Sweet Smell of Success
Every year just after Halloween, something really scary happens: The Audit Bureau of Circulation releases circulation figures for the six-month period ending September 30. The increases can seem so low as to suggest failure, but participating newspapers and magazines usually find a way to portray them as evidence that their plans are succeeding. One paper that should not have to dress up its figures this year is the New York Post, whose readership has spiked by 8 or 9 percent, according to a well-placed source.
So far, the Post has not released its numbers. A spokesperson declined to comment on the rumored rise or factors that may have contributed to it. But one staffer confirmed that "for the last year and a half, circulation has been up, up, up"which is more than one can say about the Daily News, which is rumored to be stagnating.
Not every newspaper aims for speedy growth. The New York Times, which concentrates on establishing a national and international presence, has already announced its progress for this year"continued daily and Sunday circulation gains" of less than 1 percent each. Newsday, which enjoys a monopoly on Long Island, has made inroads in Brooklyn and Queens and continues to grow at a snail's pace. That leaves the Post and the Daily News in Manhattan, where the dueling tabloids are engaged in what one source called a "real good dogfight."
Advertising alone will decide whether Post owner Rupert Murdoch attains his goal of profitability. But since both Murdoch and Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman keep their financial data private, circulation has become the standard of success. After taking over in the spring of 2001, Post editor in chief Col Allan challenged the News, saying, "I intend to take them on in circulation and to eat their lunch." A few months later, the Post announced that its readership was up to 534,000, or about 22 percent, during the period ending September 30, 2001. During the same period, the News only grew by about 5 percent, to 734,000. Now the Post is said to be selling in the vicinity of 580,000.
One Post insider said the bump could be traced to September 11, after which all newspapers experienced a circulation boost. "New readers sampled the Post during that time and stuck with it," said the source, adding that the Post's price cut from 50 cents to a quarter took place too long ago to be a significant factor.
Another likely reason more people are reading Murdoch's paper: the color. "The color is spectacular," said the source, "so much better than the Daily News." The News made the transition to color a few years ago, after Zuckerman spent an estimated $80 million on printing presses in New Jersey.
By contrast, Murdoch spent $250 million on his presses, which started operating last year in the Bronx. According to Anthony Riccio, senior V.P. of the Harlem River Yard Ventures, which owns the Bronx printing plant, the Post's color is superior for two reasons. For one thing, the process is performed by robots and computers, under the supervision of programmers. But the secret to producing crisp quality, Riccio told the Voice, is that "they put so many piles in the ground that there's no vibration."
Tabloid veterans cited a few other reasons for the Post's current popularity. One is the editor: "Whatever you might think of Col Allan," said one source, "he's done a really good job of sharpening the editorial product. He didn't create the Post, but he's created a sparkling product. The pages are vivid, the stories are sharp. It's got a sense of humor and irony." Another source noted that Allan has no hesitation about firing staffers who don't fit his needs.
Finally, the Post knows its audience and gives them what they need: sports, politics, gossip, and entertainment. Fashion spreads are said to attract upscale female readersand on the Upper East Side, said one source, "they hide it under the doormat. It's like porn."
According to newspaper analyst John Morton, three dailies is too much for some readers. "People read the Times for information and the Post for laughs. That doesn't leave much room for the News."
One top New York editor says the News has problems with design, despite its abundance of good reporters and editors. "The pages are flat, dull, and lifeless," said this source. "The photographs don't shine. Editorially, it suffers from a lack of well-thought-out editorship. It does nothing to encourage the reader to buy it or read it."
A spokesperson for the News declined to comment on the paper's circulation numbers or design.
What New York Times staffer would publicly criticize his bosses? Presumably one who is fighting to keep his job.
The employee in question is Times staff photographer Edward Keating. On October 25, the Times published an Editors' Note stating that a Times photo had been stagedand that the photographer had admitted it. Two days later, when Keating was outed by Newsday, he denied staging it and called the Times note an "outrageous falsehood."
"The Editors' Note is our statement on the matter and we stand by that," a Times spokesperson told the Voice.
The photo, used to illustrate a September 20 story about the arrests of alleged Al Qaeda operatives near Buffalo, depicted a six-year-old boy aiming a toy pistol alongside a sign that read "Arabian Foods." It appeared in the early edition only.
Editors were undecided after receiving complaints from other news organizations about the photo. But then the Times got a call from Columbia Journalism Review, whereupon editors reviewed all the images from that photo assignment. According to the Times, "The editors concluded, and the photographer acknowledged, that the boy's gesture had not been spontaneous."
Keating is a popular Times photographer whose picture of a tea set covered in ash on September 11 was one of the photos that earned the Times a Pulitzer this year. He did not respond to a request for comment.
An account of the controversy will appear in the November-December issue of CJR. CJR executive editor Mike Hoyt told the Voice, "Basically, our story says that three photographers witnessed the incident and all felt strongly that they were witnessing the staging of a photo. . . . One said, 'It looked like a fashion shoot.' "
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