Post Traumatic Stress: Beloved Rogue Tabloid Is Thrown for a Loop

The New York Post

is still publishing out of Manhattan.

We know this because we checked the other day at the Post ‘s 10th-floor newsroom on Sixth Avenue

in midtown. There, a couple hours before deadline, we found Steve Dunleavy, the

reed-thin crusading columnist, sitting in a cubicle, waiting to find out what a

cop had told federal investigators looking into the Abner Louima torture

incident.

Mr. Dunleavy, of course, is a steely veteran of Rupert

Murdoch’s media campaign, having served 35 years under his fellow Australian’s

wing-some of them in the motherland, 14 of them at the Post .

“The New York Post

wakes people up in the morning,” Mr. Dunleavy said. When one grabs the tabloid

in the morning, he said, “You start to believe that you are in New

York, or you are in Queens, or

you are in Brooklyn …. It is a triple espresso.”

But these days, the wake-up man serving the triple espresso

is an editor named Col Allan, who’s of Sydney, Australia,

not this town. Since his installation in April-when Mr. Allan, the former

editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph known for his wild-man product, was named to replace the suddenly canned Xana

Antunes-the new boss has aggressively restitched the Post into a newspaper that looks and feels a little like a giant

prawn out of water: foreign, a little disoriented, not quite the defining

homegrown newspaper it was not too long ago, even.

Such is this city’s devotion to the Post that Mr. Allan’s version has been deconstructed within an inch

of its life all over town: its design, its voice, the number of boxes on the

front page, the quality of the headlines, the surefootedness of its feature

choices. Somehow it didn’t seem to have that familiar, well-worn Post brazenness. The questions began

with the curiously archaic “BENEDICT JEFFORDS” front page that showed up the

day the Vermont Republican Senator switched parties last May, and continued

through a strange series of screaming headline choices that seemed more vulgar

than funny. The paper took on that well-known invasive rasp that foreigners use

when trying to approximate what they believe is the New York sensibility-the

same thing schoolchildren do when they say ” Zees

eez my wee-wee ” to sound as if they’re speaking French.

When Rudy Giuliani’s divorce lawyer declared that the Mayor

couldn’t pay his legal bills, the Post

threw a crude cartoon of Mr. Giuliani in a barrel on the front page that looked

stamped on by invaders from Sydney.

The net effect has been a curious hybrid of Murdochian and Maury Povich

sensibilities-stories about Shark Boys, Freak Boxes, Sausage and Egg Hermits;

covers that look like frantic guesswork. It all culminated in the

simultaneously unfunny, distasteful and uninteresting (at least to most of New

York) $65,000 “Lizziemobile” vrooming around the Hamptons, with the supposed

purpose of stoking a crazed class-consciousness in New York-they have that kind

of thing in other far reaches of Mr. Murdoch’s empire-while being bid on by an

imagined, voraciously vengeful readership incensed by Ms. Grubman’s high-handed

crack-up at Conscience Point.

In short order, the Post -once

as familiar as the weary doorman and nice sewery scent of subway tunnels-became

an instant mystery to Manhattan

loyalists, many of whom adored it six months ago.

“Arrgh! I don’t like it!” said

Lucianne Goldberg, the Fran Lebowitz of the Manhattan Drudge Report crowd-in

other words, the Post ‘s diehard

audience. “And I have to lay it on Col Pot! He doesn’t get New

York. He doesn’t get the New

York sense of humor. You either get it or you don’t.

You know when something is funny.

“The gossip network-the people in the media, the

intellectual engine that drives this city-always liked to get a shot [at] the Post ,” Ms. Goldberg said. “But now, I

don’t know how to describe it. It’s like clip-and-paste reading. I mean, they

really had the Zeitgeist of the city

until this new regime.”

Ms. Lucianne pointed to the Post edition on Sunday, July 29. The lead story was a trumped-up

exclusive, “Rx FOR DEATH,” about buying drugs online. At the bottom of the

page, there was a tease for a story on John Travolta and the women he finds

hot.

“John Travolta? That’s not a front-page story,” Ms. Goldberg

said.

“I just thank God they haven’t touched the gossip,” said

Michael Musto, the Village Voice

columnist and, it could be argued, Lucianne Goldberg’s polar opposite. “I

really need them for that. It’s a requirement for me to stay alive.”

It’s amazing how quickly the Post was transmogrified. Before Col-B.C.-the Post was a confection that, at its best, combined a microscopic

view of city insiders with an unabashedly conservative take on national

politics and personality-driven coverage of local stories, particularly

politics. It was a paper you didn’t have to agree with to love. More important,

it showed up on newsstands each morning representing a coherent

whole-reflecting and defining, in its own unique way, how the city saw itself.

This is not to say that the B.C. Post didn’t have its weaknesses. Under Ms. Antunes, sources at the

paper said, it had begun swinging into a softer tabloid, paying particular

attention to feature-driven London

tabloids like the Daily Mail . Ms.

Antunes pushed for a news-features department that would produce one- and

two-page features for the news hole, such as takes on Salman Rushdie’s rebirth

as a swinging Manhattanite and the legal battle between hip hotelier Ian

Schrager and bar owner Rande Gerber. In the process, however, critics felt that

the paper paid less attention to breaking news and gave up valuable ground on

the metro-news front to the Daily News.

Under Mr. Allan, this has changed. The news-feature

department has been dissolved and its staff reassigned across the paper (two

writers have left). Ms. Antunes’ quirky vision has been replaced by something

that looks like the line-up of a bland local newscast in Anytown,

U.S.A.: shrill crime

stories, limp sex yarns, meaningless celebrity worship and touching tales of

lost pets and wedding dresses left in cabs. Worse, the paper picks up and

rewrites half-baked tales from the U.K.-the Post

took Fleet Street’s lead that George Harrison was at death’s doorstep ( gong! ) and that Anna Kournikova got

married in Russia ( gong! again).

“It seems like less of a local paper; it has more of a

national flair,” said one Post

staffer.

Pete Hamill, a columnist for the News who briefly edited the Post

in 1993, said he thought the paper had been especially strong in the previous

year-in other words, B.C.

“Now,” he said, “what I get is more of a ‘Holy shit!’

attitude to a lot of things, which can be exhausting.”

The Lizziemobile, it seems, has been Mr. Allan’s nadir to

date. Giving away a Mercedes S.U.V. just like the one Lizzie Grubman drove when

she backed into 16 Hamptons clubgoers on July 7 sounds like the kind of

nuance-free, lampshade-on-the-head joke you might see cooked up by the creators

of a Tom Arnold sitcom. (It was actually born in the Post ‘s marketing department.)

Naturally, the Lizziemobile contest has attracted more than

its fair share of media coverage-yes, some people have found it funny, albeit

in an admittedly sicko way-but it’s safe to say the joke has backfired. Lawyers

for Ms. Grubman’s alleged victims have attacked the paper’s judgment, and the Web

site The Smoking Gun recently broke the news that Post reporter Farrah Weinstein-the scribe assigned to tool around

the Hamptons in the Lizziemobile-had been the driver during a serious and

unfunny automobile accident several years ago that resulted in a $1.75 million

out-of-court settlement. In other words: Oops!

Mr. Allan’s Post

front pages have been similarly and regularly unfunny. Sure, there have been

some good ones-”JENNA AND TONIC” was memorable-but many of them are merely

loud. The report that New York

public schools report an average of nearly one sexual-abuse complaint every

day-Schools Chancellor Harold Levy actually countered that a large portion of

those complaints involved inappropriate comments-carried a headline that

sounded like a movie on the Lifetime

network: “SECRET SHAME OF OUR SCHOOLS.” Changes in the subway system were

labeled an assaultive and uninteresting “SUBWAY CHAOS.” A week and a half

later, Time Warner Cable-a popular target for the News Corp.–owned Post -rejiggered the order of its

channels on its system: “CABLE CHAOS.” But across the newsstand, on the Daily News front page, Mariah Carey was

having some kind of a breakdown and there was news of a frantic 911 call. It

looked as if there was a terrible role reversal taking place, as in the Seinfeld episode where Elaine screams in

sudden recognition, ” I have become George !”

Had the Post become … the News ?

Or was the cable cover a sop to the Emperor himself? The

mission of Fox News, and its ongoing battle with Time Warner, is one of the

preoccupations of News Corp. Was Col Allan authoring a front page to appeal to

Mr. Murdoch, a cableland kingpin? Everyone else on planet Earth knew the Mariah

Carey breakdown was tabloid gold.

And it has to be asked: Does the Post ‘s turn benefit the News ?

The News has long had a numbers lead

over the Post , but it’s lacked

mindshare in Manhattan and has long

felt like the plain-Jane stepsister to the dark, raffish Post . (Such criticism has long rankled News ies, who believe their product may be duller but is more

comprehensive, and that the Post is

really just a shallow, overrated darling.)

“Besides both being tabloids, the News and the Post are

really quite different animals,” said Ed Kosner, the News ‘ editor. “And the Post

is making that distinction clearer every day. We’re focused on lively,

aggressive local coverage with lots of investigative and enterprise reporting

and service. The Post is doing its

thing-like the grotesque Lizziemobile giveaway.”

But there is a sense that the News seems to be recharged by the Post ‘s missteps, turning in strong coverage of metro stories like

the recent Rockaway Beach

drownings . The News

has shown signs of stealing Post

territory with a political gotcha story that caught Mayoral candidate Mike

Bloomberg with sweatshop-produced campaign T-shirts.

Any signs of life from the News have traditionally irritated Mr. Murdoch, of course. Recently,

the News Corp. boss turned to Mr. Kosner outside a reception following

Katharine Graham’s funeral in Washington, D.C.,

and said, “You gave us quite a wake-up call.” He was referring to the pre–Col

Allan era, but it’s been a long time since anybody

at the Post has said anything

like that to anyone associated with the News .

In the past, Post staffers usually

dismissed the News as a pale, used-up

ghost of its former self; but now, the News

is suddenly looking as sure-footed on its home turf as the Post had recently been. 

Then again, Col Allan’s tinkering may be making Mr. Murdoch

happy, and may signal a transition. For decades now, the paper has held a

special place in Mr. Murdoch’s media empire. Mr. Murdoch is now 70, and he’s

thinking about what happens to his company after he steps down as chairman and

chief executive.

Last winter, his 29-year-old son, Lachlan Murdoch, was named

deputy chief operating officer and was to cement his role in, among other

ventures, the Post . One of Lachlan’s

charges was to stop the bleeding at the money-losing Post -and a priority is to boost circulation to the point where the

paper can try to win advertising away from the competition. (Circulation had

risen slightly under Ms. Antunes’ reign, but apparently not enough to satisfy

News Corp.)

Col Allan was hand-picked to make this happen, of course.

And in his brief time in New York,

Mr. Allan has shaken up more than just the paper’s look and coverage. After a

series of highly publicized firings-Mr. Allan sacked, among others, lefty

columnist Jack Newfield and managing editor Stuart Marques-the Post ‘s internal pulse is changed, too.

Sources said the newsroom’s famously jovial and wisecracking atmosphere

(whatever you could say about Post

reporters in the past, the old line used to go, at least they were happy) has

become waiting-room tense. Public meltdowns, once rare, occur more often.

“There’s a lot of shouting,” said one newsroom source. “This wasn’t the kind of

place where you heard that sort of thing.”

Mr. Allan, who rarely left the office in his first month of

the job, is now strolling around the 10th floor like a foot cop patrolling his

new beat. “He definitely gave up on his cocooning … he’s out on the floor, he’s

very visible” said one newsroom source, who called Mr. Allan’s presence

“intimidating.”

Added another longtime Post reporter: “Morale couldn’t be

worse.”

But Mr. Dunleavy- Post ie

to the core-brushed this kind of criticism off. He also launched into a

spirited defense of Mr. Allan.

“I’ve known him for a million years,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

“He’s a very, very typical, basic Australian journalist, which means no

nonsense, no in-fighting, no politics, but let’s get the circulation up. Col

has a very clear, crystal-clear idea of where the paper is going and should be

going.”

So no worries, Mr. Dunleavy advised, as strongly as he

could.

“I can’t guarantee that the sun will rise in the east and

set in the west,” Mr. Dunleavy said, “but I can guarantee you one thing: Every New York Post reporter has fun .”

– additional reporting

by Sridhar Pappu