Who Will Tell The Story?

Issue 238

The fall of the 'Daily News' is another blow for NYC journalism.

Steven Wishnia Aug 1, 2018

The most striking thing about the layoffs of almost half the Daily News‘ newsroom staff July 23 is that they leave the paper with only 40 to 45 reporters, editors, and photographers.

That’s 40 to 45 people to cover a city of 8.6 million people and a metropolitan area of more than 20 million, including sports and culture. It’s about 10 percent of the number the News had circa 1990. When I worked for a now-defunct New Jersey daily newspaper in 1990, we had about 18 people to cover a county of 500,000.

News is still publishing, but writing this feels like an obituary. It’s impossible to do broad and in-depth coverage with that few journalists. The News may end up like a slightly thicker version of AM New York or Metro, the free papers full of four-paragraph stories that you can finish within five subway stops.

The Times had better coverage of Japan and Egypt, but the News had better coverage of Jamaica and Elmhurst.

U.S. newspapers have been declining since the end of World War II, from suburbanization, television, diminishing literacy and, in the last 20 years, the internet, which has obliterated print media’s income from both sales and advertising. The News was once the largest-circulation daily in the country, with more than 1.5 million people buying copies. Its paid circulation is now less than one-seventh of that.

Its decimation chokes a crucial New York voice. Its 1975 “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” headline might be the most renowned in the history of American journalism, a pointed encapsulation of President Gerald Ford’s refusal to aid New York in the depths of its fiscal crisis that could be understood by a smart fifth-grader. The New York Times had better coverage of Japan and Egypt, but the News had better coverage of Jamaica and Elmhurst.

Its politics have oscillated over the years. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was the voice of the city’s working- and middle-class white Catholics, who were much more conservative — and rabidly anti-Communist — than the working-class Jews who were the pre-Murdoch Post‘s base. A 1960s editorial called Vietnam War opponents “garbageheads,” and headlines were often newsstand-era clickbait: “BRUNETTE STABBED TO DEATH” over “6,000 Die in Iranian Quake.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, it became more liberal, arguably because it realized that as one of the city’s two surviving tabloids, it had a lot of black and Latino readers. It moved to the right after Mortimer Zuckerman acquired it in the early ’90s and sometimes it seemed as if the News’ editorial holy trinity was the real-estate market, the Yankees, and Israel’s Likud party. In 2011, a News article called Occupy Wall Street protesters “rabble.” On the other hand, reporter/columnist Juan Gonzalez was probably the farthest-left writer for any large U.S. daily before he retired.

Despite its slashed staff, in the last few years, the News published major investigative pieces on arbitrary evictions of public-housing tenants and the city’s failure to protect them from lead paint. It was the first news outlet to post the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by police in 2014. And it was the most loudmouthed anti-Trump voice in mainstream media, as befits a paper that had been covering him for 40-odd years and thus knew what an ignorant, bigoted megalomaniac he was.

The Internet is great for disseminating news produced by other people but destructively parasitic to the outlets that actually do that reporting. Also, its monetized-click economy favors instant-outrage over nuanced and in-depth reportage, viral national stories over local news. Far more people read or write quickies about “covfefe” or Stormy Daniels than lengthy exposes of the Trump regime’s wars on environmental protections and labor rights.

Stories about zoning are about as far from clickbait as you can get. Few online readers want to wade through arcane details about ULURP, R7A, and 197-a plans, especially if they don’t live in the neighborhoods affected. Yet zoning enabled developers to turn Williamsburg into a phalanx of luxury high-rises and will determine whether Inwood, Highbridge, and Chinatown will follow.

Consistent local reporting — on neighborhoods, legislation, education, policing, labor, housing — takes tons of legwork by people who know the city and are paid a living wage to do it. The News layoffs exemplify the loss of the resources needed to do that work.

As axed editor-in-chief Jim Rich put it, July 23 was a good day for those who “hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark.”

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Photo credit: Michael Dougherty.