Paper-Trained? No.


Two of the four large-circulation newspapers left in New York City—the Daily News and the New York Post—are having another peeing match. More accurately, the Post seems to be going for the News‘ throat.

Their circulation wars are of course nothing new, but the latest chapter seems especially personal. And it would be laughable, too, if either of these two papers were doing a good job of covering the innards of New York City. The other two papers in Gotham are also weak in this regard—The New York Times, because it has always been reluctant to attempt a true warts-and-all picture of the city’s ruling classes, and Newsday, based on Long Island, because ever since its then owners shut down its New York Newsday offspring in 1995 for reasons of greed, it has limited its city coverage largely to the borough of Queens.

Just to summarize the latest PostNews unpleasantness: Some weeks ago, the Post reported that the News‘ new editor in chief, Michael Cooke, has a shoe fetish. Really? And how was that supposed to encumber his journalism? I was once told that a gifted and well-known newspaper editor liked to have sex wearing diapers. (I never followed up on it.)

More recently, the Post made a big deal—for several days—out of its disclosure that Cooke had recycled in the News a travel article he had written and published in the Chicago Sun-Times a year ago, when he was editor in chief there. Definitely a journalism misdemeanor, since he never disclosed its earlier publication or that his travel was apparently paid for by the owners of the English castle/hotel the gushy article was about. But it hardly compares to the Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair deceptions. Or to some of the crappy journalism that appears in the Post from time to time. Perhaps if the local papers spent more energy on news that actually affects New Yorkers’ lives, they wouldn’t have time to play internecine war games or to produce the superficial stuff that passes for local news now.

Personal disclosures: I was at the Times for 26 years, a few of them as metropolitan editor; I later spent nine years at New York Newsday. My wife, Jane Freiman, held a senior editorial position at the News; she left the paper two years ago.

The Post is the property of Rupert Murdoch and his global News Corporation, best known in the United States for its Fox television network. The News is owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, a successful real estate magnate who has not done so well in his media ventures.

Neither the Post nor the News makes public its profit and loss statements. The Post, however, is known to be a losing proposition—street gossip estimates of its annual deficits range from $20 million to $40 million. Murdoch, who started in Australia but has taken American citizenship, apparently is willing to subsidize the Post indefinitely with profits from his media empire, in order to have a newspaper footprint and editorial voice in New York. The News is rumored to have lost money in its earlier years under Zuckerman but may be turning a profit now. Zuckerman, who is from Canada and then Boston, also wants to be a figure of note in New York.

The issue here, however, is not how classic press barons behave but why the residents of the so-called media capital of the nation don’t receive superior, serious coverage of local news.

First, this isn’t just a New York phenomenon. It’s fairly common across the country and in many cities around the world. The mainstream press only occasionally gets daring enough to rock the mainstream boat. That’s because the owners of the mainstream press are usually on its passenger list. Yes, Big Journalism does at times find its courage and create some waves, but examples of such hard, investigative forays are all too rare.

For example, since 1987, when Gary Hart boarded a sailboat named Monkey Business in Bimini with a woman other than his wife, most of the investigative energies of the major papers have been devoted to stories about sex scandals or crimes related to sex. Think O.J. Simpson. Better yet, think Monica Lewinsky. Frankly, I’m surprised that some of these papers haven’t officially named these investigative teams “the Sex Beat.”

Let’s look at some local examples. The biggest New York City story in recent days was Mayor Bloomberg’s peculiar crusade to build a huge sports stadium on Manhattan’s West Side in order to attract the 2012 Olympics to the city. Suddenly, his plan having been blocked by state legislative leaders, the mayor says the stadium can be built in Queens on a site he had flatly rejected months ago. Why do I call his crusade peculiar? Because when he took office in 2001, he rejected his predecessor’s plan for a sports stadium on the same Manhattan site, saying correctly that the city had no money for it. It still has no money for it. The budget gap is daunting.

When are we going to see a multi-part series from the Times or the News examining how this usually pragmatic mayor got hooked on this pipe dream? Did the real estate moguls and the building trades unions gain control of his common sense? Or was the spell weaver Daniel Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, who has Manhattan real estate investments in his background?

In the meantime, I’d even settle for a strong series on Manhattan’s choked traffic situation, one of the reasons a Manhattan sports stadium was such a bizarre idea.

In American journalism, the phenomenon of not covering your own backyard too aggressively is sardonically called “Afghanistanism.” The suggestion is that we are allowed to cover the hell out of malfeasance and nonfeasance in faraway places but not in our hometowns.

A couple of historical notes.

When Bill Kovach was editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1980s, he decided to examine the workings of the Coca-Cola Company and the city’s big banks. The paper drew national attention and won a Pulitzer Prize. Kovach was forced to resign.

In New York City, during New York Newsday‘s 10-year run, that paper won two Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting, one more than the Times had won for local reporting in its entire history to that point.