Sunday, August 12, 2018

New York’s ‘Hometown Newspaper’ on Death Watch

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ the banks, commands the milishy, conthrols the ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim afterward.   They ain’t annythihng it don’t turn its hand to fr’m explainin’ th’ docthrine iv thransubstantiation to composin’ saleratus biskit.”—American humorist (and journalist) Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902)

I came across this quote in a letter to the New York Times in May 20165 from Miranda Dunne, granddaughter of Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago columnist who created Irish immigrant bartender "Mr. Dooley." But I happened upon it on a singularly awful day in the recent history of the tabloid press: the announcement that the New York Daily News was laying off half its newsroom staff

The paper that long carried the motto "New York's Hometown Newspaper" was one of the two newspapers bought by my blue-collar immigrant family when I was a kid. The years haven’t been kind to The Daily News or the other paper we habitually read, The Bergen Record.  (These days, the latter—sold over a year ago by the North Jersey Media Group, the umbrella organization long owned by the Borg family—looks like just another pallid property of its new owner, Gannett--especially so given its own draconian round of cuts.)

I never achieved my youthful ambition of writing for a newspaper, and now that I am in a job where I often have to deal with the results of news articles, I am more skeptical than I was before of the notion that reporters and editors try to exclude any preconceptions from affecting their coverage.

But I continue to read newspapers every day, in the form I always read it—newsprint—and I can’t imagine living without them. Their outright disappearance would amount to a total eclipse of American freedom, as far as I'm concerned, since no trained cadre would be around to mind the vast chicken coop that constitutes the American political system.

Its glory was epitomized by Jim Bishop, who practically swooned at the tactile atmosphere when he became a copy boy at the paper, imbibing the press room in all its glory: 

“Silence,” he recalled in his memoir, A Bishop’s Confession. “The sound of dust settling…I waited. It came—the dull tentative growl of presses. It was slow. It gathered confidence. The hollow sound, like a train approaching a tunnel, hit its stride, and the floor, the walls, the ceiling trembled as though in fear of the news they spawned.” (Bishop would move on to the New York Mirror before becoming a columnist and the author of books on the deaths of major historical figures like Lincoln, Christ, JFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.)

Nearly 30 years ago, in a continuing ed writing class, our instructor, Paula, a onetime reporter for the News, asked us to judge six different sets of unnamed leads for the same story—one from the News and the other from the New York Times. The winner in each case turned out to be the Daily News. 

Though Paula might have been forgiven for rooting for her old employer, I think she had something more elevated in mind. She wanted to remind us not to let a reputation for global or national coverage, no matter how well-deserved, color our judgment of what constituted good or bad writing—particularly at the local level, which The Good Gray Lady has never really made a priority.

The tone of the leads chosen by Paula was punchy. It was the scrappy voice of the working class that the News carved out as a niche—and not only against the Times: For the past 40 years, it has been the centrist-to-liberal counterweight to Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post.

Founded in 1919, the News, as the first American tabloid, basked in the supernova energy of the city in the 1920s. You didn’t go to the News for stock-market stats or news—most of its readers were lucky to rub two nickels together, let alone invest them. It wasn’t trying to influence national leaders, either. Its staff writers, especially at the start, weren’t college boys, let alone Ivy Leaguers. 

But its readers were happy with a formula that might best be described as S+S=S(quared)—in other words, Sex plus Sensationalism equals Success. The particular variations in it helped continue the tradition: comic strips, columns, gossips, sports, and the latest ax murder.

Most of all, there were those headlines. Some must have made its inventors double over in laughter (e.g., when Long Island Auto Mechanic-Turned-Lothario Joey Buttafuoco got his hand caught in the cookie jar yet again, this time for soliciting sex from an undercover policewoman: “SO JOEY, HOW’S TRICKS?”). At least one has been credited with helping ensure that a GOP incumbent President would lose in the next fall election ("FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD")
The paper’s moment of truth has been coming for a while—many would say since the 114-day 1962-63 newspaper strike, which helped kill four other papers. Automation was the point of dispute then, and now another technological factor—the Internet—has come into play.

Nearly 25 years ago, when the paper also looked on life support following the financial machinations of its owner at the time, Robert Maxwell, a former co-worker at my company recounted his onetime News colleagues’ determination: “They were all saying, ‘Just try to kill us.’” I can only hope that this same never-say-die spirit gets today’s staffers through their own current crisis.

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