The New Niceness: Now Infecting 'Newsday' Sports Section

at least there was reason to be nice about the mets last night

Today’s Observer has a big piece about mandated niceness at Long Island’s once-respectable tabloid Newsday, specifically within the sports section. I don’t know if I know a single person on the planet who reads sports sections for coverage that avoids speaking plainly about its subjects, but perhaps the demographic number-crunchers at Cablevision, which bought the paper in 2008 and which also owns the Knicks and the Rangers, have identified this fan demographic as one that is underserved?

Or maybe not. A month ago, the Long Island Press published a detailed account of some of the frustrations inside the newsroom, including deep cuts to employees’ salaries through a new contract. In today’s Observer piece, John Koblin talked to Wallace “Wally” Matthews, who was until recently a Newsday sports columnist:

In February, he was assigned to write a column on Groundhog Day about the Mets. He said he wrote a “sarcastic” column about how the Mets seem to suffer from the same problem year after year. He said there was no name-calling. “Hank called me and said, ‘You know this can’t get into the paper,” said Mr. Matthews. “I said, ‘If it’s not getting in the paper, then I’m done writing columns. I know I still know how to write a column; I just don’t know how to do it for you.”

Mr. Matthews said he was told he had “the wrong tone.”

“They don’t want sarcasm in the paper,” he said. “What they want is straightforward analysis of why they’re having problems. You can’t have fun with it. You have to say the Mets need help at first base because Daniel Murphy is hitting .220.”

As a sometime Long Islander who (not to get too personal here, but oh, why not) was in large part inspired to write by because of the rich coverage offered by the hand-staining Newsday in its heyday, the decline of the paper, both in terms of its size and its content, has been especially painful to watch. Once a mammoth tabloid that had to turn away potential advertisers for reasons of space, Newsday is now a flimsy collection of charticles and graphsticles and celebrity fluff that’s only turning away sponsors if they have competing corporate interests with Cablevision. Sure, there are lots of other reasons for the paper’s decline that reach far beyond the current ownership — that circulation scandal cost them a pretty penny, and print journalism as a whole has had its own share of problems.

Many people, when talking about recent decisions by the higher-ups at Newsday, focus in on their idea to take all their content behind a pay wall, throwing up the old “35 paid subscribers in three months” number that was noted by a previous article in the Observer. This statistic, when presented on its own, is a little misleading; subscribers to either the print version of Newsday or Cablevision’s high-speed Internet service, both of which have pretty solid market penetration even when you factor in the competition from Verizon FiOS and the inflated circulation numbers, don’t need to pay.

But this whole episode seems like another reason to believe that the higher-ups there just don’t get the Internet. One has to wonder why the Dolans would seek to further compromise their competitive advantage (which, for most professional sports outlets these days, equals Honesty Plus Access) over the ever-growing number of other sports media out there — devil-may-care blogs, acid-tongued Tweeters, the competing shouters who take up increasing real estate on sports-related cable stations. Especially since there was a time that at Newsday, Telling It Like It Is was once a marketing asset.

(It’s probably worth noting that Marty Noble, the Mets’ beat reporter at the time that ad was made and for many years before and after, is now covering the team for its official site. I worked with him there for a season!)