The Press is Going Monthly. Here’s Why.

Since the days of WLIR and WDRE, breaking new ground is in our DNA. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do. So while it may look as though the Press is downshifting, in reality we are moving forward full throttle.

Ten years ago, in January of 2003, we published the first issue of the weekly Long Island Press after several months of experimenting with a bi-weekly music publication called the Island Ear. Transforming the Ear into an alternative newsweekly, something every major market except LI had, made sense on several levels. I’m offering this bit of history to answer a question I hear frequently: Why on earth would you willingly go into the newspaper business?

It’s a good question. These are the 2000s, after all.

At the time, our company owned and operated 92.7 WDRE/WLIR-FM, the heritage alternative rock station in New York, and the first of its kind in the nation. Complementing WLIR with an altweekly, particularly a strong, independent-minded paper that the Island sorely needed, made strategic sense. Moreover, we were running a music and event venue called the Vanderbilt in Plainview and a newspaper came in handy when promoting acts outside the format of the radio station.

These were hectic and exciting days. We were not without our foibles and gaffes (biker brawl, anyone?), but we had a lot of fun and, for a while, everything worked. Gradually, however, pieces of the company and people began to break away. The radio station was sold to Univision and the Vanderbilt was sold to Nassau OTB. Then my business partner and I went our separate ways; he stayed in radio, and I ran a restaurant inside our former facility and took the helm of the newspaper.

There are many more details, some sordid and bitter, some joyous and downright funny. But along with countless memories, they have washed away under the bridge. Throughout it all, without even realizing it, I was falling madly in love with the newspaper business. I was smitten with the Long Island Press. The staff, the words, everything. I fell in love with the work and remain hopelessly committed to it today. (Being a lousy restaurateur helped solidify my path.) To say that our industry has changed would be a gross understatement. Despite the public’s increased appetite for news and information, the splintering of interests and fragmentation of channels have presented a challenge to traditional media outlets. General interest publications such as news magazines and daily newspapers have suffered terribly during the digital revolution; alternative weeklies have declined in revenue and circulation during this period as well, though not nearly to the same extent. But it was enough to make me begin pondering a different relationship with my muse.

To be in love with your work is a gift, one that none of us takes for granted. And despite the Chicken Little prognostications for our industry, we had a good year, which has allowed me to make this decision from a position of strength instead of with my back to the wall. If anything, once we stopped resisting changes brought about by the Internet, it became a blessing instead of a curse; the growth of our digital platforms gave us the ability to disseminate information as quickly and accurately as Newsday. This eye-opening process has freed our minds from the mental constraints of the physical publishing world. Ultimately it has given us permission to ask ourselves what we want to write instead of racing to meet artificial deadlines with material we are forced to write.

On a business note, the two primary consequences of reducing the frequency of the Press is producing a bigger book and increasing its circulation. Essentially, going monthly means we are able to add news and features that satiate our artistic and journalistic desires, while staying true to our role in the marketplace.

What is our role, you may ask?

Our stated mission is to inform, entertain and educate the opinion leaders of Long Island. Our practical purpose is to make Newsday suck less. (Delicacy is not my specialty. Sorry.) Professionally, we establish a bridge between intelligent and discerning readers and the advertising community. We are essentially a vehicle for commerce and social engagement and the purveyors of truth on the Island. As the conscience of the local media and the only outlet courageous enough to challenge conventional wisdom, we take our responsibility very seriously.

The decision to transition from weekly to monthly didn’t happen in a vacuum. The success of our sister publication, Milieu magazine, and the growth of our small business program, the Bethpage Best of LI contest and App, have enabled us to grow as an organization. As we look forward to 2013, we see a jam-packed production schedule that includes 10 glossy issues of Milieu, several specialty publications, and a new project you will see on newsstands beginning this month. Our company is the custom engine behind Living Out, a new GLBT publication on LI, published by David Kilmnick and the staff of Long Island GLBT Services Network.

Since the days of WLIR and WDRE, breaking new ground is in our DNA. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do. So while it may look as though the Press is downshifting, in reality we are moving forward full throttle. It’s as though we have suffered from a multiple personality disorder all these years and are finally setting our personalities free. The Press as our professor in a corduroy jacket and leather elbow patches, Milieu as our stylish and confident feminine persona, Bethpage Best of LI as our inner entrepreneur and Living Out as our free-spirited, gay side. (Still working on a title for the foul-mouthed, neurotic Mets/Jets/Isles fan publication.) It’s been an honor to publish the Press for the past decade. Hopefully you’ll be as excited as we are about our next 10 years as a monthly. After that, we will probably just download directly into a chip surgically implanted in your skull.

LIPA Style

LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

Long Island came face-to-face with an uncomfortable reality during Hurricane Sandy. Our utility infrastructure is outmoded and unsustainable. Beyond the political posturing and the finger-pointing, the situation remains unchanged from the days prior to Sandy to now.

Blaming the current administration of the Long Island Power Authority for its inability to respond to a storm of this magnitude amounts to nothing more than scapegoating. Newsday’s recent editorial tirades against LIPA, the politicians calling for heads to roll at the authority and the public’s roiling anger are easy and obvious. Fixing the problem is much more complicated and expensive.

In a crisis like this one, everyone becomes an expert. WFAN’s Mike Francesa suspended his coverage of sports and launched into endless harangues against LIPA, which no doubt gave the NY Jets’ hapless management a momentary reprieve. Even my 9-year-old daughter knew the words to WBLI’s parody, “LIPA Style.” Putting aside the histrionics for a moment, it’s clear that we are no closer to a solution than we were three weeks ago, or 30 years ago for that matter.

So let’s boil it down. LIPA is a management company, not a utility company like National Grid. They are responsible for purchasing power, updating technology, tracking outages, communicating with customers and generally maintaining the grid. But even these important responsibilities are ancillary functions to the main purpose behind LIPA: managing debt.

LIPA was formed from the ashes of LILCO and the abandoned Shoreham nuclear plant, an all-too-familiar story to Long Islanders. It was created as an energy management company hybrid that was dead on arrival due to the overwhelming debt that the defunct Shoreham project carried along. Any attempts to chip away at the debt through aggressive power purchase agreements or renewable technology investments amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even though only about half of the outstanding $7 billion in LIPA debt can still be attributed to the albatross that was Shoreham, the total outstanding obligation hasn’t budged because borrowing without increased revenue begets more borrowing.

Still the cries for change at LIPA come from every direction. Why can’t we bury the lines? Because this isn’t Texas. We have neither the land nor the money to start digging new trenches and burying wires. Not to mention there are other things hanging from those poles (ahem, Cablevision), which further complicates the impossible. Why didn’t they upgrade the system like other places? Because it costs money to replace poles and wires that can withstand downed trees and high winds, and money equals rate increases.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be lauded on the one hand for his swift and tireless efforts in the wake of the storm. On the other hand, it must be said that his initial criticisms of LIPA sound somewhat hollow. For 22 months, the standard answer to questions regarding the vacant leadership post at LIPA and the vacant board seats has been: “We’re waiting to hear from the second floor.”

This is government-speak for “It’s up to the governor.” LIPA wasn’t even authorized to fund vacancies in the communications department. So for the governor to criticize LIPA for its lack of leadership and communication during the crisis is disingenuous at best. This doesn’t alter the fact that LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. 

LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

As a result, Michael Hervey has tendered his resignation from LIPA. He’s the fall guy and I get it. But this is not something to cheer. Hervey has three things going for him that all other leaders before him did not: experience, the admiration of his team and an engineering degree. I’m not saying he should remain as head of the authority, but losing him is a setback.

Please don’t mistake me for a LIPA apologist. There is no question LIPA was overwhelmed by the storm and therefore ineffective in its response. Furthermore, its communication with the public was awful. Better communication would have eased tensions in the same way a sign on the Long Island Expressway that tells you how long it will take you to get to the Midtown Tunnel does; it doesn’t make the trip faster, it just manages your expectations in the hopes of reducing road rage. You can bet that if Richie Kessel was still at the helm that everyone would have know what was going on, even if he had to knock on every door. Whether anything else would have been different is anyone’s guess.

With that said, there is a simple and extraordinarily unpopular answer to what ails us: We have no choice but to pay down LIPA’s debt.

We can talk about wind farms and solar arrays on top of parking lots until we’re blue in the face, but nothing will mitigate our financial mess until this debt is eradicated. Either we pay now, or our kids pay later. (Assuming they’re still here.) Any talk of funds to upgrade the system or of nationwide executive searches is meaningless unless and until we get serious about putting Shoreham behind us once and for all.

Any plan moving forward must seek to sunset LIPA altogether by combining federal money and local rate increases to aggressively pay down a significant portion of the debt and sell Long Island’s power infrastructure and remaining debt to a public utility. Anything less is just shouting at the rain.

Betting Long on the Island

In a world of shrinking newsrooms, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective.

I’m privileged to serve Leadership Huntington, a local nonprofit serving those open to learning about and getting involved in our town. One cornerstone is an intimate 9-month community leadership program that explores the Town’s history, government, businesses and nonprofits.  We explore issues, build relationships, and find we are not alone. What happens in Leadership stays in Leadership, but you can bet that at some point someone will assert that we live on Long Island, pay its taxes and endure its challenges because Long Island is the best place to live. Debates ensue and I wonder – Is it? Is this fish of an island feeding on the Eastern Seaboard really “all that”?

I think so, mostly because it’s my fish with four generations of family, all they’ve built that can’t be moved, and scores of relationships built over lifetimes…and I do like the food. Where else are corporate franchises so pressed to compete with high quality, reasonably priced local fare? Oh, and Dairy Barn — I’m not the biggest drive-through fan. I favor a world where people get off their rears periodically, but I do love Dairy Barn…

Long Island is a pretty place with sandy beaches and beautiful trees, but it’s hard to find open space among the people. Too many trees have given way to greedy sprawl. It’s hardly the only place with good cooking and historic towns. Much as I love my people, I could just visit. I have plenty of far-flung friends inviting me to be their much more affordably-placed neighbor. When I left for five years, there really was one thing I missed…

Local Media.

I’m from New York, land where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are just a few resident heavyweights. You can get them anywhere, though, and they’re globally relevant. However, I never realized how valuable Newsday and News 12 were until I lived where local reports were scarce. Worse, they were neither substantive enough to have weight nor local enough to matter, at least not by standards I took for granted. I missed the incredible resource Long Island has in diverse platforms for local voices. There are many quality publications. Here are my favorites:

The Long Island Press is everywhere. Its sticker price belies its content.  I’m the kind who reads Rolling Stone for its in-depth reporting, and I LOVE that I can pick up a local parallel for free and find hardcore, follow-the-money journalism, with an edgy intelligence that’s doesn’t kowtow to a PC, ADHD world, but speaks frankly and maintains a daring willingness to say what it sees….the best, the worst, and all manner of mediocrity.

Then there’s the Long Island Business News, which I find more sincere and filled with facts I can use than the Wall Street Journal. Even their advertising can be newsworthy and there’s real interest in highlighting those trying to make a dent, and helping the rest of us simply trying to make a living. I may be alone in getting a rush when I receive my annual Book of Lists, but I’ve seen enough wonks maintain boxes of papers for reference to think not. I’ve also spent enough time squished into spacious venues to know I’m not alone in jostling to connect and be inspired at their celebrations highlighting the region’s greatest hopes and most profound legacy-leavers.

Closer to home (Syosset’s my address, Huntington’s my home), I relish the Long Islander.  Founded in 1838 by the great poet and newspaperman Walt Whitman, it offers a depth and breadth to Huntington that some states would be lucky to have. Some criticize staffers for being too involved. I understand this concern, generally, but this is very local. I’m glad they’re transparent about being part of the community they’ve haunted for nearly two centuries. It seems to inform rather than skew reporting. They’re more balanced than others who don’t acknowledge local interests, and cover what they find important rather than immediately popular. Staffers do seem encouraged to make a difference on their own time. They’re good neighbors who take their responsibility to their community seriously.

Then there’s the Corridor, whose nexus is Route 110. Here, honesty in influence reaches a whole new level. It’s not advertorials they’re selling, exactly, but they tell you precisely who the top sponsor is by making that the cover story. All original, all the time, the Corridor illustrates people behind the machines.  Beyond paying sponsors essential to the business model, the passion is for giving a lift to new entrepreneurs, BIG ideas, and exploring opportunities, potential pitfalls and newsworthy events. The potential is enormous.

In a world of shrinking newsrooms and vanishing rags; where you read articles in sixteen publications that have copied each other word for word, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective. This is not easy – intelligence doesn’t come cheap even if you can get writers to give their best for free, and that just doesn’t seem right if we can avoid it. I’m proud to budget my subscriptions, duly note the advertisers, and contribute whatever I can to keep the presses – and their reporters — running. After all, they not only enlighten debates on whether this Island is worth the challenges, they help us see how we might address them. They’re also one of the main reasons I love this place.

Piling On: LI Compost and the DEC

There’s already a permanent structure that surrounds all the organic material handled at Great Gardens. It’s called the atmosphere.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued its analysis of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking”, in September of this year with the public comment period open until Dec. 12. The proposed regulations tackle what is arguably the most important environmental issue the already resource-poor DEC will have to wrangle with in decades.

Add this massive undertaking to the growing list of caustic environmental and public health hazards New York has to contend with and the DEC has its work cut out for it. Rampant groundwater contamination, an aging and dilapidated sewage treatment infrastructure, thousands of contaminated industrial sites, toxic air pollutants related to everything from crematories and incinerators to portable fuel containers and vehicle emissions from traffic congestion all fall under the purview of the overworked, underfunded DEC. Now the agency is being tasked with potentially overseeing thousands of proposed drilling sites that run throughout upstate New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.

It is within this context that I draw your attention to the current bête noire of the DEC here on Long Island having nothing to do with fracking but everything to do with how the DEC thinks and operates. The Great Gardens facility in Yaphank owned by Long Island Compost, an organization that I have covered closely the past couple of years, has come under fire in recent months for its practices. In response to complaints made primarily by two residents who live adjacent to the commercial site, the DEC is attempting to modify the permit by requiring the operator to enclose the entire operation in order to halt all “odors and dust emanating” from the facility. The modification would effectively put Great Gardens out of business.

Seems simple enough. Preventing malodourous, noxious dust from a large waste transfer facility from drifting into a residential area seems like something everyone can get behind. It already has the support of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the DEC and a handful of local legislators. Even Newsday’s editorial page threw its support behind the residents, saying: “The agency seems justified in tightening the rules. For the sake of the long-suffering neighbors, we hope the appeals process and some ultimate resolution will not drag on for many more months.”

But it’s not that simple. This is one of those situations where the devil is in the details and the logic of all those who stand in opposition to the activities conducted at Great Gardens is flawed and rife with inconsistencies.

Allow me first to dismiss the technical arguments. The residents are not wrong to be concerned about the air quality in their immediate living space. Unfortunately for them their properties are adjacent to a facility that is zoned for industrial use and permitted as a solid-waste transfer station. Moreover, both the residents and the Great Gardens facility are in the shadow of the towering Brookhaven Town landfill, which was present long before Great Gardens began operating or the residents moved in. If you buy a home less than one mile from a landfill, you cannot feign ignorance regarding the potential health effects of this location.

Unless you have been to the facility, it’s difficult to imagine. Essentially, it’s a city of dirt, or finished compost to be exact. Organic material from yard waste to food finds its way to Great Gardens, where it is sorted and dispersed to a network of farms for composting. Once the material has entirely broken down, the farms have the option of taking either a payment for their participation or a portion of the compost for their own requirements. The Long Island Farm Bureau and the farmers themselves have lauded this arrangement, because rich, organic compost on that scale is expensive and hard to come by. The finished compost is then hauled back to Yaphank to be bagged and sold back into the marketplace.

You grow it and mow it, then throw it out. Great Gardens puts it all back together again and the cycle continues. It is quite possibly one of the most environmentally important and truly regenerative practices on the Island. Here’s the problem: compost stinks. Anyone who composts at home can tell you that.

The DEC has dismissed the vast majority of the complaints regarding this facility. Now it is suddenly and capriciously attempting to modify its permit by repealing a waiver it had granted Great Gardens, which was given because the original rule as written only contemplated refuse, not organic yard waste. There’s already a permanent structure that surrounds all the organic material handled at Great Gardens. It’s called the atmosphere. Enclosing this facility to contain the dust is like putting a roof over Central Park to prevent oxygen from escaping.

The bigger problem with the DEC’s action is that it ignores its own responsibility. In 1988, the New York State Legislature passed the Solid Waste Management Act, which “mandates that all municipalities in the state adopt a local law or ordinance… requiring that solid waste be separated into recyclable, reusable or other components.” It specifically references “Composting of Organic Waste – The process occurs naturally and is a critical component to soil health.” Essentially, Great Gardens and other facilities like it were legislated into existence.

Then there is the financial impact that favors local taxpayers. By Brookhaven Town’s own figures, it saves approximately $1 million annually by outsourcing its composting operations to Great Gardens.

I completely understand the frustration of the neighboring residents. And because I take a dim view of most politicians, I’m hardly surprised that a few have decided to jump on the anti-composting bandwagon. And, unfortunately, I no longer expect to find much wisdom in the editorial pages of Newsday. What I have a huge problem with is the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The fact that CCE is effectively trying to halt the operation of a facility that takes organic material out of the waste stream by the ton, allows it to break down through natural processes and returns it to the market as a finished, organic product is ludicrous and shameful. Casting aspersions on a property that is the manifestation of our best legislative intent to provide for a more sustainable future is disingenuous at best.

Should we side with two local residents and sacrifice the greater good or allow the operation to continue and ignore their legitimate health concerns? The former feels more human – the “right thing” to do. The latter seems more Machiavellian, where we decide as a community that a couple of eggs will be broken while making this omelet. I don’t see it this way. It doesn’t have to be Long Island’s environmental equivalent of Sophie’s Choice.

This is a question of leadership that falls directly on Mark Lesko’s lap as Brookhaven Town Supervisor. Because Brookhaven allowed residential and industrial zoning to exist in such tight proximity, the town has the responsibility of dealing with these consequences. Lesko and the town board should act as expeditiously as possible to reach an arrangement with the two residents next to Great Gardens to purchase their homes and facilitate their relocations.

There. Wasn’t that easy? This solution would allow the DEC, CCE and every other acronym responsible for the environment to focus on stopping things like hydraulic fracturing that really hurt the planet instead of trying to shut down something that we can all benefit from.

What A Disaster

Nature may have disrupted our lives, but the communication disaster surrounding Tropical Storm Irene was purely man made. By 12 noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, it became clear LIPA, the media and local government all failed the public.

Of course, LIPA gets the lion’s share of the blame, and rightly so. When the utility dusted off a decades old, decentralized restoration plan, it failed to realize what a monumental communication strategy it would need. Not only would LIPA need the manpower and the connectivity to simultaneously monitor decentralized operations across the Island, it would need to create channels for feeding its own news — successes, works in progress, and problems — back to headquarters.

Instead, the new guy at the helm, came forth and announced he had nothing to say, and no way to find out in a timely manner. That’s the moment when media and government should have seized control.

To be fair to Michael Hervey, he’s new at this. And he got clobbered by one seriously angry woman. But let him be a case study for all CEOs on this Island: If communicating is not among your major priorities, if the need for publicly providing leadership and reassurance escapes your attention, then step down. Or, be smart enough to surround yourself with people who get it, before your own personal version of Irene takes hold and takes over.

A media savvy CEO would’ve made the world of a difference in this instance.

Say what you will about former LIPA head Richard Kessel, but the man is a master communicator. And, as all CEOs set the internal culture of a company, LIPA’s former senior management took communication duties with serious intent and obligation. Jumping out of the shower to take a reporter’s call — as opposed to finishing up, drying off and calling back, and possibly missing a deadline — was commonplace.

If Kessel (pictured right) had been there, it would have been a weekend of Kessel on over drive. Always on the radio. Pictured in the newspapers and online sources, giving interviews from sites of devastation — and providing plenty of photo ops, probably in that horizontal-striped polo shirt, bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to working crews, and donning a helmet and going up in a cherry picker, just to convey the image of no detail too small for the person in charge of cleaning up such a mess. Behind him, communication staff would be issuing new statements and, in today’s realm of technological wonders, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking news on a 24/7 basis. Would the power have been restored faster? Hard to say. But communication would have been fast and furious.

Instead, today’s LIPA took to fielding angry calls and, in return, offered sympathy. That’s no strategy. Occasional tweets and Facebook messages illustrated how out of touch the utility — like many local companies here — is with our rapidly changing local news landscape and its impact.

The truth of the matter is, with Newsday weakened by serious cutbacks and so few local reporters left to comb the Island, Hervey had a golden opportunity to feed the media whatever story he wanted. Lord knows there’s not enough experienced reporters around who would have verified the facts during a natural disaster. Thirty years ago, when radio and print reporters roamed our streets and could bear witness to events, companies wouldn’t be able to get away with what I am suggesting. Today, it’s a different ballgame.
Which brings us to the media, which was clearly so reliant on LIPA spoon feeding them information that, in the hours after the storm, we heard plenty of songs on the radio, but little news. In those fleeting moments when some news became available, all news sources — print and radio — referred the public to check web sites. Problem was, most of us were in the dark, with no connectivity to go to websites. Without power, television news is a mute point. WALK and JVC hooked up, which was progress, but they could’ve capitalized on their combined ability to continually deliver news and information to a desperate public. Barnstable streaming News12 — something I had advocated for long ago — offered news to people who were unable to access it any other way.

Long Island has always lacked enough news gatherers, but what’s happened now is that they are using technology they haven’t quite come to grips with. The lack of education of those running newsrooms never shone more brightly than this past week, when they tried to drive an unconnected public to online news sites for necessary information.

While the media should’ve hunted and haunted LIPA into finding ways to get information out faster, it’s puzzling why local government — with their own emergency management formulas — didn’t step in to help. Prior to the storm, politicians were laudably proactive in protecting the public interest. Perhaps after the storm, they realized their emergency communication plans were not as effective as they thought? Like those reverse311 plans, which call the public to alert them of special situations, such as blocked roads and downed trees. Problem? Many are tied to calling only landlines, and less than one in four U.S. households currently has a land line.

What is abundantly clear is this: All of the so-called emergency communication plans on this Island need to be revamped. Why LIPA let a year-old, notification-via-text plan fall by the wayside is unconscionable. But again, not everyone texts nor has a cell phone, so one method of communication is hardly the answer. Recent history, however, underscores the need for the outlying areas of the United States — places such as New Orleans, Hawaii and now, Long Island — to be required to have superior emergency management plans in place, to protect the public.

This is an issue that all of Long Island has a vested in, and it’s paramount to ensuring the success of what Long Island is to become in the future. If you’re interested in change for the better, count me in.

The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum

News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community… but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

The News Of The World scandal brought to light some of the more salacious dealings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Empire. But as attention-grabbing as reports of phone hacking were, citizens of the UK were perhaps more shocked and ashamed by revelations that a cozy relationship had developed over the years between high-level government officials—as far-reaching as Scotland Yard and Prime Minister David Cameron—and executives from News Of The World, Murdoch’s now-shuttered tabloid.

A flurry of inquiries into the matter illustrated an almost symbiotic bond between Murdoch the man and government officials desperately seeking his approval. As much as an anathema as this is to purists in either journalism or the public sector, the fact is that media magnates have always curried favor with political leaders and well-funded private interests have unfortunately always had a penthouse suite in the fourth estate.

Less notably, to the outside world, Long Island itself has been besieged by our own local conglomerate in Newsday/Cablevision; one that quizzically evaded the scrutiny of the Department of Justice when it formed and is serving us its own unique brand of partisan influence, though political ideology appears to have little to do with it.

Long Islanders have come increasingly and unwittingly under the influence of Cablevision’s invisible hand as both News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community. To be sure, outlets such as the Press, local community weeklies and newer entrants such as Patch.com, have leveled the playing field to an extent; but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

BILLION-DOLLAR BATTLE

It was a story we planned to report, though it was not originally slated for our cover position. As the debate intensified and details of the project were being hastily, yet relentlessly thrown out from all sides, Michael Nelson, the Press’ Editor In Chief, decided upon a group assignment for the story. There were simply too many questions, too much posturing and too little time for one writer to pen a comprehensive piece. (CLICK TO VIEW COVER STORY)

This was a billion-dollar proposition. Those don’t come along every day.

All sides of the issue were pitted against one another and trading vituperative remarks, the most colorful ones coming off the record I can assure you. Former allies turned enemies. Civil discourse was abandoned almost from the start. Moreover, ideology was completely discarded as the Nassau Republican Party and the Nassau Democratic Party appeared to have switched sides somewhere along the way like a bad Hollywood “Mom-wakes-up-in-daughter’s-body” movie. Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader, was vilifying taxes and union labor supported infrastructure spending while Republican County Executive Edward Mangano was proposing to increase taxes almost the same amount as the home energy tax he repealed; a campaign promise that, quite frankly, got him elected.

Charles Wang and Ed Mangano’s relentless public relations and advertising blitz to encourage the passage of the Coliseum Referendum had the very opposite effect on the pubic. The very thought that Nassau would undertake such an enormous taxpayer-financed project against the backdrop of a country raging against government and high taxes—and at the height of the debt ceiling debate in Washington—inspired an over-taxed population to draw its own line in the sand. But that’s not the most interesting, and tragic part of what transpired during this campaign.

Our cover story, “On Thin Ice,” scrupulously detailed every aspect of the proposed development absent any hyperbole; we also took care to represent every side of the issue equally, concluding that while the details of the plan as presented were shaky at best the decision was an emotional one because the Coliseum played an important role in Long Island’s history.

Newsday’s coverage couldn’t have differed more.

HOW NEWSDAY COVERED IT

With one week to go until voters would be asked to decide whether or not to allow the county to issue a $400 million bond for the Coliseum, Newsday ran a photo of Charles Wang on the cover of its Sunday edition, the most widely circulated paper of the week. The headline read, “Wang and the Arena.” It was billed as “an interview” though it ran in the lead news position and spread over three pages. The interview, conducted by veteran reporter Ted Phillips, was formatted as a news story rather than an interview as it quoted both Wang and Michael Picker, Senior VP of the Islanders, and carried several paragraphs of analysis. This is an important distinction, because a proper news format should have carried opposing viewpoints to the Coliseum plan, particularly since the piece relied on more than just Wang’s interview. Only there were none.

Perhaps these were observations that only other members of the media or opponents of the plan would recognize, but after speaking with a Newsday staffer on the condition of anonymity, this murky piece came into focus. It was full of “unchallenged statements and assumptions,” claimed the staffer, who followed bluntly with, “quotes from the other side were cut.”

Newsday, it seemed, was in the tank for the referendum. Any questions regarding this assertion were, in my mind at least, answered one week later.

On Sunday, July 31, the day before the referendum, proponents of the Coliseum redevelopment plan issued a torrent of positive information regarding the plan in Newsday. Both the Islanders and the Steamfitting Industry Promotion Fund took full-page advertisements encouraging Nassau residents to “Vote Yes.” The news section carried a two-page “Q&A” on the Coliseum with a picture of the proposed rendering with a caption that read “Courtesy of New York Islanders.” The rendering had appeared seemingly out of the blue, with no attribution other than who supplied it. No architect, no engineering firm. Nothing. For Newsday to accept this rendering without questioning the source or viability of it was incredible.

Once again, the so-called answers in this piece were barely vetted or questioned, instead offering a snapshot of the opposing sides. As they had done the week before, Newsday accepted what was given to them at face value, even though just a few days prior the Press’ cover story highlighted critical errors and inconsistencies in the same reports. Conspicuously absent from the July 31 issue was an Op-Ed piece from the Association For A Better Long Island (ABLI) submitted a full two weeks prior, which Newsday held and decided not to run. But the most stunning part of the newspaper came on the Editorial Page.

VOTE YES

To fully appreciate the July 31 editorial, it is helpful to understand that Newsday’s honeymoon with the Mangano administration was short-lived. Consistently the Newsday Editorial Board and its columnists have chastened Mangano on several issues ranging from his ongoing feud with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) to his choice of key staffers and deputies. They have relentlessly hammered his fiscal agenda and the County Executive has responded defiantly along the way. This is why the Editorial titled “Vote yes for a new arena” was entirely anachronistic.

The editorial settles the financial argument by claiming that the worst-case scenario of the bond would be a $58 increase on homeowners’ tax bills and the best case is a profitable scenario that would “mitigate future property tax increases.” Nowhere in their calculations did they factor in the potential cost to commercial taxpayers, who pick up a greater share of the tax burden, thereby concluding: “So, $58 per year. That’s less than it would cost a family of four to travel to New York City to see an ice show, a boat show or a circus that they won’t see near home if the deal fails.” To paint the picture that $58 per year, per household was the worst-case scenario would be laughable if it wasn’t so troubling.

The remainder of the Editorial is a virtual press release for the Islanders. It offers a few minor hurdles, essentially admits that residents won’t have a full picture of the project and closes with “voters ought to get the process started by saying YES on Monday to sow the seeds for a vibrant and growing Nassau County.” Ignoring for a moment that the language and logic of the Editorial indicate that it was authored by a third-grader, the Editorial Board offered its full support for a non-binding referendum on a $400 billion bond by a county Newsday has positively excoriated for not paying its bills, laying off workers and ignoring a growing structural budget deficit.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Newsday was once a very good paper, and at times it still is. But its tacit endorsement of the Coliseum plan in news coverage such as the Phillips piece coupled with the outright support of the Editorial Board, suggests something is rotten in Denmark. Despite the fact that the Islanders appear to have spent a sizeable chunk of advertising dollars and that the Nassau Coliseum is entirely wrapped in an Optimum Online banner, this is more than the obvious advertising pay-to-play scenario.

What no one addressed at Newsday or News12 is that both the Islanders and Cablevision are controlled by two of the wealthiest individuals on Long Island. And their affiliation goes far beyond advertising.

Perhaps the disclaimer that should have appeared in Newsday’s coverage of the referendum is the best way to characterize their relationship:

Newsday’s parent company, Cablevision, owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, a competing venue to the Coliseum and archrival of the New York Islanders, respectively. It is considered one of the greatest and fiercest rivalries in sports, resulting in increased ticket revenue for both organizations. According to Forbes, Cablevision reportedly pays the Islanders $15 million annually (nearly 25% of the team’s annual revenue) for broadcast television rights on a contract written through 2030 provided the Islanders remain in the New York marketplace. According to the NYS Board of Elections, Cablevision was one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s largest financial donors in the first half of 2011.

I am in no way insinuating that Cablevision/Newsday and the Islanders were conspiring to maintain a financially beneficial arrangement between the two organizations by issuing propaganda, omitting certain key details in news stories, relaxing reporting standards and pumping campaign dollars into the account of the local political leader. I’m merely suggesting that such a disclaimer would have been useful information for the reader.

Nevertheless, a crazy thing happened in spite of the efforts put forth by the above parties. The referendum failed. Badly. In the end, the outcome may have been less about the opposition from the development community spearheaded by the ABLI or the sniper attacks from the Democrats, and more as a result of simple voter awareness inspired by Mangano and the Islanders. Ironically, had Islanders owner Charles Wang and the Republicans left well enough alone and favored a quieter, more traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, their chances might have increased dramatically. Instead their aggressive campaign served only to wake the anti-tax giant in many Nassau residents and the proposition failed.

Though not on the scale of the News of the World ignominy, the failure to influence the outcome of the Coliseum referendum should be a lesson to the Cablevision and Newsday executives. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but not if it is filled with invisible ink; both your adversaries and your followers will see right through you.

Time is a Four Letter Word

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island.

Jaci Clement Time PieceIt’s about time. The local landscape has shifted dramatically over the last few years, as we’ve lost many of our long-time leaders due to retirement, economic turmoil and damning paper trails. 

The local media landscape has been time’s victim for quite awhile now, but media – which is always ahead of the curve when it comes to socioeconomic change – has had the advantage of using time to regroup. What’s emerging is a new paradigm, where the size of the media outlet no longer matters. Nor, the size of its audience. Today, it’s becoming clear the future of media is all about engagement. Large media outlets, like large companies, often have problems this: Too many levels of bureaucracy simply bring the concept to a screeching halt. Then the tail begins to wag the dog. From there, things get too unbearable to watch.

The timing is perfect for AOL’s Patch.com to enter the Long Island market. Unlike many areas of the United States, Long Island’s wired from head to toe, making this prime real estate for an internet-only engagement. The premise of Patch – to cover your local school boards and other hyper local goings on – is nothing short of brilliant on an Island where most of your taxes go straight into the schools. And, unlike a local upstart working from scratch, AOL’s got the goods. This island, if they’re smart, can be theirs for the taking.

Long Island Press has used time well, in discovering both its voice and its purpose: bringing to life important stories no other media outlet is covering. It’s the type of reporting that is, thankfully, short on patience for ideas generated from press releases. Long Island Business News continues to prove the size of a newsroom doesn’t matter. What does? Having reporters who know the market, and how it works.

If this was five years ago, the firewalling of Newsday content would have been nothing short of a death sentence for Long Island. The impact of such a decision is just this: It kills the amount of progress this region can make. After all, the public conversation drives public policy. When there is no conversation being heard, policy making doesn’t stop. It simply lacks substance. What’s happened, because of that firewall, Long Island’s biggest daily conversation has been silenced in Albany, Washington, D.C. and the rest of the country.

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island. It makes television coverage by New York City stations absolutely imperative for anyone off Long Island to remember that one, Long Island does still exist and two, we have stuff to say about what happens to us by policy makers when they’re in session. Long Island’s radio stations could be a big plus here, but local radio, like many of the local community newspapers, seem to be stuck in a moment in which they can’t find their way out.

Timing is everything.

Inside newsrooms, it’s all about time. Print editors taking longer than 10 seconds to make a story decision actually slow down the process of the entire paper. Television, operating on a five-second delay, allows news directors far less luxury than their ink-stained counterparts, as decisions affecting on-air stories must be made within four seconds. Small wonder news is such an imperfect animal. Right now, lots of time and money is being invested to decide if, when and if-ever it’s OK to say “f@*k you” on broadcast television.

This is a sentiment which underscores that time is, in fact, just as important to people outside of a newsroom. Especially in New York. The only variable on the time factor, in this particular case, happens to depend upon where you are in New York.

In Manhattan – where if you look at a stranger for more than one-sixteenth of a second, it’s viewed as a threat – a quick “f@*k you” is the ready retort. In extreme circumstances – someone stole your cab – you’ll hear polysyllabic adjective added to it, which easily — but quickly — bounces off the tongue.

On Long Island, where suburban sprawl has slowed life down a bit, the response is more akin to, “Oh, go f@*k yourself.” Complete with hand gesture, and a look. It’s really something more of a theatrical production but, again, time is on the side of Long Islanders.

Then there’s Brooklyn, where the basic response philosophy is to take it to the extreme. This is to make it tragically clear to the perpetrator not only that a boundary line has been crossed, but to emphasize where the line is, and to not bother approaching it again. Therefore: “F#*k you. And your mother.”

“Time can’t help but affect us all in wild and strange ways, but it’s clear the time has come, across the board and across the Island, to put up or shut up.

Media Malaise

If a local economy falls down and no one is there to report on it, does it make a sound? Jaci Clement from the Fair Media Council ponders the future of Long Island with less media coverage and more at stake than ever.

Ah, the suburbs.

My, my, my. What a mess we’ve got going on here.

To the east, we’re taken by surprise at the once-a-bright-light, now-a-lame-duck county exec situation. To the west we find the most humbling of insults: a control board calling the shots. In between, we suffer Albany’s wrath via crippling budget cuts destined to erode important service programs. Soon, we’ll have riders in need of buses. Hell, right now we have inmates in need of space.

To help keep our minds off that uber-annoying MTA tax and the brand new potty tax, we currently face the threat of skyrocketing property taxes. In short, it’s going to cost more to own the same house that’s now worth less than when you bought it.

Right now, worldwide, Long Island has catapulted into the spotlight for yet another dubious distinction: FBI profilers invited in, to walk the beach at Gilgo.

And it’s only April.

Is this all (OK, save for the serial killer) just a sign of the times? Is every community in this country at such a startling crossroads, or has Long Island’s geography finally undermined its destiny?

It’s easier to get away with everything – including murder – when you’re off the beaten path. Even Crain’s took note of the fact that one of the best places to operate a business fast and loose is Garden City. (It won the honor for being conveniently located near the city, but still far enough away for no one to bother looking after you.)

It’s our geography that enabled our lone daily newspaper to once tout the highest penetration rate of any newspaper in the nation. And it’s our geography that has so insulated Long Island from competition that we have one cable company bearing strong resemblance to a utility.

That geography is also where we always found our strengths, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone anymore. No one’s telling that story. It’s easier, I guess, to stand by and watch things implode.

Industrial Development Agencies (IDA) were once highly visible, both on and off the Island, in their attempts to draw business to the sandbar. And where did all those ad campaigns disappear to? You know the ones, highlighting our white sand beaches and family-friendly downtown shopping areas? The excitement of Belmont racing juxtaposed against the tranquility of the East End’s 40-plus vineyards?

Touting strengths in times of weakness is the fastest way to get back up and running. It not only draws people to you, but it gives those around you reason to stay.

In the end, it’s all about perception. Created by the media, sure, and just as easily destroyed by the same hands. The paradox here is this: Would Long Island be suffering so hard now if there had been enough reporters knocking on enough doors and asking enough of the tough questions?

The court of public opinion will always trump the court of law. Like it or not, what people think matters. It’s not about money, but whether you can open doors with just your name. No one knows that more than fallen politicians.

The Long Island name has long been synonymous with quality, bordering on exclusivity. If you wanted the best schools, the highest quality of life, low crime and abundant amenities, Long Island had what you wanted. Today’s news tells of a different Long Island, one that’s fast becoming unrecognizable, and in need of reinvention. Everyone – including the media, and especially the media – has to be part of the recovery plan.

Leadership on Long Island (Or Lack Thereof)

What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term…

There's someone missing from Newsday's photo of County Executive's with budget trouble. Can you guess who it is?

Let’s bring this year in with a bang and drill deep into the black hole that is the leadership void on Long Island. It’s time to take aim at those at the helm of our ship and offer some honest feedback, which is difficult to come by of late.

Quite frankly, considering the enormous challenges we face, I’ve been trying to mind my Ps and Qs while watching and waiting for Long Island’s leaders to genuinely coalesce throughout 2010. Now, just moments into the New Year, my bottled up frustration has punched out my cork of politeness and sent it ricocheting across the room. The bubble that broke the cork? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano.

Mangano came to office as the underdog archetype with the weight of the world, or at least the Island, on his shoulders.

Yet instead of hoisting up Nassau like Atlas, he has allowed himself to be driven into the ground by a thousand ball-pein hammers. When former County Executive Tom Suozzi was first elected, he shouted at the heavens, took the blame game to new heights and threatened union leaders and lawmakers alike. He made such a racket he was able to muscle through a double-digit property tax increase and have everyone thank him in the process. His political acumen and prowess were matched only by his hubris.

Eight years and several hundreds of millions in blown surplus dollars later, Glen Cove’s favorite son was ousted from office by the demure Mangano, who is as modest as Suozzi was pugnacious. What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term and offered the following statement:

After reviewing the catastrophic state of affairs my predecessor (Tom Suozzi) left behind, I have determined that Nassau County is, to put it simply, screwed. Unlike him (Tom Suozzi), I cannot in good conscience raise taxes on the good people of this county—as was my pledge—as they have already paid more than their fair share for Nassau’s (his) political misdeeds. Therefore, I have requested the full assistance of NIFA and will submit to their recommendations completely so we may put our troubles behind us. God bless us all.

But, no. Mangano instead took the high road toward the inevitable, and he has created his own political nightmare to match our fiscal reality. He did such a terrible job explaining to Nassau residents how the former administration taxed its way to a surplus it later spent without fixing any of the structural problems that have plagued the county that even Newsday is comparing Mangano to Tom Gulotta, and omitting the Suozzi years entirely.

In other news slightly to the east of Nassau, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is still fighting with everyone.

If you have any questions for either Mangano or Levy, you’ll have your chance to ask them at the Long Island Association’s County Executive’s Report at the (where else?) Crest Hollow Country Club on January 12! Which brings me to the next same-old-tune on my hit parade: the LIA. It’s been relatively quiet at the Island’s most prestigious association so I decided to take a gander at their website to see what’s new on the agenda. Let’s see…last entry under “Legislative Action”—2007. Check. “Regional Priorities?” Housing. Just housing. Check. Oh, wait, you can peruse their new ideas under the helpful heading, “Innovate Long Island,” and read a report from 2006 because, you know, not much has happened in the world since then. In fairness, Long Islanders can get some gardening tips from the latest blog entry of March 25, 2010. At least we know they’re not wasting any money on a webmaster.

My most recent “OMG” moment came a few days ago reading one of Jim Bernstein’s business columns in Newsday. Bernstein interviewed LIA head honcho, Kevin Law, one of the brightest and most amiable figures on the Island. Asked what he was dreaming up for the New Year, Law said he was thinking about “a destination center” that “Long Islanders and tourists could use as a meeting place, a place to shop and dine, and also a place where the New York Islanders could play hockey.”

Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of Charles Wang beating a hockey stick against The Lighthouse Development model, taking his puck and going home. Let’s just pretend Kevin didn’t say that and move on. (I love the guy so he gets a pass. I’m playing favorites, I know…but it’s my column.)

We’re better than this, or at least we should be. We don’t even need new leaders, we just need them all pulling the oars at the same time in one direction.

As for the answer to the question above… Ta Da!

Peek-A-Boo! Tom Suozzi, former Nassau County Executive and current Newsday/Cablevision Consultant!

The Empire Strikes Back

My election plans almost went off without a hitch with my posterior comfortably settled into the perfectly formed groove in the corner of my couch. Beside me, my wife, my home phone, my BlackBerry, my laptop, my Blue Point Toasted Lager, a bowl of popcorn and a dog with a broken leg and a cast the size of his body (long story) were all neatly in their places for the evening. The only thing missing from my election night space capsule was a pair of Depends. Everything was perfect except for one detail. By the time all of my communication devices were fired up and News12 was tuned in, it was 10 minutes past 9 p.m. Ten minutes from the moment the polls closed throughout New York. Sometime during those 600 seconds I missed the gubernatorial election.

The New York Times had declared Andrew Cuomo our next Governor at 9:01 p.m. with Newsday following suit six minutes later. At 9:10 p.m. I felt like the last lonely boy invited to the dance.

My faithful reporters were on hand at candidate headquarters from Islandia to Manhattan busily reporting, tweeting, blogging and conferring with one another while I stared absently at the computer, my wife stared absently at me, and the dog stared absently at the enormous cast on his leg. By the time I recovered and touched base with the first of our reporters, Sen. Chuck Schumer was giving his victory speech and national pundits were talking about the overwhelming message delivered to Barack Obama and attempting to quantify the “Tea Party Effect.”

All of this with zero precincts reporting in from any Board of Elections in the state.

Life is moving too quickly, and frankly I’m not sure what to make of it. Earlier in the evening I was on a dinner date with my 7-year-old daughter. In between talking about school, friends and funny things her little sister says, I mentioned that it was Election Day again and Daddy would be up late talking to his friends from work. She knows Daddy likes Election Day. But when I mentioned this, a perplexed look came over her face and she asked me, quite casually, “Is it time to get rid of Barack Obama already? Hasn’t it only been like two years?”

Did I mention she’s 7?

Stunned, I sat back in my chair and stared absently at her inquiring little face, and tried to formulate a cogent response. (Little did I know my absent expression would return so frequently throughout the night.) Collecting myself, I stammered through some benign, meandering explanation of federal and state governments, election cycles and the importance of voting. Then I gave her a stern look and said emphatically, “And by the way, we don’t ‘get rid’ of our elected officials, young lady. We need to have more respect for our public servants than to talk of discarding them so callously—irrespective of your opinion of them.” One day, of course, she will question everything I ever told her after she’s dug up yellowed copies of the Long Island Press and perused my vituperative political diatribes. She has plenty of time to reach the jaded pinnacle of life her father occupies now. Until then she should breathe deeply because the air is as thin up here as my patience.

Where was I? Right, 9:30 p.m. Since the world had careened by me in the past half hour and I could only bog down our reporters with inane questions, I settled into my normal caveman routine, obsessively navigating BOE websites and watching television coverage. Since candidates were declaring victory before any votes were tabulated, I assumed the new voting machines were so stealth they auto-tweeted the results and bypassed the media. The only thing left was to watch the flurry of victory and concession speeches, and call it a night.

And then the waiting began.

Sometime in the 11 o’clock hour, after watching the News12 anchors stumble through the broadcast—despite the valiant attempts of the field reporters, Jerry Kremer and Mike Dawidziak, to salvage it—my wife gave up and went to bed. My phone stopped ringing and e-mails ceased shortly thereafter. Even the dog limped away from me and fell asleep somewhere around midnight. By 1:30 a.m. the results were still trickling in with some local and statewide candidates declaring victory; others would have to wait a few more hours or even a lengthy recount. Either way, the early evening mania was a distant memory by this time and no one seemed to know why the results were taking so long.

Much of the uncertainty was put to rest today, and there were few surprises. New Yorkers thought better of Carl Paladino and otherwise returned to their pre-Obama voting habits, complete with the state Senate delegation (almost) back in Republican control. Democrats and moderate Republicans outside of New York were abused, and the House tipped dramatically to the right, while Senate Dems held on for dear life. The real story is the Tea Party newbies and whether anger-fueled rhetoric will convert to policy and reform, or wind up in gridlock and rancor. My guess is the latter because Washington D.C., is about to be overtaken by too many rookie politicians who are probably mouthing Robert Redford’s immortal words from The Candidate: “What do we do now?”