Tabloid journalism celebrates two centuries of muckraking
Somebody tell the goombahs to stop whacking each other. And get those politicos out of their extramarital dens of sin. And don’t forget to crank up the Lizziemobile.
On Nov. 16, the New York Post — that bastion of blaring headlines and muckraking prose representing the epitome of tabloid journalism — will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding. There will be special supplements and anniversary editions at the institution that loses a reported $20 million annually and likes to celebrate each birthday as if it was the last.
Glasses will be raised in tribute from Michael’s in midtown, where the media elite go to eat, to Elaine’s on upper Second Avenue, where the Post’s Richard Johnson of Page Six fame keeps a table. Don’t count on Mayor Rudy Giuliani handing out a key to the city to new Post editor Col “Col Pot” Allan — who has given much coverage to the Giuliani-Donna Hanover-Judy Nathan soap opera — but bet on this:
Allan’s editors and his headline writers will find a way to titillate, shock and have a little fun Nov. 16. Heck, they might even recapture the Post’s finest hour of 1983, when it unveiled the Big Bad Mama of all front page headlines: “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.”
A dying breed
The Post and its perpetually warring counterpart, the New York Daily News, are the standard bearers of a dying breed, the American newspaper tabloid. While the Daily News easily leads in weekday audited circulation — about 716,000 to the Post’s 487,000 — the Post’s influence, according to New York magazine media columnist Michael Wolff, far exceeds its raw circulation numbers.
“There is no better source for entertainment, media or financial gossip,” says Wolff of the Post. “It’s a vanity operation for (News Corp. chairman) Rupert Murdoch with no bottom-line justification, except that everybody in the media business talks and writes about it. It’s a lower-class paper for upper-class people, and that’s shockingly weird.”
“Shockingly weird” was not the rallying cry that the Post’s original owners had in mind when the paper was founded in 1801 at merchant Archibald Gracie’s country home — now known as Gracie Mansion — as a conservative political organ that would appeal to financial leaders.
The political viewpoint of the Post has spun like a weather vane over its lifetime, as has its ownership. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an investor before his White House days, and twice found buyers for the paper. Today, the Post, the only American newspaper in the News Corp. portfolio, survives because of the wishes of one man, Murdoch.
Since Murdoch reacquired the Post in 1993 (he previously owned the paper from 1976-1988), his seasoned tabloid staff has created an unruly, one-of-a-kind beast. Its showbiz columnists like Johnson and Liz Smith, and Media Ink scribe Keith Kelly provide the daily kindling for TV talkshow bookers, local news assignment editors, and entertainment and business reporters who scour its barrage of celebrity and mogul coverage.
“Everybody in show business loves to criticize (the Post),” says publicist Howard Bragman of Bragman, Nyman & Cafarelli. “But we’re also the first to read it.”
All this media synergy, however, has meant little in advertising revenue — the Daily News is far and away the tabloid of choice in Gotham’s outer boroughs. Citing a desire to have the Post start making a buck, Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, News Corp.’s deputy chief operating officer, in April fired Post editor Xana Antunes, who championed the Post’s upscale market coverage.
Allan, the former editor of Sydney, Australia’s very profitable Daily Telegraph, arrived on the scene, and top editor heads rolled. Jack Newfield, the paper’s one liberal columnist, was shown the door while Victoria Gotti, imprisoned mobster John’s daughter, was given a column.
When P.R. maven Lizzie Grubman drove her Mercedes SUV into a crowd of Hamptons revelers on July 4th weekend, the Post’s coverage went for the throat. Even after Grubman’s mother died last month of ovarian cancer, Allan refused to cancel the Post’s “Lizziemobile” promotional giveaway of a Mercedes SUV to a Post reader.
That’s just the way the tabloid game is played in Australia and on Fleet Street, and many media watchers echo Michael Wolff’s claim that Allan “is taking a New York tabloid and turning it into a supermarket tabloid” via the Post’s expanded focus on celebrity fluff and urban carnage at the expense of political and business coverage.
Don’t expect apologies from Allan, a 27-year News Corp. veteran.
“These media critics say I’m taking the paper down market. I’m taking it up market,” Allan tells Variety. “And I’m tired of hearing these critics who like the Post because it’s ‘quaint.’ We’re getting rid of ‘quaint.'”
Allan feels the Post will get a shot in the arm when its new $250 million Bronx printing plant starts rolling out color pages. He’s confident that readers and advertisers will respond to a more modern look while he paddles the Post boat through the murky rivers where tabloid hearts beat.
“I’m here to make sure the paper lives for another 200 years,” Allan says.