On the afternoon of May 10, when word got out that Rupert Murdoch was dropping his bid to buy Newsday, the writing was on the wall: For a likely $650 million, the odd-couple father-and-son team of Chuck and Jim Dolan would be the paper’s new owners.
So on May 11, Newsday’s business desk dispatched reporter Ellen Yan to the Dolans’ compound in Oyster Bay Cove to try to buttonhole the new owners for a story.
She looked for their house, having bought a flower in case it, in turn, might buy a little goodwill—it was Mother’s Day, after all!
But when she couldn’t find the house of her newspaper’s new owner, she had to start working the phones.
Pay dirt! She scored an interview with the notoriously press-shy Charles Dolan.
He didn’t give up much: There were still “minor details” to be hashed out before his deal to buy the newspaper could officially close.
By the time the story appeared on the Newsday Web site that evening, a press release had been put together, and was sent out at 8:01 a.m., May 12, officially announcing the sale.
Only a few hours after the print editions hit newsstands, the quote Ms. Yan got was rendered useless.
To make matters worse, the business desk got in trouble from the new owners for assigning the piece, according to several people at the newspaper.
Cablevision spokesman Charles Schueler spoke with reporter Mark Harrington, formerly the Cablevision beat reporter who was working this story, and business editor Eli Reyes and “screamed at them” and “was very pissed off” for sending a reporter to look for their house, and for dropping phone calls to the Dolans, according to several staffers (though Mr. Schueler disputes this account—he said he didn’t scream).
The Dolans haven’t been known for their warm embrace of the media. Ask any Knicks beat reporter about life at Madison Square Garden (as we did for a November article in these pages), and you’ll get your share of war stories about Cablevision’s Moscow-like media policies.
But to many on the Newsday staff, the attempt by the paper to introduce itself to the Dolans the best way it knows how was pretty roundly rebuffed, and that didn’t look good.
“It’s made for an interesting start,” said one staffer.
“They’re the only owners who could make you wish for Murdoch,” said another.
“I did call the reporter and reminded him as I would any press outlet that it is the company’s practice that if you would like to speak to the Dolans or any other executive, you call the communications department, and we will be happy to arrange it if it’s possible,” Mr. Schueler said. “From time to time, I have had to make that call to News 12, the Post, The Times and others. It has nothing to do with Newsday—it’s the practice of the company and the same rules apply to everyone.”
But isn’t that part of the point—that Newsday isn’t just any ordinary press outlet for this story? Couldn’t the Dolans throw an interview their way to broker some goodwill?
Rupert Murdoch, after all, gave interviews to The Wall Street Journal, both throughout the negotiation process with Dow Jones, and then an exclusive after his bid was accepted last August.
John Mancini, the paper’s editor, doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s no acrimony over a corporate spokesman getting upset at us contacting someone—that’s his job,” he said.
But when the time finally came for the officially sanctioned interview of Chairman James Dolan, it appeared not in Newsday but on the Cablevision-owned News 12 channel.
“Dolan did a 10-, 15-minute interview with News 12, which is what we had to use in the story, and that’s a slap in the face,” said one reporter. “They could have made him available!”
On Newsday’s own blog Spin Cycle, reporter John Riley barely concealed his frustration.
“Some newspapers have a vision of changing the world and making it a better place,” he wrote. “But it seems the Cablevision vision is Cablevision. Jim Dolan, who apparently couldn’t find the time to talk to Newsday, is quoted in today’s Newsday story from an interview with Channel 12, which he also owns.”
“It seemed to show a lack of respect and a lack of desire to be helpful to your new property,” said Mr. Riley in an interview. “He said Newsday was a marketable commodity, and I thought he said he wanted people to read Newsday. I don’t know what he was doing.”
(For this story, Ms. Yan did not comment; Mr. Harrington would not comment and referred phone calls to his editor, Eli Reyes, who also did not return a call for comment.)
Meanwhile, as to the Dolan’s grand plans, little is known at this stage.
During the bidding process for Newsday, the Dolans were for a time considering a partnership to buy the newspaper with the Observer Media Group, the publishing group that owns The Observer; both parties decided to go their separate ways well before the deal was sealed on Saturday.
“People here are gossiping, trying to figure it out, and there’s a lot of futile guesswork going on here,” said a reporter. “This is the third owner I’ve been here for, and you don’t feel the results of these things until well after they take over. Even those reporters who cover Cablevision don’t really know what it means.”
“People are so beaten down here there’s not much of anything that could cause much of a reaction,” said one reporter.
“There are a lot of people here who are numb and buried themselves in their work and don’t even wanna discuss it,” said another.
Mr. Mancini said he hasn’t spoken with the Dolans.
“That’s not something I worry about,” he said, when asked whether he thought the Dolans were likely to bring in their own man to edit the paper. “I have not spoken to anyone at Cablevision at this time.”
Tim Knight, the paper’s publisher, met with staffers in various meetings in the auditorium on the first floor of their Melville home on May 12, though that revealed little.
He said he was thrilled that the new owners are from Long Island—think of the opportunities with News 12, the cable station they own!—but he didn’t have many answers beyond that.
What, for instance, would happen to the staff’s impressive pension plan? When would the deal close? Would Mr. Knight have a job in a few months?
“Sometimes dead men don’t know that they’re dead,” said one reporter who attended a morning meeting with him. Mr. Knight didn’t return a call for comment.
In an interview on newsday.com, Mr. Knight was equally evasive. When pressed by a Newsday reporter to explain what exactly he had heard from new ownership, Mr. Knight said, “I think Mr. Dolan’s statement in the press release speaks for itself. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to put words in his mouth.”
The press release didn’t say a whole lot.
“Newsday is one of the great names in the history of American journalism and it is both an honor and privilege to return Newsday back to Long Island-based ownership after nearly 40 years,” the statement from Charles Dolan read.
Mr. Mancini, for his part, said he liked the deal, too. “If the deal is completed, we were bought by the suitor that knows this paper best and most intimately—those are positives.”
Meanwhile, back in reporters’ cubicles in Hellville—the pet name established by some reporters for the paper’s hometown, Melville—the newsroom has been buzzing a bit again.
In the past few weeks, business reporters, who for years have been outliers sitting in an isolated corner, have been brought back into the newsroom proper, taking seats in the graveyard where the gutted national desk and foreign team used to sit. Nearby, there’s an enormous gray dumpster full of books and notebooks and files and papers as people move a bit closer together.
To some, it’s a reminder that this newsroom, which has gone through a series of soul-wrenching job cuts year after year, is constantly in a state of painful transition.
“Everything is different,” said one. “The parking lot is half-empty, the cafeteria is half-empty. It’s unbelievable. I remember when I couldn’t get a space! You get to work after 10 a.m. or so, and the lines at the cafeteria used to be long. Now there’s nothing. There’s no one there.”