and Johnson’s involvement in it got out, there was strong criticism on Long Island. The Southampton Press editorialized (5/14/92): “This isn’t the first time Newsday has institutionally injected itself as a pro-development heavy in Long Island’s affairs. The habit renders all of Newsday‘s coverage of local issue’s suspect.”

Newsday‘s Reporters’ Committee met with Newsday editor Tony Marroon on April 3–just before the Johnson gathering with the developers–and, according to their “Report to Reporters,” the group expresed “concern” to Marroon about a Jan. 27 appearance of Johnson before the Long Island Business Development Council (LIBDC). They noted that a newsletter of a business group reported that Johnson had declared that “he has detected ‘a new awak­ening’ among his editorial staff and throughout the media about the importance of the business community.”

The business group’s newsletter, under the subhead “Reporters Getting the Mes­sage,” went on: “Noting that the effect of the economy on advertising has cost Newsday a large percentage of its business, Johnson told the LIBDC: ‘Our reporters see their neigh­bors and their coworkers los­ing their jobs, and they’ve had to start worrying about reality.’ This, he said, is forcing re­porters to take a more realistic approach by looking for stories that show the good side of the business community.” Johnson also reportedly told the busi­ness group that he was advo­cating a new “permanent pro-business reporter” as a News­day business writer.

Johnson wrote a “View­points” piece in Newsday (6/8/ 92) defending his involvement in the Huntington Hilton meet­ing, hitting out at “anti-growth activists.” “As Newsday pub­lisher,” he concluded, “I will continue to speak out on issues important to all Long Islanders …. That has been the policy of Newsday publishers for 52 years and it certainly will not end now because narrow, self­ish special interests are hoping to subvert rational discourse on the important and sensitive is­sues of balancing the need for economic growth and environmental protection.”

Johnson told Extra! that he regularly goes “before many groups” to explain how “one goes about establishing communications with editors and reporters.”

But one Newsday reporter, involved in the Newsday Reporters’ Committee, said: “There is an enormous difference between going to a Rotary Club or the Kiwanis and explaining how stories get into the paper, and speaking to this group of developers as they cooked up their lobbying and publicity campaign.”

Sidebar–Philosophy: More Growth

Newsday, although a booster of Long Island development from its earliest years, went through a “profound shift” in this regard in 1970, according to former Newsday national editor Ernest Volkman.

After the publication was sold that year to the Times-Mirror Co., he wrote in Media People (11/80), “life was not the same”:

“The first clue was the firing of Bill Moyers, Newsday‘s publisher, who had helped to build the paper’s national journalistic reputation….

“Traditionally, Newsday regarded itself as totally independent–an us-against-them posture aided by the paper’s financial success. But Times-Mirror, a company obsessed with growth, saw Newsday as only on the threshold of a major expansion, and made it clear to the next executives that their jobs depended on greater profit. [That] dictum has been translated into an editorial philosophy that might be summarized as More Growth….

“To meet this goal, Newsday began an extensive courtship of the Long Island business community–a group it had openly antagonized in the old days–to mobilize a crusade for industrial expansion and greater commercial development.”

Karl Grossman has reported about Long Island for 30 years.