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Newspaper brawl in New York City: within a week after Maxwell takes over the Daily News, the city's papers are using their news columns to snipe at one another.

Newspaper brawl in New York City

Within a week after Maxwell takes over the Daily News, the city's papers are using their news columns to snipe at one another

Within a week after British publisher Robert Maxwell saved the New York Daily News from extinction, a dormant newspaper brawl had re-erupted with renewed antagonism.

Newspapers attacked each other's accuracy. Columnists raised calumny against each other. Publishers became subjects of new stories--and gossip column sniping. Even the highbrow New York Times was caught in a bare-fisted brouhaha with three ferociously feuding tabloids, the Daily News, the New York Post and New York Newsday.

"It's like watching your family go at it," Gannett Foundation Media Center director Everette Dennis said. "In the sense that the snuffbox never sneezes--you never write about yourself or your competition--this is the opposite of that . . . . You don't see that much of this thing in American journalism these days."

Resurgent competition reminded Dennis of the late 19th century, when more than a dozen newspapers wrangled for attention, often insulting each other in the process. Such scrappy, head-to-head newspaper competition has nearly evaporated, leaving all but 15 or so U.S. cities essentially monopoly daily newspaper franchises.

"There's always been war," said Post editor Jerry Nachman. "Maybe there was a brief respite while one of the combatants appeared to be mortally wounded, but now the News is back on the field of battle and I guess the time-out is up."

In classic New York style, when the gloves came off, so did any pretense of professional courtesy. A B-movie about the journalistic equivalent of fisticuffs might be called N.Y. Newspaper War, The Next Generation: This Time It's Personal.

Read all about it:

* Above the Daily News nameplate in 60-point bold type: "Newsday's Flawed Tax Lists." The story inside on Page 2 challenged the accuracy of New York Newsday's listings of properties that overpaid taxes. The Post followed suit with its own story quoting city officials who questioned whether properties listed were actually entitled to tax rebates.

New York Newsday responded with a story quoting readers who credited the paper for informing them about their tax credits. New York Newsday editor Donald Forst said the lists were accurate.

* The Times weighed in with a Page One story, with photo, on the debt problems of Post publisher Peter Kalikow, who is also a major real estate developer. A Post story the next day challenged some facts in the Times, finding two parties, not four, suing Kalikow. The Times responded with a correction.

* Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin's entry attacked Kalikow as a 1980s-style high flier fallen on hard times. Nobody likes a rich guy bereft of his money, Breslin said, raking Kalikow because his debts were exposed by the Times instead of his own Post.

* Post columnist Mike McAlary, formerly of Newsday, counterattacked with a vitriolic personal attack on Breslin. In a column headlined "Bully-boy Breslin: an out-of-control hypocrite," McAlary slammed the Pulitzer Prize-winner for fabricating columns, covering the Persian Gulf war "from under his kitchen table," and for carrying water for his corporate masters at Times Mirror Co., which owns Newday.

"Ultimately, he has become that most despised creature in journalism -- the out-of-control paragraph," McAlary wrote. McAlary said he retaliated in print because Breslin had been enviously trashing McAlary and other young columnists.

"McAlary was desperate for a column," said New York Newsday editor Forst. "I guess that's his Pulitzer Prize entry." Breslin did not return a message left at his office.

* Newsday lured columnist Liz Smith from the Daily News for an undisclosed sum as the strike ended. Preceding her, columnists Gail Collins and Bill Reel had left the ranks of Daily News strikers to join Newsday. Columnist Jack Newfield quit the strikebound Daily News to join the weekly New York Observer, and City Hall bureau chief Marcia Kramer went to television. Amid the turmoil, Newsday also snatched Parade Sunday magazine from the Daily News.

* On one day the Post took three swipes at two competitors. Its gossipy Page Six savaged Breslin in a Sean Delonas cartoon showing a janitor emptying a garbage can into Breslin's head, quoted a magazine article accusing Daily News publisher Maxwell of "cozying up to Communists" and said Liz Smith had a "shaky start" with Newsday because she was unhappy with the play she was getting in another Times Mirror Co. paper, the Los Angeles Times.

Other gossip columns have routinely exposed the machinations of the Newspaper Bigs. One Newsday gossip item recounted how the crew of Maxwell's yacht ridiculed Capt. Bob during a night of carousing.

"The columnists have generally been out of control," Gannett Foundation's Dennis said. A round of Irish-Catholic bashing by three Irish columnists after the Saint Patrick's Day parade was particularly "harsh and meanspirited. There's certainly grappling for the news," he said.

"I think journalists who do this are wrong . . . . The dirty-pool approach of challenging the veracity of other people's information, rather than finding one's own, is something people get very bored with very quickly," Dennis said. "I can't believe those kind attacks on one another build readership."

Post editor Nachman maintained that the Post's policy on attacking competitors mirrored U.S. policy on thermonuclear war: No first strike.

"Breslin came at us more than once, and McAlary got a bellyful. He had the sense that most people in the business think Breslin is a fraud and felt he was unencumbered enough to write that," Nachman said.

He questioned whether the Times would have played the Kalikow story, without his response, on Page One were he not the Post's publisher. "I'm saying how it was done and where it was played looked weird," he said.

"Competition is clearly cranked up a notch," said New York Newsday editor James Toedtman.

Newsday broke the story in January that the city owed several hundred million dollars to property owners who overpaid taxes, but the city had no plans to tell taxpayers. Based on its investigation, New York Newsday began publishing a planned 108 pages of lists of city properties that have tax credits.

"It's not inexpensive, but we think it's worthwhile," Toedtman said. "We think it's a public service."

Competitors responded by challenging whether the property owners were entitled to refunds. Based on city computer records, the lists included properties that carried tax credits but, since they excluded tax debts, they did not assure that owners were due refunds.

"I think we've got a good story, and in a competitive environment people are going to attack what's good," Toedtman said.

The renewed newspaper war in New York pits Times Mirror against British publisher Maxwell's media empire and New York real estate developer Kalikow. A year ago each of the three tabloids was losing millions of dollars a year. On the fringes is the highly profitable New York Times Co. flagship, with the lion's share of the ad market and the upper crust of reader demographics.

Today only the Post is profitable among the tabs--but that came on the backs of workers who gave concessions and with a windfall of advertising and readership from the Daily News strike. Both quick fixes are running out. The agreements for pay and work concessions ended March 6, and the strike ended two weeks later.

"The story is, What are they going to do about us? This is the highest-circulation tabloid in the city, and we are the only profitable tabloid in New York City," said the Post's Nachman. "We are the ones to whom the game needs to be taken, not vice versa."

How long the personal attacks will last is unclear. What is perfectly clear is that with a new lease on life for the Daily News, the ante goes up for all players. The newspaper war will cost more--in salaries for well-known writers, in higher costs of breaking exclusive stories, and in lower ad rates.

The Post has the advantage of the smallest work force, but it had the smallest share of advertising and it lacks a Sunday paper, generally the most profitable and fastest-growing edition of the week. Newsday and the Daily News have corporate owners whose deep pockets can subsidize them indefinitely but, then, a wealthy parent did not guarantee a permanence for the Daily News. Analysts give the Daily News a good chance of recovering readers and advertisers lost during the strike.

High stakes make the battle worth fighting. The Daily News alone was bringing in more than $400 million a year before its revenues collapsed during a four-month strike that almost ended its 71-year life of competing for readers among New York City's teeming masses.

PHOTO : The Daily News ran a front-page headline over its flag which criticized a Newsday feature.

PHOTO : New York Post columnist Mike McAlary devoted an entire column to trashing Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin.

PHOTO : A cartoon on the Post's Page 6 zapped Breslin too.

PHOTO : The usually outspoken Breslin has remained above the fray so far.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Robert Maxwell
Author:Garneau, George
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 6, 1991
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