Off The Record

Martin Dunn had only been on the job for a few hours when the Staten Island Ferry-the vessel on which thousands of New Yorkers travel to and from the island of Manhattan-crashed into a concrete pier at the St. George Terminal on Oct. 15, violently killing 10 people.

For the newly minted editorial director of the Daily News , it made for a tough homecoming. Mr. Dunn, who seven years ago helped ignite a tabloid war between the News and its hipper cousin, the New York Post , was back at the reins. Nobody in the newsroom doubted who was in charge.

First came two meetings with publisher Mortimer Zuckerman by his side, in which Mr. Dunn sought to ease the tensions in the business and features departments and reassure the staff that the coming war with the Post would not mean a bloodletting at the News . Mr. Dunn was preparing for his third meeting when the ferry disaster occurred and he was quickly forced to organize the paper’s approach to the developing tragedy.

By the time Mr. Dunn reached the city room, it had become clear to staffers that they wouldn’t be getting the feel-good speech.

He tore up pages. He worked on captions. He demanded tone and focus from individual pieces.

Events like the ferry disaster are the occasion for the News to put its thumb down as a paper of import-even with a headline like “10 DEAD, HE FLED.” But perhaps more importantly, for people within the newsroom, the moment served as a clear indication of Mr. Dunn’s aggressive approach during his second turn under Mr. Zuckerman: not looking out upon them from an editorial watchtower, sending e-mail missives about typography and copy-editing. Not away from the fray, but with his knees in it. The controls, News sources said, now belonged, in actual practice, to Mr. Dunn.

Late in the afternoon the following day, Mr. Dunn, without Mr. Zuckerman at his side, got to make his speech to the city room.

“This is not rocket science,” Mr. Dunn said, according to those present. He told those gathered that yes, they needed to do some elemental things better, but there would be no bloodletting, as foreshadowed in reports in the Post . He called the News an exciting newspaper and a good newspaper with “great people,” and he called for a “newsroom without walls.”

According to Mr. Dunn, Keith J. Kelly, a former reporter for the Daily News and now the Post ‘s “Media Ink” columnist, had done a good job of spreading dissension in the newsroom, but that was his job.

“The New York Post ,” Mr. Dunn said to a riled News corps, “is not a good newspaper.” (A Post spokesman declined to comment.)

In his words, younger staffers-those who hadn’t gone through four editors in four years; who hadn’t endured the pangs of the late Robert Maxwell’s ownership; who hadn’t been in place when Mr. Dunn first came to the News , shoring up its circulation while introducing stunts and the royal family into its pages-saw a bright future. For those more seasoned, well, they’d been through this before. (A Daily News spokesman said that both Messrs. Dunn and Zuckerman were unavailable for comment.)

“This is a perpetually dissatisfied newsroom,” one Daily News source said.

And yet, even the most hardened News sources felt something different: a breather. Since this summer, the newsroom has approached the future like test screeners for Ishtar : their hands over their faces, waiting for the absurdity to end.

First came word that Mr. Zuckerman had called for an off-campus retreat, where former National Enquirer editor Iain Calder treated then–editor in chief Ed Kosner and executive editor Michael Goodwin, among others, to a critique of the paper. Next came reports that Steve Coz-the editorial director for the Enquirer and the Star -had been in talks with Mr. Zuckerman about a high-ranking position with the News . When, on July 22, Mr. Kosner announced his intention to retire in March 2004, many within the paper were getting prepared to write U.F.O.-sighting stories for the front page.

But for the moment, according to sources, the emergence of Mr. Dunn-whom one Daily News source said had conducted himself like a Presidential primary hopeful in an Iowa diner-has had a calming influence on the staff.

“The level of insecurity and paranoia around here has dropped precipitously,” another News source said.

That said, Mr. Dunn-who’s yet to be listed on the masthead-has pounded his influence all over the product and the paper itself.

On Friday, Oct. 17, while the front-page photo celebrated Aaron Boone’s game-winning home run against the Red Sox, the News teased an editorial on the ferry tragedy at the top of page 1, screaming that “10 ferry riders surely would not have died had the boat’s captain been where he belonged. The evidence so far points to dereliction of the highest order.”

On Monday, Oct. 20, the paper put sports columnist Mike Lupica’s face below a photo of World Series Game 2 hero Hideki Matsui, accompanied by his oh-so-controversial declaration that “the guy from Japan shows everybody that he has as much Yankee in him as anybody.” Inside, there was a page 3 story about the Bonanno mob family changing its name to the Massinos; Daily News sources pointed to the headline-”Yes, we have no Bonannos”-assomethingthat would not have been permitted under the previous regime.

One source familiar with the situation, who said Mr. Dunn did not begin speaking with Mr. Zuckerman about returning until Mr. Kosner announced his retirement in July, said that Mr. Dunn’s mission was to have the News “speak directly to the reader.”

“At a tabloid, you need someone who’s a choreographer or a producer,” the source said, “someone who could say, ‘I need this kind of gossip, these kind of photographs, this kind of City Hall coverage,’ who could put it all together into a cohesive package. That might not be the guy who distinguished himself as the City Hall bureau chief for 10 years. It’s a much different kind of viewpoint.”

How Mr. Dunn was speaking to the reader on Oct. 21, the day after Robert De Niro announced he had cancer, with a page 1 featuring a Kobe Bryant rape-trial piece and a new Princess Di book “BOMBSHELL,” may not be easy to see.

What is certain, though, is the challenge the News now faces from the Post , a paper that was once an afterthought, but one whose circulation gains in recent years have drawn wide-scale attention. From March 2000 to March 2003, according to numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Post -aided by a price cut to 25 cents on weekdays-expanded its average weekday circulation 42 percent, from 436,544 to 620,080. During the same time, the News ‘ average weekday circulation grew just 1 percent, from 730,542 to 737,030. While the News ‘ color makes the paper look like it’s been through the washing machine, the Post is damn pretty.

Perhaps more importantly, the News has been unable to decide who it really wants: the men and women who pick up the paper at 7 because they have to be at work by 8, or the executives and publishing junkies who show up hung over at 10 and are at the Four Seasons by 12:30. A weekly column by Michael Gross on the Condé Nast and Prada crowd was tried and quickly abandoned. And the knives have begun to poke and jab and draw blood from the new weekday gossip column by former Washington Post scribe Lloyd Grove.

“[The News has] strayed from its mission,” said former Post and Newsday reporter Joshua Friedman, now the director of international programs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “It used to be the paper of immigrants- simple, short, but written well. Because of the tremendous explosion of immigration, the News should be acting as a great civic educator instead of a great titillator. All the good journalists are trying to get off it.”

Indeed, it’ll take more than a week to win the trust of a News staff that, over the years, has felt betrayed, put down and bullied by Mr. Zuckerman. The staff has gone without a pay raise since March 2001. And currently, Mr. Kosner’s old office remains vacant, with the lights turned off. Though Mr. Dunn had said that executive editor Michael Goodwin would oversee the direct day-to-day operations of the paper, it remains unclear whether he will become editor in chief.

“I can’t think of a worse atmosphere,” Mr. Friedman said. “Can you?”

Readers of the Tuesday, Oct. 21, issue of The New York Times can perhaps be forgiven for missing the fine print: the newspaper’s own story about its decision, starting with that issue, to scrap all of its various headline typefaces was buried on page C-9. The font-bloodletting extends even to our beloved Bookman, leaving one all-consuming universal font: Cheltenham.

But in feature stories, where an old Schoolbook font used to dominate, the new font is light and fine-a little reminiscent of The Wall Street Journal ‘s headline fonts.

Not really knowing our leading from our kerning, Off the Record turned to the old experts: Milton Glaser and Roger Black.

Mr. Glaser, who redefined magazine design as art director for New York from 1968 to 1977, said the change was “intelligently done,” adding that he thought it made The Times look “a little more contemporary.”

“These are tricky jobs,” Mr. Glaser said, “because you don’t want to look modern, but you don’t want to look fuddy-duddy.”

Roger Black, chairman of the design firm Danilo Black-and briefly The Times ‘ art director in the 1980′s-called the choice “inspired” but wondered whether a change was necessary.

“Maybe I’m just getting old,” Mr. Black said. “I’m a little wistful of the newspapery feeling of the old New York Times . Everything is much nicer now, everything has better production values, but the newspapery feeling slowly recedes as all of these improvements are made.”

C alling George Shultz!

For its Oct. 20 issue, Time , in one of its harder-hitting journalistic moments, ran a cover feature on “THE SECRETS OF EATING SMARTER.” On the cover, a frizzy-haired woman with metallic-looking, teal-colored chunky earrings wears a Tofutti-eating grin as she brings a broccoli floret to her lips; the look was pure Working Girl –era Wall Street secretary.

The following week, Time ‘s cover story, “INSIDE THE NEW SATs,” channeled the 80′s again on its cover as a young man peeks over a test paper to reveal a dark-rooted bleach-blond head of spiky hair more appropriately worn to a Duran Duran concert than to Justin Timberlake.

Is Time managing editor Jim Kelly bringing his venerable news magazine in on the 80′s retro trend?

“What’s wrong with the 80′s?” Mr. Kelly said. “They were cool! ‘Morning in America’! Bring back Dynasty ! We’re single-handedly trying to subconsciously get people to think 80′s, 80′s, 80′s .”

The magazine, he said, was not using stock photography from the Reagan years; Time had actually commissioned the photos.

“She’s real,” Mr. Kelly assured us. “She’s actually walking around in Soho. She exists-not in those earrings, though. The earrings on her were a source of some debate within the magazine. Every woman on staff looked at the magazine and said, ‘Where did they get those earrings?’ The kid was a stock photo. We wanted to show a little kind of amazement and, you know, fear about SAT’s. We wanted a person, rather than showing just an SAT test.

“It is true that the covers running back to back do look like we’re trying to bring back the 1980′s,” Mr. Kelly conceded. “But I don’t think our gambit is going to work.”

Another Vanderbilt University–bred Wunderkind has joined the sports department of The New York Times :

26-year-old Lee Jenkins, who has covered UCLA basketball and football since

2000 for the Orange County Register , will cover the Nets for The Times this season, replacing Liz Robbins, who’ll chronicle the highs and (mostly) lows of the overpaid, overmatched, Latrell-less Knicks this year.

Chris Broussard, formerly the paper’s man at Madison Square Garden, will take on the role of at-large N.B.A. correspondent.

That leaves the task of assembling sweet metaphors for J. Kidd’s lobs to new Nets center Alonzo Mourning will fall to Mr. Jenkins, who, like current Times Yankees prodigy reporter Tyler Kepner and his predecessor, the hunky Buster Olney (now with ESPN the Magazine ), graduated from Vanderbilt.

Asked if The Times had a serious jones for the other S.E.C. school in Tennessee, Times sports editor Tom Jolly said: “It’s a happy coincidence.”