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Newsday Muzzled Under Cablevision Control, Insiders Charge

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore: Since February, much of the dirty laundry and gripes of current and former Newsday employees have been aired via a Facebook profile page under the name Debbie CowardlyLion, a reference to the character from the 1939 classic the Wizard of Oz and a jab at Newsday Editor in Chief Debbie Henley.

The big-name departures, which include half a dozen others from Newsday’s storied newsroom—many who’ve found a new home at the Wall Street Journal—affect not only the paper’s content, but also the morale of those who stick around.

“This wasn’t a shakeup,” says one former employee, who recently left after working under several editors. “It was an exodus. Many of the best people have left Newsday because of the leadership dysfunction in the newsroom…. The leadership is ineffective and more concerned about what Cablevision thinks than what’s best for the public.… Reporters are treated like they are all stupid and anyone who speaks up finds retaliation in not so subtle ways.”


Another former longtime employee tells the Press that Newsday’s downward spiral began when Tribune Co. merged with Times Mirror in 2000, acquiring the LI paper as well as the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Baltimore Sun and others, in an $8-billion deal.

“The bigger your paycheck, the bigger the target was on your back,” says the ex-employee, adding that it’s a trend continued by Cablevision, and one that hurts the paper’s reputation and content. “Newsday in its prime was a destination newspaper for journalists. People wanted to come there because it was a high-quality newspaper. Newsday was in the same category as The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

“Now they’re not interested in recruiting great talent,” the veteran continues. “All they’re interested in is getting young talent, which they can pay less compensation to than the people in the past.”

Coworkers have described the current working environment at the paper as “hell with fluorescent lighting” and “toxic,” the longtime former employee adds.

Newsrooms have long been simmering hotbeds of contention, dissension, resentment, insecurity and arrogance. That’s on a good day. What gave this dispute legs is the Internet.

In February, a new profile was created on the social-media goliath Facebook that has been making the rounds of Melville’s offices. A profile dubbed “Debbie CowardlyLion” made her debut, listing the same birth year as Newsday, 1940, and purporting to have been a news reporter at the daily from 1970 to 2004 who “covered the news without fear or favor. That’s why I had to leave.”

The user explains, “The page is the result of hopelessness, anger and frustration in the newsroom…. If it is important, it is because it provides an outlet for that frustration and gives a voice to it.”

Sprinkled throughout the page are posts referring to what CowardlyLion claims were stories altered or bungled due to phone calls from public officials, incompetence, or a lack of spine of Newsday’s editors.

Although Debbie CowardlyLion only has about 50 followers as of press time, her message is being heard—by local officials as well as some media heavyweights.

Respected industry analyst Jim Romenesko is “Friends” with Debbie CowardlyLion. So is Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the think tank Council on Foreign Relations and former science writer and foreign correspondent for Newsday, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for the newspaper in 1996. Lonnie Isabel, associate professor and director of the international reporting program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the former deputy managing editor of Newsday, is, too. They join former Newsday columnist and current Times reporter Paul Vitello, Columbia University Journalism School professor Laura Muha (also a former Newsday staffer) and the Times’ deputy metro editor Danny Hakim, among others.

“Clearly it’s gotten to the point where if they feel they need to start resorting to venting on Facebook, things have gone to a different level entirely,” says Jaci Clement, executive director of nonprofit Fair Media Council, also a follower of the parody Facebook page and a former Newsday employee.

Regarding Cablevision’s ownership of the newspaper, Clement says, “They’ve exceeded my worst expectations,” noting the company’s 2009 installment of a pay wall around its website as a perfect example.

“That information no longer travels off of Long Island,” she says. “Things have rapidly deteriorated here, and you can almost drive that directly home to the fact almost no information gets off the island. If you talk to people in Albany, they say, ‘Up in Albany, we hear nothing about Long Island. We don’t know when the people are upset, the ramifications of things they’re talking about…’ They don’t get any feedback, because that information no longer flows. Without the firewall, even if they didn’t read Newsday, they could log on to Newsday. Now it’s a complete blackout.”

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