Pressure Drop Newsday Foreign Editor Sparks Culture War


On October 23, as fledgling Newsday editor Howard Schneider prepared to make his first round of appointments, one employee refused to go along with the plan—foreign editor Dele Olojede. The job Schneider was offering Olojede was assistant managing editor for Long Island—a promotion that would have put him in line to take over the paper one day. But the decision seemed to already have been made without consulting Olojede, who felt utterly disrespected.

Under pressure to accept the job in 24 hours, Olojede said no, according to several sources. Schneider gave him time to reconsider, but Olojede had already e-mailed his staff, informing them, “My current position is no longer tenable” and “I will not be at Newsday, in all likelihood, for long.”

Nearly two months later, Olojede remains at Newsday, which is owned by the Tribune Company. The well-liked and highly regarded Nigerian is said to have discussed future jobs with The New York Times as well as the Tribune-owned Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. His anticipated departure has left the foreign desk in turmoil, and no obvious successor has emerged. Says one staffer: “To lose someone with that talent and credibility is pretty shortsighted.”

As Olojede stalls, hoping for a smooth transition, many colleagues have tried to change his mind, including publisher Raymond Jansen, who told the Voice that no one has asked Olojede to leave, adding, “He’s Newsday‘s foreign editor and I’m happy with that. I expect him to stay.” Via e-mail, Schneider said that Olojede “remains a very important part of our newsroom.” Olojede declined to comment.

At the end of October, Schneider announced the appointments of managing editor Richard Galant and New York editor Les Payne. Whereas in the past the foreign editor had reported to assistant managing editor Lonnie Isabel, who in turn reported to Payne, Payne is now out of the foreign news loop and Isabel reports directly to Galant. More recently, Schneider hired an AME for Long Island: Deborah Henley, who worked with Galant at New York Newsday in the early 1990s and went on to become executive editor of the Wilmington, Delaware, News-Journal.

Colleagues call these newshounds excellent hires, and Newsday is fortunate to have Payne and Isabel, both African Americans, in top management positions. But the “Dele situation” continues to roil the newsroom, according to sources. Indeed, Schneider seems to have alienated several groups at once, including some staffers on the foreign desk and some African Americans, who are said to be up in arms. Payne did not return a call. Isabel declined to comment.

Tempting as it is to do so, this conflict cannot be reduced to black and white. As a former Long Island editor himself, Schneider is a champion of local coverage and his goal is to make Newsday the best regional newspaper in the country. One colleague notes that since Schneider took over last summer, local news has gotten more timely. Another source claims that Schneider had been assured that Olojede would take the Long Island job. After all, it was a promotion to a key spot managing a staff of some 60 reporters, and a chance to be the highest-ranked African American in the newsroom.

But to Olojede, Newsday‘s Melville headquarters may be a tad provincial. After starting as a Long Island reporter in the 1980s, Olojede traveled widely, working as a correspondent at the UN and in Africa and Asia in the 1990s. By the time he became foreign editor in early 2001, Newsday‘s foreign desk included bureaus in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Russia. He earned the loyalty of his correspondents by encouraging them to mix big-picture stories with breaking news and by lobbying to get their stories in the paper.

Sources say Olojede’s resistance may have been partly personal, in that he and his wife live in New Jersey. He had already been making a difficult commute to Long Island, while spending Fridays in New York, where he maintains contacts at the UN. Moreover, he had had his eye on the job of managing editor or assistant managing editor with some hand in foreign coverage. For him, being sent to Melville without consultation must have seemed as unnatural as an arranged marriage.

While Olojede bides his time, his colleagues have marshaled arguments for maintaining strong foreign coverage. It not only brings the paper prestige and Pulitzers, they say, but also helps the paper in New York City by giving it an edge over the Post and Daily News. While no evidence of reduced foreign coverage has surfaced, Schneider is said to want to emphasize breaking news. One source predicts that both foreign and national editors will now have to work harder to sell their stories to top editors.

As a kind of preemptive strike, some staffers have informed Schneider that whoever succeeds Olojede must be a former foreign correspondent, and that he should hire someone with foreign experience at a level higher than assistant managing editor. (Neither Schneider nor Galant have national or foreign experience.) In response, Schneider points out that his predecessor, Anthony Marro, was never a foreign reporter, nor was any editor before him. When Schneider was managing editor, the paper won three Pulitzers for its foreign coverage. Says Schneider, “To be complete, we need ambitious coverage in the nation, the world and in the areas of health, science, arts, and business reporting.”

Acknowledging that there are “things to be done” with local and New York City coverage, Jansen said it would be a “leap” to begin predicting a “negative impact” on foreign and national coverage. “Obviously,” Jansen said, “it’s a fear for some people involved, but I would suggest that they control their paranoia and see what happens.”

Along with the future of foreign news, diversity is now a hot topic. Schneider has a history of favoring his cronies, most of whom happen to be white, middle-aged, Jewish men. His perceived slight to Olojede may have been purely unintentional, but colleagues feel his failure to make amends has left him vulnerable. Other managers at the Long Island paper, including Payne and former managing editor Charlotte Hall, have been unflagging champions of diversity. Indeed, Newsday now has one of the most diverse newsrooms in the country, with minority representation up from 14.2 percent in 1996 to 25.8 percent in 2003. Some staffers worry that Olojede’s departure may set off a stampede.

In recent weeks, many African Americans in the newsroom have scrutinized the “Dele situation” and their own prospects for advancement. Black editors have met with Jansen, while other staffers have sought help from Newsday‘s City Hall reporter Curtis Taylor, a past president of the New York Association of Black Journalists. Taylor and others continue to seek meetings with managers and an opportunity to be heard.

Last week, Jansen called the diversity concerns “unfounded,” given that “one of the top jobs was offered to an African American and he chose not to take it.” Schneider said, “We remain very committed to diversity and will continue to build on that strength.”