New Post Editor Missing His Notes

Maybe sometime in the near future, recently installed New York Post editor Col Allan will wander out of his office in the Sixth Avenue newsroom and grandly pronounce his plans for the tabloid. To date, he hasn’t done that. And until then, the Post’s representatives say, the newspaper will have to speak for Mr. Allan.

That’s unfortunate, because for all the hype about Mr. Allan-the legendary former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, Australia-his Post has been a curiously misdirected, occasionally tone-deaf disappointment. Some of that, no doubt is due to Mr. Allan’s recent change of scenery. A month into the job, the famously bold editor may have managed to turn up the volume at his new paper, but he hasn’t begun to show a grasp of New York.

Take, for example, the big national story on May 24, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords fled the Republican Party, handing Democrats control of the Senate. No doubt, it was a historic moment: It’s the first time the Senate ever switched party control between elections, and the Senator’s move will have a deep impact on national politics and policies.

The New York Times naturally gave Mr. Jeffords’ switcheroo its standard Big, Authoritative Treatment, with two front-page stories under a stern, three-column headline: “G.O.P. Senator Plans Shift, Giving Democrats Control in Setback for White House.” The Daily News went another route, putting a handcuffed Reverend Al Sharpton on its front page after Mr. Sharpton was jailed in Puerto Rico. Mr. Jeffords merited a head in the top right corner: “Vt. senator bolting GOP, rocks Bush.” Fine; the News isn’t a national newspaper, and it’s been on a roll with local news as of late.

Col Allan’s revamped Post, on the other hand, was totally off its rocker. While Rupert Murdoch’s paper has long been (wink, wink) cozy with the G.O.P., the paper’s front page the day after Mr. Jeffords’ stunning announcement-”BENEDICT JEFFORDS: Turncoat senator imperils Dubya’s agenda”-seemed composed in an alternate universe. While New Yorkers do take an interest in Presidential politics, this city hardly gives a rat’s tail about “Dubya’s agenda,” much less whether or not it’s imperiled. And a Benedict Arnold pun? It seemed like the kind of American reference that only a foreigner could come up with, or maybe a fifth-grader just finishing up American History. Some readers, no doubt, saw the page and thought, “Eggs?”

More recently, Mr. Allan’s Post tripped over itself with its May 27 “TORCH IS TOAST” Sunday cover story. That piece-an exclusive about an allegedly forthcoming indictment against New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli-was dubious on several fronts. First and foremost was the piece’s sourcing: The entire story, it turned out, rested on a single quote-”We’re going to indict him soon”-attributed to “one Justice Department investigator [who] told an associate, according to a source.” It sounded as reliable as something overheard in a high school cafeteria, and immediately cast suspicion on the entire piece.

Of course, the Post has its editorial motivations for pushing Torricelli’s predicament, chief among them that his ouster could lead to a reshuffling of the Senate Majority (never mind that the city is probably better off with two Senators now serving in the majority party).

But more importantly, how much do New York Post readers care about the endless travails of Robert Torricelli, colorful Senator from … New Jersey? While Mr. Torricelli has been known to pop up in the gossip columns a time or 10, he’s no Hillary, no Rudy, not even a Schumer. Free cultural assimilation tip for Mr. Allan: New Yorkers don’t care about New Jersey. The same day, the News stirred the pot locally (and ticked off the Mayor, too) with “RUDY’S CRUMBLING WORLD,” its front page examination of Mr. Giuliani’s woes.

And while Mr. Allan’s paper has had its splashes on the matter, too, the Post’s treatment of L’Affaire Rudy has been spotty overall. In many respects, the Gracie Mansion soap opera should have been a proving ground for the new editor: just as Rupert Murdoch got to show his mettle as a publisher during the summer blackout of 1977, Mr. Allan had an opportunity to show his vision with his treatment of the mayor’s upturned life.

But too often, the paper’s coverage of Mr. Giuliani’s personal crisis has been half-baked, unsure of itself. That lack of clarity has heightened perceptions that the Post is downplaying the contretemps with Donna Hanover and Judi Nathan out of allegiance to the mayor, with whom the Post has long enjoyed a close, politically simpatico relationship.

The Post’s in-house problem with Rudy’s troubles at home was foreshadowed on the first weekend after the divorce mess began. On May 12, the paper ran a column by Andrea Peyser defending the mayor, and another by Linda Stasi strongly sticking up for Donna Hanover. Even Steven, fair enough. By the next day, however, it was clear that Ms. Peyser was writing for the paper, while Ms. Stasi was getting increasingly fewer inches to rebut.

Ms. Peyser, of course, wrote the memorable Post cover story detailing all of the selfless ways in which Mr. Giuliani was suffering through his prostate cancer. She discussed Mr. Giuliani’s impotence and his nightly vomiting, all related to his cancer treatment regimen. None of it pleasant stuff, to be sure. But the way the Post played it-its wood that Sunday was, “JUDI STANDS BY RUDY: She helps mayor battle impotence and chemo woes”-seemed hopelessly off. Judi stands by Rudy? Was that devotion really in doubt?

Two days later the Post printed one of its nastiest woods in years: “CRUELLA DeHANOVER,” over a photo of a startled and dazed Ms. Hanover. The miscalculation at the Post again looked like it was made by an out-of-towner. “CRUELLA DeHANOVER” no doubt made them chuckle when they were mocking it up on Sixth Avenue, but it grossly overestimated the sympathy for the mayor, and was more-than-borderline mean. For people who remembered the year-ago events when in a short week we learned that Mr. Giuliani had cancer, had a girlfriend and had decided not to run for Senate, the divorce flap is just another example of how Mayor Giuliani has a screwed-up life just like everybody else. But the “CRUELLA DeHANOVER” headline seemed as strident-not to mention as shrill as-Reefer Madness.

When Mr. Allan arrived at the Post on April 30, replacing Xana Antunes, those who had worked with him previously said he was a superb tabloid editor, one who made huge splashes Down Under with strong, emotive crusades (rather than just scoops) and by going after local politicians he and Mr. Murdoch didn’t like. Almost always, Mr. Allan’s papers did it with the playful, if cynical, spirit that makes a good tabloid fun to read-and fun to hate. In other words, he sounded like a great editor for the New York Post.

More than any single decision, the Senator Jeffords front page made clear that for all his attributes, Mr. Allan didn’t yet understand New York. Inside his newsroom, one staffer called the Jeffords package a “real embarrassment.” To date, the source said, Mr. Allan has leaned on others for the hometown’s pulse, while he concentrates on packaging. “He has a sense of spin if it’s presented to him by someone who can boil it all down for him,” the source said.

But with editors at the Post still walking on eggshells around the new boss, it’s tough to imagine them piping up when Mr. Allan offers a lame idea. Making matters more mysterious, Mr. Allan spends much of his time sequestered away from staff, stirring fears that he’s typing up a layoff list. “He still hasn’t come out of his office much,” a source said of Mr. Allan. “He keeps his mystique longer by staying away.”

Still, at some point-probably in the very near future-that mystique is going to dissipate, and the troops are going to start wanting to hear more from their new general. The thinking, the source said: “This is the guy who is supposed to do all these great things-and this is it?”

This is not to say that Mr. Allan doesn’t already have his hands full. Editing the Post is a tricky business, and has been for decades. Unconcerned with comprehensively covering the city, Mr. Murdoch’s Post opts to chronicle a black-and-white landscape where it bolsters its friends and blisters its enemies, offering its version of the evidence to back it up. Operating in one of the country’s most liberal cities, the paper has long understood the importance of news sensibility-the art of emotional, point-of-view reporting-and also the usefulness of humor. When the Post is on its game, reading it can feel like a raucous evening out with a bunch of lovable loudmouths; some right, some wrong, some completely over-the-top, but all of them good fun.

Last year, during the extended Presidential election mess, the Post was performing beautifully. Hammering Al Gore with front-page headlines like “LIAR! LIAR!” (after the first presidential debate) and “ENOUGH ALREADY!” (two days into the Florida ballot fight), the paper regularly took the wind out of the stiff, lawyerly Gore campaign. Earlier that year, the Post’s fine sports section had swung for the fences and scored with the giddy return of the Subway Series. Pepped-up business and fashion coverage scored occasionally, too.

But that Post still wasn’t delivering the numbers that the Murdochs wanted, so now comes Mr. Allan … and almost from the get-go, his paper has looked like a different beast.

First there’s the redesign-some of which, it should be noted, was in the works before Mr. Allan arrived on our shores. But the new guy himself is responsible for the conspicuous redesign of the Post’s famous front page. On Mr. Allan’s Page One, there are frequently two major stories hyped out front-and very often, the main story of the day begins on the cover. Both techniques are borrowed from Mr. Allan’s Daily Telegraph.

Additionally, there are changes inside-cute new photos for writers like Neal Travis, and bigger, fatter bylines for others like Page Six’s Richard Johnson. There’s also smaller page size, which foreshadows a long-anticipated shrinking that will bring the Post down to the size of the Daily News. (For now, it merely gives pages an eerie inch-thick border of blank space.)

And though it doesn’t exactly count as a redesign directive, one Post reporter noted a recent, curious uptick in the number of Post stories about rescued cats.

In this season of change, however, the Post is maintaining a wall of silence about its new editor and just what he’s thinking. Inquiries into the new front page designs were passed on to the Post’s spokesman Steven Rubenstein, who said, “Col is experimenting with some new formats. That’s all we want to say.”

It’s only been a month, of course. Perhaps Mr. Allan will figure out the eccentricities of New York City. The Tuesday, May 29 Post, which touted a story of two gruesome murders in the projects-dismembered body parts tossed out windows!-was an encouraging sign. While the Daily News played it straight- SLAUGHTER ON 10TH AVE-the Post turned it into a parable of the absurdity of New York life: WHAT PRICE APARTMENTS? Murder, cops say, after two tenants are slain. (Still, the Post absurdly ran a Page One photo of that wacky Catholic Archbishop instead of its photo of a cop apparently carrying a victim’s severed head in a brown paper bag; that shot got buried inside.)

Though it’s unclear whether it was the boss’ idea-it was Memorial Day weekend, after all- the “WHAT PRICE APARTMENTS?” front page was a nice comeback for the Col Allan–era Post. Maybe he’s starting to get it. Word is he’s looking for a place to live in New York City; by now he surely knows what apartments cost.