Tab War


The long-running barroom brawl between the New York Post and the Daily News spilled onto the street in recent weeks. Both papers landed stinging blows. Trouble is, their real fight might be with outside investigators looking at how they and other papers keep their books.

The recent tabloid dustup was triggered by the Scratch n’ Match fiasco, in which a misprint in the Daily News misled hundreds of people into thinking they had won cash prizes of up to $100,000. The Post smelled blood and pounced. It chronicled the disappointment of nonwinners, mocked the News‘ million-dollar makeup drawing as “peanuts,” sent a million peanuts to News offices, then shelled out the costs of a Disney World trip for one disappointed Scratch n’ Match family.

It was all good fun, but if you rubbed off your “Tabloid Wars!!” game piece, you found serious business underneath: circulation problems.

The Daily News trumpeted the Scratch game as a contributing factor to its late-2004 circulation growth, so the Post‘s nonstop hammering—coming even as the Post promoted its own new sweepstakes game—hit the News where it lives. From September 2002 to September 2004, the Post‘s reported weekday circulation boomed 20 percent, to 686,000, while the News‘ sagged slightly, to 715,000. (The News says its circ leapt to nearly 764,000 in the last quarter of 2004. There are no comparable Post figures.) The News‘ increasingly sensational front pages, which have given an awful lot of ink to the likes of Lindsay Lohan, reflect how tight the race has grown.

No wonder, then, that the beef quickly bounced from sweepstakes to sales. On March 29, after days of the News getting pounded over its botched game, a News piece accused the Post of “a frantic, desperate effort to jimmy up circulation numbers.” The News reported that the Post delivers thousands of newspapers to unoccupied homes or construction sites and then counts some of those copies toward its total paid circulation number—the figure upon which ad rates, the lifeblood of newspapers, are based. It was the first in a series of Daily News stories on the Post‘s circulation practices. Later last week, the Daily News asked the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) to investigate the Post‘s activities.

The Post had run a similar attack on News circulation practices back in October. In 2,982 words—which had to be a Post record for length—the Post reported that the News was pulling stuff like charging supermarkets for bundles of the newspaper, remitting payment to the stores for almost the same amount, and apparently counting the bundles toward paid circulation whether they sold or not. In other words, the News looked like it was buying its own papers. The Daily News said the deals were all kosher.

After the News printed its own exposé last week, the Post countered, reporting that the News gives out papers for free and counts them toward paid circulation even though many end up in the trash.

The back-and-forth is a variation on an old theme. New York City newspaper lore is full of stories of papers printing false news just to mislead the competition, shooting down the competition’s carrier pigeons bringing news from Boston, racing boats to get the foreign news off ships arriving in the harbor. Compared with that history, the current PostNews scuffle is a fencing match. But the stakes are just as high.

“In some ways good competitive newspaper battles are fun and in the great tradition, but some of these punches seem below the belt because circulation is the Achilles’ heel of American newspapers,” says NYU journalism department chair and A History of News author Mitchell Stephens.

Yep, the industry is no longer in the era when newsies in knickers cried, “Extray! Extray!” on the sidewalk. For instance, these are the days of the global media conglomerate. The Post is part of one: It reportedly loses millions each year, but its multinational daddy, News Corp., can easily absorb the red ink. The Daily News, on the other hand, is owned by one guy, Mort Zuckerman. He tolerated losses for many years, but the News has recently turned profits, and a batch of staff buyouts in the past few months suggests that Mort is inclined to keep turning them. What all this means it that the Post is better equipped to fight and lose a circulation war than the News.

What’s more, charges of fudging circulation numbers are no laughing matter in the wake of the scandal at Newsday and Hoy. As those papers admitted that they had inflated their circulation by tens of thousands of copies, The Dallas Morning News and Chicago Sun-Times also had to restate figures. A federal-local law enforcement task force subpoenaed records from the News, Post, and Times, and the SEC began a review of publicly traded newspaper owners like the Times (but not the News or Post). Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is part of the task force, and the SEC both declined to comment.

When you consider that the Tribune Company, which owns Newsday and Hoy, has socked away about $90 million to settle claims by advertisers over the false circulation figures, any finding by the ABC of fuzzy math at the News or Post would cost either paper dearly—even if the task force probe comes to nothing.

A message for Post spokeswoman Suzi Halpin was not returned. News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy tells the Voice that the Daily News is complying with current circulation rules. Those rules could change, and the ABC audit and task force investigation are pending, but Murphy insists, “We don’t feel that we have anything to worry about.”

It’s possible that ABC will find both papers’ circulations are legit—and rising, bucking the overall industry trend. While not quite Hearst versus Pulitzer, the fact that two tabloids are slugging it out on Gotham’s newsstands is itself an anachronism.

“We’re blessed—although some would not use that term—in New York City,” says Stephens, “to have at least one real area of competition between newspapers still.” The question is whether both the News and the Post can survive it.