Column: Seven years in community newspapers

I had a few things in mind when I left a good job at the Daily News in 2008 to write for a weekly newspaper in a place I was only vaguely familiar with. For one, I wanted to write stories longer than 600 words and The New York Times wasn’t exactly knocking on my door. I also wanted to write about the people of Long Island, a place to which I felt more of an attachment than any of New York City’s five boroughs.

Then there was that bit about not wanting to commute to and from Manhattan.

What I hadn’t fully expected was to effect real, meaningful change through my own reporting and that of my colleagues. That seemed to happen again and again. It didn’t take long for me to realize that an editorial or cover story in the News-Review could generate just as quick and active a response from the powers that be — the state parks department or Sen. Charles Schumer, for example — as a news item in the Daily News.

Along the way, I learned to harness the power of our printers to report — and, through our op/ed pages, advance — some important causes: getting the Navy to commit to cleaning groundwater contamination in Calverton, drawing attention to families in need of long-term medical care facilities for their children, decrying the state’s push for ever-higher-stakes testing in schools or properly honoring the memory of fallen ambulance volunteer Heidi Behr.

I also tried to write columns that, while maybe sounding preachy at times, gave an honest-to-myself-and-my-readers take on social issues of the day — race, gay marriage or immigration, to name a few. In the end, it should be known, the notes of appreciation and thanks I received for touching on these sensitive topics far outweighed any negative or hateful emails, voicemails or letters to the editor.

Indeed, there was no greater joy for me as a newspaper editor than listening to a heartfelt voicemail the day after one of my columns ran. One special morning I heard from a choked-up veteran touched by a column about my great-uncle who was killed fighting in World War II. I’ll never forget the sound of this man’s quivering voice.

When I came to Times/Review seven years ago my focus was on the writing, and trying to get the paper to read as well as any metro daily.

“We’re only as good as our worst story,” I’d often say to the staff. I was joking, of course, because there’s probably nothing more deflating you could say to a bunch of newspaper people doing this every day on the fly. Imagine telling the cast of “Saturday Night Live” that an episode is only as good as its worst skit!

Today, no doubt, with the help, drive and imagination of a supremely talented team, you’d be hard pressed to find better community newspapers in the country.

There were plenty of laughs had at Times/Review over the past seven years, too, not just in the newsroom but through the paper. Take this cover headline from June 24, 2010:

“Soundfront homeowners launch probe, find feces.” (I love potty humor.)

Then there was that doozy of a headline blooper from 2010, when I called the Suffolk County police commissioner a “Polish commissioner.” I haven’t heard the end of it.

Perhaps the best part about working in local news — as opposed to a big daily — is that, whether it’s negative or positive feedback, people know who you are and how to get you on the phone. I truly believe my missteps, more than anything else, have helped me become great at my job. Through some of these phone calls, I came to better know my readers, their sensibilities and sensitivities. Of course, I’d have to challenge those sensibilities and sensitivities at times, but at least I had a handle on what I’d be getting myself into.

It’s with all this in mind that I’m getting ready to launch my own news website, this time covering the growing Village of Patchogue and its surrounding areas, where I live. The site’s called, so be sure to tell your friends on the South Shore all about it, and like the Facebook page.

It’s been a bittersweet last few days here at Times/Review headquarters, with many friends parting ways. But there’s also been an air of excitement in the office, mostly because I’m not going far and I’m not leaving for any competition — or, worse, a job in public relations. (That’s a newspaper joke.) In the meantime, I’ll be following the news out of the North Fork very closely.

And, finally, after seven long years of restraint, I’ll be able to comment freely on the Times/Review Facebook feeds.

Get ready for some potty humor.

Michael White, editorMichael White was the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He joined the Times/Review staff in April 2008.