A day for the new-look Obamas

Today's tabloids, Jan. 21, 2013. ()
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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 HOLIDAY SPIRIT? Is today a news day?

In some ways, the question is political. Back in October, 1983, when a bill to recognize a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King was before the House, we were in the middle of the Reagan-era culture wars. In the middle of the fight over establishing Martin Luther King Day were those who said, not unreasonably, that we have to be careful doling out federal holidays; that the only individuals with holidays named for them in the history of the U.S. were were George Washington, Christopher Columbus and Jesus. ("Presidents' Day" had been invented to solve the problem of Lincoln.)

But of course that didn't matter. The real point is that the question of recognizing the holiday ultimately baited everyone. These days, for all of our talk about lack of civility on Capitol Hill, it's hard to imagine a scene like the one which had Sen. Jesse Helms attempting to filibuster a vote on the holiday with a 300-page document accusing King of being a communist, only for our own Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to declare the document a "packet of filth," before throwing it on the Senate floor and stomping on it.

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More recent history has been stranger, with some states only adopting the holiday in the last decade, after spending some time creating awkward combinations in which, for instance, Martin Luther King's holiday is combined with holidays celebrating Confederate generals (Virginia, Mississippi). Robert E. Lee's birthday, Jan. 19, is four days distant from King's Jan. 15 birthday.

It's not really controversial anymore, but nor is the holiday quite established. Coming as it does so soon after the working public has geared itself back up after the December holidays, not observing is no longer quite seen as an act of defiance, and observing it isn't quite a matter of public piety. Politicians' public schedules are dominated by observations of the holiday, but the last year I can find a study for, 2007, showed that only 33 percent of businesses actually give their employees the day off for the holiday.

Of course, any day where something newsworthy happens is a news day. But for most news organizations, it's a question of resources: With a roughly 33 percent reduction in the number of eyeballs glued on desktop screens (the 2007 study showed that office workers and nonprofits were more likely to have the day off than manufacturers and other services), a major source of weekday online readership is out for the day. While manufacturing businesses try to buck the tide of celebration in favor of staying open—they lose too much productivity (and money) if they close--service business and news organizations are likely to save by lightening up for the day. For print newspapers the problem is complicated by the fact that tomorrow's paper is made today; the Tuesday after today's Martin Luther King Jr. Day is surely a news day, and so staff need to be there today to write it.

Luckily, there are any number of canned story lines ready for today. It's the big inauguration ceremony in D.C. for one thing, and yesterday, as we knew would happen, the match-up for this year's Super Bowl was decided. And that leads us into today's tabloids.

SIBLING RIVALRY: The Post goes for the latter. It does seem a little strange: By a lucky turn, today's big inauguration is actually kind of an anticlimax. The constitution required the president to take the oath of office yesterday, but the big inaugural is today. That means there are already photos of the president taking the oath yesterday, which can be used to sell a story about today's presidential pageant. Abdicating on it seems strange, since it doesn't have to be exclusive.

How much photographic drama is really needed to tell the story of Jim and John Harbaugh, the coaches of the '49ers and Ravens, respectively, whose teams both advanced yesterday to the Super Bowl? Matching profile silhouettes in black team ballcaps and headgear suggest a nice photomontage, but does it need the whole page? "BRO BOWL" is the headline, set in knockout-white type on the black field. "Coach sibs in historic super showdown."

Design-wise, to me, it looks a bit like a Newsday cover: undernourished. Nor is it an observation that anyone interested in the story could not have made last night, after Tom Brady's Patriots crashed out of the playoffs against Baltimore, sealing the second Harbaugh Super Bowl berth.

Why isn't this a teaser on the front and a backpage sports cover?

BANG ON: The News snubs the Super Bowl, on the other hand, giving the entire front to the inauguration. Actually the paper doesn't quite do that: The front page visible on newsstands is actually a strange spread composed of two different photos, if you pull the outermost leaf of the paper off and open it up. It's a "wrap," which means that beneath it there is a "regular" front page and back page for a "regular" paper. Of course you can't see it, so I'm not considering it. But it does give the News the opportunity to sell a big, 12-page package inside. It's too bad this is their coverline: "IN WITH A BANG."

A couple things here: It's set in two lines, with the top line, "IN WITH," set in smaller type than the bottom "A BANG." I can understand the motivation but I can't understand why they wouldn't have gone smaller with the top line to create "IN WITH A" and a giant bottom line reading just "BANG." It just doesn't scan the way they want it to: "in with … A BANG" vs. "in with a … BANG." But it's hard to know why they did it at all, since it doesn't make the text line up square, even. "A BANG" is a full letter longer than "IN WITH." Not to mention it's a dumb headline. The "story" of Michelle Obama's new hairstyle has been heavily masticated by the media already, since a photo popped up last week quietly debuting the fringe of hair covering Michelle Obama's forehead. And if you're really selling a giant pageant of an inauguration section, all blaring trumpets and red-white-and-blue bunting, does it not blunt the effort to lead with a kind of lame pun about the first lady's haircut? And while I get the point of the dek—"Grayer Obama takes the oath for second term"—it, too, seems like a counterpoint to the 12 pages of enthusiasm for the event rather than a bolster. The photo is meant to do something else entirely, with Obama looking very presidential as his right hand is raised and his left is laid on the bible held by his wife, who is looking at him with pride and admiration. Are they gray and weary but with a new haircut, or are they Mr. and Mrs. America for All Time? The message is scattered.

OBSERVATIONS: So it's not a news day, really. With two covers that are basically out of the can, we're left comparing the scattershot messaging of the News on the story with broader appeal to the more focused messaging, anemically presented, of the Post. It's not that easy to decide, and it's hard to care much. I only knew after doing an eenie-meenie-miney-mo exercise and then realizing I came up with the wrong result: The winner was decided when the topics were decided for each page, and nothing else going on here is enough to surmount those decisions.

WINNER: Daily News.