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

Daily News: These days, a lot of time is spent trying to figure out how to “save” newspapers; can something

Daily News: These days, a lot of time is spent trying to figure out how to “save” newspapers; can something that prints at a printer and then is delivered to a newsstand hours after the thing is “closed,” to be purchased for money, really be relevant in the 24-hour instant-news cycle? Or something like that. Not much time is spent, however, looking at how the actual product that comes out on the newsstand reflects the issue. By the time readers go to pick up the News on newsstands this morning, most people who care about steroid use in major-league baseball or follow the fortunes of the sport’s big stars probably already know that Manny Ramirez has been handed a 50-game suspension for using a female fertility drug that has been banned for its connection to steroid use (the drug is used to combat side effects that follow a “cycle” of steroid treatments). So even with its Day 1 story, the newspaper has to sell its version of the story to people who are not likely to be excited by the straight news. A headline that conveys the meaning “Manny Ramirez is banned for dope” will look old this morning; one has to act almost as though there were an imaginary day before in which that headline might have appeared on the paper, and write what looks like the Day 2 story on Day 1. The News has a ton of coverage of the story inside the paper today, and to flag the coverage on the front page, the paper runs a picture of Mr. Ramirez with display that reads: “He’s just a dope, period.” There is a specific call-out of “Mike Lupica on Manny’s drug ban” and then a red box directing readers to the sports section in general and Page 4 for the straight news coverage. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything new except what the paper’s take on the news is going to be. Wait a minute, beyond “Manny’s a dope,” it doesn’t tell us that, either. It doesn’t tell us much of anything. There are no words in here that matter except for “dope.” The only verb is the apostrophe-S after “he’s.” Nothing is happening in this headline at all, in fact. Mike Lupica “on” Manny’s drug ban: He is a dope. (Get it? Drugs!) It’s a great picture of the eccentric player, with his signature dreads-and-kerchief look. But the whole thing really just means: Mike Lupica thinks Manny Ramirez is stupid. Incidentally, the Lupica column, when you get to it, is a little convoluted. Why is Manny a dope? For two reasons: One, his story about how he ended up taking the drug in question is weak, because he was too stupid to come up with a better one. But the second reason is that he would have to have been stupid for his explanation to have been true: His doctor had administered the drug, he claims, to take care of a personal health problem, and the doctor had said the drug was “OK.” Manny was stupid to believe him, but is also stupid to think that we believe that this is the truth. Well, he can only be stupid one way or the other; they contradict each other. Sorry, that was too much time to spend on this. But we’re reminded again of something an editor used to say: “It’s not a headline problem, it’s a story problem.” Maybe the News should just have told us the news.

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More New York City public-school kids are passing standardized English tests in grades 3 through 8, according to test results released yesterday, and City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is given a platform on the front of today’s News from which to characterize the results as a product of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s assertion of mayoral control of the school system, which has resulted in greater accountability for education workers for test-score performance. It’s an important argument for Mr. Klein because the 2002 law abolishing the Board of Education is up for renewal in June by the State Legislature, which is now far less friendly to the former Republican mayor than it was when the law was passed, and whose leaders owe much to the political support of the United Federation of Teachers, which has always opposed mayoral control. It’s interesting to see this story on the front of the News, when it’s generally been the Post that has been covering the dispute over education policy between the mayor and UFT head Randi Weingarten (with that incredible photo-montage logo of Ms. Weingarten manipulating a Pinocchio marionette over the legend, “PUPPET MASTER”). To flag the story, the News gives the largest type on the page to the words “SCORES SOAR,” with the subhead: “Klein: Reading success tied to mayoral control.” When you get inside, opponents of mayoral control are given their chance to talk back to Mr. Klein, pointing out that the city was actually only in the middle of the pack among many New York cities that improved their scores and do not have mayoral control (Buffalo!) and pointed to things like “staff development” for the improvements. It’s all fair enough.

Kiefer Sutherland, who we read yesterday was going to book himself in with the police for head-butting Proenza Schouler cofounder Jack McCollough at a party Monday night, in fact did do that yesterday. He also ordered in Thai food and seemed to be in a good mood. He had nothing to say. Neither, really, did anyone else. So why is this on Page 1? He’s got a court date scheduled for June 22, so let’s lay off Kiefer on the cover until the 23rd.

New York Post: The murder of Wesleyan student Johanna Justin-Jinich in a Wesleyan bookstore in broad daylight was pretty shocking. Seven bullets were fired at the young woman at near point-blank range, according to reports; after ditching a wig used as a sort of disguise at the bookstore, the suspect in the case, Stephen Morgan, hung out outside the store among the rubberneckers and even spoke to police, giving them his phone number, before making his getaway. Neither the suspect nor the victim is from New York, but there is a city angle here (besides the fact that anything in Connecticut can arguably be classified a suburb of New York, if you stretch the meaning far enough): They met at a summer class at New York University, and it was here that Mr. Morgan developed what looks, from diaries collected from his abandoned car by police, like an obsession with the victim. “His deadly obsession,” reads the headline, which sounds a little bit like the title of an awful erotic thriller. Then: “Chilling e-mails in co-ed slay.”

A short digression: When will the term “co-ed,” which is only used in true-crime contexts, finally go away? Surely it’s pretty unremarkable that girls are allowed to go to college with boys at this point. One reason, which really only explains its use in print (it’s used all the time in television true-crime programming, too), might be that it says so much in so little space: It tells you that the victim was a college student, usually at a residential college, so it creates the entire background setting. “Chilling e-mails in slaying of Wesleyan undergrad” is not as economical. Still, we think the word is almost getting a campy taint, and in a story that really has to be serious, even reverential, it sticks out as weird.

The Post is not the winner on this story on the merits. They publish more interviews than the News today, but most of it amplifies the basic story available everywhere. And as usual, the News is better on the police-procedural side of the story. It’s purely a different measure of the story’s interest level that puts it on the front page of the Post today, and not the News. And there is plenty here. The victim is a beauty; the suspect looks deranged. The journals recovered in the suspect’s car are full of the kind of insane and outrageous scrawling that raises the body temperature of a certain kind of sensationalist consumer. And to top it all off, both victim and suspect appear to be from “good” families, which allows readers to indulge in a little bit of armchair criminology. It’s like an episode of Law & Order, and in fact, you can expect to see this story play out at “Hudson University” before the next season is over, we’ll wager.

Back to Manny: The Post, if its front-page treatment of the steroid-scandal story is any indication, has no qualms about presenting the straight news to readers even if it’s old news to them. Why not? Because if their take is funny enough on the cover, people will still want to read everything they’ve got on it. “GIRLIE MANNY” is not one of the paper’s best, but it’s pretty aggressive! “Drug cheat Ramirez took female hormone.” There’s a little teaser, too, which leads: “Now this is female trouble.” So the Post decided to ride the fact that the drug Mr. Ramirez is accused of taking is a women’s fertility drug very hard. Never mind the fact that use of this drug is fairly common among people who abuse steroids to improve performance; aside from the fact that that information is widely available, why would it have been put on the “banned” list by major-league baseball if it weren’t? We do wonder if a less eccentric player—one with, for instance, short hair—caught out using this stuff would be treated quite the same way. It’s a bit as if he innocently had asked for a Barbie doll for his third birthday. Of course it’s all coy. But it proves something: A funny angle, even if it’s not important or even counterfactual, can be enough to make print coverage relevant even when its limitations put it behind the 24-hour news cycle.

General observations: We started today’s Wood War asking about how the speed of the news cycle affects how newspapers sell stories you’ve already heard about to morning readers, and today provides a perfect example of the two New York tabloids’ approaches to the problem. The News, acknowledging the fact that it is not actually giving you news you haven’t already heard (after all, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t really be able to make sense of their Ramirez display), sacrifices all its urgency and gives us limp analysis. The Post, stoutly refusing to give up its perch as the purveyor of new information even in the face of the facts, puts a camp spin on the story and sells it as a Day 1 story. What does this tell us? Probably not much, except it suggests that maybe the tabloids need to work on entertaining audiences by talking about the news. If the treatment entertains, there might actually be a lower bar for new information. Analysis is not, usually, very entertaining. (Ha! Hoist on our own petard!)

Let’s just get this out of the way: Kiefer Sutherland on the front page of the News was wasted space. But we’re not inclined to hold that against the News; the two papers seem to be taking turns mishandling this thing on their covers. So let’s just forget about Kiefer and hope the tabloids do, too. That leaves us to match up the Post‘s selling of the Wesleyan murder story against the News‘ test-score story. It’s probably the case that each paper did the right thing here for its own purposes. The News, in its relentless localness, would have to privilege a story about public schools over one about a murder at Wesleyan. And aside from the fact that this is an extraordinary crime story, remember that the Post usually likes its crimes to be “shocking,” from an elitist point of view. The News can’t treat Wesleyan University any differently from Queens College; this is the paper that doesn’t “see” those kinds of class differences. Whereas the Post likely felt compelled to give this the front page precisely because the victim was a student at an elite Eastern university. The Post can also be fairly confident that one day of putting Joel Klein on the front page of the News is not going to steal its thunder on the schools issue, on which the Post has lately been killing the competition. I’m calling these two stories a draw, because neither could have done what the other did and had as good a front page. So it’s down to the Manny Ramirez story.

Winner: New York Post.

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