Post and News Scratch It Out

The New York Post continued Friday to kick the Daily News when it's down, wringing every bit of blood from the Scratch n' Match debacle in which a misprint led hundreds who play the News' scratch-off game to think they'd won $100,000.

"Daily News President Les Goodstein yesterday said the peanuts being offered to cheated Scratch n' Stiff winners is 'all I can afford' as he bluntly brushed off a poor woman's plea that the paper pay her the money she deserves," read today's update on the Scratch n Match snafu, which the Post has been hammering like some 'roided up Jacob Riis, asking readers to call in if their dreams have been "stiffed" by the News. The picture accompanying Friday's story even has Goodstein's hand circled to show that his middle finger is visible as he holds his newspaper. "We're certain his hand gesture is accidental," quips the Post.

On Thursday, strange bedfellows cuddled up as the Post reported that City Councilman Charles Barron—a former Black Panther whom the Post once described as "always-incendiary"—had taken the lead in demanding that the Daily News pay up. And bizarrely, the Post sent a million peanuts to the News building. You see, the News has offered disgruntled would-be winners the chance to enter a special drawing for $1 million in prizes. The Post calls that offer "peanuts." Hence the real peanuts. Get it?

And get this: According to Post Columnist Andrea Peyser, the people stung by the Scratch n' Match screw-up were "the kinds of folks on whom the Daily News has long preyed . . . hourly wage slaves. A handful of students. Immigrants. The elderly and infirm."

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Luckily, the unwashed masses can now ditch the tyranny of the Daily News for the freedom and liberty of the Post—and "Post Poker," the game Murdoch's tab unveiled earlier this month.

As annoying as the Post's salvoes must be to the News, they aren't the paper's biggest worry. Nor are the costs of the $1 million special drawing and possibly lawsuits over the Scratch n Match screwup the most serious threat. (Incidentally, the News blames the error on the sweepstakes company that runs the game, D.L. Blair. Ironically, it's chairman Thomas Conlon is a former News reporter.) Instead, what the Daily News must be most worried about is what the Scratch disaster will do to circulation.

The News has frequently cited the "enormously successful Scratch n' Match game" as a reason for its recent circulation growth, which is helping it to stay ahead of the Post's growing numbers. (Their circ war got especially nasty last year when the Post ran what has to be one of its longest pieces ever—a 2,900-word behemoth—alleging that the News was kicking back payments to newspaper distributors to buy papers that were never sold. The News denied the charges.) When the News announced buyouts late last year, one staffer told me he took heart in seeing the long lines of Scratch n' Match players waiting outside the newspaper to claim their winnings.

In the six months ending September 30, the News' reported its daily circ was down slightly at 715,052, while the Post said its leapt 5.2 percent to 686,207. The News later reported that in the last quarter of 2004, it's circulation shot to 763,974, 3.6 percent higher than the same figure a year earlier. According to Business Week, however, over the past five years, the Post's circulation has swelled by 49 percent.

What happens if folks who buy the News solely for Scratch n Match—or who actually read the paper, but buy extra copies to increase their chances of winning—lose faith in the game? That would be bad, and if it happened, the News would need more help like it got this week from General Motors, who bought 11,200 copies of the News at 37.5 cents apiece, and covered for a special advertising wrap-around promoting the New York Auto Show.

Earlier in the week, the News devoted an entire front-page to damage control, and there's been plenty of ink on the case inside the paper as well—except on the opinion pages, where not a single letter to the editor or News editorial has addressed the issue.

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