A New York tabloid detente that wasn’t
What if New York City's two tabloids, those famously bloody newsstand warriors, joined forces?
Recently, the age-old rivals were considering just that, Capital has learned.
The New York Post and the Daily News have been, by popular definition, locked in a tabloid war for decades. But within the past year or so, even as they waged their vituperative battle in public, they were talking about a number of potential business deals that would have made unlikely bedfellows of enemy combatants—had they not broken down, according to several sources familiar with the matter.
There were multiple possible efficiencies to consider. For instance, the Post's parent company, News Corp., could have benefited from ditching its costly Bronx presses to have the paper printed instead at News owner Mort Zuckerman's Jersey City-based commercial plant. Maybe News Corp. would have even acquired the News outright.
"These were discussions where lots of things were talked about," said a source with knowledge of the talks. "Many deal points were on the table."
In some cities, local newspapers have slunk off the newsstands one by one, sometimes with no serious digital disruptor to blame, or to replace them.
In New York, on the other hand, we have four daily newspapers (or more, depending on what you count)—two of which are constantly fighting each other for readers and advertisers—and numerous online news outlets (including this one) all jostling to win the day.
Which is why a Post-News mashup isn't as crazy as it sounds. Both papers have been hit hard with print circulation declines while fighting for market-share in a crowded media space. And for years, there have been whispers of on-again, off-again negotiations between the two that never seemed to go anywhere.
But this most recent round of back-channeling suggests the Post and the News are at a point where they need to start making difficult decisions—more difficult than whether or not to hike cover prices, which both have done over the past few years; or whether to downsize their newsrooms, which both have done over the past few years; or to divert resources from their print editions in order to become more robust and monetizable on the web, which both have done over the past few years.
One such difficult decision comes down to whether the Post and the News could or should continue to even have print editions—or whether both of them could or should. If one were to go away—in print or altogether—business would be better for the other.
"You can bet your bottom dollar Rupert will try to outlast the News," said a tabloid insider who asked to remain nameless, referring to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch.
For now, though, they're both going full speed ahead with their digital strategies.
Within tabloid circles, chatter is rampant that the News is already considering a plan to go digital-only sometime in the next few years. A source close to News management corroborated that such conversations are taking place.
"The discussions are not about if, they're about when," the source told Capital. "This is something that's been talked about for a long time, but it's gathered an awful lot of speed lately."
Over at News Corp., meanwhile, Murdoch acknowledged publicly for the first time in April that his cherished New York tabloid may cease to exist on the newsstand, telling Fortune, "in the next five years the Post as a print newspaper could go away and digital would be it. I would be surprised. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I would think it might be quite likely in 10 years."
In a brief interview with Capital a little more than two weeks later, Murdoch qualified the milemarker as happening "when 80 percent of [the Post's] circulation [is] reading the paper digitally. It'll take time." (News Corp., the Post and the News all declined to comment for this article.)
Since the 2008 economic downturn, major newspapers throughout the industry have been downsizing or eliminating their print editions as readers and advertisers have flocked to computers and, increasingly, mobile devices.
In 2012, the print frequencies of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other newspapers owned by the Newhouse family were scaled back to three days a week. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Christian Science Monitor both went digital-only in 2009. Denver's Rocky Mountain News, the New York Sun and, as of October 14, the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, are among those that have folded altogether.
Even titans of the newspaper world, like The New York Times and The Guardian, are regularly confronted with that nagging question: How long until they rip the Band-Aid off?
"Daily print circulation and print advertising each have fallen by about half over the last decade," said Alan Mutter, a newspaper editor turned media consultant with Tapit Partners. "Given this unabated trend, it is possible that more newspapers either will reduce the number of days of the week that they print or do home delivery, or stop printing altogether."
The News and the Post have seen steep circulation declines since the pre-recession days of 2007, when they each claimed upwards of 700,000 daily print readers. During the six months that ended on March 31, the former averaged 313,178 weekday print editions and the latter 261,312, according to the most recent data from the Alliance for Audited Media. The News hiked its newsstand price from $.75 to $1.25 in June; the Post from $.75 to $1 in 2012. (Remember when they used to cost 25 cents each?)
Nor have they been immune to newsroom shrinkage. The News, which had an editorial budget hovering around $40 million as recently as 2011, according to a source with knowledge of the books, has handed out dozens of pink slips over the past three years, while the Post reduced its newsroom headcount by 10 percent in 2013, its first such culling since the early '90s. The Post's annual losses are unconfirmed, but they are understood to amount to tens of millions of dollars, which has been a drag on News Corp. during its re-structuring as a publishing-focused company scrambling to return value to shareholders.
At the same time, both papers have been repositioning themselves as digitally-forward brands with growing web audiences—29.5 million unique U.S. visitors across desktop and mobile platforms for nydailynews.com in September, up from 25.7 million during the same month last year, according to the measurement firm comScore; a little under 15 million for nypost.com, up from 8.6 million. If you toss in their ancillary web properties, the September 2014 totals rise to 43 million for Daily News America, which includes sister site U.S. News & World Report, and 18.3 million for the New York Post Digital Network, which includes PageSix.com and Decider.com.
The Post's digital makeover has taken shape over the past year. It relaunched its antiquated website last September and traffic is up significantly from the years before relaunch, when nypost.com was pulling just a few-million readers each month. During Advertising Week this September, a street team was handing out free jars of gummy bears touting the Post's "20 million monthly visitors."
With last year's redesign, the Post spun off PageSix.com as a standalone URL capitalizing on the paper's infamous gossip column. And in August, it launched Decider, a pop culture site with sharp, Vulture-esque coverage of streaming television. The Post also created a content studio to work with advertisers on sponsored posts and native campaigns, which marketers now prefer over traditional banner ads because these newer units mimic editorial storytelling.
The News, meanwhile, has staffed up its bench of web writers to create a prodigious online hub featuring sensational stories from coast to coast and every corner of small-town America in between.
In the process, nydailynews.com became one of the largest U.S. newspaper websites, trailing broadsheets like The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post. (The site claims a digital audience closer to 50 million based on Adobe Analytics.)
The News is using that scale to court national advertisers.
“The journalism we’re delivering is engaging for an audience outside New York City,” editor-in-chief Colin Myler told Digiday recently. “We’re a 24-hour news business that just happens to produce a newspaper.”
Digital growth is one thing, but if the Post and the News were to eventually kill their print editions, they'd look even more unrecognizable from the fearsome, influential metro tabloids they once were, said veterans who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid discussing their former employers publicly: Fewer journalists (and likely younger or cheaper ones at that) and fewer sales reps; no more printers' and drivers' unions; a wide audience bearing little resemblance to the New York everymen and power brokers who devoured the papers during their glory days; a mix of content that will look increasingly indistinguishable from any number of clicky competitors, from Mail Online to The Huffington Post.
"They both appear to be caught in a bit of a no man's land where print provides revenue but is dying, and they don't have anything proprietary that makes them compelling online," one of the veterans said. "If they didn't have a print product to provide them with some sort of differentiating credibility, what would they be?"