Right now, the action is not in Buchanan, NY

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Today's tabloids, March 15, 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:  We talked a bit yesterday about the perils of covering a long-term, developing story that is an anchor of the 24-hour news cycle on television and the Web. Yesterday, the trouble was finding a story to lead with that hadn't already been told, so that the cover said something new and also transmitted to the reader that there was lots of coverage of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis in Japan.

Today there's a different problem. As the nuclear crisis evolves, the pose of Japanese authorities and the public is, rightly, constant monitoring, and a very fine-grained sense of the details of the story. So it's a big piece of news if, for instance, a small explosion exposes fuel rods to the air. Much bigger is the next thing: say, a hydrogen explosion.

Yesterday the story was that there had been "an explosion" and there was a lot of danger associated with it—serious potential radiation leakage. Today there was an explosion and there is a lot of danger associated with it: spreading of radiation over a wide area. These developments are not easy to grapple with on the front page of a tabloid newspaper.

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"MELTING POINT," reads the headline on the Post today; it's a headline that could have worked yesterday, but works better today, and might work even better tomorrow, depending on how things develop. "Nuclear catastrophe looms in Japan" reads the dek; that could have been on the cover on Sunday, if not Saturday. The difference is in the photograph, which instead of showing a picture of a ravaged nuclear power plant, shows a satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant at Minamisoma, with red call-out boxes explaining exactly what's happened in each of four reactors since we last left the Post. Not all of the events highlighted here happened recently, actually—but that's part of the point. The map with the callout boxes is a bid to make people understand that, however coarse the main sale of the story, there is new information to be absorbed this morning. Namely: The explosion at Reactor No. 2 that exploded today, and the fire at Reactor No. 4 that caused it to "spew radiation."

It's a good effort on a tough challenge.

The nuclear crisis in Japan probably is, in fact, important enough to take up most of the front page, which normally would be heavily touting the progress of March Madness. The basketball coverage is relegated to a short, wide blue strip at the bottom (with weird embossing that makes it look a little like the "space bar" on a computer?) covered in yellow type.

Daily News:  NY1's Pat Kiernan this morning chastised the News for not focusing on the main event: "ARE WE SAFE?" reads the big white knockout type over a photograph of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, New York, 35 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. "Daly: Can we trust Indian Point nuke plant?" reads the dek at the bottom. And here they are doing exactly what I was saying the tabloids (not the broadsheets, mind you, and not national and international papers!) must do. Because across the upper right-hand corner a bright yellow strip with black type and radiation-danger symbols reads "JAPAN FACING NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE: FULL COVERAGE INSIDE."

Of course, we've been here before: After Sept. 11, the proximity of Indian Point to large population centers, and its seeming desirability as a terrorist target, created a small movement to shut the plant down. It fizzled pretty fast though. And that was when we were dealing with a "probability" that the plant was under threat only equal to our confidence in national security. In this case, however, there are two important things to remember before you follow Daly down the "is it safe?" rabbit-hole.

1) The probability of an earthquake more powerful than the rating the plant is certified to be secure against is calculable: .05 percent over the next 50 years.

2) The nuclear crisis in Japan was not simply precipitated by an earthquake, but by a following tsunami that wiped out many of the backstops that might have been available to the country's nuclear power program; the probability of a tsunami striking Peekskill, N.Y. is not mentioned, but let's put it at roughly zero over the next 50 years.

None of this is to say that it's not legitimate to question again, in light of the events in Japan, the wisdom of placing a nuclear power plant so close to such a densely populated region, or, as it happens, across two minor fault lines. Just that, with some thought, it does seem Kiernan is correct: Find a small or compelling angle to sell the package—but if it's too small or not compelling, it's a fail.

Observations: It's a fair fight today and the papers are dealing with an issue endemic to the newspaper business. The Post takes the more ambitious, and probably less risky, tack of actually trying to sell news on its cover; the News decides to put all its weight behind one piece, and give the barest signal that there's real coverage inside. But the piece is too small, and too insignificant; it feels like noise, right now.

Winner: The New York Post.