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

New York Post: If you hadn’t been following yesterday’s National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo, in which all 49 people on board and one on the ground died, you’d be looking for a place to read the transcripts that were released there of the conversation in the cockpit in the final moments before the tragedy. It doesn’t look good for the pilots, or by extension for the airline: Suspended in the inane watercooler badinage (inappropriate at any rate by professional standards whenever a plane is below 10,000 feet), like just so much other quotidian babble, were the pilots observations of their own ineptitude in dealing with ice forming on wings. At least this straight-up incompetence should relieve any possibility of conspiracy theories in the doom of the flight. And, as these kinds of things do, it makes pretty compelling reading.

So even though this stuff was all over the Web and TV last night, plenty of readers will want to grab the paper this morning to horrify themselves on the subway. The thing the Post realizes is that they need to get the message across to readers that lots of the actual conversation between the two pilots can be found inside; but it also needs to convey the emotional importance of the conversation they’re offering. “Flight to doom: PILOT’S LAST WORDS ON TAPE: PAGES 4-5” does the trick nicely enough. And the pictures of the two smiling pilots offer a bit of personal connection: If they had done a shot of the wreckage from the plane, it wouldn’t have been as clear what they might be offering that wasn’t already well in hand. Of course, to read the entire transcript you have to go to the Post‘s Web site. There, the display is a little more raw and emotional: “BLABBING THEIR WAY TO ICY DOOM: CREW KEPT UP CHAT AMID WING FREEZE BLUNDERS AND PANIC OVER BUFFALO,” it reads on the inside. Now, that’s great stuff. Wasn’t there a way to get some of that on the wood—some of the moral outrage—without compromising the first, “read the transcript here” objective? That all depends: If you give this story more space on the front, you can have more type and still present big, big letters. But today, the Post had another fish to fry. We noticed something interesting this morning on the Post‘s Web site. When you click on the image of the front page under the banner “Today’s Covers” on the nypost.com homepage, it takes you to a larger image of the cover; clicking on the story front takes you to the digital version of the story. When you click on the image of the story on the lower half of the page this morning (“DIRT CHEAP” is the headline; we’ll get to it in a moment) you are taken not to the story of the Yankees’ selling salvage from the old Yankee Stadium, but to Andrea Peyser’s column about beauty queen and marriage defender Carrie Prejean, who is treated inside with the kind of reverence once reserved for Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame. Was Peyser supposed to front the paper today? (Anybody care to tip me off on this?) At any rate, Carrie Prejean is not on the front page. Instead, DIRT CHEAP tells the story of the Yankees’ efforts to raise money by selling bits of wall, seats, even dirt from the field (hence the headline). A pair of bucket seats costs $1,500, but the price point that seems to offend the Post is lower: “ONLY $80 for a spponful of Yankee soil,” reads the subheadline. The dirt comes in a little crystal box. So … who cares? But almost more interesting is that the Post should uncharacteristically attempt a little bit of populist outrage against the Yankees. As we’ve noted before, the Post‘s populism tends to be about values, not money. After all, its brand of conservatism often seems to be meant for consumption by the rich, even though it manifests itself in a slightly out-of-touch jingoism on behalf of the poor and middling. That’s one of the reasons the price of Yankees tickets (after all, some seats in the actual stadium cost more to sit in for one night than the old ones are to take home!) has never been a big cover campaign at the Post, isn’t it?

Daily News: The Freaky Friday story line of today’s tabloids gets better with a visit to the News. Several things stand out about the paper’s treatment of yesterday’s developments in the trial of Anthony Marshall, who is accused of diverting money from the vast inheritance of his mother, Brooke Astor, in order to please his wife, Charlene, who metaphorically both in the courtroom and in most tabloid display tactics shape-shifts from human to porcine to pachyderm, depending on the particular literary emphasis the moment requires. Ms. Marshall was off her game in court yesterday, it seems, acting like a crazy and muttering things out loud and breaking down in tears while testimony was offered of her meanness to the help and her obsession with the disposition of the late Brooke Astor’s estate. Almost the entire front page is taken up with the story. That is strangeness number 1. We have thought of the Astor trial as mostly a Post phenomenon, dealing as it does in such Whartonisms as “what happened to the Childe Hassam painting in the foyer? Why did the late Mrs. Astor bequeath a diamond necklace to Annette de la Renta?” Strangeness number two: The headline! “CHARLENE THE MEAN” doesn’t quite meet the bar regularly set by the headline writers at the Post, but it shares a certain directness and willingness to use the editorial voice of the paper to characterize a story subject the paper pretends to treat objectively in the copy. Also, it’s all caps, and it practically fills the box, along with a silhouetted image of Charlene Marshall looking like she just overdosed on rageahol and has progressed to the weepy-anger stage. Her hand is up at her face. It is almost too much: liable to produce a reaction in anyone who sees her grandmother in this image to walk up to her and take her away from all this crap and set her down in front of the fireplace with an afghan and a surreptitiously watered brandy. This is not a criticism! Playing close to the line is exactly what the News doesn’t do, and should. There is even a cheesy little graphic of Brooke Astor’s head over a blue-to-white gradient: “ASTOR DISASTER” it reads, to let you know they’re covering this nonstop. (Were they? Are they?) It’s no “PUPPET MASTER” but it’s pretty good, in that same bad way.

And then, after all this, they have to mess it up. A thin strip at the top of the page reads “Terror of Flight 3407.” What terror? What don’t we already know? The page would not have suffered much from having the whole thing be devoted to Charlene Marshall, the “unindicted coconspirator” in the Astor case. But then, getting something up about yesterday’s NTSB hearing must have felt mandatory. If so, it should have been made worthwhile. The Astors could have shrunk a bit, enough to let the News put in silhouettes of the pilots and flag the story that is the one they actually do have: the cockpit conversation.

General observations: It’s probably faint praise to News partisans to give the “main story” points to the News for essentially following a Post formula, but the temptation to do it is compounded by the fact that if the Post had followed its own formula today, it would have won. This $80 dirt story could have been done in a little refer. And we wonder what the Post might have done with the execrable Carrie Prejean story, the story line of which has been completely in the command of Donald Trump? Finally, however, the Post wins on the Babblers of Doom story, hands down. Sometimes it really is the natural value of the story, and not the salesmanship, that matters. This is a bit of both: The Post gives a more compelling and more massy story the bigger, better treatment. It could have gone even further and relegated the dirt to oblivion, and gotten away with it.

Winner: New York Post

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