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

Dear reader: Apologies for going AWOL yesterday. It was swine flu day (after swine flu weekend) and we missed it!

Dear reader: Apologies for going AWOL yesterday. It was swine flu day (after swine flu weekend) and we missed it! Well, almost …

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Daily News: One of the things about the swine-flu scare is that it gets scarier as the flu spreads, and the news that the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level to Level 4 from Level 3 yesterday is an indication that the organization believes geographical containment of the flu strain is not a feasible way of controlling it. That’s the news today, as cases pop up in Israel and Spain abroad and Ohio, Kansas, Texas, California and possibly New Jersey as of today. So on one level it seems counterintuitive to focus on one family in Queens in which five people have been infected: such is the situation of the Civitanos. Seventeen-year-old Frankie was one of the cases at St. Francis Prep that led the tabloids over the weekend, and the flu spread to four others in Jacqueline Civitano’s (his mother) clan. (While Wood War’s health-policy credentials are questionable at best, we’d like to suggest a policy banning “Spring Break,” potentially a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the authorities governing public health.) Anyway, this kind of prosaic treatment, in which the words “swine flu” could be replaced with “head cold” and the article would read like one of those letters you get from Mom detailing with meticulous precision and not much imagination the daily goings-on at home, will probably appeal to some. Michael Daly’s column comes complete with one of the favorite formulations of this kind of article: “The swine flu here has been relatively mild, but don’t tell that to Jacqueline Civitano of Queens …” See, because to her, the swine flu here has not been relatively mild! So if you see Jacqueline Civitano and start telling her that the swine flu in New York has been relatively mild and she puts up her hand like a big “stop” sign as if to say, “Don’t even go there with me!” you will know why if you have read Michael Daly today. Anyway, it’s not totally clear to me how panicky things seemed to the newsroom about swine flu when the Daily News closed last night, and since swine flu will probably be around for a while, there will be plenty of opportunity for the News to scream about it. In the meantime, though, it seems like the News should be allowed to share in the excitement of St. Francis Prep, a Queens Catholic high school, for introducing this meme to America: This is home turf for the paper, after all, and we always like to promote our hometown success stories.

Of course, there’s a great one-day story to distract us from the coughing and headaches the swine have passed onto us: the ill-fated flight of Air Force One, trailed by a fighter jet, over New York. The planes, flying low over New York for a “photo-op,” rattled windows and sent a few of the more jittery types running nowhere in particular. We think the very least that Louis Caldera, the White House military officer who approved the “operation,” could have done would be to supply said photos to our local newspapers! Because the Daily News sure had a hard time coming up with one. Most of the left side of the front page is taken up with a photo that seems to show the two planes flying not very low at all, over a harbor landscape that, just to crop it into the same picture as the jets, involves a giant swath of hazy blue sky. But even stranger, given that there are pictures that at least in terms of perspective seem to place the planes quite close to the tall spires of lower Manhattan, is the tiny red type the newspaper used to flag the story. “HOW DUMB WAS THIS!” it reads. I don’t even think it’s in bold letters! Also, a question gets a question mark at the end? “Widespread panic, mayor furious … and they were taking souvenir photos!” reads the even tinier subhead. WHY DIDN’T THEY COVER THE SKY BETWEEN THE PLANES AND THE HARBOR WITH LARGE, BOLD, ALL-CAP TYPE!

New York Post: Now the Post was able to find the two planes in the same picture not only of Lower Manhattan, but taken from an angle that New Yorkers will recognize foregrounds the World Financial Center, which from the east, not so very long ago, would have been at least partially obscured by the two towers of the World Trade Center. Doesn’t this demonstrate far better the reason the operation was such a terrible mistake? And sure, to get the planes and the skyline in the same picture required a giant expanse of blue sky, but by filling that sky with type the paper closed the distance conceptually, and also got a lot more out of the story. “SCARE FORCE ONE” was the headline—and a good one! (Even if it was one of about 10 that you and your friends probably came up with last night, too, if you are nerdy enough to think about the tabloid headlines all the time, as we are.) Really says all that needs to be said, and without the need for bad punctuation. What to do with the rest of the hazy blue expanse left on the right-hand side of the page? How about “White House apology for NYC jet panic?” Fine! It gets the job done.

General observations: Today’s installment of Wood War allows us to pontificate on a difference between the two papers. The Post just has a better understanding of the value of density on the front page than the News does. Filling the page with images and type in such a way that every element seems ready to explode from its container is a way of expressing urgency, even agitation; it’s one of the defining elements of the emotional landscape the Post uses to lure in readers every day. I used to say that I thought there was a full-time staffer at the Post that read through the copy and replaced all latinate words with germanic ones: “arrest” becomes “nab,” “rapidly” becomes “fast,” “assist” becomes “help,” “error” becomes “mistake,” “salary” becomes “wage.” The dense front page is somehow the visual equivalent, and today the effectiveness of the technique is clear.

Winner: New York Post.

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