A nuclear threat in Japan and a slain cop in Brooklyn: Tabs pick their battles

Today's tabloids, March 14, 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: The rules for covering something in a print newspaper that's all over the 24-hour news cycle are complicated; I won't pretend that I know them better than the Post does. But today's cover, devoted largely to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, seems like a miss to me.

One rule of thumb was carefully observed: If you sell your package of coverage with a big fact that everyone already knows, or could guess—like the current calculations on death toll, for instance—you could be dismissible to people who know that top-level fact, even if they potentially want to read all your coverage. The top-level facts are what people are seeing everywhere they go: on their social networks and on Twitter, on their Google or AOL homepages, on their local newspaper websites, on any cable channel at any time—even if they don't absorb the information or the magnitude of it.

So the Post widely takes a single human-interest story out of the event that probably has taken the lives of tens of thousands of people, to focus on 60-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa, who was separated from his wife as the wave rolled in but clung to the roof of his house, detached and moving briskly ten miles out into the ocean. A grainy photo of Shinkawa hoisting a tall red flag from his float in a churning dark sea gets a headline in red text (with white outline and drop shadow) that reads "Tsunami rescue—10 miles at sea!"

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In fact there are more gripping, personal details than this, such as his separation from his wife as the water came in, and the fact that several helicopters and boats passed him by without seeing him before he got lucky. And worse, Shinkawa's story was the signature human-interest tale contained in most of the 30,000-foot accounts of the rescue efforts; he's all over TV in Japan and the U.S., and everybody knows about him. Yesterday the Associated Press blasted me his story on my Iphone. (And I clicked through and read it.) The point of those tales is to give us something new that hasn't already been everywhere, right? Because if I'm going to dismiss the Post for telling me something like the fact that there are some issues with Japan's nuclear power plants since the quake I will certainly dismiss it for telling me about this one guy I already know about.

Wait a minute: They're telling me about the nuclear situation, too! "NUKE TERROR" reads the lower story of the page, in dramatic knockout white on black. "Japan sites on brink of meltdown." Again, it could be the phrasing: That some sites in Japan might be headed for a meltdown has been true since late Saturday at least. The stories really picked up in time for yesterday morning's print editions, and most of the Sunday news cycle was devoted to the fate of Japan's extensive nuclear power program, which in at least four locations appears to be headed for disaster of varying magnitudes.

But the page is not entirely without local interest: The NCAA Final Four gets a strip along the left margin, advertising (between basketball-styled "bullet points") the complete 68-team bracket (Clip 'n' save!), the "Tourney viewing guide" (which, like the Post's famous "BETTORS' GUIDES," somehow sounds vaguely Britishy to me) and, finally, mention of St. John's University's opening against Gonzaga in the first round, as they learned their seed in the "tourney." (Avast!)

Daily News: There's too much, and also too little tsunami in the tabloids today. Looking at the cover of the News this morning you could be forgiven for thinking the paper has no particular interest in the fact that one of the world's great economic superpowers and an American ally is experiencing probably its most enormous national crisis since World War II.

That's OK, if they spend the space wisely. And in fact, the story of police officer Alain Schaberger, who fell a mere 9 feet to his death in a scuffle with ex-con George Villanueva while responding to a complaint from the man's girlfriend, is compelling stuff, especially for News readers who by tradition have a particular interest in the city's fire and police departments. But, granting that I'm sounding a little inconsistent here—I wonder a little why this gets the entire front page. Not because the story isn't worthy of it, but because it's compelling enough to have sold itself without the extra help.

A small strip across the bottom sells the paper's NCAA coverage. But could the News have edged out the Post today with a small box on the tsunami?

Observations: Here's the trouble with the tsunami stuff on the cover of the Post: It's true that if you're hooked on the story, you'll want to read more and more about it, everything you can get your hands on—but then, you'd know all the stuff on the cover of today's paper. If you're mildly interested you might know some of it but not all, and then the paper might not sell you. If you're not interested, the Post needs to hope you like their bracketology better than the competition's. Same is true on the News, but sort of inverse: When the biggest story in the world is thousands of miles away, can a local cop shooting really win the day all on its own?

This is not actually an easy call. The world's still figuring out what the morning paper is really all about, and so are the tabloids. But, in this case, I find it difficult to reward the paper that is recycling faraway news that is, by the current standard, already old.

Winner: Daily News.