Visitors to the Melville headquarters of Long Island’s only daily newspaper, Newsday, would have seen something a bit out of the ordinary had they walked through its storied newsroom last month. Amid the hustle and bustle of writers and editors typing on computers, talking on phones and conferring about what would grace the next day’s pages, visitors would have undoubtedly noticed that many in the newsroom were wearing the same color.
First, it was black. The following Tuesday, red. The next week, they all wore blue.
The color coordination was no coincidence. Ever since the majority of Cablevision-owned Newsday’s 1,100-member strong union, the Graphic Communications Conference/International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 406, overwhelmingly voted down a proposed contract Jan. 24 that demanded a 10-percent pay cut, among other concessions, members have been donning similar colors on designated days in a show of support and solidarity for one another.
To the irritation of management, employees have also been wearing buttons to this end, emblazoned with the tally of the resounding vote that crushed the proposed contract and has forced Newsday, and its parent, Bethpage-based communications giant Cablevision Systems Corp., back to the negotiating table with union representatives: “473 – 10.”
“Local 406,” the button reads. “Building a better Newsday.”
Newsday’s employees are being squeezed, once again. Local 406 and Teamsters leaders are currently amid, as one union representative describes, “contentious” negotiations, which are presently in recess but slated to resume March 8. Besides a salary slash, staffers face a longer work week and the loss of a week’s vacation. Delivery drivers are confronted with a 15-percent bite. All may face another round of layoffs. It will be a tough fight. The day after members defeated the contract, employees received a memo from management informing them of a change to their longstanding severance policy. Instead of departing staffers receiving two weeks’ pay for each year of service, up to a maximum of 50 weeks, they would now receive one week’s pay—capped at eight weeks.
Cablevision’s justification for the deep cuts—which editorial members calculate is closer to 23 percent once all the concessions are factored in—is that Newsday is hemorrhaging money, to the tune of $12.6 million in operating losses last year alone, according to the company’s latest financials. That’s coming off a $400 million-plus write-down for the last six months of 2008. Union leaders, including an economist from the Teamsters, are currently reviewing the company’s latest financial statements and have requested more to ensure those figures are accurate and the hefty demands equal off.
That Newsday’s owners are looking to cut costs is nothing new. Newspapers across the country have been struggling to stay afloat in an industry that for the past five years has been weathering an unprecedented drop in readership, circulation and, its lifeblood—advertising revenue—as more and more eyes turn to the Internet for free news and publications wrestle with a way to successfully capitalize financially from the medium. Newsday employees have battled previous owners, first Times Mirror Co., and before Cablevision, Tribune Co. Yet according to former and current employees, insiders and media watchdogs interviewed by the Press—some of whom asked their names not be used for this story due to the sensitive nature of the matter—it hasn’t just been employees’ individual paychecks that have been challenged by its current parent company. Interviews, public financial documents and internal memos obtained by the Press paint a picture of a newspaper that is under siege, both financially and journalistically.
“Since Cablevision’s come in, we think that the coverage has gotten worse, so far as we don’t seem to be doing the bigger projects as much [and] we have reduced some staff,” says Newsday reporter and Editorial Vice President of Local 406 Zachary Dowdy. “So, we feel like we’re not as strong a paper, in the same respect, as we were, say five years ago.
“Some of it’s [the] industry,” he continues. “This contract talk is really kind of the first indication, really, I think, of where we’re going. We didn’t like the incident that happened with [former Newsday Editor in Chief] John Mancini, in which there was an issue over how the Knicks were covered. That was disturbing, because it looked like there was too much meddling in the actual content of the paper.”
The incident Dowdy refers to occurred last January, when Mancini left the newsroom and did not return for six days following a dispute with Cablevision over editorial policy. Newsday and the New York Post reported on the incident, with the Jan. 18 Post article citing rumors that Mancini and two top editors were fired due to the fury of Cablevision’s owners following the paper’s coverage of a sexual harassment suit filed against New York Knicks center Eddy Curry. Cablevision, headed by father-son team Charles and James Dolan—with Charles its founder and chairman and James its president and chief executive officer—owns the New York Knicks, New York Rangers and Madison Square Garden, among other holdings.
Mancini credited his absence to “‘a difference of opinion with ownership over the editorial policy of Newsday,’” according to a Jan. 21 article in Newsday, though he declined to comment whether the Knicks’ coverage led to the clash. The veteran newspaperman, who had a reputation for sticking up for the integrity of the newsroom, resigned abruptly in December 2009, replaced by managing editor and senior vice president for digital media at Newsday Debby Krenek. Mancini did not return a request for comment from the Press for this story.