Notes from the tabloid détente: Colin Myler’s bid to remake the ‘Daily News’

Colin Myler stands before his handiwork. ()
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"We are a tabloid newspaper," said Colin Myler.

The Daily News editor-in-chief was on the phone one morning about a month ago, just a few hours before a two-day period in which more than two dozen of the paper's journalists lost their jobs.

Myler rarely gives interviews, but he'd agreed to one with Capital about some of the News' recent coverage, a story that suddenly seemed strange to pursue when so much was changing at the paper so quickly and so immediately after our chat. (Sources didn't start reaching out about the layoffs until shortly after we'd spoken.)

Now that the dust has settled, however, we thought we'd relay some of what we talked about with the 61-year-old editor.

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Tabloids "are supposed to be aggressive and hold people to account," said Myler, who's worked at no fewer than six of them, including his current rival, the New York Post, where he was Col Allan's No. 2 during the mid-aughts, and News of the World, where his name topped the masthead until Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. shuttered the top-selling British paper in 2011 as the U.K. phone-hacking scandal was reaching its apotheosis.

The conversation had turned to one of the more controversial developments of Myler's 18-month tenure: the repositioning of the News as a metropolitan daily with the attitude of a star-studded shock sheet. It's become scurrilous enough to outfox its hometown rival on some big stories while exhibiting the kind of crusading zeal that is a signature of the brash tabloid tradition of Myler's native England.

"At the same time," Myler continued, "if you look at our readers and the amount of TV they watch, most of that TV is light. It's the Kim Kardashian phenomenon. Some people will regard this as being irrelevant and inane, but we're doing no more than reflecting lifestyles in terms of what our readers watch on TV, whether its 'Entertainment Tonight' or 'Access Hollywood.' It seems sometimes the paper is criticized for that."

The project is to find a new identity for the News, which in recent years had seemed like the more cool-headed, everyman's outerborough newspaper compared to the screamy mix of lowbrow humor, political heterodoxy and obsession with Manhattan elites that characterizes the Post. To outsiders the papers may be indistinguishable much of the time, even sometimes running identical cover lines. But to New Yorkers the distinction was always clear, if not always easy to articulate. Part of it was something like this: the News was the newspaper of the dugout, while the Post was the newspaper of the owners' box; the News was the voice of the beat cop, the Post the voice of One Police Plaza.

And part of it was always that the News sensibility was always just a little more earnest, a little less tongue-in-cheek, a little more local, and a little less celebrity-gossip-obsessed.

That first distinction, mostly, still holds. It's the second that's gotten harder to make since Myler took over in January 2012, and while that's partly got to be a function of Myler's history with the British press and working for Murdoch in particular, previous editors of the News (like Martin Dunn, also a Brit) with similar pedigrees have not always enacted this kind of change.

Myler's News—both in print and on the web, where the News now looks more or less like the Daily Mail's younger American cousin—appears to be a melange of local stories (politics, police, policy, etc.) bold-faced gossip, sensational U.S. crime coverage and news-of-the weird.

And that's the tricky part: How is the paper to maintain the right balance between subjects that matter to New Yorkers  ("Teenager recounts moment when 14-year-old D’aja Robinson was cut down by gunfire on Queens city bus"), eyeball-baiting must-reads ("Dallas toddler dies in sweltering locked car," aka "HOT-CAR HORROR") and pure fluff ("Meet Simon's sexy new 'X Factor' judges")?

Paddle too hard in any one direction and Myler risks alienating someone—whether it's the guy from Queens who's long relied on the News for his headlines of the day, or the growing national audience that has litte to no interest in New York news but will probably click on a story about the transgender high school senior in Pennsylvania fighting for his male name to be read at graduation or an inside look at Kim Kardashian's baby shower.

Myler, for one, thinks too much has been made of the News' celebrity bent—even if the paper has become a go-to source for Kardashian coverage lately. (Props to reporter Jonathan Lemire for finding a Cuomo angle.)

"People are getting carried away," he said.

Most of our conversation, however, was about the News' latest advocacy campaign.

Since last December's elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the News has been more explicit than perhaps any other mainstream publication in pushing for gun control, churning out some 20 cover stories on the matter these past six months as well as roughly a dozen editorials and dozens of news articles, according to Myler. (Monday's cover: "CITY UNDER SIEGE: 25 shootings cap bloody weekend in Big Apple.")

While numerous politicians have tossed their support behind the News' highly-publicized gun control petition, which has appeared both in print and online (the total number of signatories topped out at around 140,000, said Myler), the campaign has so far failed to help get any legislation passed.

But it hasn't fallen flat, either.

Dianne Feinstein, while arguing for stricter gun control measures on the floor of the U.S. Senate in April, displayed a giant image of the News' March 20 "SHAME ON U.S." cover.

"We have been relentless on this gun issue," said longtime News columnist Joanna Molloy during a recent appearance on "Charlie Rose."

(Molloy, ironically, was among the Newsers who got pink slips last month in what was described internally as a "restructuring" designed to put more emphasis on digital operations amid declining circulation and print advertising revenues.)

"Without tabloids, who's going to do front pages like that?" she asked.

By launching a campaign on such a divisive issue, Myler has employed a tactic that's well known to journalists in Britain and Australia, where tabloids and broadsheets alike have a long history of positioning impassioned social-justice advocacy cheek-by-jowl with "straight" news coverage.

"What the Daily News has been doing is a very common feature of our newspapers here," said Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor at City University London and media critic for The Guardian. "We British journalists are very often thought to be guilty of bringing the American press into disrepute. But I think when you're taking on a campaign of this nature, its a good import."

Well known U.K. newspaper campaigns include the Sunday Times' agitation on behalf of drug-defect babies during Harold Evans' editorship in the early '70s; the Daily Mail's ersatz prosecution in 1997 of five suspects in a racially motivated murder; and News of the World's efforts, beginning in 2000, to promote a law giving parents with young children controlled access to the government's registry of sex offenders. Recently, the Times of London has taken up the cause of making British cities and towns more bike-friendly, a cause which we know here in New York elicits surprisingly passionate reactions on all sides.

Of course the News has also been here before: there were numerous campaigns under Dunn's editorships, including a five-month series of 9/11-related opinion pieces in 2006 that earned the paper a Pulitzer and resulted in a new law extending death benefits to Ground Zero workers deceased from cancer or respiratory diseases.

As for the gun control push, Myler said it's "not at all" a product of being from a country where firearms are tightly regulated.

"What's been driving it for me is just the fundamental issue," he said. "The gun debate is unquestionably one of the major issues in the country today. It's a national issue based on a tragedy that happened almost right on our doorstep."

Nor is it the only one the paper has been fighting for. Myler cited last year's investigative series that exposed dysfunction within the New York City Housing Authority, which governs public housing projects for low-income residents.

"We took a very aggressive position on NYCHA," he said. "This is part and parcel of what the Daily News should be doing. It's a function all good paper's should take. ...I just think there are times in a newspaper's life where certain issues are worth fighting for."

Other times, breasts will do the trick. But even the News' more salacious content is tamer than what you could expect to find across the pond, said Myler.

"Salacious is not the right word," he said. "We're far more careful here about what we publish."

Perhaps sometimes too careful: A recent incident in which a gory photo from the April 15 Boston bombings was bowdlerized on the next day's cover wrap didn't exactly do wonders for Myler's popularity among many in the newsroom. Some insiders believe he's brought the News downmarket since taking the reins. Hard-hitting stories are drowned out even when given prominent placement, one such source suggested.

"When I read the paper, and when most people working at the paper read the paper, they feel most of [the hard news] is lost in a sea of Kim Kardashian and naked women," the source said.

But finding the right equilibrium isn't easy.

Dunn, who edited the News in the early '90s and again from 2003 to 2010, said one of the difficulties of editing a mass market tabloid in New York is giving equal play to all the issues that impact everyone on a daily basis, from transportation and education to the celebrity and social worlds.

"With a paper like the Daily News," said Dunn, "you have to be aware of so many different constituencies, be they political, be they ethnic, be they based on age. It's an incredibly difficult balancing act."