The Gannett-owned Journal News, where I once worked, is practically a mirage of its former self. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the paper was big and broad and had enough influence to set the public agenda. Now, it doesn’t even have an editorial board.
Television news doesn’t fill the void. Tune into Optimum’s News 12 on any given day or night, and you’ll get a continuous loop of weather updates interrupted by a thin gruel of local headlines, crime surveillance videos from Anywhere U.S.A., and an overdose of happy news (“Hey, it’s National Cookie Day!”)
The reasons for the collapse of local news here and in communities across the country are many and complex, but to be clear, none of the blame should be placed on the few remaining journalists on the front lines who, though dedicated, are overworked, overstressed, and underpaid. They are counted as collateral damage in a fast game of mergers and acquisitions engineered by private equity firms run by money-sucking tycoons whose collective mission statement, frankly, does not include better coverage of your school board.
In November, two seismic events in the media world happened that had a direct effect on how Westchester residents get their news. First of these was the $1.4 billion merger of the Gannett Company with GateHouse Media, creating a super-chain of 263 daily newspapers in 47 states. Even more than the axe-happy Gannett, GateHouse is notorious for cutting jobs — and layoffs are certainly coming in order to finance the deal.
The second event was the closing of Verizon’s Fios1 News, a regional news network that employed 150 people and was based at the RNN-TV studios in Rye Brook. This occurred despite the staged protestation of 17 elected officials who implored Verizon to reconsider the move. Besides the loss of jobs, the decision left Westchester with only one cable-TV news outlet, the aforementioned News 12. Ironically, no one from News 12 was sent to cover the presser, prompting Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) to quip: “If a tree falls in Westchester and News 12 isn’t there to document it, did it really fall?”
Abinanti believes the situation is so dire that it’s time for government to get involved. He has sponsored a bill that would require cable companies coming into New York to provide a full-service news channel — the size and scope of which would be determined by the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utility rates. (An identical bill is in the State Senate.)
“The reasons for the collapse of local news here and in communities across the country are many and complex…”
Abinanti deservedly gets points for taking a slap at telecommunication giants like Verizon, who put profit over public service. But the PSC’s five commissioners are appointed by the governor, a red flag to those who fear that a free and independent news outfit would inevitably be compromised by petty politics.
Look no further than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s very real threat last year to kick Charter Spectrum out of New York on the grounds that it didn’t fulfill its obligation to provide broadband to rural upstate New York. While Cuomo’s beef was legitimate and backed by the PSC, it was also true that he was feuding with NY1, an aggressive news channel owned by Charter.
This wasn’t lost on anyone, least of all Cuomo’s opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, who said that Cuomo’s anger at NY1 “effectively pulled the plug” on Charter and served as “a warning to others that he can affect who dare ask him tough questions.”
Abinanti said the need for a vibrant, competitive press is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy and that the potential benefits of his bill far outweigh any risk of political interference. “We gotta have faith that government’s going to act somewhat right,” he told me. In the Charter case, faith triumphed in the end. The company came to an agreement with the state, and NY1 remains in business.
Abinanti’s bill has a decent chance of passing. Both houses of the state legislature are controlled by the Democrats — and according to a recent Gallup-Knight Foundation poll, two-thirds of Democrats in the nation are in favor of government assistance to news organizations. On the other hand, only 30% of those polled pay a monthly subscription to a news outlet of any kind. Could it be that people may have become inured to the decline of local news?
If that’s true, then Abinanti’s question must be rephrased: If a tree falls in Westchester and nobody is there to cover it, does anybody even care?
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org