Remembering David Laventhol, 1933-2015

Photo: Randy Leffingwell / Los Angeles Times

Connoisseur of newspapers that he was, I suspect David Laventhol would get a kick out of the opening sentences of his obituaries this past week, as the big dailies honored his achievements each from its own perspective. The Washington Post remembered that Laventhol helped create its famous Style section. Newsday, where he was editor and then publisher in his thirties, took note of the many Pulitzers he racked up there. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that he guided that stalwart paper during its “period of expansion” in the 1990s.

He might enjoy The New York Times obit a little less. It frames him as the man “who made a journalistically acclaimed but financially doomed attempt to break into the New York City newspaper market by starting New York Newsday.” Accurate, more or less, but irritating. Here’s a suggested improvement: “… the man whose New York Newsday kicked its competitors in the ribs before it was murdered in its bed by its owner.” New York Newsday vastly improved the Daily News, the New York Post, and the then-underwhelming metro coverage in The New York Times, at least for a while. It was strangled at age 10, on its way to profitability, by an obtuse CEO out to prove to investors what a badass he was.

So here comes a send-off in another publication that Laventhol marked—this one.

At the end of a storied career, Laventhol came to the Columbia Journalism Review, which he more or less saved, and where those of us lucky enough to have worked with him will long remember his creativity, wisdom, and generosity, and maybe most of all his sense of adventure.

Tom Goldstein, the dean at the time, had the sense to hire Laventhol as publisher in 1999 and quickly promoted him to chairman and editorial director, capo di tutti capi of our little outfit. I was too dumb to fully realize it at the time, but he was a major god in high journalism circles. He had, as the obits this week would note, been commissioned by Ben Bradlee at the Post to fix up the women’s section, and so created the sizzling Style. Bill Moyers then invited him to Newsday, which he duly rejuvenated, gathering four Pulitzers and creating the aforementioned New York Newsday, a huge bet. I am sorry if you are too young or too far away to have known that tabloid, because it was pure Laventhol—seriously enjoyable. It made the subway system a full-time beat, for example. Its columnists rocked. Its editorials were deeply reported. It once covered a mob trial by sending a fashion sketch artist to depict the expensive suits of the guys with the nicknames.

One of its advertising campaigns involved Gary Carter, the charming and, at the time, recently acquired star catcher for the New York Mets. Carter would grin and say, “Hi, I’m new in town,” and then talk about another newcomer, New York Newsday. That, too, was a Laventhol idea. He was an incurable Mets fan. He would often announce, usually around the sixth inning, in my memory, “They’re gonna lose.” He was often right.

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Laventhol mumbled. He had Parkinson’s, which would later claim his life, so his head bobbed and weaved. He paid the disease little heed and after a while, you did too. When we first met, he took me to lunch in a loud French restaurant and I heard perhaps every fourth word he said. It must have gone all right, though, because after a while he put me in charge of editorial content, as his executive editor. He promoted my colleague, Brent Cunningham, to managing editor and off we went, for more than a decade. It is hard to imagine a better mentor. Laventhol slowly stepped back and we slowly waded forward into the water until, suddenly, we were swimming. He left us in 2003.

Laventhol had a desert-dry wit and an inner elf. He had a great fondness for cherries, and once told me that he wanted to create an all-cherry newspaper—news of the cherry harvest; latest cherry prices; cherry recipes, and so forth. But if you were late for a meeting, he would start without you. One of the lessons he drilled into us is that journalism requires profits, which in turn requires good management and a good relationship between the business and editorial sides, a shared vision. Another was his unspoken faith in the intelligence of readers. And another, maybe the biggest, was just to try things. “This will either work,” he once said to me about some project we were plotting, “or it will all fall down.” His hand gesture mimed something big falling down but he said it with a smile, conveying that the possibility the project might all fall down into a heap had no bearing on whether we should try it.

Laventhol rode the newspaper business in its ascendancy. He knew technology had reduced labor costs at big dailies and, in turn, created levels of profits that—along with display and classified advertising monopolies—had attracted investors, who had, in turn, provided backing for the rich editorial divisions that allowed him and others like him to spend millions chasing significant stories and building great bureaus and starting new sections and all that wonderful stuff.

He knew, too, that technology giveth and also taketh away. At CJR, he called his computer “the machine.” He didn’t exactly master it but he wasn’t afraid of it, and I’d like to think that if his career had continued deeper into the digital age, he would have had a wonderful time trying to figure out what you could do inside of it. He understood the pleasure of creation, that the chance to make editorial things that matter is a gift, and you might as well enjoy it. That doesn’t change.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR’s executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia’s Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.