Is the New News Good News?

“Rats!” read the wood of the New York Daily News Express on Sept. 12, the first p.m. edition produced by the News in 19 years. And with a journalistic piggyback off that morning’s exclusive New York Times story, the News entered the New York market as a mass-transit giveaway.

While that has left many among the old Daily News staff shaking their heads, predicting the end is near, it has left Express editor Brian Moss positively gleeful.

“It’s great, it’s great!” he repeated shortly after the first bundles of the colorful afternoon edition were dropped off at the West 33rd Street offices. “You go into this business and at some point you say to yourself, ‘I wish I had my own paper.'”

Mr. Moss, who had set his alarm for 3:15 a.m. to get into work especially early Tuesday morning (and managed to wake up on his own even earlier, at 2:45 a.m.), said that things went fine editorially.

“What’s so critical about a venture like this is you have to hit your deadline,” he said. “And we didn’t miss our deadline.”

Across town, New York Post publisher and editor in chief Ken Chandler was not impressed with the inaugural effort. “I think if you pay nothing.… ” he said, letting the sentence hang. “I just don’t think it’s a very interesting paper. It doesn’t have any personality. It looks flat.”

Daily News chief operating officer Les Goodstein replied, “I find it very amusing, but what do you expect the editor of the New York Post to say?” He added that demand for the first day’s edition was strong. “I just left Grand Central and we are running out of copies, and we will either have to rearrange our distribution or add more copies,” Mr. Goodstein said.

The “Rats!” story, about a Republican Party Presidential campaign ad that flashes a single frame of that word in large, white type, seemed tailor-made for the inaugural Express . It was a quickie turnaround of a tabloid-amenable topic that loaned itself easily to a 156-point, eye-catching headline. Further, it allowed the News to play catch-up on a news story that had been absent from both the morning News and the Post .

Still, by the time Express was on the streets, the story had already taken a further turn, with the Republicans pulling the ads. It might be a warning that even a newspaper with a noon deadline, like Express , will have a hard time keeping up with today’s cable-driven and Internet-fueled news cycle.

Other content in Express included a page 2 report on Darryl Strawberry’s guilty plea to charges of driving under the influence of medication and leaving the scene of an accident, and his sentence of two years’ house arrest. A couple of other stories were picked up from the morning edition, including coverage of Gail Sheehy’s speculation in Vanity Fair that George W. Bush suffered from dyslexia.

But the problem internally at the News may not be Express ‘ decision to pick up items that ran in the morning paper. More problematic may be its ability to scoop the morning news writers and editors on stories they are planning for the next day’s paper.

This could be especially irritating to the News ‘ business staff, who on the first day found a wire version of a major business story they planned for Wednesday–Dresdner Bank A.G.’s bid for Wasserstein Perella & Company–in the lead business story spot in Tuesday’s Express .

Mr. Goodstein previously told Off the Record that Express will be heavy with business news, to heighten the interest of the Metro North, LIRR and subway commuters who, European-style, are the intended readers of the afternoon freebie.

Adding insult to the News ‘ business staff’s injury, Express ‘ business coverage has been outsourced to CBS Marketwatch.com.

Back at the Post , the editors there do have a game plan–besides lowering the price to 25 cents–to deal with Express ‘ arrival. According to sources, the Post will be pressuring its gossip columnists for more exclusives and drumming up more news features and investigative pieces to showcase on the front page. Hence their decision, on Sept. 12, to wood with Liz Smith’s exclusive on Victoria Gotti’s impending divorce rather than news of Mr. Strawberry’s arrest the night before.

And when Daily News co-publishers Mortimer Zuckerman and Fred Drasner, as well as Governor George Pataki, arrived at Grand Central Terminal to unveil Express , the Post was there, too–in the form of news hawkers dressed in Colonial garb. Get it? The Post is 199 years old. It was a not-so-subtle message that this battle in New York’s ongoing tabloid war isn’t over yet.

By the way, every war needs a good general, and the best of the best–Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, the owner of the Post –was all set to fly in and lead the troops. He had planned to skip the Olympics in his native Australia to stay in New York and work out of his Post office to make sure Express didn’t gain–and the Post didn’t lose–too much ground. But his assistant said on Sept. 12 that Mr. Murdoch had changed his plans and would be in Australia after all.

As print media and television media leap over one another to pair off (for those keeping track: ABC has The New York Times ; NBC is linked to The Washington Post and Newsweek ; CNN draws on Time and other Time Inc. magazines, and CNBC gets help from The Wall Street Journal ), the inevitable question of just how much the happy couples have in common is bound to come up.

None of these marriages seem to have as many differences as ABC and The Times , which have committed to joint reporting projects between 20/20 (consumer-oriented, sensational) and the Times news desk (at its best inside the corridors of power). This was apparent on Sept. 8, when the two news organizations carried their first child to term: an investigation into the lawyering of Edward Fagan, the Holocaust class-action-suit attorney.

For 20/20 , it was a happy delivery, made all the more successful by a Times reporter’s discovery of a disgruntled former paralegal in Mr. Fagan’s office. Jane Warshaw, the paralegal, thought that Mr. Fagan was derelict in his client-relationship duties, and left the firm with copies of more than 100 answering machine messages from clients desperately trying to get in touch with Mr. Fagan.

“It turned out that she was both very telegenic, good on camera, and had those voice mails,” said Stephen Engelberg, The Times’ investigations editor. “When we tell 20/20 , ‘By the way, we’ve heard about this woman, and by the way, she seems to have 135 voice mails in her back pocket,’ they were very excited, understandably. Those voice mails, for us, were fairly unimportant, but they were great television.”

They were, indeed. In the segment aired by 20/20 and reported by Brian Ross, Ms. Warshaw and her messages feature prominently. Plaintive appeals: “Hi. This is about the fifth time that I’ve tried to contact your office on behalf of my mother,” and “Please, I need an acknowledgment.” Interposed with Mr. Fagan’s bravado on behalf of his clients–”I’ve taken a lot of [bleep] from a lot of people, and a lot of my clients are going to get screwed in this deal. Yes, they are”–and, well, you’ve got yourself some pretty good TV.

But The Times prefers imperious to maudlin, and the story that ran on the top left corner of page 1 had a much more sober slant. No sneers from Mr. Fagan. A few quotes from angry clients amidst exacting accounts of litigation. And cautious nut graphs, far less willing to portray Mr. Fagan as deliberately derelict in representing the claims of thousands of elderly survivors of the Nazi pogrom.

“Mr. Fagan left neglected personal-injury clients in his wake, abandoning their claims or not returning their calls for years, according to court papers and interviews … Mr. Fagan, so at ease with using the emotional force of the Holocaust as a weapon, also ignored for months scores of calls and letters from aging Nazi-era survivors anxious about whether their claims had been received.…” Four paragraphs later, however, the story carefully notes, “Mr. Fagan’s conduct does not appear to have jeopardized the financial claims of his Holocaust clients.”

The story plods on for five more columns–basically, a 3,600-word story about a lawyer–perhaps arrogant, aloof and even a jerk–who wasn’t particularly good at returning phone calls. The version of the Fagan investigation that ran in the International Herald Tribune –a joint venture between The Times and The Washington Post –was chopped down to 876 words.

All of which begs the question: Would The Times have done it–and done it so prominently and at such length–were it not for the 20/20 factor?

Mr. Engelberg said The Times lowered no standards and maintained throughout the process absolute control over whatever it ran in its pages. And the story on Mr. Fagan was a good story, he contended, with or without the partnership with ABC News.

But in fact, said Mr. Engelberg, there were benefits to the alliance. “In both cases,” he said, referring to a briefer, earlier joint report, “I think we have come out with better stories as a result of working with them.

“It’s kind of an interesting mix of cultures,” he said. “Television by its nature has to be relentlessly focused on the human impact of a story. With our audience of hopefully 1 million very loyal New York Times fans, I think we sometimes get away from that, and it’s interesting to watch how their need to have human beings on camera forces them to think about what a story actually means to people.”

Mr. Engelberg is in fact looking forward to tackling some of the consumer investigations that are common on 20/20 but rare in The Times . “You’re getting me on my soapbox,” he said. “I don’t think that necessarily speaks badly of them or well of us. In the last year, I have been part of a group here who wants to see us do more consumer stories.”

Lawrie Mifflin, deputy managing editor for television enterprises, sees another benefit of the alliance . “Brand extension!” she said. “What we get out of it is exposure of New York Times journalists, and we get a little experience in making these broadcasts.”