The ‘News’ takes a shot at the ‘Times,’ the ‘Post’ takes a shot at ... unions

Today's tabloids, Feb. 2, 2011. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

The New York Post: It's rare that a large, multi-page feature from the Pulse section gets so much play on the front page, but this one is a pretty clear sell. Pegged to Cathrine Goldstein's new novel, Sleeping With Mortals: The Story of a New York Mistress, the as-told-to interview is an epistolary sort of romp through Goldstein's own history as a kept woman in Manhattan in the late '80s and early '90s. Sheila McClear, who is her confessor for the Post, probably would have written a better profile of the woman herself—Goldstein's not that interesting, actually, when she's left to tell her own story. But it's chum for the celebrity-obsessed side of the paper's Page Six readership. "Confessions of a kept woman," reads the really old-timey copy across the top half of the page, with a silho of Goldstein against a gradated blue background. Then in a red box with yellow type: "My life as a Manhattan mistress." I guess we are done with sports for a while! Wait—not quite.

After all, everyone watches the Super Bowl, whether you've got a dog in the race or not. Granted, it's not the Jets, but we've got the trophy and the "XLV" logo in faux-metallic: "PACK'S RED HOT 'FRIDGE'" reads the red type with yellow outlines over—again!—a gradient.

When there's lots of color in lots of boxes on the front page of the Post, and then one big story presented with nothing but heavy, large black type on white, it's the color stories your eye skips. I normally object to all that—but usually on the grounds that the color stories are actually news and should be presented that way. Today, it's appropriate that the relatively small amount of real estate given to Michael Bloomberg's trashing of union-dictated pension plans nevertheless dominates the page. "PENSION WAR" reads the hed; "Fed-up Mike reads unions the riot act." The Post loves it when the unions are at war with the executive branch. Worshipful as the Post can be in soft-focus stories, or crime or disaster stories, about cops, firefighters, teachers and medics, as soon as it is time to discuss the admittedly enormous pension considerations given those professions, they all become a bunch of fat, lazy schemers eager to get their hands on YOUR money without doing much work.

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Of course neither attitude is exactly fair, and sometimes all the bluster in the Post that's used to snap up what might otherwise be a rather boring budget negotiation gets boring on its own. And anyway, Bloomberg's foot-stomping is more interesting for its possible results than as pure theater. Because when this display is finished, the question becomes whether Andrew Cuomo is enough of an ally to compromise his relationships with legislators in Albany tied closely to the municipal unions to help Bloomberg balance his budget by slashing their retirement perks. Yesterday, Cuomo was on the front of the Post wielding a bloody ax. Today, they essentially raise the question they answered yesterday. It shows not that today's question is pointless, but that yesterday's answer was premature.

Daily News: The News fires a shot across the bow at The New York Times today, which wasn't that hard: Yesterday's article on Page One of the Times relied heavily on anonymous sources close to Mets owners the Wilpons, and on Irving Picard, the attorney who is trying to recoup money lost by investors with Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, to build a story headlined "Bernie Madoff Had Wide Role in Mets' Finances." But that is straightforwardly because lawyers for the Wilpons and for Saul Katz, Fred Wilpons' brother-in-law and a fellow director of the company that controls the Mets and several other properties, refused to cooperate with the Times reporters (or to put their side of the story in). One day later, having viewed the results of their decision, the lawyers decide to download to the News, accusing Picard of feeding the Times a story designed to give courage to Picard's clients that the Wilpons could be culpable in their losses.

The News story is straightforward and carefully edited in the way one doesn't always expect from the News, and long. And it gets half the front page. I would not be surprised that all of these things happened this morning because the News is going after the Times with this piece—and not the Post. At the same time, the sale on the front page is a little breathless given what's inside. On an orange-ish background, knockout type reads "EMPTY SUIT!" The dek: "Wilpons strike back, call Madoff suit a grand sham." Well, they don't quite do that inside. And no mention is made in the piece of the damaged credibility of the Wilpons in all of this, who as we know have continually downplayed the closeness of Madoff's business relationship with them.

And here is where Wilpon's lawyer, David Caplan, has an evident strategy. How could he have been a credible voice in the Times piece battling Picard, when he'd have to answer for his clients' credibility on earlier statements about their relationship with Madoff? Here, he gets to pick his battle with Picard, and the News gets to make out like the Times was suckered by a lawyer.

The bottom half of the page is filler: because while David Caplan's download has lots of juice in it, it'd be a bit embarrassing to give it the whole front. After all, who would look like they were carrying water for a lawyer if the News did that? So we get a big picture of people slipping on snow. "WINTER TURNS TO FALL" reads the text. Get it? There's no real story here, and it's strange, since the News did publish a story showing how the city rakes it in on tickets to home– and business-owners when there's lots of snow. 2,500 tickets have gone out this winter. There's lots of potential for righteous rage here, since the city admits it failed to do its own job plowing the streets after the Boxing Day blizzard. If they were going to front a snow story, why not that?

Observations: There should be a phrase that resonates as clearly as "slow news day" but means something different: There wasn't no news, but lots of news, all viable for the front page, but none of it screaming out its advantages over the others. Days like that can flummox the tabloid Page One editors. After all, Egypt is good for a cover any day you choose, right? So if you need some serious ballast to give the page weight next to a Charlie Sheen story or the Wilpons-Mets-Madoff lawsuit (yes, that is a serious story but the tabloids must present it on Page One as sports, not business or white-collar crime), it's around. But the very fact that none of the stories made itself heard clearly to the editors over the rest results in muddy, boring fronts.

It's always admirable when one of the tabloids tries to grab the narrative being run by the Times, but that will hardly sell papers at the newsstand to regular tabloid devotees. And the Mets qua Mets are not even yet in spring training—the sex appeal of a story about the Wilpons, when there's no way of putting an actual player in the frame that's a recognizable face—isn't as broad as one might hope, for a tabloid. For the Times, it qualifies as very sexy. And come to that, the appeal of these soft-focus extended captions is too broad to have any muscle on the front of the tabloids. It's not like the News had a picture of a cross-eyed opossum or an overturned pie-truck. It's just a picture that looks like what I can see out of my kitchen window right now as I type.

The Post looks like a Sunday edition today with its big Pulse story and complex pension-negotiation news; but the paper is stating itself as news and sex today, broadly speaking, which is an easier sell than … lawsuits and snow?

Winner: The New York Post.