If one can learn anything new about the deceased by noticing who speaks at their funerals, then the recent mourning for New York Newsday, the 10-year-old "tabloid in a tutu," which was killed by its parent, Times Mirror Company, on July 16, was instructive. Quite inadvertently, the encomia revealed that it wasn't really "the people" who'd lost a paper; it was liberal civic activists, academics and upscale "diversity" enthusiasts. And it wasn't just that Wall Street had abandoned Main Street; focus-group-driven corporate media had also lost an outlet by misconstruing their audiences and the urban condition, with assistance from well-meaning journalists who'd misconstrued them, too.
"We mourn last week's pitiable and highly dubious killing of New York Newsday," intoned The New Yorker, wearing its Sunday best like the tipsy daughter of a fallen old family at the funeral of the only civic leader still speaking to her. The deceased had been no match for "the great and earnest Times," of course, but without New York Newsday, "our newsstands are poorer, our city a diminished place." Actually, NYN's incursions into the Gray Lady's backyard had panicked her into a strong Metro section makeover. The upstart had gambled not only on the demise of one of the tabloids but, even if both the Daily News and the New York Post survived, on becoming an alternative for Times readers seeking more intimate coverage of their city. With palpable, if understated, relief, the Times editorial eulogy judged NYN's death sentence "a sound economic call," if "a sad outcome nonetheless." It's hard to believe someone wasn't popping champagne on West 43rd Street, not because Newsday had threatened Times profits but because it had often outdone the Times's multiculturalist local coverage. Yet both papers' readerships remained heavily white and middle class.
The true story of New York Newsday's failure is heartbreaking, not only for writers who've lost jobs but for "the people," who are little better served by the tabloids they do read than they were by the one they doggedly didn't. Earlier this year, when the O.J. trial claimed its fifth cover of the Daily News, a black community organizer in Brooklyn called to complain. "If my neighbors want The National Enquirer, they can get it at the supermarket," she huffed. "They buy the Daily News to feel like citizens." That's much less true now than it was twenty years ago. And there begins our tale.
At their best, the city's tabloids ennobled huge working-class audiences by linking their strengths and sufferings to higher cultural and civic aspirations. Like union halls, parish halls and political clubs, tabloids were part of how immigrants became Americans and how workers learned to look down on their social superiors. Many an insurgent's rise became a civic passion play, many a celebrity's fall a morality tale.
If City College was "the poor man's Harvard" for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, then the New York Post of publisher Dorothy Schiff, editor James Wechsler (whose first cousin, my aunt Leah Wechsler Sleeper, introduced me to the Post and to columnists Max Lerner and Murray Kempton) was their poor man's New York Times. The News was Catholics' answer to the waspy Herald Tribune; even now, the readers of my News column include well-read prelates in white-ethnic enclaves of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, plus blacks and Hispanics who first picked up the News because it was what white workers were reading when non-whites joined them in the 1960s.
Times and demographics change; today's tabs hang on in a disintegrating civic culture and often treat readers more like stampeding soccer fans than like citizens. In 1977, the liberal Post passed from Schiff to Rupert Murdoch and his Fleet Street fly boys, then to real estate developer Peter Kalikow and bankruptcy, then back to Murdoch. The working stiff's News, riven by its own racially changing demographics, careened through employee discrimination suits, new owners and strikes, recovering some balance recently under Mortimer Zuckerman. Into all this came New York Newsday in 1985, an offshoot of the fatter, more literary and suburban Long Island Newsday. It hired the venerable Kempton and others from the Post, the irascible Jimmy Breslin and others from the News and a clutch of eager young writers (including me, for five happy years) from smaller papers and journalistic countercultures. It strove mightily to herald a new civic culture; but it was a "multiculture," alas, as suited the paper's yuppified and ethnocentric writers and Times Mirror's penchant for polling its way into diverse market niches by pleasing without giving offense.
So why didn't my Brooklyn caller's neighbors buy it? Probably for one of the reasons I left NYN when the News offered me a column: there was something too careful and pat about its journalistic term papers on neighborhood economics and demographics, and something faintly patronizing in its portraits of intended readers.
There was also a new economic fault line, too deep for a dreamy multiculturalism to bridge. In 1987, when New York's economy plummeted, NYN's upper-tabloid/lower-Times niche shrank so dramatically that the paper "could not make up its mind whether to be a slam-bang tabloid or an intellectual, up-market repast for the cerebral set," as Post columnist Ray Kerrison wrote last week. Across the ideological chasm, the Voice's Ellen Willis lamented NYN's "often awkward, perhaps quixotic attempt to blend the low-rent tabloid form and a New York proletarian ethic with an educated, middle-class, unfashionably liberal sensibility." Most people couldn't warm to it, even as their civic desert sprouted the racial, sexual and other hostile camps that were glibly ratified in NYN's deadline multicultural patois.
Lacking a more compelling vision of a common civic culture, NYN finessed its split personality just as many liberal Democrats do: it became the media equivalent of David Dinkins's failed "gorgeous mosaic" politics. It tried to mesh the honest, gritty, civic-cultural interests of such writers as Kempton and Jim Dwyer with well-meaning journalists' obsessions with race and gender. It "gave readers a searching exploration of the city's black middle class, a page on the New New Yorkers, an investigation of union pay increases and a very gay appreciation of Batman and Robin's nipples—all in the same issue," bragged the lead story in the farewell edition.
Coverage of the "New New Yorkers," troubled neighborhoods and City Hall was often very strong; the Books section, under Jack Schwartz, was the classiest in town. Still, many New Yorkers got stereotyped by NYN. In the name of diversity, editors brought in cookie-cutter columnists—the Latina journalist, the gay monitor of homophobic outrages and others who were designated to represent a plethora of identity groups. Even the Voice's Willis thought NYN's "laudable concern with diverse voices sometimes became a self-parodying subservience to the worst aspects of identity politics: I especially hated the Woman Working (She walks! She talks! She plays office politics!)." And if you don't find the reference to Batman and Robin patronizing, try to imagine a NYN story "appreciating" Wonder Woman's nipples.
The paper's volatile mix of class-based liberalism and race-and-gender discourse sometimes compromised its coverage of battles between putatively "oppressed" black demagogues and assimilation-minded immigrants—as in the Korean boycott. Editorials were often impervious even to Democrats' disenchantments with New York's gargantuan welfare state.
And NYN had arrived too late for most of the old Post's Jews and the News's few liberal Catholics, who'd moved up and out; too late even for many urban blacks and Latinos, who'd either slipped out of the newspaper culture or clung to the News. Worse, the tabloids' mass reading public is evaporating into cyberspace and aliteracy; the News, Post and Times combined sell fewer copies in the city each day now than the 1.5 million the News alone sold in 1983.
Will the mass dailies die, too, or can they profit while helping more people to become good—and literate—citizens of tomorrow? Accepting a journalism award in 1979, Murray Kempton (then at the Post) imagined a subway passenger reading his column and leaving it behind as the train continued "its long, mournful journey" to outermost Queens. He envisioned another passenger, a youth awakening to the world beyond family and neighborhood, chancing upon the discarded paper and his column, "and, by God, you had better be ready," Kempton concluded, admonishing himself and us all.
Either that young reader no longer exists, or he wants something better than a "skillful deconstruction" of civic power (as the Voice's Richard Goldstein described Newsday's forte) by a company that panders to "identity" in a drive for elusive market shares. If the future is bleak, it's because liberal cultural patronizers have joined with capitalist pitchmen to drive potentially great pers, along with Kempton's dream reader, into the past.