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NYC Newspapers

by Joshua Brustein, Aug 02, 2004
 

Henry Scott, the publisher of Metro New York, doesn’t go a day without the New York Times.

"I get the Times home delivered, and I take it to work because I don't have time to read it beforehand,” said Scott, whose paper is the newest newspaper in the nation's last remaining newspaper town. “I carry it around all day, take it home with me, and if I have a few minutes before I go to bed I might read some of it. I think a lot of people are the same way."

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Readership Of Dailies:

The Wall Street Journal -- 2,101,017
The New York Times -- 1,677, 003
New York Daily News -- 802,103
New York Post -- 678,012
Long Island Newsday -- 662,317
Hoy -- 109,598
Staten Island Advance -- 68,700
New York Sun -- 53,000
El Diario La Prensa -- 50,019

Sources - Audit Bureau of Circulations or the newspapers themselves

This, argues Scott, is why New York needed to add yet another newspaper to the 40-some dailies already serving New Yorkers in about a half-dozen languages. A free "commuter daily" like his offers a quick read, a lightweight alternative to the heavy hitters like the Times.

This is the same argument put forth by Russell Pergament, the publisher of AM New York, a competing commuter daily launched late last year.

Everywhere else in the United States, newspapers are in decline -- 98 percent of American cities now have only one daily newspaper; the total number of newspapers in the country, and the total number of readers, has declined every year for the past two decades. In some ways, other news media offer even fewer choices, radio and television stations throughout the nation now dominated by just ten corporations. (See Who Owns New York's News?by Joanna Erenberg and Ian Manheimer)

But New York is the media capital of the world, headquarters for all the nation's television networks, home of an estimated 10,000 journalists, center of an information industry -- which includes not just newspapers, but book and magazine publishing, motion pictures, sound recording, broadcasting, and telecommunications -- that is the city's fourth largest "industry supersector," larger even than finance. Here newspapers still seem to matter, at least to the companies that own them.

But what does their vivid presence mean to New Yorkers and the city as a whole -- economically, politically, culturally, psychologically?

NEW YORK, NEWSPAPER TOWN

Not that long after New York printed its first newspaper, in 1725 (the paper had a fine name: the Gazette), the city became the kind of colorfully cut-throat newspaper town for which it is known to this day; publishers would race into the harbor to snatch scoops that came sailing in on British ships. By the late 1800’s, the city had 29 daily newspapers, with two – the New York World and the New York Journal -- boasting daily circulations above one million.

With the exception of the Post and the Times, all of these papers have disappeared. But the city as legendary newspaper town remains (see Favorite Books about Newspapers in Gotham Gazette's book section), and not just because of the swashbuckling past. Newer newspapers have taken place of the old, and the New York Post, started by Alexander Hamilton in 1801 and the country’s oldest continuingly published newspaper, is now in a well-publicized war with the New York Daily News, the country’s original tabloid newspaper (an adjective originally meant only to describe its shape), which was founded in 1919.

New York now has about half a dozen major metropolitan, general-interest English-language dailies, depending on how you count (do you include Newsday, for example, based in Long Island and with spotty circulation in the city itself? How about the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, which shuns local news?). It also boasts some three times as many newspaper readers as Los Angeles, the country’s second largest newspaper market. Of the fifteen highest-circulating daily papers in the country, four are published in New York City; there are also some 200 ethnic and community newspapers published in the city; and upstart dailies like the New York Sun continue to emerge, looking to carve their own niche.

Why is this happening here and nowhere else?

The answer is not much of a mystery. New York is both the largest "media market" and the nation’s largest metropolitan area, the home of the greatest number of commuters who use public transportation. It is also diverse enough to make it difficult for one newspaper to appeal to everybody.

BENEFITS FOR THE CITY, ECONOMIC AND OTHERWISE

All of these newspapers employ reporters, editors, photographers, circulation managers, and many others. All said, the newspaper and periodical industry employed 53,100 employees as of May 2002, not including the countless number of independent journalists in New York who work as freelancers. The entire information industry, according to the city comptroller's office, employs more than 150,000 people, paying them about $9.5 billion in wages over the first three quarters of 2003. The industry also contributed nearly $600 million in city tax revenues.

Newspapers and other media provide intangible economic benefits as well, said Jonathan Schwabish, an economist with the Partnership for New York City.

"You've got the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which are probably two of the top five newspapers in the world,” he said. “You're combining those, in New York City ... It just adds to the city's reputation as a global center, a global economic force, an entertainment center.”

BENEFITS FOR PUBLISHERS (OTHER THAN ECONOMIC)

Operating in the country’s biggest newspaper market doesn’t necessarily pay off financially. The Times, which for the past half dozen years has deliberately positioned itself as a national newspaper rather than a local one, makes most of its money through its national circulation (half of its readers now living out of the metropolitan area). Few of New York’s other papers could be called flush. Elsewhere in the country, newspaper profits continue to be strong even as readership drops; here it is just the opposite.

The Post and the News, in their competition for the city’s readers, best illustrate the mixed blessing of publishing a newspaper in New York City.

The Post is enjoying some of the most rapid circulation growth in the country – its circulation rose 9.3 percent in the six months ending March 30 to 678,012 papers a day (the News has a daily circulation of 802,103). But the newspaper is also losing large amounts of money. Since Rupert Murdoch took over the Post almost 30 years ago, it has lost over $500 million.

While the specifics of the Daily News’ finances are unknown, it is rumored to be barely profitable. The last time it made specific statistics public, in 1998, the News showed annual losses of over $20 million.

The high costs of maintaining a newspaper in this high-priced city – and the pressures of competition – make it harder for newspaper publishers in New York to make money than their counterparts elsewhere. But if even the most widely read newspapers are not financially successful, why continue to compete?

The widespread belief is that New York's big-time newspaper publishers are willing to subsidize their unprofitable enterprises to capture a different kind of coinage -- political influence.

Post owner Rupert Murdoch received a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission’s regulations against owning different media outlets in the same market to buy the Post; he then used the newspaper to lobby for further leniency. His competitor, Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, has pushed a variety of his own pet causes through his newspaper.

“In this tabloid war, the rules of modern capitalism are suspended,” writes the New Yorker’s media writer, Ken Auletta, in his book Backstory.

“While it is true that Murdoch cannot tell his directors that the Post has made money, he can surely confide that it has been good for News Corp,” writes Auletta. “And, more personally, in the words of one close adviser, Murdoch knows that he has gotten ‘his conservative precepts across in the biggest market in the country.’”

WHAT EFFECTS ON READERS?

Better Informed?
When Ben Smith began work for the New York Sun in 2001, having previously reported for the Indianapolis Star, he was struck by the "sense of competition and urgency here. It means," said Smith (who has since left the Sun to work for the weekly New York Observer), "that you wake up every morning and read your competitors with a certain amount of stress."

This competitive stress, some believe, results in fuller coverage, which makes New Yorkers better informed. “When you have people competing head-to-head, it makes people work harder,” said John Morton, a newspaper analyst. “I think, overall, even overlooking some of the lapses, the readers are well served by this.”

Readers apparently agree. According to a recent poll (in pdf format) some 45 percent of New Yorkers believe that the local media helps the city solve its problems, as opposed to 31 percent nationwide.

While local media also includes television and radio stations, many believe that newspapers continue to hold a special place in the news-producing world. The newspaper "may be in decline in certain age groups, and it may be in decline over the horizon, but it is still significant," said Steve Isenberg, who was the last publisher of New York Newsday (before the New York edition folded in 1995). "To my mind, it is still the spinal column for all other news. Every radio and every TV person begins their day with it; they all read the major papers."

It is not just the major English-language newspapers in New York that keep their readers better-informed. Two healthy Spanish-language dailies, Hoy and El Diario, target an immigrant readership with different sets of priorities and bases of knowledge who don’t necessarily get what they need from the English-language press.

"In this paper, we are making a big effort to teach our readers how to integrate to this country, and to this city," said Javier Castaño, the news director of Hoy. "That's why we were covering the [Democratic and Republican National] Conventions, even before they started, with writing, pictures, and graphs explaining how the system works,” he said. “We have that obligation, because our readers are new to this country and this city."

More Alarmed, Maligned, Misled?
Earlier this summer, gruesome crime stories filled the front pages of New York's newspapers, sparking some talk of a summer crime wave,and bringing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s boasts of a safe city into question.

"The fact is that the incidence of crime remains relatively low,” Paul Browne, deputy commissioner of public information for the New York Police department, responded in the Times. "But the way it’s covered you wouldn’t necessarily know that." Browne claimed that the public’s view on crime is distorted because news organizations devote the same amount of space covering it, even as the actual amount of crime has dropped.

This is not a new complaint. Some argue that crime in New York, and particularly in Central Park, was never as bad as the public perceived. Even when it was the universal symbol for urban chaos New York did not have the worst crime rate in the nation.

Distortion and error, some say, are the downside of a competition that can be overzealous and downright vicious. When the Post ran a front-page story last month mistakenly naming Dick Gephardt as the Democratic choice for vice presidential candidate, the News took pains to rub it in. After using the Post’s cover to illustrate its own cover the next day – and delivering a case of champagne to the Post’s office to congratulate it for the “exclusive” – the Daily News ran several days of stories gloating over its competitor's mistake, a long-running finger-pointing habit that both papers share.

This kind of gleeful harping also targets public figures, which some see as part of the tabloids' major identity and in many cases their strength. But by thriving on conflict, says Andrew White, the tabloids bully public officials into confronting one another, making New York politics all that much more contentious.

The attacks "are not necessarily substantive, they don’t necessarily contribute in a meaningful way to the direction of the city’s effectiveness,” said White, the director of the Center for NYC Affairs at New School University, and the former editor of the monthly magazine City Limits. “But it’s just a reality of New York City politics that you have to deal with.”

THE NEW NEWSPAPERS

Given that so many New York newspapers are losing money, it might seem odd that publishers saw room for more. Odder still, AM New York's publisher, the Tribune Company, which also puts out Hoy and Newsday, is arguably creating its own competition. Already, the competitive pressure is clearly intense: recently, both Newsday and Hoy were caught in a scandalafter inflating circulation numbers to lure readers away from their competitors.

So why add more papers to the mix?

Many say that there is no point, that these papers, with more than 50 times the number of hawkers -- or, as Scott prefers to call them, "street promoters" -- than reporters, are a passing fancy that do not add anything to coverage of the city. "Journalists and readers of well-informed journalism were disappointed" by the content in commuter dailies, said NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who is writing a book about local media coverage.

But the publishers of commuter dailies, as well as analysts such as Klinenberg, argue that they may wind up serving a specific and important purpose -- recruiting new readers to the world of newspapers. By offering the Internet generation instant gratification for free, these weekday handouts attract young readers in a way that heftier papers cannot, or so goes the theory. In other markets, such as Chicago, it is the major daily newspapers that have started commuter dailies, grooming young readers who, they hope, will graduate on to a more substantive paper later in life.

Scott of Metro New York subscribes wholeheartedly to this idea.

“We are developing, I hope, a new cadre of newspaper readers,” he said. “My guess is, as our readers grow older, they may turn to a newspaper like the New York Times, the Daily News, or the New York Post, which are focused on an older audience.”

But New York’s other commuter daily, AM New York, takes offense at the “training wheel” theory. In comparison to Metro -- and to other commuter dailies throughout the country – the paper sees itself as doing the job of a conventional newspaper, albeit on a much smaller scale. (Its masthead lists nine editors and two reporters.)

Russell Pergament, AM New York’s publisher, keeps a thick stack of newspaper clippings in his office. Within minutes, he fills the conference table with them – each one a story that his paper broke, with copies of stories that other newspapers wrote after picking up the leads – as he explains what he thinks a newspaper should do.

“When I was a kid, I ran a paper out of my garage. We got people run up the river,” says Pergament. At AM New York, he is most proud of a story that served a similar purpose, by exposing mismanagement of the Statue of Liberty Foundation. After AM New York broke the story, the New York Times quickly turned it into a front-page feature, sparking a federal investigation.

“Based on the work [we’re] doing, it is a good newspaper, forget the qualifying ‘free’,” said Pergament. “And I hope that by the fall we’ll be a very good newspaper.”

ROOM FOR MORE?

There isn’t an agreed-upon length of time that it takes for a new newspaper to take hold in the city, either as a financial success or as a significant political presence.

 

The New York Sun, which started more than two years ago and claims 53,000 readers, seems willing to lose money for years to come in order to establish itself as a conservative alternative to the Times.

“Success will be measured by two things: whether we make money, and whether we meet our idealistic goals,” said the Sun’s publisher, Seth Lipsky. "We're a long way from both.”

But analysts seem doubtful that the publishers of AM New York and Metro will tolerate losing money for much more than three years. And it is too soon to judge whether the new newspaper model will have much of an effect on other papers in the city, or on how New Yorkers get their news.

As for the competing commuter dailies, each one insists that it is not in competition with the other, though everyone else agrees that they are, and expresses doubt that both will last.

That said, many believe that one of them will make it. Like all New York newspapers, after all, they do have at least one thing working in their favor.

“Everyone needs to read on the subway," said Smith. "What else can you do? Cell phones don’t work.”

 


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