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.
“New York Post Circulation: 652427,” the sign reads. The 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.”
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