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Long IslandHistory

The little paper that could

Alicia Patterson with her father, Joseph Medill Patterson,

Alicia Patterson with her father, Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News. Credit: Newsday file photo

The creator of America's most successful tabloid newspaper, the New York Daily News, warned Alicia Patterson that conservative Long Island readers would never accept a tabloid. That advice came from her father, Joseph Medill Patterson, the man she had always tried to please more than anyone else.

Another adviser, an immensely wealthy businessman whose philanthropies ranged from funding the start of modern rocket science to guiding the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, urged Alicia to get serious about her life. He advised her to learn how to run a small newspaper, so she could eventually play a leadership role at her father's Daily News. That was the counsel of her third husband, Harry Frank Guggenheim, who was so serious about it that he stood ready to bankroll her little starter newspaper.

A third influential businessman, the shrewdest collector of newspapers on the North American continent, made the enterprise possible by failing in a rare attempt to start up a paper of his own. He did not give Alicia advice, but in effect, he did give her a chance.

That was S. I. Newhouse, who launched the Nassau Daily Journal in a converted auto showroom in Hempstead on March 1, 1939. He shut it down on March 10, fearing that a labor dispute over delivery of the paper might engulf his more substantial Queens-based properties, the Long Island Press and the Long Island Star-Journal.

This serendipitous failure happened less than four months before Harry and Alicia were married, on July 1, 1939. They learned about the availability of this plant while they were on their honeymoon in Roswell, N.M., visiting Harry's rocket-scientist protege, Robert Goddard. The news came in a telegram from a close friend and colleague of Alicia's father, Max Annenberg, who was helping them search for a paper.

But the telegram caught Alicia, 32, in a self-doubting mood. "I had terrible inferiority feelings," Alicia said. "I didn't think I had anything."

Though she strove to show her father that she could be as plucky as any son, demonstrating courage as a record-setting airplane pilot and a hunter of exotic big game, she had a poor journalistic resume. Her one attempt at daily newspaper work, as a young reporter for the Daily News, had ended in humiliation: She fouled up a story, incurring a libel suit, and her father fired her.

"On the arrival of Max's telegram, Alicia balked," Harry wrote later. "She wanted, at that moment, to give up the whole idea." But the stern, practical and mature Harry, 48, insisted. "I refused to be shaken by her plea to forget all about it. I told her that we had started this job and we would have to finish it."

So Alicia said yes, and the newlyweds began moving forward. On a personal level, starting a newspaper in Nassau County made sense, because that's where they'd be living - in Falaise, the Norman-style mansion that Harry had built with his second wife, in Sands Point. But they also wanted to make sure the venture made good business sense. So they asked William Mapel, a former reporter and editor who now had his own public relations firm, to check it out.

Surveying the area, Mapel and his assistant, Stanton Peckham, detected great enthusiasm for a new competitor to the only daily newspaper serving the county, the Nassau Daily Review-Star. They also decided the county had immense growth potential.

On Jan. 23, 1940, Mapel and Peckham submitted a report, modestly predicting: "By the end of the second year the paper should have a paid circulation in Nassau County of 15,000 copies daily." (By the end of the decade, it had reached 100,000.) On April 5, 1940, Harry agreed to buy the equipment of Newhouse's defunct paper and take over the lease of the former auto dealership at 283 Main St.

To Newhouse, the sale did not seem like a permanent defeat, because Alicia did not appear to have a long attention span. "I thought she'd see it as a toy, something to play with for a while, and that eventually I'd be able to buy it back from her," Newhouse said. That view didn't recognize her fierce drive to show her whole family, steeped in newspapering for a century, that she could be as good a journalist as any of them.

The next few months were a mad scramble: hiring a staff, including several from her father's Daily News; converting the press to print a tabloid; buying used office furniture, and coming up with a name - in a contest. Finally, Alicia pushed the button, and the first edition rolled off the presses on Sept. 3, 1940. Some embarrassing errors marred the first paper, prompting her to admit: "I'm afraid it looks like hell."

In an editorial the next day, Alicia apologized. "Newsday, 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."

The sloppy start provoked gallows humor on the new staff. "We were taking bets on how many days it would last," said one of Alicia's young reporters, Virginia Sheward. "That's how bad it was. It was a horror."

But the little tabloid survived, despite such hurdles as Alicia's emerging disagreement with Harry over politics. Little more than a month into Newsday's life, they ran opposing pieces on the Franklin Roosevelt-Wendell Willkie race for president: Alicia supported Roosevelt; Harry backed Willkie. That pattern continued, as Harry used his majority ownership to try to exert more influence on the editorial side.

Later, Alicia also disagreed sharply with her father over Roosevelt, which didn't help their relationship. Joseph Medill Patterson's staff helped her in many ways, but he didn't give her the encouragement she would have liked. Asked by a colleague how she was doing, he said: "Oh, she's all right. She's got a little paper out in Hempstead, but it isn't going anywhere."

Running that little paper, Alicia had to overcome a lot. America's entry into World War II drained her young staff, for example, and removed Harry from the scene for naval duty, forcing her to run the paper herself.

Somehow, she overcame. After the war was over, the rise of Levittown started an eastward migration that launched Newsday into a long period of sustained growth.

Not only did she prove her father wrong about the potential for a Long Island tabloid, but she also showed he had been mistaken to predict that Newsday wasn't going anywhere. For a series of stories on a corrupt union leader, William DeKoning, Newsday won its first Pulitzer prize in 1954 and Alicia's face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

She lived to enjoy this first taste of glory and to fight further battles with Harry over the presidential elections of 1956 and 1960. But shockingly she didn't live to celebrate Newsday's 25th anniversary, dying at age 56 after ulcer surgery in 1963. By then, however, Newsday was on the way with a circulation of nearly 400,000. One of her editors, Jack Mann, summed her up this way: "She was the greatest newspaperman I've ever known."

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