Dave Laventhol was an odd choice in 1970 to be the new editor of Newsday. Never mind that he didn't have the geographic pedigree of being a Long Islander or wasn't even an émigré from Brooklyn or Queens. Laventhol had no swagger. He was shy, wore black-rimmed glasses, his shirttails "chronically untucked."
But over the next 20 years, Laventhol would transform Newsday and become a force in American journalism. He also would become a major influence in the lives of scores of Newsday reporters and editors, who would go on to populate newspapers and TV outlets across the country.
When he died at 81 on Wednesday, many of the obituaries focused on the doomed attempt to break into the New York City market with New York Newsday in the 1980s. I would rather remember him for making Newsday into a world-class newspaper and expanding the horizon of Long Islanders.
By the time he arrived at Newsday, the paper had established itself as a scrappy and ambitious suburban daily. It had won a Pulitzer Prize for a local investigative report and would win several more in the early 1970s. But it was still a newspaper filled primarily with news of local government and sprightly written feature stories delivered each afternoon (prompting wags to describe it as "a housewife's newspaper with a terrific sports section").
But Laventhol had big plans, starting with the notion that newspapers could no longer compete in the television-radio age by giving readers the same news a day late. Instead, he viewed Newsday as a "daily magazine," with a single in-depth cover story and photograph dominating the front page, designated sections covering and analyzing local and national news, and a Part II section that featured narrative storytelling, specialized beat reporting on such topics as education and the environment, and arts and entertainment news and reviews.
He also was astute enough to see that news consumers would no longer continue to purchase more than one daily newspaper -- one for their local news and another for their national, business and foreign news (an unfathomable idea today). Newsday, he declared, had to be a "complete paper." He expanded the Washington bureau. He nourished beats on national issues such as race and poverty. He had the foresight to recognize the value of informed and provocative opinion journalism and tripled the size of the editorial section. He added business reporters. And in 1979, he and other executives convinced the Chinese government to allow Newsday to become one of the first newspapers in the United States to open a news bureau in Beijing, soon followed by bureaus in London, Cairo and Mexico City.
He believed that the people of Long Island deserved and were ready for this kind of newspaper. In fact, they yearned for it. Readership study after study had convinced him that Nassau and Suffolk had one of the most educated and sophisticated readerships in the country. No longer would suburban readers -- who now made up the majority of the country -- have to live in the shadow of big-city dailies. He hired away top reporters from papers in Chicago, Miami, Boston and New York, including a rock critic from the Village Voice. It didn't hurt that Newsday was making a record amount of money, with support growing from both advertisers and readers.
In the newsroom, he inspired reporters and editors to think big about themselves and the paper. Starting on Long Island, there was no story we couldn't cover. Reacting to a rise in local drug overdoses, Laventhol dispatched a team to trace the flow of heroin from the poppy fields of Turkey to the streets of Nassau and Suffolk. The "Heroin Trail" series won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Four years later, Newsday published a 12-part series called "Long Island at the Crossroads," examining Long Island's economic malaise and lack of a unified leadership structure. The series controversially concluded with specific recommendations. The issues it raised, however, remain potent today.
In the mid-1970s, when Time magazine chose Newsday as one of the Top 10 newspapers in the country, I felt the same kind of coming-of-age pride for Long Island that I suspect thousands of others would feel a half-dozen years later when the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup.
In 2003, more than three decades after I first met Laventhol, I was named editor of Newsday. He was long gone from Long Island by then, having been promoted to top jobs at the Los Angeles Times and Times Mirror, Newsday's owner from 1970 to 2000. A few days later, we spoke on the phone. He was suffering from a difficult battle with Parkinson's disease. He congratulated me, but also wanted to talk about the Internet. Unlike the doomsayers, he did not lament that the Internet had disrupted the business model of newspapers, threatening their survival. He asked me, "So what are you going to do to adapt and change?"
He was, in the end, an increasingly rare breed, a newspaper executive not afraid of the future. He looked forward. Never back.
Howard Schneider, a former editor of Newsday, is founding dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism.
This story was updated to clarify the period in which Times Mirror Co. owned Newsday.