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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

The 'roughneck' who made Newsday happen

Alicia Patterson at the stick of her Laird

Alicia Patterson at the stick of her Laird biplane in the 1930s. Credit: Newsday

The one thing about Alicia Patterson, Newsday's oh-so-very prim and proper looking founding publisher, that's always captured my imagination was her childhood nickname, Roughneck.

She was a tomboy, who had been expelled from four schools by the time she was a teenager.

Patterson could shoot and hunt.

Her father, Joseph Medill Patterson, had trained her early on to succeed him in the newspaper business — but later he changed his will to leave controlling interest in the New York Daily News to someone else.

Patterson married one, two, three times.

The third was the charm: It was Harry Guggenheim, whose investment freed Patterson to do what she had long hoped to do.

"Oh, she's started a little paper out on Long Island," her father told a friend who had asked about Patterson during a lunch in 1940.

"It won't amount to much, but it fills her spare time."

That "little paper" was Newsday.

Patterson knew the business, from the streets to whatever passed for an executive suite back in the day.

As a rookie reporter for her father's the Daily News, Patterson sneaked into a Junior League meeting to get the goods on a society divorce; but she also ended up getting the paper sued — after confusing the divorcing couple with a happily married one with similar names that she had pulled from a clip in the library.

She didn't get fired; instead, she was shipped to another family newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, according to news reports.

Patterson would go on to build Newsday and to use the paper to pull neighborhoods, communities and counties together into one region, according to "Newsday, A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid," by my former colleague, Robert Keeler.

In addition to savvy, Patterson had a keen business sense — and she knew her territory very well.

"My job is to make Newsday readable, entertaining, comprehensive, informative, interprepretive, lively but still serious-enough so that no Long Islander will feel compelled to read any New York City paper," she once said.

Take that, Daddy!

Patterson wanted Newsday to amplify the voices of Long Islanders, suburbanites who read New York tabloids — which rarely could be bothered with local issues.

She wanted Newsday to hold public officials, sprawled geographically over multiple layers of government, accountable.

She wanted Newsday, through its opinion section, to stake a seat at the region's leadership table. ("The paper is like me," Patterson once said, "for I am a temperamental person with violent likes and dislikes.")

Patterson wanted Newsday to interact with its readers, and with its community. (The paper held a contest to name the newspaper, and the winner was … well, you know.)

She always loved a juicy crime story.

And Miss Patterson — as she was known in the newsroom — appreciated dissension and fearsome debate over issues. ("I guess you think I'm just an old reactionary," she said during a bitter fight with an editorial writer. "Oh," the writer replied, "You're not so old." Patterson is said to have laughed — and then offered to buy the writer a drink.)

Her Newsday never shied from advocacy.

Her Newsday pushed for creation of a suburban performing arts center that was to have rivaled New York City's Lincoln Center. (That didn't go anywhere; the county later built Nassau Coliseum instead.)

Her Newsday backed the creation of Levittown (which created a housing boom, and, with that, more newspaper customers), despite restrictive covenants that prohibited people of color from buying homes and helped to perpetuate segregation on the island.

Newsday sent reporters to cover the civil rights protests in the South; but Newsday's editorial page shied away from supporting housing and other rights for African Americans. "America will eventually beat bigotry with evolution," one editorial stated. "But we will never do it with revolution.”

Patterson, it must be noted, also had what Keeler called "a less than commendable caution on racial issues."

Patterson did not allow racist language in the newspaper, but in 1947 balked at a friend's suggestion that Newsday publish a photograph of a Black woman attorney, according to Keeler's book. "That might be very damaging to the paper because I don't know of any newspaper that has had a picture of a Black in it," she said — before later agreeing to run the photo.

Hal Burton, an editorial writer who worked for Patterson, put it succinctly: "She felt strongly on social justice, except for the Blacks," according to Keeler's book.

She didn't hire African American journalists either.

Thomas A. Johnson, the paper's first Black reporter, was hired on July 8, 1963 -- less than a week after Patterson died age 56.  

Patterson was forward looking as a businesswoman.

On Sept. 3, 1940, Patterson hit the button to send the first edition of Newsday through the presses.

That moment is memorialized in a photograph.

What she said afterward — "I'm afraid it looks like hell" — was not.

"Our paper was not as good as it should have been yesterday," the editorial page read the next day.

"Our pictures were blurred. Our type was blurred. One of our comic panels carried the wrong caption and to end a rather hectic day, two stories on Page 1 became transposed and Chapter 1 of the serial story began with a synopsis."

That mea culpa's headline was, "Birth of a Paper."

And from that day, every year, in the 80 years since, Newsday has been reborn, again and again.

From afternoon delivery to morning delivery to something called the Internet, and now to online editions, Newsday Live, social media and — soon — a television studio.

Eight decades of following in Roughneck's footsteps, and where necessary — as in Newsday's apology for supporting Levittown's racist covenents —  forging paths of our own. 

" … We have decided to be philosophical about it all," the 1940 editorial went on.

"Newsday, as we discovered, was just like a child, and as with our favorite youngsters, it refused to be at its best in its first public appearance.

"So, if you will pardon a not-too-good pun, even if we err again, we will not be discouraged — for tomorrow also will be Newsday."

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