Daily News editor Debby Krenek stood in the newsroom on the evening of March 23 and told her glum staff that the paper’s owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, had been lying to the press about her imminent departure from her job. “Contrary to what you may have heard, I did not resign in November,” she said. She added, “I love the Daily News ,” and finished her impromptu speech without mentioning by name either Mr. Zuckerman or her replacement, Edward Kosner, a former editor of Newsweek, Esquire, New York and, most recently, the News ‘ Sunday edition.
Nobody in the newsroom, of course, had actually believed Mr. Zuckerman’s statements that Ms. Krenek was leaving the job which she has held for the past three years of her own volition.
“I think there is no question that she was not interested in leaving,” a reporter told The Observer . “People respected her, and they knew it wasn’t true, that she wasn’t leaving voluntarily.” Said another, “Debby loved being the editor of the Daily News . She wanted to keep doing it.”
And when Mr. Zuckerman called Ms. Krenek “an absolute princess” in an interview with The New York Times, with the phrase’s whiff of condescension, Daily News employees could only shrug. Mr. Zuckerman was clearly up to his old game of shuffling editors. Mr. Kosner will be the paper’s fourth editor in the last four years. “Like someone who has a compulsive-obsessive disorder about washing his hands, Mort is a compulsive-obsessive about changing his senior executives,” said one reporter. Asked his thoughts on the high turnover in the editor’s office, Mr. Zuckerman said, “We were a paper striving to reestablish our identity and our voice, and this is what happens.”
Sources at the tabloid said that Ms. Krenek’s contract with the News expired around the first of the year. Since then, these sources said, she has been working on a month-to-month basis while trying to get Mr. Zuckerman to sign a new contract.
Ms. Krenek did not return calls for comment.
Told that Ms. Krenek’s remarks suggest that she was not as happy to leave the paper as Mr. Zuckerman had claimed, the owner replied, “You will notice that the press release said that she was pursuing other opportunities. That language was agreed to with her, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
Several Daily News staffers said they saw potential problems ahead for Mr. Kosner. First will be bridging the gap between the daily paper’s staff and Mr. Kosner’s Sunday staff, which has been operating virtually as a separate publication since Mr. Kosner arrived in November 1998.
“People are very uneasy about who they respond to, what will make their editors take notice,” said one reporter. “All of that is up for grabs now.”
“It’s going to be a weird twilight zone,” said another staffer.
As to what exactly Mr. Kosner is thinking, the new editor in chief could only advise that people wait and see. “There are a lot of things that are going to happen, but they are going to happen over time,” he told The Observer.
Why did Mr. Zuckerman elevate Mr. Kosner? After all, Mr. Kosner’s revamped Sunday Daily News has declined in circulation, down to 793,720 for the three months ending Sept. 30, 1999, from 815,112 for the same three months of 1998, a drop of 2.6 percent. “I had to make a promotion given Debby’s decision,” said Mr. Zuckerman. “I thought he was the most talented person.”
Mr. Kosner has said that he and his new senior executive editor, Michael Goodwin, will take the next six weeks to get to know the paper’s staff. He will take over the day-to-day operations on May 1. “I’m trying to use this period of time to learn more about the paper,” Mr. Kosner said, “to meet a lot of the people whom I didn’t work with that much as part of the Sunday operation, but who have very important roles on the paper.”
For now, Arthur Browne, the senior managing editor, is running things. “I’ve asked Arthur, and Arthur was gracious enough to agree to oversee the day to day affairs of the paper and I’m going to be involved intermittently,” Mr. Kosner said.
Sources at the paper say that Mr. Browne was less than pleased with how Ms. Krenek had been treated. It appears she may have learned of her ouster when she read a Neal Travis column in The New York Post on Tuesday, March 21, which reported that Ms. Krenek was about to be replaced by Mr. Kosner.
“It’s very disturbing to find out that you’re losing your job in Neal Travis’ column,” said a Daily News newsroom source, who added that the item “certainly forced events that were aborning.”
Whether Ms. Krenek knew about the imminent promotion of Mr. Kosner is unclear. Mr. Zuckerman said she did. “The conversations with Debby took place before the article appeared that Neal Travis had, so it predated that,” the publisher said. “It was the agreements that are necessary that were not completed by the time he had his article.”
But according to a Daily News editor, at the morning news meeting on the day the Travis item appeared, Ms. Krenek looked glum and said she did not know if the rumors were true and that she would know more later. She is reported to have met with Mr. Zuckerman later in the day. The editor said that Ms. Krenek did not attend the afternoon editorial meeting, and spent the rest of the day in her office fielding calls.
Mr. Kosner’s mandated interregnum has done little to soothe the nerves of the on-edge newsroom.
Mr. Kosner started his six-week study by attending the 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. news meetings on Monday, March 28. “I know how the Sunday paper operates, and I know the rhythms of the Sunday paper, and I want to do the same thing with the daily,” he said. At the meetings, Mr. Kosner asked department heads to write him memos about how the paper runs. Then he sent an e-mail to the entire newsroom. “I would like to ask each of you to write a memo to me about the paper and, if you like, about your own career here,” he wrote. He also met with reporters and editors individually. No staffwide meeting. “Those things are artificial and don’t do anything,” he said. Staffers say that he has privately given reassurances that there will not be a bloodbath.
“Obviously there will be some realignment of responsibilities, but there’s no way of knowing at this point who’s going to be doing what,” he said. “There’s not going to be any wholesale housecleaning or anything like that.”
One odds-on favorite to survive the transition is Mr. Browne. He started with the paper in 1973 as a copy boy, earned a law degree and worked his way up to City Hall bureau chief, managing editor, Editorial Page editor and various other positions in the newsroom. Mr. Zuckerman fired Mr. Browne in 1993, but rehired him soon after.
On the day before Mr. Kosner’s promotion, Mr. Browne was seen lunching with Mr. Kosner at the Century Club. And, he is a close friend of Michael Goodwin, the paper’s new senior executive editor. Mr. Browne and Mr. Goodwin co-wrote I, Koch, the 1985 biography of former Mayor Ed Koch . Mr. Browne did not return calls.
Whether Mr. Zuckerman will stick with Mr. Kosner for long remains to be seen, but one staffer said that the two don’t appear to share the same politics, noting that Mr. Kosner’s Sunday edition is somewhat more critical of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “I think conflict is more than inevitable,” said the staff member. “I think it’s months away rather than years away.”
After weathering everything in the last decade from a union strike, bankruptcy and the death of a publisher, Robert Maxwell, the staff is simply fatigued from all the turmoil. Of Ms. Krenek’s final meeting with her staff, one Daily News veteran said, “She’s giving this speech, and people are getting teary. Part of the reason is that we like Debby, but the other part is that we have to go through this again.”