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Indignation As Weapon In The Tabloid Wars



If on any given day last week you happened to chance upon the New York Post, you quite possibly assumed at first glance that the Deluge was upon us at last – until a closer look revealed that the unfolding drama which so consumed the paper’s headline writers, reporters, columnists and editorialists involved nothing more than an unfortunate misprint in a contest run by the New York Daily News.

It’s hard to think of a story more unimportant or inconsequential – except, of course, to the relatively small number of Daily News readers whose expectations of quick and easy lucre were cruelly dashed – but the Post went into full tabloid frenzy, with screaming banners atop breathless “news” accounts, solicitations of complaints from disgruntled contestants (“Have your dreams been stiffed by the Daily News? Call the Post at …”) and Andrea Peyser at her indignant best (“Look at the people who played this game, and you see the kinds of folks on whom the Daily News has long preyed. You saw hourly wage slaves. A handful of students. Immigrants. The elderly and infirm.”).

Not to begrudge the Post its admirable concern for immigrants, the elderly and the infirm, but last week’s theatrics were only in the most superficial sense about those numbers mistakenly published by the Daily News. The numbers that really concern the Post are circulation and ad revenue numbers, and the News’s contest blunder merely handed the Post an unanticipated weapon of convenience.

The two papers are engaged in what Business Week recently described as an “apocalyptic struggle” for readers and advertisers. Though the Post’s circulation has skyrocketed over the past five years while the News’s has suffered a slight decline, the News still sells more copies than the Post – by an insignificant number on weekdays but by better than a quarter-million on Sundays. And the News outsells the Post in four of the five boroughs (Manhattan’s basically a draw).

Adding to the Post’s frustration, writes Business Week’s Anthony Bianco, is skepticism in media and business circles over whether the Post “can ever be securely profitable as long as it coexists with the News.” The reason: “Only 26 percent of Post readers buy it exclusively; for the News the figure is 60 percent.” The Post, says Bianco, has become “New York’s favorite extra read,” a “status that puts off advertisers above all else.”

Bianco notes that the News is “much the stronger paper financially, earning in excess of $15 million on revenues of about $340 million in each of the past two years, according to an authoritative source.” But the Post, he writes, “has lost so much money for so long that it would have folded years ago if [parent company] News Corp. applied the same profit-making rigor to the tabloid as it does to other businesses.”

So the Post’s seizing on the News’s contest mishap and using it to mercilessly bludgeon its archrival is understandable if cheesy – and just a little hypocritical.

In his hugely entertaining 1996 book It’s Alive! How America’s Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters, Steven Cuozzo, a Post lifer who’s held a variety of titles in thirty-plus years at the paper, described some problems that attended the Post’s operation of a 1980’s giveaway game called Wingo:

“…[M]ost participants were less educated and less affluent than the paper’s core readership. This was evident when occasional misprints caused players to believe mistakenly they had won a fortune. It was sometimes left for [young reporter Charles] Carillo to help smooth over the misunderstanding.

“Once, Carillo went up to our promotion firm’s midtown office where an excited mob jammed the corridor. The promotion man collared the cub reporter.

” ‘Jeez, it’s like Ellis Island in here,’ the promotion guy said, a reference to the multiethnic mix of Wingo players. It turned out a confusing promo had mixed up the rules for weekly Wingo and the instant daily version. So three hundred whooping, singing celebrants showed up on Fifth Avenue to claim nonexistent prizes. Among them was a wheelchair-bound Pennsylvania farmer who had never before left the state.

“Carillo recalls, laughing, ‘This promotion guy is standing there, waving his arms at the crowd, yelling, ‘You have not won….You have not won.’ “

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.


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