When the subway opened a century ago with an inaugural trip from City Hall up to 145th Street, the New York papers celebrated with all the ingenuity they could muster. The editors of the World even arranged for a signal to be flashed to the roof of the towering Pulitzer Building on Park Row at the moment the first trip began. From there, the American flag would be raised, celebratory shots fired and the message sent to tugs in the harbor, where boats would toot a melody of joy.
But a dissonant note sounded across the East River, where the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorialized that “the right course” would have been to start the first subway in Brooklyn and build it toward Manhattan. Instead, Brooklyn was treated as an “afterthought,” the paper wrote in an editorial titled “Brooklyn Must Wait–and Should Remember!” Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., evidently took note; at points through the day, he spoke of how eager he was to extend the subway to Brooklyn.
March marks the 50th anniversary of the Eagle’s demise, and in many ways the city’s most-peopled borough carries the scars of that loss. With its dying breath, the Eagle shouted in a final editorial that without a local newspaper to give voice to community concerns, Brooklyn would be evermore cast in Manhattan’s shadow. Fifty years later, the anniversary of the Eagle’s closing serves as a reminder that the difficulty of attracting the attention of a Manhattan-centric media is still part of the cost of doing business in the four larger boroughs.
According to public relations executive Bob Liff, who covered Brooklyn and City Hall beats as a reporter and columnist for New York Newsday and the Daily News, it’s just a lot easier to pitch Manhattan-based stories. “It’s clear that the Manhattan bias in the city is such that absent a paper whose existence is predicated on covering Brooklyn, you’re not going to get the [same] kind of coverage,” Liff says. “If there are issues that happen in Manhattan, that gets huge coverage, but I can’t get it if it happens in Brooklyn.”
Staten Island has its Advance to raise local issues and Queens has had the Long Island Press and then Newsday. The Times has paid more attention to boroughs outside Manhattan in recent years and the Post set up a Brooklyn bureau, but only the Daily News provides daily, comprehensive coverage of Brooklyn–albeit in a zoned edition, which means that often enough, important Brooklyn stories don’t get citywide attention. In the broadcast world, only New York 1 covers news from all the boroughs regularly.
For Brooklynites, nothing comes close to matching the days when the Eagle kept an eye on their interests. The broadsheet’s crusades sometimes were over a small matter of civic pride, as in 1938, when the paper battled Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to make sure that hero aviator Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan was greeted first in Brooklyn rather than in Manhattan upon his return from Ireland–fitting, the Eagle argued, because he took off from Brooklyn. As Raymond A. Schroth recounts in his 1974 book, The Eagle and Brooklyn: A Community Newspaper, 1841-1955, the paper also had a vision for the borough. It created the Eagle Plan, pushing City Hall for more schools for the borough, more money for the Brooklyn Public Library, a new courthouse and jail, a new civic center, and continuing extensions of the transit system.
Today, the city’s mayor and, for that matter, the news media, are much more likely to bring up putting tolls on the Brooklyn Bridge than to raise the subject of extending a new transit line to Brooklyn.
The authors of “Better Transit for Brooklyn,” a study released in 2003 by Brooklyn-based Community Consulting Services and consultant George Haikalis, tried just that. They note that the Second Avenue subway plan’s only nod to direct service to rapidly growing downtown Brooklyn is to leave an 85-foot hole in the ground at lower Manhattan’s Hanover Square that might someday allow for an extension.
Carolyn Konheim, who worked on the study, says it’s been difficult to get any attention in the news media. “This is so frustrating because there’s no coverage,” she says. “Brooklyn is so important to the entire region.” Her study reported that Brooklyn generates the most transit ridership in the MTA region, nearly a third, and that the borough is shortchanged on capital funding.
Brian Ketcham, the executive director of Community Consulting Services, said he appreciates the coverage Brooklyn’s weekly newspapers provide, but that “to make a real difference, you need the citywide publications.” He adds, “I don’t think the mayor reads the Brooklyn weeklies.”
Tom Schroth, the Eagle’s last managing editor, chuckled a bit when asked in a phone interview at his home in Sedgwick, Maine, about how the Eagle would have responded to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to put tolls on the East River bridges.
“The Brooklyn Eagle would have raised hell, and that would’ve been a fun story,” he says. “We were kind of crusading about things like that–big things and little things. And that would be a big thing.” Similarly, he says, the Eagle would have pushed for the Second Avenue subway to be built directly to Brooklyn–”lots of page one stories pushing it.”
Schroth said the paper also would have “raised hell” over the decision to move the headquarters of the city education department from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Tweed Courthouse. “As I remember, the Eagle was proud to have that big city office in Brooklyn,” he says.
The Eagle, owned by Schroth’s family, officially closed on March 16, 1955, after failing to publish for 47 days during a strike. Author Raymond A. Schroth says the paper always saw itself as a champion of Brooklyn and sought to create civic improvement through periodic campaigns for plans published in its pages.
“I think that’s a style of journalism that’s been lost,” says Schroth, Jesuit professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College and a nephew of the paper’s final publisher, Frank D. Schroth. He sees an echo of it in the trend toward civic journalism (which the Pew Center for Civic Journalism defines as based in “a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life–an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts”).
From battling Manhattan over control of East River traffic in the 1840s to fighting into the 1950s for the creation of a downtown Brooklyn civic center, the Eagle was always a feisty defender of Brooklyn against what it regarded as overbearing Manhattan interests. Its last edition, on January 28, 1955, lamented, “the borough has been a stepchild in government services, charity, social activities, and indeed in every phase of community life.” It warned that its death would silence “the last voice that is purely Brooklyn” and that “the borough seems doomed to be cast in Manhattan’s shadow.”
Asked if he thought that turned out to be the case, Tom Schroth recalled a conversation his father, the paper’s publisher, had with Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. “I always felt that it [closing the Eagle] would hurt Brooklyn badly, and I even associated it with the departure of the Dodgers shortly after that,” he says. “I understand Walter O’Malley told my father that if the Eagle were there, they wouldn’t have gone to Los Angeles–the Eagle helped to fire up the local fans. I believe one reason they moved was that they believed they needed more local support.”
Even though plenty of news organizations make some effort to cover Brooklyn, without the Eagle around it’s possible for an important Brooklyn story to get little play in citywide media. That happened last October when a task force created by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz released a detailed report showing how to lower the borough’s car insurance costs, which the report said are the highest in the nation.
The announcement had plenty of elements to make it newsworthy: Car insurance is a pocketbook issue. Several million people were affected by outrageously high rates simply because they live in Brooklyn. The report showed how crime rings were milking the system by staging accidents on an enormous scale and running hundreds of phony medical clinics. It also suggested new steps to combat the problem, including the idea of stopping the no-fault program in Brooklyn.
The result was that the News ran a 351-word story inside its Brooklyn section and the Post published a 233-word article on page 23. Nothing appeared in Newsday or the Times. Among broadcasters, Channel 11 News at 10 covered the story.
The minimal coverage contrasts sharply with the way the same issue is handled in New Jersey, where the Star-Ledger of Newark has played the high cost of car insurance on the front page for years. As a result, the issue always gets close attention in the New Jersey statehouse and in political campaigns; in New York, it’s barely mentioned.
The Eagle would no doubt have played the story on page 1 and followed up on it constantly.
Another example of a contemporary Eagle story in the making: AIDS policy. Chris Norwood, who helped start the 718 AIDS Coalition in the 1990s to press for AIDS funding for agencies in the city’s most populous area code, contends the city just doesn’t shape its AIDS policy in a way that adequately addresses the 70 percent of AIDS cases that are outside Manhattan.
Norwood, executive director of Bronx-based Health People: Community Preventive Health Institute, said the membership of a year-old city policy panel, the New York City Commission on AIDS, is heavily weighted toward Manhattan (23 of the 25 members list Manhattan addresses, according to a list provided by the city Health Department). That “would certainly receive more attention” from a newspaper based outside Manhattan, she says.
The same could be said for the simmering conflicts over alleged favoritism shown to Manhattan in many other areas such as funding for tourism, parks maintenance, economic development, police staffing, district attorneys, culture and rebuilding subway stations–potential Eagle stories all.
Even a half-century after the Eagle’s closing, there remains in the city a streak of the paper’s sentiment regarding Manhattan and the media based there.
“The local things that get coverage in Brooklyn are the things that the New York newspapers like,” says Frank Macchiarola, president of Brooklyn Heights-based St. Francis College and former city schools chancellor. “If five people from Manhattan like a restaurant on Smith Street, it gets coverage. Events don’t get to be important because Brooklynites find them and spread the word. It’s important because the media in Manhattan found them.”
Paul Moses, a former city editor at Newsday, teaches journalism at Brooklyn College, where he is director of the Center for the Study of Brooklyn.
SIDEBAR: Late Edition: A View from the Brooklyn Desk
In the early 1990s, I was the Brooklyn editor at New York Newsday, a job I took out of a belief that nowhere else in America did so many people get so little news coverage as in Brooklyn.
At that point, the Times was beginning to make forays into Brooklyn–reporters and editors were moving to Park Slope–and doing some strong features (great work, although one of my colleagues dubbed it “Margaret Mead journalism” because it sometimes seemed to treat Brooklyn as a foreign culture). Only recently has the Times begun doing more of the everyday Brooklyn news stories–the ones on the inside pages of the Metro Section about the latest on downtown development or courthouse scandal–that are so vital to keeping the public informed.
Alone among the citywide media, the Daily News has covered Brooklyn day in and day out through the years, using a zoned section. (The rival Post set up a Brooklyn bureau in Bay Ridge, but doesn’t do daily coverage.) The News carries many major Brooklyn stories that don’t appear in other dailies. The downside to its approach is that stories deserving citywide attention are frequently relegated to the Brooklyn edition. “If you were going to make an issue or a cause, you weren’t going to do it on the Brooklyn page,” says Michael Armstrong, spokesman for Borough President Howard Golden from 1993 to 2001.
Weeklies and a small daily that circulates in downtown Brooklyn and carries the Eagle name also cover vital stories, in some cases quite aggressively, but, again, they lack the clout that citywide coverage brings.
At New York Newsday, I worked with reporters who did the everyday neighborhood stories on zoned pages, bigger stories for the citywide edition and investigative or in-depth pieces for both. I thought it was a good approach, but it didn’t have enough time. The paper shut its Brooklyn bureau when Times-Mirror Co. unplugged New York Newsday a decade ago this July 14.
Now under the ownership of Tribune Co., the paper has been sizing up Brooklyn; its publisher held a community forum in downtown Brooklyn last year to drum up interest.
Media executives might consider the Eagle’s demise. Early on, the Eagle saw itself as a paper for all Long Island and even dropped off papers by air in Nassau and Suffolk counties. But in 1937, as author Raymond A. Schroth recounts, it made the huge mistake of closing its Long Island news operation–despite staff protests.
Newsday started on Long Island three years later and by the 1950s far outstripped the Eagle because of the suburban boom in housing and shopping. Nowadays, the growth in housing and retailing is in Brooklyn. It’s hard to see how any city daily can thrive without focusing on the borough.