N.Y. Post Spits in Front Yard of Daily News

In recent weeks, a new billboard has popped up across the street from the Daily News ‘ remote quarters on the far east end of 33rd Street, where the paper has toiled in near desolation since its move from its beloved Art Deco headquarters on 42nd Street nearly a decade ago.

“NewYork Post Circulation: 652427,”the sign readsThe latter two numbers are blurry, as though they are the last two digits of a quickly upticking counter. “Go ahead and stare,” the billboard copy taunts near the bottom. “They’re real.”

In what has seemed so far like the cleanest, most businesslike “tabloid war” the city has yet seen, it was the first truly bitchy moment-the first sign that interest in the battle between the minions of Murdoch and Mort might soon redound past the corridors of the papers’ respective strongholds.

“Frankly, I was just being mischievous over the summer,” explained Lachlan Murdoch, the baby-faced New York Post publisher and heir apparent to his father’s News Corp. chairmanship, of the Post ‘s decision to get down and dirty. “I know morale there is terrible, which is understandable. We thought it was an opportunity to celebrate our circulation figures and let them know it.”

(Whether Mr. Murdoch’s attack on unit cohesion is working may be a debatable point: Asked about the billboard, Daily News spokesman Ken Frydman said: “What sign?” Or maybe that’s just a little slap back.)

Mr. Murdoch’s view of his chief competitor (and daily obsession) is not so far off. According to sources within the newsroom, the Daily News -whose staffers seem only remotely satisfied with their workplace following the citywide disasters they covered to general acclaim-is gripped by uncertainty, both over the future of the paper’s leadership and its editorial direction. Now four months in the job, editorial director Martin Dunn has yet to name an editor in chief to replace Ed Kosner, who retired last year. In the meantime, executive editor Michael Goodwin-forever a controversial and unpopular figure within the newsroom-has continued to officiate at the morning and afternoon news meetings.

At the same time, the News has done its best to add oomph to its profile. There have been diet stories involving News readers, in which they report on their efforts to shed pounds. Color has actually showed up in the pages of Rush and Molloy. On Tuesday, Feb. 10, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model dubbed “THE HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST” popped up on page 3. (A Page Three Girl, on this side of the drink?) At the same time, the paper kept up its promotional-giveaway style with what seems an endless series of free Yankee tickets, All-Star Game trips and Six Flags Great Adventure passes-most lately offering up four Mazda Tributes for four lucky readers to drive off in, simply by mailing in the entry form printed in the paper.

Mr. Frydman said: “The News has for years been committed to running quality promotions that add value to our readers and advertisers. We had a terrific advertising and circulation year in 2003, and we look forward to another bang-up year in 2004.

“The Post tends to copy our promotions,” he continued, “and does a pale imitation of them.”

Of course, the Post has had its share of giveaways under the current regime. The paper has made promotional-er-vehicles a prominent part of its circulation-growth model. (Remember the Lizziemobile?) For most of the fall, it seemed, we were smacked in the face with those glossy Yankees anniversary magazines. Then came the Master and Commander preview DVD’s. Now, it’s 10 free trips to Cancun. But Post executives said their promotions are more desirable.

“We think very carefully where our audit number is sitting,” said Post general manager Geoff Booth. “We have targets for circulation growth in the next audit period. We know where we need to be six months from now, what promotions to do where and when, what sales we have to have.

“Lachlan will look at what we’re proposing,” Mr. Booth continued. “He has a very keen eye for what works and what doesn’t for a promotion. From a content perspective, he has a critical eye over how the programming’s put together. It’s a great balance, really. He knows all the right questions to ask.”

Both Mr. Booth and Mr. Murdoch, though, pooh-poohed the idea that the News has followed the Post ‘s example when it comes to promotions. Well, sorta.

“I don’t think they’ve followed us at all,” said Mr. Murdoch. “I think our promotions have been very much focused on quality, not quantity. We like to have a promotion we know will lift circulation as people sample the paper, and we’re so confident in the quality of the paper that people stick reading us after the promotion is over. We’re not about doing promotions all the time just to keep our circulation figures up.”

Ah, circulation. The fire at the heart of this great fight-the one the Post executives have dubbed the last great newspaper battle in America. (It may, at least, be the last one.) Since Mr. Murdoch took command of the paper, the Post (aided by a price cut) has shrunk the News ‘ edge in circulation from 260,512 to 76,698. It’s raised overall circulation from 443,951 in September 2000 to 652,426. Mr. Murdoch has led the paper to six consecutive quarters of 10 percent circulation growth. With new Audit Bureau of Circulation figures due in March, Post executives expect to make that seven.

“We put a plan in place a year ago now,” Mr. Murdoch said. “We built it 18 months ago, and it’s been in place for a year-building our circulation and doing it legitimately, with real sales and a better editorial product and a certain amount of marketing to have people sample the Post . And they’re sticking.”

( Post executives have long complained that the News has used bulk sales to maintain their circulation numbers. On this issue, Mr. Frydman declined to comment.)

Asked about recent similarities in the papers’ editorial product, Mr. Murdoch said: “Clearly, there is a marked difference now between the Post and the Daily News every day.

“We look at them every day where we’re competitive,” Mr. Murdoch continued. “But we see ourselves in very different markets …. We see ourselves as a savvy, vibrant, exciting read, with things that you’ll miss if you don’t pick up the paper. I don’t think you’ll find them in the same category.”

Post editor in Chief Col Allan said simply: “I think the Post is a paper that is publishing with some confidence at the moment.”

Whether that confidence will give Mr. Murdoch what he wants-the lead in circulation-remains to be seen. With the billboard, he said, he wanted to give News staffers fair warning.

“If they’re ever going to wake up to it,” Mr. Murdoch said, “now’s the time.”

Off the Record remembers a time when American Media was some zany company in Florida pumping out tabloids like The National Enquirer for millions of Americans stranded at the checkout counter while the cashier asked for a price check on Cheez Whiz.

That was before David Pecker brought on the mighty Bonnie Fuller-formerly of Cosmopolitan , Glamour and Us Weekly -as his editorial director. But as Mr. Pecker starts taking the Enquirer slowly upmarket, readers in high places are no longer simply giving them the brush-off. Comic actor and onetime tab-fodder Tom Arnold couldn’t contain himself after he learned about an article in the Enquirer ‘s Feb. 17 issue. The story goes to extraordinary lengths to document Friends ‘ star Matthew Perry’s “SAD RETURN TO DRUGS & BOOZE.” How far? In a “major world exclusive,” the tabloid quotes extensively from his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where Mr. Perry detailed his fight for sobriety.

Courts don’t confer a confidentiality privilege on things said in A.A. meetings, the way they have on things said to one’s confessor, husband or wife, doctor or attorney. But the unwritten rule in the media has long been that taking leaks from an A.A. meeting is beyond the pale.

Mr. Arnold has penned an open letter to the Enquirer .

“I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict of over 14 years and I’d like to ask a favor,” he wrote. “I’d like to ask you to change your current policy and NOT print people’s conversations in 12 step meetings or in rehab. We addicts have a disease as fatal as cancer but it can be treated if we are given the opportunity to share honestly and openly with other addicts. You printed one such share by a friend of mine and it has sent shockwaves throughout the sober community. These meetings save lives and should be treated like the church confessional. Can you imagine the guts and humility my friend had, standing up in front of a room full of strangers and admitting he’d slipped but was back on track?”

Ms. Fuller, who took flack for a decision made by the Enquirer to identify and publish a photograph of the woman who has accused Kobe Bryant of raping her, is no stranger to gonzo reporting tactics.

A spokesman for Ms. Fuller did not return a call by presstime.

But Mr. Arnold insists he’s not trying to spoil anyone’s Schadenfreude .

“Now on the other hand if some celebrity is drunk or high or generally acting like a jackass IN PUBLIC we’re fair game,” he wrote. “(Look for me in your archives in ’89). Take Care, Tom Arnold.”

Investigative reporter Tim Golden, whose fiery departure from The New York Times last year came to symbolize the acrimony of the last days of the Raines regime, has returned to the paper.

“He’s a relentless digger and good thinker,” Times executive editor Bill Keller said of Mr. Golden on Monday, Feb. 9. Channeling Drew Barrymore, he said: “He’s capable of magical writing.

“I still think of the Elián González piece he wrote for The Times Magazine [in April 2000] as by far the best thing I read on the whole episode, and one of the best things I’ve ever read on Cuba,” Mr. Keller continued. “It’s a fabulous example of the kind of thing he can do.”

That Mr. Golden-who returns to his position reporting out of the investigative unit and will write for The Times Magazine-would ever set foot inside the 43rd Street newsroom again seemed as likely as Bobby Ewing coming back to South Fork after he, um, “died.” When Mr. Golden resigned last April, he had grown angry with Howell Raines’ leadership, particularly over his decision to spike several pieces by Mr. Golden and fellow reporter David Kocieniewski on then–New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli in 2002.

Mr. Golden’s frustration grew after Douglas Frantz, the paper’s investigative editor, abruptly left the paper in March 2003 to work from Istanbul for The Los Angeles Times . Soon after, Mr. Golden departed as well.

Mr. Golden, who joins Times Magazine writer Deborah Sontag as a new addition to the unit, said he had “moved on” from the episode and felt no awkwardness slipping back into the third-floor newsroom.

“I thought it might feel a little weird, but it’s been really great,” Mr. Golden said. “It’s always been the best paper in the world, and it’s going to be better than it’s ever been.”

But we wanted Gallagher!

On Friday, Feb. 12, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller will do “stand-up” in the ninth-floor auditorium of The Times ‘ 43rd Street Building in an event called “Throw Stuff at Bill Keller.” (Delicacy forbids Off the Record from speculating on what might have been thrown at his predecessor.)

“I’m going to subject myself to interrogation from the staff,” Mr. Keller explained. “I’m doing three shows to accommodate for the fact that we have people doing three different shifts. It’s to talk generally about how I think the paper’s doing after my first six months or so on the job. Mostly, I’ll take questions or comments.”

Asked if he would bring along the toy moose that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. produced as a symbol of openness during the infamous post-Jayson town-hall meeting last year, Mr. Keller deadpanned: “No stuffed animals.”

Rich Turner, formerly the deputy editor of The Journal ‘s Media and Marketing section, has been tapped to take over the section when Nik Deogun becomes the paper’s deputy Washington bureau chief next month.

Mr. Turner-now on his second stint at The Journal -formerly wrote on media for New York and Newsweek , and toiled as executive editor and New York bureau chief of the long-since-vanished Industry Standard .

The move comes as media reporter Matthew Rose leaves the beat to take on an editing gig for The Journal ‘s Page One.

Paul Steiger is not a metrosexual.

“The only thing I have to decide is whether it’s going to be blue or gray,” said The Wall Street Journal ‘s managing editor, when asked about his closet’s morning offerings.

But Mr. Steiger-sitting with his wife, Wendy Brandes-is not completely out of the loop. Speaking to Off the Record special Fashion Week correspondent Noelle Hancock on the evening of Feb. 9, at the Marc Jacobs show at the Armory at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, Mr. Steiger said that he could appreciate the duds, even without an innate fashion sense of his own.

“He’s hot!” Mr. Steiger said of Mr. Jacobs. “We had a big Page One story about him and the tensions within LVMH, and that makes him a good story. And his fashion is always interesting.

“I consider myself someone who has a wife who’s a woman of style,” Mr. Steiger added, as Ms. Brandes-who was sporting a leopard-print cowboy hat-nodded and laughed, her arm casually draped across her husband’s shoulders. “She can dress me up or she can’t take me out,” Mr. Steiger concluded.

Later, our correspondent approached a more fashionably confident Anna Wintour, outfitted with child (her daughter Bee), boyfriend (Shelby Bryan), her power-bob, jeans and a fur-collared leather jacket.

While Ms. Wintour has refrained from using her editor-page letter for frothing rants, she had no problem with Condé Nast editor in chief Graydon Carter’s tirades in Vanity Fair against George W. Bush, the Bloomberg administration, and the proposed smoking ban for our colony in Mars.

“I think it’s great!” she said of Mr. Carter’s monthly manifesto. “I put my opinion in about different things, too, and I think Graydon’s letters are interesting and informative and opinionated and fun to read. I congratulate him on them.”