Wood War! Who Wins Today’s Grabby Tabloid Battle For Your Eyeballs?

Daily News: So that you’re not confused, today’s Daily News wood, “SAVED,” refers to Captain Richard Phillips, the guy who gave himself to the pirates as a hostage to keep his ship and his crew free. Yesterday’s headline, “HE SAVED US,” refers to that act; today’s “SAVED” refers to the captain’s rescue after a “sudden single burst of death by three Navy snipers when [three Somali pirates] stuck their heads up in the wave-tossed 18-foot lifeboat in which they were holding Phillips.” It’s all pretty Easterish! Anyway, it can be difficult for a daily tabloid to find its stride alongside a story like this one, which is developing constantly in real time on television and on the Web. This morning, there was little choice about what to put on the front page: The story of Captain Phillips’ dramatic sea rescue was the top of pretty much every newspaper in the country this morning, and the ones that ignored it (amNew York went with “WEDDING RECESSION”!) just look like they’re out of it. It’s a question of how it’s played, what you can get that is just yours, whether it’s side stories (the News this morning has a story about Captain Phillips’ hometown hailing their native son’s rescue as an “Easter Miracle,” which seems about right) or the right attitude toward the news. The News took the story straight on. But, really, this is yesterday’s news, isn’t it? And it turned out great! Maybe this morning we should have indulged in a little hooting and hollering on behalf of the Navy, or Captain Phillips. How about “HEROES,” over this picture of Captain Phillips and his rescuer-in-chief? One regular reader suggested “CAPTAIN HOOKED!” among others. Of course there’s the possibility that having fun with such a serious story would seem tasteless … sorry, never mind!

New York Post: So take everything we just said about the News headline and magnify by 10. Five degrees, because we expect the Post to really go for the stars and stripes on a story like this; five more degrees because their single word headline, “FREE,” was even worse than the News‘. It’s somehow abstract, passive: He was saved, and now he is FREE. Of course the same Navy-issue photo is used, and we noted that the dimensions were not ideal for tabloid purposes: a big squarish thing, and the two guys in it in the midst of one of those camera-ready hybrid handshake-hugs, as far apart from each other as possible and both facing the camera. To get close on the captain’s face would have required cutting out his savior; pull out too much and it looks like the amateur snap it actually is. But there is one thing going on in this photo at the bottom: the actual contact between the two men. This is a pretty important part of the picture, and the Post manages to get it in right at the bottom of the page. In the case of the Daily News, the Navy commander is cropped within an inch of his life to get a close-up of Captain Phillips’ nostrils, and the text runs right over their locked arms. A quick glance at the Post gives you the right sense of what’s happening in the picture, that the guy on the left is not someone who randomly was standing near Captain Phillips when the Navy photographer took his shot; in the News crop of the photo, you kind of wonder why they didn’t crop out that funny-looking guy on the left altogether, until you read the caption. There is also a potential tie-breaker in the rest of the display copy on the front pages. The News goes with: “Navy snipers kill pirates to free skipper.” The Post offers just: “Capt. saved from pirates.” A little sloppy, guys! But on the other hand, the Post begins the text on the front page with a “lightning-quick assault” on Captain Phillips’ captors. The small text isn’t going to move any papers, really. But then again, there is so little to choose from in the two covers today that they may as well get the wood right.

General observations: “SAVED” beats “FREE.” But ironically, the picture-cropping on the News focuses its energy on the freed captain, while the Post more completely pictures savior and saved. The Post would have run away with this if they’d done “SAVED” with their crop of the only photo available for this morning’s wood. Everyone knows what they are going to get when they open both papers this morning, and most of it they’ve heard before. What they want is the breathless, excited storytelling the tabloids are so good at. Both could have done more with this this morning to tell readers they were going to beat the competition on the pure joy of reading this story. The Post does a little more of this by teasing the actual story on the front page with a bit of lead-in to the main text. The News just looks like it is carrying out its function of repeating the news you read last night on the Web.

Winner: New York Post. Wood War! Who Wins Today’s Grabby Tabloid Battle For Your Eyeballs?