Fishwrap Follies: Daily News Trumps Post in Traffic and Papers

In April, New York Post editor in chief Col Allan fired one of his reporters for slipping Adweek a tasty scoop: on Monday the Post would raise its newsstand price a quarter, to 75 cents. Mr. Allan demanded better stories than usual for the occasion.

The gossip recalled the bloodiest skirmishes of the tabloid wars, when reporters would slash tires for a scoop, Rupert Murdoch was willing to undercut the News’s cover price by half just to eke out an edge, and Mr. Allan erected a billboard in Times Square to trumpet the news when the scheme worked.

Mr. Allan’s sensitivity was understandable: the price hike was a white flag, signaling that the Post had effectively admitted defeat in a costly battle of newsstand attrition. After the Post returned to the News’s price of 50 cents in 2007, circulation quickly dropped a hair below that of the News and stayed there. Raising the price yet again suggested that new battle lines had been drawn. The News had definitively won the outer boroughs, the thinking seemed to go, so the Post might as well collect what revenue it could from their dedicated readers in Manhattan. With Mr. Murdoch, the Post’s soul, otherwise occupied with shareholders and Parliamentary hearings, was it not the moment for the News to go on the attack and try to expand its readership? Instead, the safe-playing paper followed suit, raising its price as well.

Nonetheless, the Daily News has continued to build on its circulation lead. For the six-month period ending Sept. 30, the paper had an average combined print and digital circulation of 605,677, compared to the Post’s 512,067, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. What’s more, the News jumped from the seventh-most-widely-circulated newspaper in the country to the fourth, below The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

That’s not to say that the Daily News has actually won anything. Rather, at some point in the midst of the recession, it became clear that the rivalry itself was short-sighted. While the tabloids duked it out, both risked extinction, as did all newspapers. Keeping their eyes on one another just made them more vulnerable to bigger threats.

Meanwhile, whereas the Post represented a rounding error in News Corp.’s budget, the Daily News was a discrete business. Adding to the pressure, its billionaire owner, real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, had made a $150 million investment in the future of print months before the economy collapsed, in the shape of a top-of-the-line, environmentally friendly, full-color press from Germany.

Mr. Zuckerman was not banking on print alone. Over the past year, the Daily News has been quietly reshaping its online strategy. Google any celebrity trending on Twitter, and the Daily News version of the story will crack the first page of results. Browsing the News homepage, one is always a click away from a photo slideshow that would make Arianna blush. (Celebrity Tan Lines! Style Smackdown: Shiloh vs. Suri! Madonna’s Biceps: A Retrospective!)

Over the past year, web-only reporters have been hired to rewrite wire copy, ranging from bizarre international stories—an item about a house in Wales that resembles Adolf Hitler’s face, for example—to celebrity gossip, tempting bait for search engine traffic.

Veteran reporters sneer that the News is veering into TMZ territory. They too are affected by the shift. Print reporters are pressured to file stories midday rather than hold them for the nightly close. Like many papers with an eye on the bottom line, the News has trimmed its travel budget, replaced original content with wire stories and Getty pics, and swapped some full-time staffers for freelancers and stringers, according to reporters.

The shift to web-first publishing has also diminished the competition. Where once reporters lived in fear of being scooped by the rival paper each morning, they now monitor their opponent’s breaking news on the web all day, following one another’s leads to the same stories. To avoid losing a scoop, some News reporters hide the good stuff from their editors until the last minute; others liveblog every crumb of news from important events.

Save for some glitches with the News’s new content management system, Polyopoly, which was implemented this month, the strategy has been working. The Daily News’s website attracts 2.1 million more unique visitors per month than the Post’s.

Now the masthead is morphing to reflect the change. Executive digital editor Scott Cohen, a rising star who has proven divisive among the old guard, now ranks above managing editors for politics, features, news and sports. He recently recruited Karen Zraick, formerly a New York City reporter from the AP, to serve as multimedia editor. Last Tuesday, editor Kevin Convey sent out a memo promoting Adam Berkowitz from senior editor of convergence to managing editor. According to the Post’s Keith Kelly, the “promotion memo” left the paper’s seven other print managing editors demanding a meeting with management.

The transition has made for some awkwardness. After longtime senior managing editor Stuart Marques was fired last month, his absence was felt immediately: the paper printed two versions of the same story, on page 4 and page 8. Rumors that Mr. Zuckerman is looking to replace Mr. Convey—which have plagued him virtually since he was hired—have started bubbling up again. There is nothing about Mr. Convey, an affable and earnest 56-year-old, that screams new media guru. But neither is he the dogged Fleet Street archetype, like his predecessor Martin Dunn.

The last man standing at a second city tabloid, the Boston Herald, Mr. Convey oversaw a lean newsroom still smarting from major cuts at the hand of publisher Pat Purcell. The Herald’s only daily competitor was the staid Boston Globe, so the paper assumed an underdog, populist stance.

When his hiring was announced in September of last year (Mr. Dunn left to spend time with his wife, who was ill) it appeared that ethos would translate well to the Daily News. Unlike Mr. Dunn, who’d served at the Post and the Sun and was schooled in the cut-and-thrust of Murdoch-style journalism, Mr. Convey embraced the News’s quieter role as the daily paper for the outer boroughs.

Immediately upon his arrival, Mr. Convey established himself as an editor of the people, hosting “listening breakfasts” with neighborhood leaders and attending the Golden Gloves boxing matches the paper sponsors around town. He made rallying speeches at suburban bureaus, touting the importance of community journalism. Because Mr. Convey had run the Herald on a shoestring, it was assumed by many that he was a hatchet guy, brought in to slash costs. But while other newspapers shuttered bureaus in 2011, Mr. Convey launched one, in March, servicing the uptown neighborhoods of Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.

More than a year into his tenure, Mr. Convey continues to embody the role of a populist editor in ways perhaps unthinkable to Mr. Allan, like submitting to regular live chats with his readers. They mostly drop by to avow their love for Mike Lupica, gripe about typos or inquire about a wayward subscription, and Mr. Convey humors them all. When a young j-school graduate asked how to get a job, he told him to get in touch personally over Twitter.

It is difficult to square Mr. Convey’s earnest public persona with the distinctly tabloid-y, compulsively clickable direction of the Daily News’s website. That dissonance appears to be fueling the newsroom chatter that Arthur Browne, the editorial page editor and a Daily News lifer (who has already been fired and rehired by mercurial Mr. Zuckerman), will soon replace Mr. Convey.

Insiders see more change on the horizon. In addition to rumors of buyouts, the website was recently redesigned, and social media editor Anjali Mullany tweeted that Mr. Cohen had mandated that TweetDeck, the ur-new media tool, be installed on every computer. The fact that Daily News brass twice postponed interviews with The Observer for this story, ultimately declining to comment, suggests the newly integrated paper has yet to find its footing.

“The new, platform-neutral CMS is a game changer,” Mr. Cohen tweeted. “Next step: Rewriting the rules of the game.”

Now that the truce with its longtime opponent appears to be holding, the Daily News’s struggle has become existential: what does New York’s hometown newspaper look like after newspapers?

On Thursday, a reader asked Mr. Convey if he considers the News a tabloid.

“Depends on what’s meant by the term,” he said. “In shape, we are certainly a tabloid. And if by tabloid one means a populist, passionate and popular newspaper, I’d say yes.”

kstoeffel@observer.com