Obama, memorably, with the father of Emilie Parker

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Today's tabloids, Dec. 17, 2012. ()
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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?

SANDY HOOK: Since the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, the tabloids have been going full-bore on the story. But this is the first weekday they've been able to weigh in on the tragedy in print, and that makes it an important issue for both of them.

With a relatively tight-lipped police investigation rolling out, the fight to bring out first details of what happened in the building, and about the lives of suspect Adam Lanza and his family, is still ongoing. Key elements: We don't know very much about what happened in the Lanza house when Adam allegedly killed his mother Nancy, before taking his guns to the school. The boy's father, interviewed by reporters, would not talk about his son in the kinds of terms others are using—drawing the supposition that he had Aspergers Syndrome or some other diagnosis underlying his apparently, from second-hand sources, difficulty living a normal adult life.

We know that he went to college early, and that his mother was trying to get him into engineering programs, and a few other details, but that's really it. Still, both papers make an effort to dig in, speaking to relatives and friends of the Lanzas and drawing only partial conclusions from them.

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You can bet that if either paper had come out with a major piece of news that they held exclusively, neither would give the page so completely to the president, who visited the town yesterday, spoke with the families of the shooting victims and addressed the townspeople in a speech that was also, slightly, a speech about gun-control legislation.

What kind of revelation about the shooter would constitute news? Perhaps information on efforts recently made by Nancy Lanza to treat or diagnose her son. The News makes some hay of a confession Lanza apparently made to a friend at a local bar that she feared she was "losing" her son and that his condition, whatever it was, was "getting worse." But it's tenuous, both lacking in detail and authority; worth a story but not worth the front. And that's just one example; the pages of both tabloids are loaded with information about acts of heroism in the school building as the shooting was going on, but they're not exclusive to anyone and were aired rather prominently already yesterday. Having something, anything, that might have become a hook for understanding how the shooting happened, and having it exclusively, is the effort both papers are fully engaged in right now I'm sure.

So they're stuck with Obama. On the front of the News, an effort at realism: A tweet from Christina Hassinger with a photo of the president holding a baby, the granddaughter of Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, one of three school administrators it was said yesterday lost her life in a confrontation with Lanza that was a bid to stop the shooting. The picture is blown up and the tweet reproduced in full at the top of the page. There's also a photo of Hochsprung. But all this leaves little room to explain the melange of images presented, and it's not a straightforward group of images; it doesn't really tell its own story without some explanation. There's a photo caption, but the headline, in smallish red type along the bottom of the page, doesn't relate: "OBAMA: I'LL TAKE ON GUNS."

In a departure, the News tells us the story is related on "PAGES 2-10." (The habit lately has been to list the page numbers with comma separators, as the Post has done: "PAGES 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 & 11." It's a way of beating us over the head with the size of the coverage inside.)

I don't know if it works, but the rest of the cover does. Thoughtfully, the picture of one of the young victims, six-year-old Emilie Parker, is the only photo of a child on the front page; that's because her father, Robbie Parker, has been one of the few to release a photo and speak to the media about his loss. (Inside both papers, there are plenty of pictures of kids, and it's not clear how many parents gave permission for those photos to be printed.) Parker is pictured in an embrace with the president, who wears a serious and mournful expression, under the headline "ENOUGH!" "President: 'We can't tolerate this' again" reads a dek.

OBSERVATIONS: The president might not have been the tabloids' first choice for cover star this morning, but he wasn't a bad one. And while I admire the News' effort to sell a slightly more complex story about Obama's visit, something more personal and individual and something that was guaranteed pretty much to be unique to them, I think they chose the wrong one. It's simply too hard to figure out what it is, and so it doesn't have enough impact. The Post runs with something a little predictable, but it's really the predictability that works. As one editor famously used to tell his charges: "Don't fear the obvious."

WINNER: New York Post.