Last week, Newsday finalized its sale of amNewYork to Schneps Media, a Queens-based publisher run by Vicki Schneps-Yunis and her son Josh. After getting the chance to interview for their jobs with the new owners, the majority of the 16-person editorial staff was laid off. Employees were offered at least six months severance in exchange for signing a non-disparagement agreement, according to a source familiar with the deal.
When the paper resumed circulation on Tuesday, just two amNewYork reporters remained on the masthead, which ran alongside an editorial from the new publishers touting their “dedica[tion] to covering the city better than anyone else.”
For now, the pages of the commuter-focused daily will be primarily filled with stories culled from Schneps’ expanding empire of community-based papers. Through a pair of acquisitions last year, the publisher bought Brooklyn Paper, The Villager, Chelsea Now, Downtown Express, The Bronx Times and dozens of other titles. Schneps also purchased Brownstoner, a real estate website, in 2017. They claim a print readership of 1,000,000 every week, and 3,000,000 pageviews a month.
The addition of the amNewYork brand, a respected citywide outlet, would seem to bolster Schneps’ claim to being the most far-reaching media company in the New York market—and one of the few publishers to find a path for growth in an era of crisis for local news.
Appearing on NY1 earlier this week, Josh Schneps attributed their success to maintaining a “deep investment in the local community.” The company was started by his mother in her Bayside living room in 1985, and has remained rooted in the neighborhoods of northeast Queens through its flagship, Queens Courier.
But as the publisher continues to seize wide swaths of the city’s battered local news landscape, those who’ve found themselves under the stewardship of the Schneps family are raising concerns. According to current and former reporters and editors who spoke to Gothamist, the Schneps playbook involves cozying up to advertisers and local powerbrokers, while muzzling critical coverage of friends and public officials close to the owners. Employees who didn't embrace that approach say they were soon made to feel unwelcome by the new management.
“It very quickly became clear that they’re less of a news company than a promotions company,” said Vince DiMiceli, the former editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Paper, who was let go two months after Schneps’ acquired Community News Group last September. “They wanted to make sure that anything we wrote about any politician was glowing. That's not what newspapers do.”
Reporters at multiple Schneps-owned properties said that the family was particularly fixated on pleasing local judges, since they dictate placement of the mandatory legal notices that remain a major source of revenue for community newspapers. Within months of Schneps takeover, fawning profiles of controversial justices like Noach Dear—who once organized a government trip funded by a whites-only Johannesburg city council, and was later the subject of a federal complaint for campaign finance violations—began appearing in the Brooklyn Paper, with no mention of past scandals.
Reporters also said they were suddenly assigned to cover low-stakes political events—like Brooklyn political boss Frank Seddio's anniversary party—with explicit direction to highlight as many judges as possible. The company’s 76-year-old founder would call the newsroom “several times a day” if a print spread did not feature enough flattering photos of public officials, according to one ex-employee.
“All of a sudden that’s what my editors were doing instead of editing my copy,” that person recalled. (Most of the half dozen editorial employees who spoke to Gothamist requested anonymity, out of fear of angering powerful employers in New York City media or because they’re not authorized to speak about company operations.)
In addition to their news products, Schneps also holds roughly 100 events each year, including an annual dinner in which several businessmen are honored with the “Vicki Award.” Plenty of publications have turned to events for revenue, but staffers said there was now an expectation to not write critically about the award attendees—a group that often included figures like investment banking executives and the CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Negative stories about other friends of the Schneps family were also discouraged, editors said. “‘Vicki was like, 'Oh, you've gotta be nice to Marty. He’s a really good guy,’” DiMiceli told Gothamist, referring to the scandal-plagued Bay Ridge state senator Marty Golden, who lost his reelection bid last year.
Though reporting of protests against Amazon's bid to open a campus on Long Island City did occasionally appear on QNS.com—the online home of Queens Courier and other borough-specific papers—some said it was widely known that the family supported the company’s relocation, and expected their papers’ coverage to reflect that.
Schneps’ sales department also played an outsize role in the editorial decision-making process, according to ex-employees. Emails shared with Gothamist show account executives forwarding listings for buildings to be labeled Property of the Week; in one case, that designation went to the old Brooklyn Home Reporter office, which was owned by Schneps, but not disclosed as such.
“When they took over it was a pretty quick shift in making more money by writing stories that benefited judges and real estate,” said one former reporter. “Reporters were basically writing sponsored content, without our names on it. That never happened before Schneps.”
In a phone conversation with Gothamist, Josh Schneps conceded that “in some cases, we do have reporters write sponsored content.” He said he could not recall any examples because it was “very rare.”
Schneps, who previously worked in investment banking, added that he and his mother had always played a significant role in the company’s operations. “We are intimately involved because we're passionate about local news,” he said. “If anything, our involvement in the community provides great contacts, relationships and breaking news.”
"We're a digital-first news organization, we've tripled our readership, we've made large use of social media," said Schneps, adding that the company plans to launch a new website for amNewYork next week. On Tuesday, former Daily News photographer Todd Maisel announced that he would be joining the staff of amNewYork, as well as the company's other brands.
(Schneps did not respond to Gothamist's request to speak with current employees, including Rob Pozarycki, who was promoted to editor-in-chief of amNewYork from the Queens Courier.)
The co-publisher declined to disclose the terms of the deal to buy amNewYork, which was reportedly losing money amid declining ad revenue in recent years. Several free papers have faced similar struggles; last month, the Washington Post shuttered its own free publication aimed at subway riders. “We bring a sustainable business,” Schneps told Gothamist. “I think we're a great example of excellence in journalism.”
At the start of this year, the company hired Wendell Jamieson, the former New York Times metro editor who abruptly resigned last April, after he was reportedly accused of inappropriate behavior by at least three female employees. Jamieson said he was brought in by the family as a part-time consultant, essentially serving as an intermediary between editors and owners.
“I’ve never encountered a situation that I would call unethical,” he told Gothamist by phone on Tuesday. “There's been a couple tricky stories, but in every case where I've discussed it with Vicki, she has done the right thing. She has great instincts as a local journalist. She's also a businesswoman, and I'm here from time to time to help her make sure those roles don't conflict.
“It’s a work in progress," he added.
But with the publisher now in control of Manhattan’s highest circulated newspaper in amNewYork, as well as a growing stable of other publications, some reporters fear that Schneps is already kneecapping the city's few remaining local news outlets—while undermining the hard-earned trust of New Yorkers along the way.
"I'm most concerned about the readers and what they're going to lose out on," a former employee at amNewYork, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told Gothamist. "For years, amNewYork was focused on informing readers and delivering balanced reporting about the city. Based on the things we’ve heard about Schneps, they're not going to get that anymore."