Martin Dunn, the editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News, says he’s baffled that even though the newspaper business is in turmoil, his colleagues are willing to accept the status quo.
Journalists believe they are the “greatest advocates of change,” he said by phone on September 3, but at “the moment there is a modicum of change, it’s like the bloody roof falls in.”
The roof of the Daily News remains intact. But, according to several News staffers, if it’s not the roof, it’s the floorboards. The staff is complaining about attrition and strife in the features department, major staff defections, and the firings of metro editor Dean Chang and national editor Mark Mooney.
And then there’s the tabloid war: The one-year anniversary of the New York Post’s blood-curdling cry of circulation victory is next month.
“I think the Daily News is having a personality crisis,” Mr. Mooney told The Observer. “They got surpassed in circulation by the Post and it happened on Martin Dunn’s watch. … They still claim, and correctly claim, that they are the largest newspaper in New York City. But the Post now has a bigger circulation than them.” Mr. Mooney, who was at the News for 14 years, said it has some “fabulous reporters and writers,” but it still suffers from “constant turmoil at the top of the paper.”
Plus, he said, it has identity crises: It covers topics favored by owner Mortimer Zuckerman—presidential politics and the Middle East—then returns quickly to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the home territory of its rival.
“When you have two tabloid newspapers, one whose circulation is going up and one who’s going down,” Dean Chang said, “it’s not surprising that the editor of the News may want to emulate its competitor.
“The News’ biggest fault,” he added, “was not embracing what it has been and always should be—a paper for the working class.”
Both Mr. Mooney and Mr. Chang told The Observer that they had been given no advance warning that their jobs were on the line. Mr. Chang, who had been at the News for 17 years, said he “served at the whim and pleasure of the editor” and did not have a contract. “If Martin wanted to shake things up, that’s his call,” Mr. Chang added. “It wouldn’t be the first time the editor at the News made a mistake in judgment, and it won’t be the last.”
But Mr. Chang said he was “amazed” at not being “given a chance to stay on in some other capacity.”
“Every now and then, you need to change the dynamics of newsrooms and features departments,” Mr. Dunn said. “You need to bring in a new sense of energy and enthusiasm.”
On the other side of the newsroom, the dynamic has changed greatly since December 2005, when Orla Healy returned to the News as the managing editor for features. Since then, nearly 20 staffers, according to sources, have departed—both involuntarily and voluntarily.
Television critic David Bianculli, a 14-year veteran, was the latest casualty: The Post reported on Aug. 22 that he was “about to get the boot.” In fact, the News did offer him a renewal, but the terms were “a reverse Godfather,” said Mr. Bianculli. “They gave me an offer I couldn’t accept.”
Mr. Bianculli declined to discuss the details, but said, “Without putting any aspersion on anyone, I can say that I don’t fit in with their future plans.”
“Tastes change,” Mr. Dunn said. “We live in a fickle society and what’s in vogue six months ago, is not in vogue now. Quite honestly, features has had a turnover. But there had been very little movement for many years.”
“There seemed to be a lot of attrition through fear and intimidation,” said one former News staffer, who asserted that Ms. Healy would open feature department meetings “by berating and lambasting everyone.”
A current staffer agreed: “People are getting dressed down in front of their peers. … I don’t think anyone here feels secure.” Another News staffer said that since the early summer, “there are résumés out everywhere.”
So even though the newspaper market is choppy, at best, veteran investigative reporter Richard Pienciak left for the Associated Press in July, and Los Angeles bureau chief Michelle Caruso joined Star magazine.
But that’s life at Mort Zuckerman’s Daily News, and has been for years. In his 11,500 word July 23, 2007, profile of Mr. Zuckerman in The New Yorker, writer Nick Paumgarten wrote: “One symptom of perpetual dissatisfaction at Zuckerman’s publications is the turnover in editors. U.S. News has seen eight editorships in 23 years; the News, seven in 15. … It is not so much that the editor fails to fulfill the mission as that Zuckerman decides that the mission needs changing.”
So between Mr. Zuckerman’s Steinbrennerian history and with Post columnist Keith Kelly regular goading that Mr. Dunn’s contract at “The Snooze” is up next month, it’s no surprise that staffers are uncertain about life at the paper.
“My contract is not up next month,” Mr. Dunn said. “I signed a long-term contract.”
However, Mr. Dunn’s recent three-and-a-half week vacation through most of August helped grease the rumor mill. A decade earlier, former editor Pete Hamill left for a vacation toward the end of summer, and never returned to the newsroom.
“I’ve finally taken a chunk of vacation that I’m entitled to,” said Mr. Dunn, adding that he happens to work “very long, very hard.”
“If that causes speculation” he said, then News staffers have “got no work to do.”