Suffolk Closeup: Monopolizing the news

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

Once there were two daily newspapers on Long Island competing vigorously with each other — Newsday and the Long Island Press, where I was a columnist and did investigative reporting. But the Press, founded in 1821 as the Long Island Farmer, suddenly ended publication in 1977 leaving the field clear for Newsday.

Once there were more than a dozen cable TV outlets on Long Island. Then came Cablevision, gobbling up all the cable TV outlets, leaving only one, with its monopoly position somewhat moderated by Verizon beginning its Fios service a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Cablevision acquired Newsday in 2008 for $650 million, leaving Long Island with one company owning its only daily paper and its dominant cable TV system.

Last month, in a $17.7 billion deal, Cablevision and Newsday were acquired by Altice, a company based in the Netherlands with a worldwide empire of cable TV and telecommunications operations.

The Fair Media Council, founded on Long Island in 1979 and describing itself on its website as “one of the oldest media watchdogs in the country,” is a non-profit entity that “advocates for quality local news and works to create a media-savvy society,” and has been among the organizations opposing the Altice acquisition.

The Altice purchase caused the council to have “grave concern for the public interest, public safety and the local economy.” It has warned of a prompt and dramatic cut in expenses by Altice for Cablevision and Newsday. Indeed, Altice is known for this. “Altice’s claim to fame is cost-cutting,” as the council’s executive director Jaci Clement told Long Island Business News last year.

Moreover, Ms. Clement and the council have been, and are, deeply worried about monopoly control in Long Island media. As she told Long Island Business News: “For Long Island … back in 2008, I didn’t want one entity [Cablevision] owning both Newsday and News 12” — Cablevision’s TV news operation— “and I still don’t. Lots of people didn’t understand that back then, but have since come to see how media consolidation hurts both the quality and the quantity of the news.”

Following the Altice acquisition of Cablevision, Moody’s Investor Services Inc. downgraded the cable company’s debt by two levels, to “a speculative grade,” or considered unsuitable for investment by many fiduciary organizations.

“We believe that Altice will quickly reduce costs,” Moody’s reported, adding that Altice is readying $450 million in yearly savings.

“However, if the cost cuts drive too fast a pace of organizational change and head count reduction, this could result in disruption of Cablevision’s service quality and lead to market share erosion,” Moody’s reported. Moody’s expects Verizon’s Fios “to gain market share if Cablevision stumbles operationally.”

Meanwhile, what about Newsday and the investigative reporting for which it has been known since its founding in 1940? Investigative reporting, any publisher will tell you, is an expensive proposition.
Cablevision, based on Long Island, has been a family entity led by patriarch Charles Dolan.

He’s a native of Cleveland. Once, at a Press Club of Long Island function, I shared my experience as an Antioch College student doing an internship at the Cleveland Press, the first newspaper of publisher E.W. Scripps and known for investigative reporting going back to the muckraking era of the early 1900s.

Mr. Dolan reflected on the great respect he had for the newspaper and the crusading editor who headed it when I was there, Louis Seltzer. Working at it inspired me to get into investigative reporting.

Mr. Dolan, like Louis Seltzer, has understood that a central mission of journalism is to be a check on and a challenge to power. Under the Dolans, solid investigative reporting has continued at Newsday.

Altice is led by Patrick Drahl, born in Casablanca, Morocco, moving at 15 with his family to France, studying fiber optics and subsequently going into cable TV and telecommunications.

Why did Cablevision sell to Altice? Leon Lazaroff, who writes for the financial website, The Street, explained last year: “That Cablevision had to sell or find a partner has been obvious. The traditional cable bundle is under attack, as streaming services from Netflix … and Time Warner’s… HBO NOW along with popular video platforms from Google’s … YouTube and Facebook … divert viewers from pay TV channels, bringing marketers and their money along with them.”

When it comes to cable TV, Charles Dolan would know when to buy and sell. He made his initial fortune founding HBO in 1971, the first premium program service in cable TV, and subsequently selling it to Time Life.

Will Altice hold on to Newsday — especially considering the financial canyon it has created for itself by the purchase? And if it dumps Long Island’s lone daily, who will buy it?

Does Altice care about Long Island?

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