In Memory of David Laventhol, the Man Who Transformed Newsday

The man who transformed Newsday and made it distinctive, admired and synonymous with Long Island, and later boldly created New York Newsday, was David Laventhol. Once Newsday‘s editor and publisher, afterwards the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, he ultimately was the president of the Times Mirror Company, owner of the papers. He died last week and readers ought to know something about him, as he set Newsday’s destiny and character in its finest hours.

Dave’s accomplishments and ambitions were always on behalf of the papers he led and their readers. His manner and means were rare, not in the central casting mode of those who built great newspapers. Gentle, unpretentious, even diffident, his force and ideals came from his editor’s heart and practical imagination, a devotion to detail, unwavering determination, clear intelligence, embrace of talents of many styles and an intimate understanding of every cog in the machinery and enterprise of newspaper life. And a sly, shy humor, he often turned on himself. You could walk past him unnoticing if you never knew him, but never again once you did.

Bill Moyers, the publisher of Newsday, brought Dave from the Washington Post, where Ben Bradlee had chosen him to fashion a new section called Style. There was a certain irony, because Dave was the anti-hero of personal style. The section he created became a lodestar of agile and imaginative feature writing, giving zest and a new idiom to newspapers. Dave remembered his days at the New York Herald Tribune, where he was City Editor, and how the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin gave its pages verve.

Once at the editorial helm of Newsday, Dave was resolute that Long Island deserved a modern paper of content, caliber and stature equal to those whose names were defined by big cities across America. He saw the whole of Long Island needing a cohering daily report and point of view, its own voice, separate from the newspapers in the City, but equal in aspiration.

It was Dave’s leadership that made Newsday‘s daily coverage of schools and police and local politics complete, its columnists tuned to what and who made Long Island life, and its wider connections to Albany, Washington and the world alert and award winning. The paper’s ambit encompassed everything from sports to movie and television reviews, dining to books, business to health, government scandal to suburban tales of neighbors and neighborhoods. The ties to Long Island were always marked. Its tone and manner were in sync with its readers, yet Dave was always seeking to stretch the paper and its readers, to face issues of the Island’s growth and governance, its economy, to know more and thus ably face civic problems that needed remedy. He felt the paper ought to stir the conscience on race and other matters of sensitivity and consequence. He wanted Newsday to illuminate and celebrate Long Island, yet never to be bound by insularity. His highest calling was that Newsday would become indispensable to every home and institution on Long Island, in every way, which included its advertising pages making it central to the commercial and consumer vibrancy of Long Island. And because of that, Newsday became extraordinarily successful, providing the wherewithal to build and expand its journalism. It won its readers’ trust and reliance.

Dave was a leader and an inspirer; he was principled, without sanctimony. Despite being a well-known mumbler, his directions were clear. His resolve was unflagging. He never forgot the paper’s highest obligations and in a corporate world he kept the flame of independence lit.

Perhaps you didn’t know him. I wish you had. Yet you know Newsday, once in so many ways his. He said for those in our business, the proof was in the pudding and the pudding was what the newspaper had in it each and every day. Because of that readers shared something precious with him. He stands as tall as the most celebrated in the pantheon of newspaper leaders, and a step ahead in being so wise and wry, and close in spirit to his readers.

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