Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Casinos and the Crisis of News
Remembering the time I thought I'd be driven out of journalism altogether
In the fall of 2011, after many unreturned emails, I got my very first job in journalism. I had been a college graduate for about five months and was substitute teaching at the time, trying to figure our what exactly I wanted to do professionally. I was certified to teach high school English in New York public schools and was strongly considering it as a career. One impediment, like journalism, was the number of available jobs. It was just three years after the 2008 crash and the economy remained in a malaise.
I found out I was getting the reporter position at the Queens Tribune on my birthday in October. Reading the email on my parents’ desktop computer, I leaped up in joy and cried out. I was going to get paid to do journalism.
Well, technically. The salary was $24,000 a year, which would now be illegal under New York’s minimum wage law. It was my first full-time job and I had the privilege of living at home. The commute, from Bay Ridge to Whitestone, was an hour one-way in my reliable, if somewhat ailing, Mitsubishi Galant. My beat was northeast Queens, which meant writing about almost anything that occurred over a vast swath of territory. In a single week, I could file as many as a dozen stories, maybe more.
The editor who hired me, an affable journalism veteran willing to take a risk on a 22-year-old, departed just a few months later. But before then, he gave me the permission and the confidence to explore more ambitious stories that lay beyond my beat. I wrote a feature about the deteriorating conditions of a public housing development near Queens College. I was given the green light to investigate why certain Queens community boards were unrepresentative of their neighborhoods and lacking in young people.
Early on, I told my editor I wanted to write about the opening of Resorts World Casino in Queens, the first of its kind in New York City. Since casino gambling was banned at the time—in subsequent years, Governor Andrew Cuomo would hand out a limited number of licenses, none in the city—Resorts World was considered a “racino,” not a full-fledged casino, since it had slot machines and not table games with dealers. Otherwise, Resorts World, bordering the Aqueduct Racetrack, resembled a classic casino, with a wide assortment of electronic games, restaurants, and convention space.
Local politicians pitched Resorts World as an equivocal good that would revive the moribund strip of businesses near the racino. Workers would belong to a union, so the project won the approval of the powerful Hotel Trades Council. To read the news about Resorts World, particularly in the neighborhood rivals of the Queens Tribune, was to encounter the rare project that would be nothing but a bounty for everyone nearby.
I was skeptical. I worried about whether a racino in New York City would create new gambling addicts. I researched and spoke with experts about whether casinos, generally, were drivers of economic growth. The research I found was decidedly mixed, at best—casinos couldn’t hurt an area with no business left to cannibalize, but otherwise could suck dollars out of nearby shops and restaurants—and few towns and cities, beyond classic gambling meccas like Las Vegas, experienced the renaissances the developers always promised them.
I wrote a story—which I would link to here if I could still find it online—outlining why casinos didn’t always deliver on their promises. I told my editor I wanted it to be a multi-part series and he agreed. It could have interest leading into the grand opening of Resorts World, we decided. In the story, I asked Resorts World for comment and never heard back. In my haste, I forgot to note in the piece they declined to comment.
At the time of the story’s publication, I had been on the job for less than a month. It was my first major story, in the sense that it wasn’t just a recap of a community board meeting or a press conference about catch basins. I researched, I made phone calls, and I attempted to infuse the piece with the writerly chops I believed I fully possessed. The moment of publication would be big. When a bundle of the newspapers arrived in the office on Wednesday, publication day, I rushed to grab several, and read them over with great excitement.
It was wonderful moment.
“What is this shit? Are you fucking kidding me?”
It was the voice of our publisher, an oft-aggrieved friend of Gary Ackerman, the longtime Queens congressman. We reporters worked in open cubicles just a short walk from the publisher’s office, where he could be heard at all hours of the day screaming into the phone, yelling for his secretary, and kibbitzing with various local politicos. He rarely spoke with us in-person, preferring to berate our editor.
I learned, for the very first time, I would be the target of his wrath. He summoned my editor into his office. He wanted to know how the hell something like this was actually published. And it was a series? What series? No, no, no. There would not be any series about Resorts World.
He added a furious email to my editor and me, expletives included, from his personal AOL account. Ashamed and terrified, I quickly deleted it, unsure of what else to do.
“He’s mad because Resorts World is a major advertiser. They have a huge spread planned for Thanksgiving,” my editor explained, calmly and apologetically. “It’s my fault. I didn’t realize. He thinks Resorts World is going to cancel the whole spread over the story. It’s a lot of money.”
“Can I do another piece for the series?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. He also thinks Resorts World didn’t know about the story because we forgot to include that they declined to comment.”
“I called and emailed,” I explained. “I should have put that in there.”
That day, I was convinced the publisher would fire me. Like a small-town George Steinbrenner, he was known for dismissing underlings on a whim. He often dumped beleaguered account executives who could not meet his unrealistic advertising quotas in a dying newspaper market. He paid them more than the reporters, at least.
I remember walking around the block outside our office in a terror. My colleagues tried to reassure me. The publisher was angry, very angry, but he wouldn’t necessarily fire me yet. I would have another life to live.
They were right. Reluctantly, apparently, it was decided I would not be fired. The series, however, was canceled. I could not write negatively about Resorts World anymore, if at all. It was lesson, for me, in the power wealthy advertisers held over the news. Perhaps a major newspaper like the Times or the Daily News could buck an advertiser, but not the Tribune.
This all came back to me as I wrote earlier this week on the news that certain developers hope to lure a casino to Manhattan as a way to revive the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang also pitched the idea of a Governor’s Island casino. Neither will help, if economic development is the real goal. There are better ways to raise revenue for the city and state, like a tax hike on millionaires and billionaires.
The Tribune episode, though, reminded me of how lucky I was. Not to survive the whims of a publisher who was not terribly interested in accountability journalism, but just to have the entry-level job at all. The ladder I climbed into journalism has disintegrated under me. The 21 or 22-year-old version of myself in 2021 has far fewer options than even I did a decade ago. The Queens Tribune closed down. My next employer, the New York Observer, no longer prints a newspaper and downscaled dramatically.
We heard a lot about the crisis of democracy when Donald Trump was president. On one hand, his most ardent critics were correct—the deranged Trump, sower of hatred and lies, was a true danger. On the other, democracy was wilting before he arrived on the scene. Reliable news sources have been disappearing for 20 years. All across America, newspapers are dying, and social media, with its disinformation in full bloom, is their replacement. The old business models do not work and many of the new ones, absent those that can convince a large share of their audience to pay for news, fail. It’s the real challenge we must confront in the 2020s. There are answers, but we have to be aggressive and ambitious enough to embrace them. If we do, we can get the news organizations we, as the world’s wealthiest nation, deserve.