Newsroom Nausea at the Daily News

For a newspaper built on a tabloid history of enduring unkind cuts, the week of March 15 brought some of the unkindest cuts of all. First came the news that an independent arbitrator had ruled that the Daily News ‘ drivers union is entitled to a 17.9 percent wage increase (retroactive to Jan. 1, 1997). According to union sources, that raise could cost publisher Mortimer Zuckerman as much as $20 million in one lump sum. Next came the ignominious announcement that the paper had hired Mike Barnicle as a columnist for the new opinion section being put together for the paper’s Sunday edition; Mr. Barnicle was forced to resign from The Boston Globe in 1998 over accusations of sloppy reporting and plagiarism. Finally, there’s the little matter of wage negotiations being reopened by the paper’s unions as early as March 31.

All in all, it’s not the kind of stuff that makes Daily News reporters and editors happy. Already there is some worry that the newsroom will have to take the brunt of the financial blow. “If they have an unexpected charge like this, what do they cut? Nobody knows yet,” said one reporter. But the white-collar editorial staff at the News doesn’t have a contract, so they’re vulnerable. Columnist Juan Gonzalez, who acts as the Newspaper Guild representative for the News even though the union was essentially destroyed when Mr. Zuckerman bought the paper in 1993, said, “We certainly hope that whatever happens doesn’t come out of what should naturally be going to the budget for the editorial department and wage increases for the reporters and white collar workers.” Others hoped that Mr. Zuckerman would cut back on corporate overhead instead.

“This is very upsetting, but I don’t think it’s lethal,” said labor lawyer Theodore Kheel, who was not directly involved in the paper’s negotiations with the drivers union but is familiar with the arbitration decision.

The standoff between the Daily News L.P., headed by Mr. Zuckerman and News co-publisher and chief executive officer Fred Drasner, and the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union is something of a financial powder keg whose fuse was lit back in 1997 but took a little over two years to go off. The situation began on Dec. 31, 1996, when a clause in the contract between that union and the Daily News mandated that the wages of the newspaper’s delivery truck drivers be reopened for negotiation. William Franks, a Daily News driver and member of the union’s wage negotiation committee, told Off the Record that negotiations became deadlocked by early summer 1997.

“They came in with a proposal that we felt was inadequate,” Mr. Franks said, referring to the paper’s management. “We had a host of meetings and figured that it was a futile exercise.”

That’s when an independent binding arbitrator–J.J. Pierson from the American Arbitration Association–was called in to take over the negotiations. According to the opinion Mr. Pierson delivered on March 7, a copy of which was obtained by Off the Record, the Daily News originally wanted to apply the same “pattern wage settlement” it had established with a number of the other craft unions at the paper to the drivers union. Footnote No. 37 of the opinion states that “according to the Daily News , the economic impact of the employer’s proposal during the reopener period would result in a total cost of $1,456,000 (including wages, overtime, vacation, holidays and sick leave).”

But the drivers union had a higher number in mind–as the arbitrator’s opinion put it, “a $73-per-week increase every nine months of the agreement” over the course of 27 months, “at a cost to the publisher of over $21 million through March 21, 1999.” Facing the possibility that some of the paper’s other craft unions could demand similar wage increases through “Options to Adopt”–or “me too”–clauses written into their contracts, Mr. Zuckerman and his management team balked at the drivers union’s demands, calling the union’s wage proposal “stratospheric.”

It would appear that the arbitrator came to a decision that is still on the stratospheric side, as far as Mr. Zuckerman is concerned. From a weekly base pay rate of $773.57 as of Dec. 31, 1996 (the day the wage negotiations reopened), Mr. Pierson awarded the union a 17.9 percent raise, to $911.79. By Off the Record’s rough calculations, that raise would equal a $13 million payout to the drivers union alone. When the various “me, too” clauses are figured into the matter, Mr. Zuckerman’s union dues go up even more.

But that’s not all. According to the original contract that the drivers union and Mr. Zuckerman signed in 1993, the wage negotiation process is set to start all over again on March 31. And if the other six craft unions opt to accept the drivers union’s arbitrated wage package, the Daily News is faced with the prospect of having to raise all seven of its unions’ wage packages at least twice more before the whole contract expires in 2005. In short, Mr. Zuckerman will be shelling out a lot of money over the next six years to keep the Daily News afloat.

According to Wayne Mitchell, president of the New York Mailers Union No. 6 and spokesman for the Allied Printing Trades Council, an umbrella organization for all the city’s newspaper craft unions, the turmoil at the Daily News could spill over to the New York Post , which is currently negotiating contracts and wage packages with many of its craft unions. Mr. Pierson’s arbitration order is largely based on the fact that drivers at the Daily News are at present the lowest-paid newspaper deliverers in the city. If the Daily News ‘ drivers union adopts the arbitration award, the Post would become the lowest-paying paper. Pat Smith, a spokesman for the Post , refused to comment on the paper’s current negotiations. “This is an open labor negotiation,” he said. “Who would comment in the middle of this?”

Right now, though, the situation is in the hands of the drivers union–the only union that can effectively block publication of the paper, and therefore the most powerful. And until they make a decision regarding the full arbitrated award, nothing is certain. “It’s that $10 million or $12 million or $20 million in retroactive wages. That’s what everybody has their eyes on,” said Mr. Mitchell. Because arbitration is binding, it basically cannot be appealed, so the Daily News has few options but to wait and see what the union does.

In the worst-case scenario, the paper could fall out of Mr. Zuckerman’s hands. In 1992, he paid only $36 million for the News , and it is doubtful he would publish at a loss. “If he comes to us and says, ‘If I pay this money I will have to declare Chapter 11,'” said a source familiar with the union’s position, “maybe you say, ‘Mort, maybe we need to find a new buyer.'”

Mr. Zuckerman’s office referred calls to Mr. Drasner, who refused to comment.

–Gabriel Snyder

A few weeks ago, several rock critics, music journalists and a publicist got an 11-page photocopied manifesto in the mail. Called “The Rock Critical List,” the homemade screed had one point, which it hammered for about 3,000 or so words. To wit: “Music scribbling out of New York-based national publications at this exact moment is unnecessarily lifeless, artless and idiotically panglossed, useless even as a ‘consumer guide.'” Signed by one “Jo Jo Dancer, a.k.a. The Gay Rapper” (a requisitely hip reference to a forgettable 1986 Richard Pryor film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling ), the self-hating analyst takes apart a bevy of pop music critics, backing the invective up with such pointed inside information, and in some cases, potshots at their personal lives, that those assaulted are wondering which one of their “friends” wrote it.

The manifesto first appeared on the desks of a chosen few: Vibe music editor Sacha Jenkins, Spin senior editor Will Hermes, Spin senior contributing writer Mike Rubin and Girlie Action publicist Felice Ecker. Most got it the last week of February, when The Village Voice ‘s annual Pazz & Jop poll–or, as Jo Jo so assiduously puts it, “self-serving year-end wankorama”–came out. “The hand-scrawled nature of [the envelope] kind of freaked me out,” said one recipient, who said he thought about dumping it in the sink. As it turned out, it was fairly explosive, albeit only in the tight little world of people who write about Blur, Britney Spears and Biz Markie for a living.

The bile comes pouring out in a top 10 list of rock criticism’s worst offenders. Leading the pack is The New York Times ‘ Neil Strauss, a “balding, dickless imp,” writes Jo Jo, who has become “the most craven, punch-drunk phony in the business.” (Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Strauss had no comment.) The apparently once virtuous Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy has morphed into “an unabashed, self-righteous propagandist for pop music’s ephemeral pleasures. In other words, indie-rock was over, he had a reservation at Union Square Cafe with Elastica, and hey, we’re a winner, baby!” Venerable Village Voice critic Robert Christgau is taken to task for his “sadly clotted prose,” “populist autism” and “total lack of feeling for today’s most important youth musics–hip-hop and electronic dance.” And New York ‘s Ethan Smith “has the profitable ability to prattle on like a mid-40’s patrician (therefore pleasing his mid-40’s patrician editors), yet still front like he relates to the wounded, channel-surfing troubadours of his generation.”

Understandably, reviews from the critics mentioned were mixed. “I thought it was moderately witty,” said Mr. Christgau. “He slammed people who were asking for it, people I don’t like either.” Mr. Christgau thought he came out “all right,” though.

“It’s extraordinarily rare that you see something that demonstrates this much intelligence and this much poor reasoning,” sniffed Mr. Levy.

Matt Diehl, who freelances for Rolling Stone , was summed up by Jo Jo, along with the writer Touré, thusly: “No matter how you dress ‘em up, a bitch iz a bitch iz a bitch.” Mr. Diehl called it “more of a drive-by than a critique” and added that he was more concerned that “this person went out of his way to humiliate me and then mail it to the people who I make my livelihood writing for.”

In the small, tightly wound subculture of pop music critics and the publicists who feed them, the list has caused a lot of internecine finger-pointing about who the real Jo Jo is. (Copies of “The Rock Critical List” are going for $1 at See Hear on East Seventh Street in the East Village.) “It’s obviously a white person obsessed with hip-hop who at the same time doesn’t read any African-American writers–or very few,” said Mr. Diehl. Another editor noted, “it’s such a small pool of people who could have written it. Not that many people know the details”–like that Boz Scaggs’ son fetches coffee for Mr. Levy at Rolling Stone –”or care, and are as barbed, as funny.”

“It seems like most people are obsessed by who it is,” said Spin senior editor Charles Aaron, who received the “Average White Man Award” in the list for his “cultural studies blood-letting” in a recent Spin article defending white rappers. Despite his being slagged, Mr. Aaron has become the prime culprit in many of his fellow critics’ minds. One writer pointed to the apparently Aaron-ish phrases “tiny lives” and “satori” as textual “proof.”

Mr. Aaron said he is not the real Jo Jo. “In my circumstance, it would be really insane for me to do things like that because it would hurt people who are my friends,” he said. “I don’t know who did it, and it’s not me.” Besides, he added, “the information that’s in there was not privileged, it’s basically stuff that writers talk about.” On top of that, he said, the list “was apparently postmarked from California.”

Other names circulating among the pop crit crowd as possible Jo Jo manqués include: former Grand Royal editor and current Vanity Fair contributor Bob Mack; Adam Heimlich of the New York Press ; freelance writer and musician Sasha Frere-Jones; and Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records. However, among the critics contacted by Off the Record (both on and off the list), Mr. Aaron is thought to be the most likely suspect. “Guilty until proven innocent,” said one nervous writer who was attacked, referring to Mr. Aaron. “That’s how people seem to be thinking about it.”

“If someone who’s a friend really thinks that I did it, then they can talk to me and I could assure them that I didn’t,” said Mr. Aaron. “Beyond that, I just hope that it passes and folks aren’t too hurt by it.”

Or, as Jo Jo’s final words put it: “Peath Out.”