Friday-Morning Massacre at the New York Post

Nearly every weekday, Stu Marques, the New York Post ‘s managing editor for news, ran the paper’s regular morning editors’ meeting from the head of a conference table at the Post’ s Sixth Avenue headquarters. But on the morning of Friday, June 8, Mr. Marques wasn’t there. Neither was Marc Kalech, the Post ‘s managing editor for arts and entertainment. Instead, sitting in Mr. Marques’ place at the meeting was Jonathan Auerbach, a young business editor who just two months ago had been named the Post ‘s metropolitan editor.

Mr. Auerbach’s selection of seats was seen as curious and somewhat ballsy given his position, and drew some ribbing from those in attendance. Jerry Schmetterer, the city editor, asked the rest of the room: “Hey, did you guys get the memo?”

Mr. Schmetterer thought, of course, that he had simply made a funny joke. But by the time the meeting let out, it was clear that his crack cut far closer to the bone than he’d imagined. Mr. Marques was discovered packing up his office. He, Mr. Kalech and Jack Newfield–the only liberal columnist in the paper’s ranks–had all been fired by the tabloid’s new editor in chief, Col Allan. Soon after, Mr. Schmetterer, associate metro editor Lisa Baird and Sunday features editor and columnist Michael Lewittes were all whacked, too.

The Friday-morning massacre was easily the biggest bloodletting in recent Post memory, and it represented a dramatic change of management direction and tenor at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid. In a tumultuous trade, where advertising drops often lead to quick cutbacks and staffers are routinely discharged to satisfy the bottom line, the pre-Col Allan Post newsroom had emerged as a somewhat surprising sea of tranquillity. Excluding the paper’s memorable crises of ownership, people were seldom fired there. For all the downsides of working at the paper–low pay, few perks, lesser prestige–the Post developed a reputation for largely avoiding the internal power struggles and throwdowns that hamper many other papers, and it was known to protect its own staff.

But that was then. Mr. Allan had been imported from Australia by Mr. Murdoch to shake the paper up, and after a month or so of cocooning in his office, he emerged in early June, sharpened blade in hand. ( Post staffers had long suspected that Mr. Allan, with whom few had much personal contact during his brief tenure, remained at arm’s length because he was busy plotting dismissals; like good reporters, their instincts were right.) While it is hardly surprising for a new editor in chief to clean house–just ask folks at the Daily News what happens when you get a new boss–the firings unnerved the Post ‘s staff and made it clear that a new era had begun.

Mr. Allan declined Off the Record’s request for comment. And while it is uncertain how the new editor’s recent firings will translate in the Post ‘s pages, signs are increasing that Mr. Allan intends to take the tabloid more downmarket, into the shrill, titillating territory occupied by other News Corp. papers like London’s Sun and the Daily Telegraph, the latter a Sydney paper that Mr. Allan formerly edited.

“He [Mr. Allan] has said that crime is going to be a big part of what he sees in the newspaper–exclusive crime stories, crime figures,” said one Post staffer. “Col loved the Carnegie Deli [murders].” Sources at the paper said that, conversely, Mr. Allan is not a great fan of regular political coverage.

Just consider the past week: On June 13, the paper used its front page to trumpet a story headlined “INSIDE THE FREAK BOX,” an alleged exposé of a lascivious (and long-advertised) dance party at Spa, a local nightclub well into its 15th minute; it marked its coverage of the relatively sedate Puerto Rican Day Parade with “‘TOUCH AND GO’ AT PUERTO RICAN PARADE: A FEW GROPES AT COP HEAVY EVENT”; and it hyped the Timothy McVeigh execution with a special extra edition with the cover tag “HE’S DEAD.”

Subtle stuff, to be sure. And particularly for a paper that had, until recently, been positioning itself as a harmless guilty pleasure for high-income urbanites, with regular, humorous dishings of political, media and entertainment gossip. Suddenly it’s “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” all over again. “The Post seems to be becoming, in my mind, the retro- Post of the 1980′s,” said one staffer.

Where Rupert Murdoch figures into all of this is uncertain. Technically speaking, the Post is now under the auspices of his 29-year-old son, Lachlan, News Corp.’s deputy chief operating officer, although sources said that the elder Mr. Murdoch still has the final say if he so desires. Even within the Post newsroom, there is uncertainty about Lachlan’s actual role. Said a source: “There’s real speculation about whether it’s him or his dad–or whether Col has a blank check.” Another source, however, also said that the younger Mr. Murdoch had shown an interest in making the Post even more jiggy, like its overseas counterparts–scantily attired Page Three girls and the works. And a News Corp. source said that both Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch, as well as the Post ‘s publisher, Ken Chandler, signed off on Mr. Allan’s Friday-morning ax-swinging. (A spokesperson for Lachlan Murdoch had no comment.)

The chief reason for all of this change, of course, is money. In the past, it was assumed that the Post ‘s fiscal shortcomings–the paper is estimated to lose in the neighborhood of $20 million a year–didn’t matter, since the tabloid was Rupert Murdoch’s political mouthpiece in the U.S. But that role may be changing; Mr. Murdoch is said to be thrilled with the success–in viewers and influence–of his conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. With Fox News performing so well and clearly becoming Mr. Murdoch’s principal news outlet in this country, will he still tolerate the Post as a money-loser? Add to that the fact that News Corp. has invested $250 million in a new color-printing plant in the South Bronx–pretty soon, it may be time to start paying back on that investment.

Of course, the tricky thing about the Post as a business proposition has been its decision to occupy a space between the higher-end readers of The New York Times and the lower-end readers of the News . This hasn’t always been good for business. While the paper has been successful in connecting with the city’s power brokers, The Times already dominates that audience and its money, said a Post source. Meanwhile, the News , with its largely working-class circulation of 716,000–200,000 more daily readers than the Post –continues to represent a better advertising buy for major-chain outlets like Mattress Warehouse and the Wiz.

This is what Col Allan faces as he tries to make the Post more profitable, and it will take much more than dismissing longtime staffers not in tune with his new world order. (Aside from Mr. Schmetterer and Mr. Lewittes, the people Mr. Allan fired were all Post veterans.) Still, the recent house-cleaning has created speculation that Mr. Chandler, the publisher, may be the next to go. (A News Corp. source, however, insisted that isn’t the case and that Mr. Murdoch has no plans to get rid of Mr. Chandler; Mr. Chandler declined comment.)

But change remains in the air, and will be for some time. With the appointment of two young top editors–Mr. Auerbach, 34, was promoted to assistant managing editor, and former deputy business editor Jesse Angelo, 27, is the new metropolitan editor–Mr. Allan has his new kids on the block. How the new kids and their boss make their Post dance, however, remains to be seen.

Friday, June 15, is the deadline at The New York Times for people there to apply for the early-retirement buyout packages, and here is where things stand:

Barry Lipton, the president of the New York Newspaper Guild, has said that The Times is looking to eliminate approximately 100 of the 1,600 employees represented by the Newspaper Guild, which covers the newsroom and the business side of the paper. At least 14, but no more than 20, are expected to come from the newsroom; Mr. Lipton has told Times employees that as of June 1, fewer than 60 people had applied.

The union president has hinted that if not enough people come forward, layoffs could follow. The Times announced the buyouts in April.

Reached by Off the Record on June 11, Mr. Lipton said, “We’ll know at the end of the week,” adding that he is “optimistic” that enough people will come forward. He said that in the last time The Times trimmed staff through buyouts, in 1994, applications came in mostly during the last two weeks before the deadline, though he did not provide a more up-to-date figure.

–G.S.

Not long after San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein mistakenly identified Jimmy Breslin as dead during a speech before the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Mr. Bronstein found his foot in a mouth not his own. At a private tour June 9 of the Los Angeles Zoo arranged by his wife, Sharon Stone, Mr. Bronstein’s toes were ravaged by a Komodo dragon. Was the karmic convergence brought on by Mr. Breslin? “I had nothing to do with that,” the Newsday columnist said over the phone. “But that’s the last fucking time he’ll bury me.” Mr. Breslin did, however, say he felt sympathy for Mr. Bronstein, who had to have surgery and faces a lengthy recovery .

–Ian Blecher

On June 7, the disembodied head of Stuart Elliott popped up in the Times business section. Mr. Elliott, 40, who writes a column about advertising, was the subject of a full-page advertisement and valediction from the American Association of Advertising Agencies in honor of his 10-year anniversary at The Times . It was designed by the Merkley Newman Harty agency.

Next to Mr. Elliott’s Cheshire-cat visage were the words “He never won a Pencil. He never won a Lion. He never brought home a Clio …. So why is every agency in America so interested in his copy?” At the bottom, it thanks him for his years of “insightful and informative reporting.”

“I kind of felt like Ronald Reagan in that movie, Kings Row ,” Mr. Elliott said. Mr. Reagan played Drake McHugh, a soldier who wakes up one morning to find his bottom half amputated. “Where’s the rest of me?” Mr. Elliot asked, quoting the film.

Mr. Elliott had heard rumors that the AAAA might run something about him. Apparently, members had discussed it at their annual meeting. But after the anniversary passed, in May, he assumed they’d forgotten about it. He didn’t know how they got his picture, and he said that no one consulted him about the ad beforehand.

But there’s still the little matter of Mr. Elliott’s being honored by the people he has to cover. Did the ad put him in an awkward position, kind of like Drake McHugh’s doctor? “Oh, you cynical people in the media!” he said sardonically. “What is this, a slow news week?” Then he got serious: “What does it say? ‘Informative and insightful.’ I mean, if it said ‘Thanks, Stuart, for all the puff pieces,’ then I’d worry.”

Still, Mr. Elliott has written about pretty much everyone involved in the ad. A story last year about the company that owns Merkley Newman Harty ran with the headline: “Omnicom takes another seemingly fearless step to expand its interactive empire.” He has also written of the AAAA’s work to clean up political advertising (other articles were more critical of the AAAA, including one that examined its fight against curbing tobacco ads).

Ariane Herrera, a spokeswoman for the AAAA, said: “I don’t want anyone to think this a political thing. This is a tribute to someone who has been reporting on the industry for 10 years.” She added that the ad was not meant to influence Mr. Elliott’s reportage. “I don’t think Stuart will ever change,” she said. “He’s never going to stop barking. He doesn’t play favorites.”

–I.B.