By Michael Gold
New York State has been colonized, almost 250 years after the Revolutionary War. Out-of-state publishers have claimed ownership of many of the state’s newspapers, from Binghamton to Buffalo.
The only interest these publishers seem to have in the communities they claim to serve is how much profit they can milk from their properties, cutting staff to as few reporters as possible while keeping a straight face that they are putting out a newspaper with the purpose of letting readers know what’s going on with their schools, governments and businesses.
Small towns around the state are especially vulnerable to the prospect of becoming a “news desert” – a place where critical news is hard to find, leaving local governments with more power to work in darkness without an informed public to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
In tandem with this alarming trend, citizens in New York and around the country are often left to scrabble for information on the internet, which seems programmed less to inform and more to excite attention and sell consumers on the latest ways to lose weight, fill in wrinkles or love your cat. Clicks are the underlying agenda of the communications wizards putting stuff out online, not a well-informed public.
A private equity firm from Japan, called Softbank, owns 12 daily newspapers in New York and papers in 43 other states in the country. It controls papers in Binghamton, Ithaca, Elmira, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Utica, Middletown, Herkimer, Corning, Canandaigua, Hornell and Westchester County.
The Ithaca Journal’s editorial staff consists of one reporter/photographer, according to the newspaper’s website, for a city with about 30,000 people, and another 30,000 students at Cornell and Ithaca College combined. No editor or publisher is listed on the site.
The Binghamton Sun-Press Bulletin has two news reporters, one sports reporter and one executive editor, for a metropolitan area of almost 250,000. The Elmira Star-Gazette has one news reporter and one sports reporter, with no editor listed on its website. The town has 26,000 people. The Utica Reporter-Dispatch website lists two reporters, one sports reporter, a photographer and an editor/producer, for a town of 64,000 residents.
The Journal News (its online site is Lohud, for lower Hudson Valley), has 15 news reporters, five sports reporters, seven visual journalists, one executive editor and one news and visuals director, for an enormous three-county area of about 900 square miles of territory, with almost 1.5 million people, which would make it the seventh largest city in the U.S. by population, about the size of Philadelphia and San Antonio, and bigger than San Diego, Dallas and San Jose.
Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund based in West Palm Beach, Fla., owns the New York Daily News and the Kingston Daily Freeman. It also owns the Oneida Daily Dispatch, converted from a daily to a three-times-a-week paper, The Saratogian, and the Troy Record.
Major Papers Decrease Coverage
The Daily News, once king of the newspaper world in New York City, doesn’t even operate with a newsroom anymore. Every reporter and editor on its shrunken staff works from home. The paper has suffered through waves of layoffs over the last decade. The newsroom was cut in half in 2017 and management closed the paper’s offices in 2020.
Gary Larkin, editor of The Riverdale Press, a neighborhood weekly paper with a circulation of 4,000 in the northwest Bronx, explained that he rarely sees any reporters from the Daily News, the New York Post or The New York Times “up here.” The Daily News will cover crime, fires and “something crazy, like a lawsuit,” but that’s about it. They covered a bullying case at a local Catholic school and “did a good enough job on it,” Larkin said.
Generally, though, the paper “is not like it used to be. It wasn’t really slanted, like the New York Post” (owned by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV).
“The quality is nowhere it used to be, even 10 years ago. You can see it,” Larkin said. “I don’t read the News as much. I know they laid off a lot of great columnists. They’ve been stripped for a while.”
“The staff cuts were draconian,” at the Daily News, explained Bernard Stein, a former editor and co-publisher of The Riverdale Press. The Riverdale Press has earned more than 300 state and national awards for excellence and was named the best weekly paper in New York State eight times during Stein’s tenure. Stein and his brother Richard owned and operated the paper, which their parents founded in 1950.
Concerning The Times, the giant presence that looms over the region, Stein pointed out, “It’s a joke that New York is in its name plate.”
The reason? “The Times spends about one to one-and-a-half pages a day on metro stories,” Stein said.
One example recently was an article about a Bronx woman who smoked marijuana at a party and whose baby was taken away by the city’s Administration for Child Services.
“The Times still pretends it covers the city,” Stein explained, “but its business strategy is to build online subscribers nationally and internationally. The international part is a very important piece of its strategy. Its revenue has shifted from ad revenue to subscription.”
If the Midwest is considered fly-over country, New York City’s boroughs and bordering counties, from Westchester to Nassau, are step-over country for The Times.
“At least the Bronx has community papers, telling people something about their government, schools and local goings-on,” Stein said.
Community Papers Shrink
That doesn’t mean the community weeklies are thriving. The Riverdale Press, for instance, is “half the size of what it was when I owned it.” The paper runs about 16 pages per week now, down from the usual 32 during Stein’s management.
“Obviously, I relate this fact to the strain on the business model for newspapers – the drying up of local advertising for neighborhood newspapers and the general flight of advertisers to the internet,” Stein wrote in an e-mail.
“It’s strictly a matter of how much advertising there is (in newspapers). That’s nobody’s failure – it’s the economy. Local advertising has disappeared,” he said. “We had local banks advertising, a number of mom-and-pop stores. That’s disappeared.”
Along with the advertising shrinkage, newspapers have to cut their staffs because they can’t support the reporters necessary to do what Stein calls accountability journalism, which he describes as “having the will to dig deep and do investigative reporting that looks at the state of schools and politics in a granular, careful way. You don’t have sufficient staff. You need time.”
“The work they (reporters) do is important,” Stein said. “It knits communities together; it helps people see a common purpose and concern. I do miss the more vigorous reporting.”
In 1989, Stein wrote an editorial defending the right of bookstores to sell “The Satanic Verses,” a novel by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s novel, published that year, aroused the anger of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, saying the book was against Islam. He issued a fatwa, a legal ruling sentencing Rushdie to death, inviting Muslims around the world to find the author and kill him. (The fatwa was never rescinded. In 2022, Rushdie was stabbed several times at a public lecture in Chautauqua, N.Y., almost killing him. He lost sight in one eye and suffered other grievous wounds.)
In response to The Riverdale Press’ 1989 Rushdie editorial, two men firebombed the paper’s offices and destroyed the first floor of the building. The paper survived the attack, and hopefully will continue to publish through the many coming decades, but many other newspapers are in danger of failing, not from firebombs, but falling advertising revenue and disinvestment in its staff and the community, such as Alden’s Daily News.
Every year, for 10 years, Stein wrote an editorial discussing Rushdie’s need to remain underground in order to not have an assassination attempt made on his life and “its implications for our First Amendment freedoms,” Stein wrote in an e-mail.
In 1997 Stein’s editorial on the subject stated, “Whether Salman Rushdie can go to the corner newsstand for a paper, book a table in his own name at a restaurant or announce a speaking engagement in advance is a measure not only of his freedom but of ours. It will tell us whether we can really read what we please, whether we can grapple with ideas as we wish or whether we can be changed and make change.”
Stein quoted Rushdie in the editorial, stating that “there is always an attempt to replace the many truths of freedom by the one truth of power, be it secular or religious power. Totalitarian regimes seek to halt the motion of society,” words that are prophetic for our time as well, with papers going out of business left and right, leaving too few reporters and editors to tell people what governments and big business are doing.
Alden’s moves regarding the other newspapers it owns in the state are instructive.
The Private Equity Fund Effect
In 2021, Alden moved the Kingston Daily Freeman’s staff, with four reporters, one contributor and two editors to work in an office that cannot be visited by anyone other than the people who work there, the very opposite of the idea that newspapers are part of the toolbox of democracy, and therefore provide for visits from people who have a stake in what happens in the community. The Daily Freeman covers Ulster County, with 182,000 people.
I made calls to the newsroom and business office at the Freeman and left phone messages requesting verification about whether the office is still closed. I did not get a call back.
An additional call to the Daily Freeman was transferred to a phone tree that eventually landed with a customer service representative based in Phoenix, who confirmed the office is closed to the public.
The Oneida Daily Dispatch gets its mail at the Kingston paper’s address. The Saratogian and Troy Record use the same people for the two papers – four reporters (one for sports) and two editors. Saratoga County has almost 240,000 people. Rensselaer County has about 160,000.
“The Kingston Daily Freeman has been through several owners over so many decades. Each time (it’s purchased), it gets demolished more and more,” explained Genia Wickwire, associate publisher of Hudson Valley One, a weekly Kingston newspaper.
The Fight to Know
Referring to the Daily Freeman, Wickwire said, “they do a lot of AP (Associated Press).” The Associated Press’s wire service provides plenty of national and international news to local papers like the Freeman but can’t offer reporting on the local scene.
“Their ads get sent out of the country to be designed,” Wickwire said. “Everything is the cheapest.” Also, “it’s hard for customers to get the Freeman on the phone.”
In contrast, “You can walk in here and talk to us,” at the newspaper’s storefront office on Wall Street in Kingston,” Wickwire said. “Our writers, photographers and designers care about the community. We care because we live here. Our kids live here. Everything that happens here affects us, rather than some corporate headless person you can’t find on the Internet.”
Wickwire’s operation used to publish five newspapers, which the ownership had to fold into one when the COVID pandemic bore down and destroyed the company’s advertising base. Geddy Sveikauskas, Wickwire’s father, started The Woodstock Times in 1972. Over the years he started publishing weeklies in Saugerties, New Paltz and Kingston, as well as an arts paper. More than 80 years old, he still has the title of publisher and continues to write for the paper.
“If you’re not writing about local politics, who will?” Wickwire said, summarizing in one sentence the problem with fading local news coverage of government and the community – just like a tree falling in the forest.
The Rodeway Inn homeless disaster is an example of a story that nobody noticed until Hudson Valley One published a story about the scandal at the motel.
The Ulster County government has a homeless problem, as do many other municipalities. The county’s Department of Social Services finds emergency housing for 300 to 400 people who have no homes every month, according to a release on the county’s website.
So, it paid the Rodeway Inn quite a bit of money to house them. The county gave Rodeway’s owners more than $574,000 in 2022 for taking in the homeless, according to Hudson Valley One’s reporting.
This occurrence happens with too much frequency, but what happened next not so much. A part of the front overhang of one section of the motel fell off during a heavy April rainstorm. It landed in the parking lot and walkway.
An investigation by Hudson Valley One reporter Rokosz Most revealed more problems at the building. A resident of the building, Katie Olsen, who was fleeing a domestic violence threat and who had a four-year-old son on her hip, showed Most exposed wiring and outlets. She demonstrated to Most that the room had no hot water. There was a hole in the bathroom ceiling and mold in the opening. The smell from the motel’s septic tank drifts through the air. A sewer vent pipe emitted methane.
A local official quoted in Most’s story said, “This place is full of people who are being paid for by the county Department of Social Services…And this is the best we can do for them. The conditions are deplorable.”
The Alden-owned Daily Freeman covered the collapse of the façade, but not the awful state of the facility,
Two days after the Hudson Valley One story came out, County Executive Jan Metzger went to the motel, unannounced, and looked over the premises. About four days later, Metzger announced that the county would no longer place homeless people at the Rodeway, and that the county would seek to find other housing for homeless person staying there.
Olsen managed to escape the Rodeway and found a much better place to live – a house with a yard.
The Alden-owned Daily Freeman ran a press release from the Ulster County Executive’s office about the county’s decision, but did nothing more, Wickwire said.
Covering Police Shooting
The Daily Freeman followed the lead of the Shawangunk Journal, a weekly paper published in Ellenville, N.Y., in a separate, far more distressing story, about a state police officer who shot a man in Cragsmoor, N.Y. on Sept. 9, 2022. Daniel McAlpin, 41, had played high school soccer in Ellenville, a nearby town, and he worked in a local bar.
The county’s mobile health crisis team had gone to McAlpin’s house, where he lived with his parents, who were away that night. The mobile health crisis team called the state police for assistance, the Shawangunk Journal reported. McAlpin was holding what the police described as a large knife. The police stated they tried to talk with him and asked him repeatedly to drop his knife, which he refused to do.
The police reported that after an indefinite period of time, a trooper fired a taser at McAlpin. This apparently had no effect. McAlpin stepped toward the police, “threatening them with the knife,” the police report stated. A trooper shot McAlpin, killing him. The police recovered a machete and air-soft rifle, often called a BB gun, at the man’s house.
Lisa Reider, editor of the Shawangunk Journal, wanted to see the bodycam footage the police had recorded of the incident.
“I hounded the state DA in Albany for the footage. I had been asking the NYAG’s office for it for months,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I just kept up with them. And we were McAlpin’s hometown paper, which I made sure to mention in my requests.”
Once the newspaper obtained the video and reviewed it, “the footage showed the state police did not have to murder him,” explained Amberly Jane Campbell, the publisher of the Journal. “He had already been tased and appeared to be falling forward, down the stairs.”
“We got it (the footage and the story) first and then the Freeman followed suit. As did the Albany Times-Union.”
Speaking of McAlpin, Reider said, “We knew firsthand the impact this guy had on the community. He worked in a local bar. He was very nice, soft-spoken.”
The news story, written by Journal reporter Chris Rowley, stated, “The troopers and sheriff’s deputies found McAlpin had retreated to his room, on the second floor of the house. It does not appear that he was threatening anyone at that point. He had apparently called for Mobile Mental Health Intervention, due to an emotional and mental event. They (Mobile Health) had called for police assistance.
“The videos released begin with McAlpin out of sight upstairs. There is a door to his staircase in the McAlpin house. Troopers and deputies can be seen gathered in the narrow passages on the lower floor. Various guns are visible, and the officers seem somewhat crowded into the available spaces.
“The officers call out to McAlpin, and he responds, shouting that he ‘doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Please go away!’”
The police tried to engage with McAlpin, and he continued to ask them to leave the house. Then McAlpin walked down the steps from the second floor. The body cam footage showed an air rifle.
The police officers, all standing in a tight, confined space in the house, became extremely agitated and told McAlpin to drop his weapon. Then an officer told McAlpin to “put the knife down!” An officer fired a taser at him, which hurt him. Yet McAlpin kept coming down the stairs.
“It looked like he kind of fell down, because of being tased,” Reider wrote me in a follow up e-mail.
An officer then fired his service weapon at McAlpin, shooting him five times.
“Why McAlpin came down the stairs with what appears to be a machete in one hand and an air rifle in the other will never be known,” Rowley wrote. “It is very clear from the videos and the audio that the officers felt endangered,” the article stated.
Police officers hold extremely dangerous jobs. Their judgment about what is a threat must be far superior to that of the general public, and faster. Was Daniel McAlpin a threat to the officers’ lives, sufficient to justify an officer shooting his gun at the extremely troubled McAlpin?
That question can at least be asked and debated in the public sphere with more complete information because the Shawangunk Journal kept after the DA to release the video footage.
What is certain is that McAlpin’s death caused great anguish and anger in Ellenville and Cragsmoor. A former employer and friend, Matt Sloan, was quoted in the Shawangunk Journal as saying, “He didn’t deserve anything like that to happen to him…Dan liked working in his cars – he was working on a custom turbo setup for his RX-7. He enjoyed some local hiking with a small group of us. Made a few good batches of beer over the winter.”
The Shawangunk Journal got the McAlpin video footage before anyone else, Reider explained and published the story on Mar. 27, 2023. The Kingston Daily Freeman’s published its story on its website later that day, at 6:37 p.m.
The Daily Freeman’s story was thorough in its coverage of the events recorded in the bodycam footage, but, unlike the Shawangunk Journal’s article, contains no information about McAlpin’s personal history and place in the community. The Journal’s story let readers get to know McAlpin a little, who he was, what he liked, that he had friends. He was a person who belonged to the town, who grew up there, had a life, was a valued member of the community. The paper’s coverage reflected the pain people felt after he was killed.
The Freeman defined McAlpin in just one dimension – an armed, mentally distraught man who was shot by a police officer – a cold, clinical analysis of the situation.
The Journal’s coverage was deeper, despite the fact that it’s a small weekly newspaper in a small town, versus the Alden-owned Freeman, which should theoretically operate with more resources at its disposal.
Who is Alden Capital?
Alden’s website consists of one page, a photograph of sunlight spilling through a stand of tall trees, containing just one sentence: “Alden Global Capital is an investment manager based in West Palm Beach, FL.”
The only clear fact that can be gleaned from Alden’s website is that it doesn’t want anyone to know much more about it than the corporate name and city of operation.
The Atlantic, a digital and print monthly magazine described Alden with this headline: “A Secretive Hedge Fund Is Gutting Newsrooms,” in its Oct. 14, 2021, issue.
As The Atlantic writer, McKay Coppins, pointed out, when a local newspaper is terminated, the towns in the paper’s coverage area suffer from a number of extremely negative knock-on effects, including lower voter turnout, a decrease in participation within the community, government mismanagement and corruption and an increase in misinformation.
Coppins explained that Alden wasn’t investing in its newspapers’ future, it was simply taking all the profit out of them as it could, as quickly as possible. Even though newspapers’ readership is declining, money can still be generated from them. In fact, if you cut the staff, you can increase short-term profits, which Alden did, eliminating 36 percent of the workforce at its newspapers nationwide from 2015 to 2017, while also increasing subscription rates.
Selling the real estate the paper owns helps too. Coppins wrote that Alden stated in legal documents that it was using the profits to invest in commercial real estate, a bankrupt pharmacy chain and even Greek government bonds.
A former publisher for Alden’s Connecticut newspapers said in The Atlantic article, “It was clear that they didn’t care about this being a business in the future. It was all about the next quarter’s profit margins.”
The description of Alden’s approach to its newspapers in The Atlantic article is as damning as it gets for a business that is essential to the proper functioning of our democracy and system of government: “…newspapers are financial assets and nothing more – numbers to be rearranged on spreadsheets until they produce the maximum returns for investors.”
Coppins effectively sounded the equivalent of a five-alarm fire bell for anyone who cares about local news, with gut-wrenching honesty: “What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local news outfits. The model is simple: gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices and wring as much cash as possible…”
Gannett, Lee Gut Local Papers
Gannett (that is, SoftBank Group), owner of papers in areas as diverse as wealthy Westchester County, college towns Binghamton and Ithaca and struggling cities like Elmira and Utica, isn’t much better. The company, the largest newspaper owner in the country, fired 400 staffers, 3 percent of its total workforce, in August 2022, according to a report by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization in Tampa.
Gannett/SoftBank also eliminated 400 additional open positions, Poynter stated. Just five months later, Gannett/SoftBank cut 200 editorial jobs, 6 percent of the company’s 3,440 news positions.
To complete the trifecta of journalism-destroying terror, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain, purchased The Buffalo News from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2020 and has been busy dismantling its editorial and production capabilities.
While it’s somewhat encouraging that Lee is actually in the news business, as opposed to Alden and Gannett/Softbank, Lee isn’t treating The Buffalo News with much more respect than Alden and Gannett/Softbank. Lee cut the news budget by $1 million, fired four seasoned reporters, fired five people in the paper’s design department, closed its printing press, firing 160 people, and outsourced production of the paper to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 189 miles away, according to the Poynter Institute’s writer Angela Fu. The paper’s circulation has plunged, from 300,000 in the 1990s to 56,000 in 2022.
Lee also owns papers in Auburn and Glens Falls in upstate New York. An examination of The Auburn Citizen’s online newspaper reveals it has an executive editor and managing editor on the editorial board. It has three reporters covering the city, education, politics and sports beats, and four editors, who may also write stories, covering a town of 26,000. Much of the newspaper is filled with stories from the Associated Press and another news service.
The Glen Falls Post-Star has three reporters and one night and weekend editor, for Glen Falls and Warren County, with a population of 65,000.
While these corporations are seemingly paying attention to just one thing – profits – the communities they are supposed to be serving with their newspapers are suffering. Without someone watching what’s going on, governments often act with impunity.
The Journal News, the largest newspaper operating in the area, does not seem to spend much time covering Putnam County news. Up until about 1999, The Journal News had six reporters in a bureau covering Putnam, explained Adam Stone, publisher of the Westchester Examiner, and his editor, Martin Wilbur. The Examiner is a weekly paper covering central and northern Westchester, plus the county seat, White Plains, and Putnam County. (I write a biweekly column for The Examiner and do freelance reporting for them.)
About lohud, Stone said, “The reporters are almost always excellent, terrific. They’re professional and doing a solid job. It’s just that the numbers have shrunk so dramatically. You can’t get to as much with such a smaller team. Lohud abandoned local school board and local government meetings. They don’t have the staff there. The small local story we write about, The Journal News doesn’t get to that. They don’t cover local government meetings unless there is a controversy.”
Stone detailed why this is important: “It matters because local government is where you get accountability, a spotlight on business development, budgets, elections. It does affect people’s lives. They might complain about their tax bill, what downtown looks like. The regional dailies in New York had an institutional role that they played, with reporters checking the police blotters, calling the police. That institutional role doesn’t really exist anymore.”
Putnam County Issues
Part of what lohud and The Examiner is missing is happening in Putnam County, just north of Westchester. For example, the Town of Putnam Valley, in Putnam County, proposed at a January 2023 Town Board meeting to opt out of letting its residents obtain a 15-year state tax exemption for installing solar panels on their homes.
Lohud didn’t cover the issue. The Highlands Current newspaper and the Watching Putnam Valley blog did.
“There is a solar-equipment tax credit available to anybody (in New York state) with a solar panel,” said Town Supervisor Jacqueline Annabi at the meeting, as reported in a Highlands Current story published on Feb. 3, 2023, “adding that Putnam Valley provides other incentives for solar-panel permits. We try very hard to stay green, but we don’t want a commercial base to come in and tear up our lands (for clean-energy projects), not be invested in our community and then not be taxed on it.”
The opt-out could have allowed the Putnam Valley government to help blunt the state’s goal of switching from fossil fuels to heat and cool residents’ home to using renewable energy, in my humble opinion.
Sarah Bartlett attended the meeting about the opt-out and wrote about it for her Watching Putnam Valley blog. She wrote in an e-mail about her blog post, “I cited the various reasons the town board gave for this proposal, which mostly had to do with fear that solar farms would come in and profit from the land without contributing to the tax base. In fact, the town supervisor regularly insisted that they had no intention of raising the property tax on homeowners with solar panels, so she insisted this was much ado about nothing.”
Bartlett, stated in an e-mail that at the meeting she “respectfully” but “forcefully” disagreed with the resolution.
“While the original intent in 2016 may have been to capture revenue from commercially oriented solar and wind farms, the removal of this tax exemption would necessarily impact homeowners as well,” Bartlett said, as quoted by the Highlands Current in its Feb. 3, 2023, issue. “In a town with a limited commercial presence, that’s where its primary impact would be felt,” Bartlett was quoted as saying.
Bartlett, a former dean at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, wrote in her Feb. 10, 2023, blog post that town residents “spoke in opposition to the proposal and many also submitted written comments.”
“Following the public hearing, the town board decided not to pursue the resolution,” Bartlett wrote.
She noted in her blog, “It is heartening to see town officials being responsive to the concerns of their constituents.”
What would the Putnam Valley Town Board have done in the absence of news coverage from The Highlands Current and Bartlett’s blog? It’s impossible to say, of course, but the presence of The Highlands Current reporter and Bartlett, who had a distinguished career as a reporter and editor at Fortune, The New York Times and Business Week, as well as teaching business journalism at Baruch College and CUNY, signaled to the town government that they were being watched, demonstrating a small case history of the power that reporters can have just by showing up.
Then there’s the case of Putnam County government. County Executive Kevin Byrne, who took office at the start of this year, and a majority of the county’s legislature, is fighting with the Putnam County News and Recorder (PCNR) over its coverage of county government. Douglas Cunningham, PCNR editor and publisher, has been highly critical of Byrne’s administration. Also, Cunningham refused to run Byrne’s press releases verbatim, during his campaign and now during his term in office.
Additionally, the majority of the county legislature thought Cunningham was giving too much space in the paper to the single Democratic legislator. In response, the Putnam County Legislature voted to pull the county government’s legal ads from running in the PCNR.
As Cunningham explained to me by e-mail, “The legal ads the county government has declined to place are the legal notices, which are required by law to publish in a paid circulation newspaper with news of general interest. Our two papers absolutely meet the definition. And we have been official papers, along with the Putnam (County) Press, for decades. The Press meets the definition only by the barest of margins…The lawmakers gave several reasons, but really, they’re using the county purse to punish speech they don’t like.”
Cunningham added in an e-mail, “Byrne maintains he had no involvement in the legislature’s decision, but they would not have taken it without his backing.”
Additionally, Cunningham noted in an e-mail that the publisher of the Putnam County Times & Putnam County Press, a competing newspaper group, is Willis Stephens Jr., a Brewster attorney who served on Byrne’s transition team. Stephens Jr. is also the attorney for the Town of Southeast, as indicated on the town’s website.
As Cunningham wrote in his headline telling his readers about the Republican-controlled Putnam County government’s decision to cut off the publication of legal notices in the PCNR, “You’re Reading the Papers that Kevin Byrne Doesn’t Want You to Read.”
It gets worse.
The Highlands Current newspaper wrote on Mar. 17, 2023, that Byrne wants to declare Putnam County a “constitutional county.”
“Byrne sent the county legislature a draft resolution that states that ‘while Putnam County cannot unilaterally nullify federal or state laws it opposes, it will and does oppose’ within the limits of the U.S. Constitution and state civil rights law, ‘any efforts to unconstitutionally restrict such rights, in order to assure that its citizens will be able to keep and bear arms and use the same in defense of life, liberty and property, whether in a well-regulated militia, or individually.’”
Byrne concedes that the county cannot nullify federal or state law, yet states in his draft resolution that it will oppose laws it doesn’t agree with.
What does it mean to “oppose” a law passed by either the state or federal government on guns or any other issue, such as climate change? Does that mean the county government will refuse to enforce such a law? Does it mean that the county will determine what federal and state laws are constitutional, in its own reading and interpretation of those laws, and only spend money to enforce those laws it deems “constitutional?”
County governments do not have the legal authority to determine whether a law is constitutional or not. But, nevertheless, this movement exists and it’s wildly dangerous and possibly destabilizing to our system of government.
It used to seem obvious to state the following, but in this time of January 6th type-instability in our democracy, it must be said. A constitutional county declaration, made unilaterally by a local legislature or executive by dictatorial fiat, ignores the fact that people choose their representatives through elections, and if they don’t like what the representative has done, they can organize to vote them out, on any level of government.
There is another path of recourse as well – to contest, through the courts, the legality and constitutionality of any law that is passed. The democratic structure we’ve carefully built up for more than 240 years can break down with this kind of lawless assault, which feels a lot like fascism on the local level.
Who is going to put an intense spotlight on what the Putnam County Executive is trying to do? This would of course be a job for The Journal News, but the paper has been gutted and its staff is severely overwhelmed. The New York Times is otherwise engaged.
As Tim Harper, a Putnam Valley resident and writing coach and visiting professor at the CUNY Journalism School, said, “Putnam County is just ripe for news, to blow the lid off local government.”
The consequences of the retreat of daily papers from the field are resulting in this problem: “people are less informed. Nobody’s watching,” Harper explained. “We’re in danger of having this elite divide, as news becomes more channeled.”
Where’s George Santos?
The devastating consequences of not having an objective watchdog can be seen in even more explosive fashion with the case of George Santos, who was elected to Congress on Long Island in 2022, despite fabricating his resume, which The Times only covered after the voting was over.
Newsday is the hometown newspaper for Nassau and Suffolk counties. It’s owned by the Dolan family, which also controls a huge Internet, cable TV and telephone company called Optimum. The Dolans also own Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers.
“That Newsday did nothing (about Santos) is astounding,” The Riverdale Press’ Stein said. “It’s amazing it did nothing in its home territory.”
The only paper to cover Santos’ multitude of lies and alleged frauds was The North Shore Leader, a small community weekly in Locust Valley, Nassau County, whose publisher is a lifelong Republican. In October 2022 they wrote that Santos’s wealth mysteriously skyrocketed from “basically nothing” to $11 million in two years, reported PBS.org.
The North Shore Leader wrote that “virtually everything Santos has said, filed and published about himself is a lie.”
The paper reported, “He is currently wanted in Brazil on criminal charges of committing elder fraud and check forgery. He stole checkbooks from the elderly patients of his late mother – who was a home healthcare nurse – and forged the checks to steal merchandise, according to prosecutors in Brazil.”
The Leader said Santos set up a GoFundMe page for a disabled Navy veteran’s service dog who needed an emergency stomach tumor operation, then disappeared, allegedly stealing the $3,000 that was raised from the public for the dog. The surgery had to be canceled when the veteran couldn’t come up with the money. The dog died.
Santos said he had graduated from Baruch College. He did not. He said he worked for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. These organizations have no record of his employment. Santos said he was Jewish. He isn’t.
That a man who would steal from his mother’s elderly clients and a disabled veteran and commit a variety of serious frauds and yet was able to run for Congress and get elected without any scrutiny during the campaign from the local daily newspaper is breathtaking.
The paper’s circulation has dropped like a rock, from more than 400,000 in 2014 to less than 100,000 in 2022. Advertising revenue has fallen in tandem, Newsday itself reported in January 2021, stating the COVID pandemic accelerated the decline in ads.
The Times swooped in on the George Santos story in December 2022, producing exhaustive reporting on what Santos did. But the election had taken place six weeks before.
Santos was indicted by the Department of Justice in May 2023, for “seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives,” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York.
“Santos opened a fake PAC (political action committee), never registered it, took in over $50K, and then stole the money for his own personal use – for rent, car payments and ‘designer clothes,” The North Shore Leader reported after Santos was indicted. He also, “fraudulently took some $25K in NYS unemployment benefits, while he was actually employed; and…Santos filed a perjured Personal Financial Disclosure with the U.S. House on September 6, 2022, that fraudulently claimed his net worth at $11 million, when he actually had net worth of barely above zero,” The Leader stated.
Health Care Mistreatment
The lack of oversight on local governments and political candidates isn’t the only area where robust local journalism can help the public but also in the private sector. Optum, a healthcare provider treated one of its patients, Westchester County resident Rachel Krause, with indifference and then contempt. Krause experienced even more difficulties after the trauma of losing her daughter, whom they named Ophelia, in a stillbirth at Northern Westchester Hospital. Krause almost died as well due to complications.
Optum, a multistate healthcare provider, seemed to delay in giving Rachel her medical records for months, even though they were legally required to do so.
“New York State Law gives patients and other qualified individuals access to medical records,” the state Department of Health website reads. “There are some restrictions on what may be obtained, and fees may be charged by physicians, other health care professionals and facilities for providing copies.”
The state health department “considers 10 to 14 days to be a reasonable time in which a practitioner should respond to such a request,” its website states.
Optum sent her the wrong records over and over again, despite repeated requests.
“I called up two or three times to have the pregnancy ultrasounds sent to me,” Krause wrote. “During every phone call, the staff assured me that it was in the mail and at one point provided a tracking number, but each time mammogram issues showed up instead.”
“They were sending different medical records than what I was requesting,” she said. “They sent me mammograms. I wanted my ultrasound and MRI records after the surgeries I had.”
Krause, a teacher, had been a patient of Optum’s predecessor companies – first Mt. Kisco Medical Group, then CareMount – since the 1980s. Optum acquired CareMount in 2022.
“Optum seemed to be obstructing my requests,” Krause stated, “and I was told that doctors discourage patients from getting their records because patients can’t understand them or read the software.”
An anonymous Optum employee told her over the phone that “they were intentionally sending me mammogram records, instead of the records I was requesting, all my pregnancy and birth records.”
Krause recovered, but understandably distraught over the loss of her child and trying to figure out what happened, she and her husband, Sam pressed to get her records.
“What we suspect is that after Rachel’s OB-GYN stopped talking to her, was that she (the OB-GYN) was talking to the legal department at Optum, as if it seemed the Optum legal department was engaged before we left the hospital,” explained Sam. (Northern Westchester Hospital gave its records to Krause right away, but Optum did not.)
“Something shady was happening,” Sam said. “The director of care coordination (at Optum) said, ‘You couldn’t understand the medical records.’”
The care coordination person’s statement seemed odd because the vast majority of patients take their medical records to a doctor.
“This whole fight, I was trying to get my records to help me go see specialists,” Krause said. “The care coordination person was so rude. I thought maybe they’re doing this on purpose.”
“I don’t like to think this was malpractice,” she added. “But I’m troubled by what happened. You lose trust in the process.”
Four months after Ophelia’s stillbirth, Optum started canceling current appointments the couple had, then terminated the couple as patients. They received letters from the company with no explanation for the action. They were also banned from seeking urgent care at Optum or using Optum labs if they ever had an acute medical issue.
Optum is a multistate operation with 165,000 employees around the world. It also operates in India, Brazil, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Besides healthcare, Optum sells insulin, vitamins, allergy pills and skin care products. It also has a pharmacy, for birth control, men’s hair loss, erectile dysfunction, sleep aids, headaches, stomachaches, cold remedies, baby monitoring systems, smoking cessation, heart tests, foot care, eye care, COVID tests, nutrition, breast pumps and many other products.
The company enjoyed $182.8 billion in revenue in 2022, an increase of more than 30 percent over 2021, reported Becker’s ASC Review, a healthcare news site on Jan. 13, 2023.
“They’re an enormous company,” Sam said about Optum. “Complaining about not getting your medical records, which was a private complaint, was sufficient to get us terminated.”
“I was lost,” Krause said. “I was scared to contact local papers. I was scared of Optum, that they would come after me.”
She went on the nextdoor.com website.
“I’m not a fan of social media,” Krause said. “But what happened at Optum, I saw that I wasn’t alone. There were already people complaining about Optum.”
Rachel posted a question on NextDoor: “Who here has had their care suddenly terminated by Optum (formerly known as Caremount) without explanation after being a patient there for many years?”
A local writer named Sherrie Dulworth read Krause’s post and contacted her. Dulworth wrote freelance articles for a number of publications, including The Examiner.
Dulworth told the couple to contact Stone, The Examiner’s publisher. Stone was already writing about issues people were having with Optum. He had written about patients having trouble getting Optum staffers on the phone because of excruciatingly long wait times, problems with scheduling appointments, deteriorating patient care, possible doctor shortages and billing issues.
It was no small thing for Stone to write about Optum. As he noted in a column, Optum has been a major advertiser in his small newspaper for 15 years, since shortly after he founded the operation in 2007. The paper employs an editor and four reporters, with freelance photographers and writers and some public-spirited volunteers filling out the news coverage.
“The paper couldn’t exist without volunteers,” Stone said.
The Examiner almost went under after the onset of the COVID pandemic due to the deep dive in advertising revenue, and only made it with a public call for contributions from the communities it served.
“It takes a village to produce a paper,” he joked.
So, Stone was risking a lot to write about the company. But he made the commitment to work on Krause’s story.
“Adam seemed worth the risk, even though we were scared,” Sam said.
They decided to trust him.
Stone explained that he was getting e-mails complaining about Optum, and Krause’s story was disturbing. He met them, interviewed them and wrote a 10,000-word article, published in a special pullout section of the newspaper, with photos of the couple with their stillborn baby in the hospital. On the paper’s website, Stone posted audio and video recordings of interviews with the couple.
One result of the story is that a bioethicist, Dr. John Lantos, connected with Stone. Lantos suggested they write a piece on their experience with a bio-ethics journal, which would help the couple greatly expand their ability to influence the debate about patient care and medical records.
“Writing our experience up, to share with medical professionals, is a good opportunity for understanding patient communication/miscommunication and the risks patients face,” Krause wrote.
She finally received her medical records from Optum, after months of wrangling. But she wrote, “I just didn’t know, and I still don’t know, if they (the records) have been tampered with. The struggle to obtain them, and the strange call from an Optum employee that something odd was going on, makes me doubt whether I had them all. According to a lawyer we spoke with, medical centers often do not give all records to patients without a court order. But I did obtain ultrasounds of my pregnancy eventually.”
She is appreciative of the news coverage The Examiner gave to her case.
“You can post stuff on Facebook, but when you have someone acknowledging your story there is legitimacy, merit behind the papers, as opposed to people just shouting to each other on Facebook,” she said.
News Coverage Needed
While this story highlights the power of newspapers, it also highlights the lack of coverage by The Journal News, perhaps due to its vastly reduced staff.
“The Examiner should be playing a complementary role to lohud,” Stone said. When the regional daily dies, there’s a new, giant responsibility small papers can’t fulfill. We have a small staff. We’re a couple of reporters basically. We have to pick and choose (stories to cover). We can’t get to every story. I always feel like we’re coming up short. I know how much we’re missing.”
If The Examiner wasn’t there, who would have been there to tell Krause’s story?
In many ways Westchester is fortunate. The county enjoys the attentions of more than a dozen newspapers. In comparison, some small towns upstate are suffering a complete lack of newspaper coverage.
The New York News Publishers Association, the New York Press Association and Rebuild Local News, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization founded to counter the collapse of local news reporting, sent a letter in March state government leaders, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, described the enormity of the problem facing New York’s residents.
“The number of weekly newspapers in New York plunged from 439 in 2004 to 249 in 2019,” the letter stated. “New York papers lost 63 percent of their circulation, tied for the most in the nation. Nationally, we’ve seen about a 57 percent decline in the numbers of reporters in less than two decades. On average, two newspapers are closing each week.”
Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and now a philanthropist dedicated to supporting journalism (the CUNY Graduate Journalism School is named for him, based on a $20 million gift he gave the program), explained in an e-mail why this is a terribly urgent issue.
“Trustworthy, sustainable newspapers are the lifeblood of our democracy, especially in smaller towns and rural areas that aren’t often the focus of larger, legacy papers,” Newmark wrote. “Newsrooms are closing in areas where we can least afford to cut back on trustworthy journalism.
“Without newspapers, especially in small towns where there aren’t a lot of other options for community news, local governments won’t feel the pressure to be accountable to those they serve. Not only will that hurt the quality and honesty of government, but it presents a dangerous opportunity for disinformation and bad actors to fill that void.”
Newmark made the crucial link between the functioning of a democratic system of government and the need for journalism which questions that government, in the case of Putnam Valley’s proposed action to reject tax breaks for solar and wind power construction, for example, and Putnam County’s efforts to silence Doug Cunningham’s newspaper’s critical coverage.
The disappearance of local newspapers is eroding democracy, which is why this is such a critical issue for every citizen of New York State and the country at large.
As Thomas Jefferson said, in part, “The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.”
Newmark also raised another worrisome point: Without an objective local source of journalism which readers can trust, we suffer a vacuum, which all too often is filled with propaganda, if not outright lies, that distort issues and inflame a mob mentality. Television is particularly good at this, as it is image-based and relies on a viewer’s short attention span.
“TV news provides an important perspective on local communities,” Newmark stated. “But we also need the intrepid, more in-depth, longer-form reporting that newspapers can provide. That includes investigative reporting, which the TV station model doesn’t normally allow.”
In its letter to state leaders, NYNPA, the NPA and Rebuild Local News explained what happens to communities where newspapers have closed, reinforcing Newmark’s points.
“Studies have shown that communities with less local news have more waste, corruption and polarization – and less civic engagement.
“And the vacuums that are being created by the shrinking of local news are being rapidly filled by social media, national partisan news, counterfeit local websites (funded by political activists of both parties) and conspiracy theories. The communities harmed are rural and urban, large, and small, red, and blue. Time is of the essence.”
Harper, the CUNY journalism professor, explained, “Papers are going out of business – without community journalism, that’s the heart of everything.
“The danger in New York and around the country is that small towns become news deserts. Having journalism as something you look at just for entertainment is not good,” Harper said. “It’s more fun to turn on the TV and see a show. Reading is hard for a lot of people.”
Harper sounded out this warning: “The danger is that nobody is watching. People are less informed.”
Print vs. Online Papers
As printing costs have skyrocketed by 30 percent, community newspapers, with few resources, are often just scraping by.
“It costs a lot of money to print a paper,” Harper stated. “The last printed paper will probably roll off the presses around 2030,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Harper might very well be right that all news will go digital. It’s much cheaper to post the contents of a newspaper online.
But publishing only digitally can be highly problematic. Ben Cheever, who worked as a reporter from 1970 to 1976 at The Rockland Journal News before starting a successful career as an author of fiction and non-fiction, pointed out the issues with digital media. The Rockland Journal News was absorbed into the White Plains Reporter Dispatch in 1998.
“The Rockland Journal News was attempting to provide useful, non-inflammatory information,” Cheever said. “We ran stories about the local budget. When I covered the county legislature, we covered stories about them. We’d run stories about blood drives. If a church changed its schedule, we’d cover it. The police in Rockland, they didn’t feel the need to tell reporters anything. You had to go look at the log, the police blotter. We had a police radio, with codes. You knew what had happened. There were a lot of reporters who had contacts. I wrote stories about corrupt or questionable politicians. The Republicans and Democrats were always turning on each other.
“We did the boring, but necessary work, covering the county budget and local elections. I don’t know that they’re covered at all anymore. We wrote stories on the squalid housing of the poor. You told people what you thought was going on. They (the public) read your story. It was nobody’s idea of a good place to work,” but “it was a highly functioning newspaper. We really represented our readers. We worked for our readers.”
That reporting infrastructure is now gone, Cheever said.
“I thought it was going to be replaced by the internet, but the internet devolved. It’s not reliable. They don’t have a relationship with readers. They’re more interested in getting your attention and selling you things than informing you.”
Letters to the editor had to be signed by somebody.
“Today, if someone wants to be critical in an anonymous post, they should put their name on it,” Cheever said. “The ability for people anonymously to savage anyone they want I don’t see the good in that. You can go online and say someone is a jerk and you don’t have to mention your name. The letters to the editor system worked.”
“It (the paper) had lots of useful information,” he added. “We also had real manners that were built in.”
In contrast, “there’s way too much darkness on the internet,” he said. “It’s getting your attention and not informing you.”
Another issue with the internet is the daily attempts to outrage us. It’s not just the ad targeting – it’s somebody who is trying to grab your eyeballs and inflame your brain.
The internet’s Wild West ethos demonstrates the chill you might feel when contemplating Harper’s prediction that all news will ultimately go digital.
“If you were badly behaved, you didn’t get attention,” Cheever said of our past. “Now you can be very badly behaved and get more attention for it. Mass school shootings to some extent, are excited by notoriety.”
Even when the online news is accurate, another challenge are short attention spans. Stories longer than 800 words, for example, can easily lose readers. People scrolling through stories on a screen can get easily bored. They’re often looking for the next new, exciting thing.
“Everything is so brief. A long, moving story is rare on the internet,” Cheever said. “I’d rather read it on the page. There’s something about the physical aspect of it. Print on the page is more reliable. If they lie to you on the internet, you really don’t know.”
A skeptic might point out that print newspapers contain advertising. Of course, you can look at a print ad, and the publisher of the paper is counting on it, but then move on to other information in the paper.
The print ad asks that you look, but it doesn’t track you. It doesn’t record that you looked at the ad and then went to your local department store or restaurant or website and bought the product being advertised.
Unless some tech genius invents a way to insert a microchip and tracking software into a thin piece of paper that can survive being rolled at high speed through a printing press, you’re safe from someone targeting your personal information to sell you something when you pick up a newspaper.
When false news, bizarre conspiracy theories and vicious propaganda that portrays political opponents as representing evil, the need for objective, nonpartisan, cool-headed reporting is greater than ever in New York and around the country. Yet never has the existence of daily and weekly newspapers that are truly committed to covering their communities been more threatened.
Michael Gold is the On the Street columnist for Examiner News, which publishes four weekly newspapers in Westchester and Putnam counties in New York State. He has published op-ed articles in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times-Union, the Virginian-Pilot, the Palm Beach Post and other newspapers, and The Hardy Society Journal, a British literary journal.
An earlier version of this article included two captions that said Ellenville is in Sullivan County. Ellenville is in Ulster County. The article was updated on Nov. 8.
Also, an earlier version of this article, in a photo caption, said Hudson Valley One covered a story about a police-involved shooting last year that brought to light the story of the victim. That story was covered by The Shawangunk Journal. The caption was updated on Nov. 9 to also note a story Hudson Valley One covered involving poor conditions at a hotel housing welfare recipients.
We regret the errors.
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