Trouble With The North County News

Aquarian Weekly 9/6/06 REALITY CHECK

HOOLIGANS IN THE PRESS ROOM The Systematic Assassination of a Westchester Institution

Disturbing news trickled into the Reality Check News & Information Desk last week. A good friend and colleague of mine, and one of my sports editors during the early 90s, Ray Gallagher was unceremoniously sacked from the North County News. After 17 years of tireless efforts over countless hours of shedding significant light on athletes, coaches, programs, and schools in the Westchester, NY area, he was asked to leave with no warning or vacation or sick time earned.

The company reason?

The conflict of a second job working for the Putnam Valley Parks & Recreation Department, a post Gallagher has held with pride and care for the past five years. A job he takes seriously to help the kids he will cover in the coming years achieve their dreams in athletics, and one, let’s face it, he had to get to supplement the atrociously low compensation accompanying a hard-working local sports editor.

The real reason?

Perhaps the ultimate demise of the small town weekly to save a buck or sate an ego.

Whatever the reason, seems the razing of the staff with little-to-no compensation is more the norm than the exception at the North County News these days.

Be that as it may, this unconscionable crime against not only quality sports journalism, (NY State award winner for best weekly sports section 15 of the 17 years Gallagher helmed it) but the toil and sweat of a dedicated community hero cannot stand. In my many years in sports journalism – a despicable trade inhabited by sub-mental sops and sad-sack gambling addicts – I never met a writer with more integrity and guts than Ray. I was proud to work for him, know him, and most importantly, read him.

Gallagher’s struggles to help bring high school sports to Putnam County and the selfless campaign to help make the high school a reality and making sure all the area kids were well-equipped and respected in and around the varied sections should have garnered him a statue, instead of this apparent dime-store flim-flammery perpetuated by cheap hacks and scurrilous purveyors of yellow schmaltz.

So if destroying a wonderful newspaper like the North County News is the goal, than the powers that be are accomplishing their mission with dizzying speed. But if the goal is to improve content by stomping out the talent, then these people are even stupider than they appear.

Admittedly, I consider Ray a friend, and I tend to view most publishers and other literary vipers as mutating forms of a bilious disease oozing over the damaged organism known as journalism. So I’m biased. But then I set out to interview another former member of the NCN staff on an unrelated subject. Before resigning from the paper this week, uber-scribe Rita J. King backed up Gallagher’s allegations of megalomaniacal bullying performed by new publisher, Bruce Apar.

“Every publication has room for improvement, and when I found out a publisher had been hired, I looked forward to the changes that would take place,” King recalls. “But Bruce Apar’s treatment of the North County News staff, supported by the company’s management, was dehumanizing, and resulted in a round of immediate terminations and resignations.”

According to other reliable sources within the paper’s staff – many of whom either fear for their jobs or have since abandoned ship – Apar, along with general manager Carla Chase, appear to be systematically, if not clumsily, attempting to “drag the paper into the ground as some kind of write-off.”

“Someone should write about this,” one source told me last week. “Because this is really about the death of the hometown newspaper.”

Okay, so maybe the paper is taking a financial beating and needs to clean house. I understand this. Business is business. Sometimes a fine magazine or newspaper is trashed for the bottom line. I’m a big boy. Ray’s a big boy. But why refuse to pay the man his due or take the low road by not allowing Gallagher to say goodbye to many of his faithful readers or demand he return his laptop and camera equipment as if he were a common thief? And why did they remove his archives from their web site as if he never existed?

We don’t know, because several calls to the paper, and specifically Mr.Apar, have gone unanswered. But Apar is apparently only a symptom of a greater problem inside a once proud local institution. According to several former employees, the spate of staff harassment has been an inherent part of working for the NCN in recent years.

“The PR director relishes firing people,” a high-ranking official at the paper told me this week. “Apar isn’t doing anything they don’t support in Human Resources and at the top levels of the company.”

Does this include dumping employees on flimsy grounds and withholding benefits?

“I might have better understood their actions if they had been professional about it, but they were just plain mean spirited,” Gallagher told me this week. “My dismissal couldn’t have been on economic grounds; I increased the circulation of that newspaper by the thousands when I decided to expand the coverage area from six high schools to 14 from 1996 to 2000, despite an increased workload for my staff.”

King also felt the flak she endured was of dubious merit.

“Apar didn’t want to run one my columns because he found it too ‘self-referential,’ and he made it clear that all writers will follow his editorial philosophy,” King told me. “Yet the newspaper that week was full of his own self-references, including in the editorial section and in the form of two large photographs. With such contradictions riddling his ‘editorial philosophy’, it was impossible to know what was expected of us.”

After extensive discussions with several present and former employees of the paper a rather odious string of events began to emerge, not the least of which are the alleged demotions from full-time to part-time positions and/or the outright firing of employees to avoid providing their health benefits.

Again, despite numerous inquires on these allegations to the North County News management, nary a response.

But no response is necessary, right? They can do whatever they want. It’s their paper. If anything illegal or unethical has been done, one hopes action will be taken and reparations would be in order. Otherwise you can make up any old reason to drop someone. No one is owed anything. No one is entitled to be treated fairly. Fairness is illusion. Lord knows I’ve earned a living in this miserable vocation long enough to realize that.

But if the business is news, and the enterprise is a media outlet, whether the NY Times or a hometown weekly, than the public needs to know how the business is being run. The public needs to know that the reporters, columnists, and photographers who work the community to the best of their ability are being treated shoddily and that the quality of the coverage and writing is taking a backseat to cutting costs or some base form of insane egomania.

So if destroying a wonderful newspaper like the North County News is the goal, than the powers that be are accomplishing their mission with dizzying speed. But if the goal is to improve content by stomping out the talent, then these people are even stupider than they appear. And that’s the problem with management types, they think they’re the paper because they sign the checks or make the rules. But there isn’t a publishing cretin on this planet that could turn a phrase or cover a story or capture an opinion with all the hissy office tantrums in the world – not without a dedicated staff.

I say let the NCN crumble. It wouldn’t be the first time the ham-fisted wannabees wrecked a good thing, and it won’t be the last.

Ray Gallagher may be out of a gig for now, but he’s still the best damn sportswriter in Westchester County. He just does it now from his new web site, or a competing newspaper soon, instead of a doomed rag run by low-rent goons.

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