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

New York Post: “PIGGY BACK!” Yes, the swine flu seems to be back with a vengeance in Northeastern Queens, where

New York Post: “PIGGY BACK!” Yes, the swine flu seems to be back with a vengeance in Northeastern Queens, where late yesterday afternoon the city shut three schools down after clusters of illness suggested prevalent swine flu among students and faculty. Over 1,500 students are now without anyplace to go for the next five days, and a lot of them have this crazy illness … it sort of sounds like the beginning of one of those 21st-century apocalyptic horror movies! Almost as compelling as the swine flu story itself is the story of the swine-flu narrative and the media: where is the right place to pitch the story between generating hysteria to hype readers up about your paper and getting out information that could be an important factor in containing the … zzzzz … sorry! Those questions seem a little quaint now that, after a “lull,” as the Post calls it, a sudden surge in infections seems to be indicated.

While the swine flu story gets the largest type on the page, it’s at the bottom, and the most compelling display surrounds the Farrah Fawcett story at the top. Using a black box and knockout type and a glamour shot of Ms. Fawcett from what looks like her Charlie’s Angels days, the paper covers the civil action, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, of Craig Nevius, a onetime partner with Ms. Fawcett in the movie they were making about her illness from anal cancer. While Mr. Nevius’ suit does not call for Ms. Fawcett’s family to pull the plug on a 9 p.m. television airing of the story of her battle with cancer scheduled for tonight, it seeks unspecified damages from Ms. Fawcett’s boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal, and others for allegedly violating a contract that gave him creative control over the documentary. Of course, to the Post, this makes him a “Farrah ghoul,” which sounds like an Italian oath. And in fact, since the suit does not seek an injunction against the airing of tonight’s documentary, it does seem as though it could have waited until Ms. Fawcett’s battle with the disease is resolved, for better or worse.

Not one story, not two, not three, but four stories jammed on to the Post‘s front page today! “PIGGY BACK!” and “Farrah ghouls” are pretty great already. What made the paper go hunting for more stuff to put on the front page? Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia and hitter Hideki Matsui delivered what would otherwise be a pretty predictable victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, giving the team a 4-2 record in its most recent road trip. This provides the paper with the peg they need to ask whether the Best Rotation Money Can Buy, which got off to a pretty slow start to the satisfaction of the Haters, might finally be opening up its bid for glory. But there is little idea that that’s what you’re getting: The front page display only gives you a picture of the pitcher with the headline: “CC does it for Yanks.” (What won’t most of us do for yanks?! Sorry.) Couldn’t the paper have been satisfied with a back-page placement, or else given us some hint of what they were up to in a larger story than the news from last night’s game in Toronto?

Last but not least, a red box at the bottom flags the paper’s bettor’s guide for the Preakness. Pass me a Black & Mild and a No. 2 pencil!

Daily News: The News, as is sometimes its wont, goes for the direct hit on the swine-flu story: “SWINE FLU SHUTS 3 SCHOOLS.” The type is huge; as at the Post, this story at the bottom of the page is clearly leading the paper.

But upstairs, the News goes big on a local crime story: A woman was being stalked by someone she met on an online message board and later traded instant messages with, and he showed up at a public park in broad daylight and stabbed her twice. Before she died of her injuries she was able to finger the culprit to police, who’s been apprehended. Presumably this is an open-and-shut case, but with its overtones of the perils of modern love and its straight–to–the–Law & Order–storyboarders narrative, it’s a good bet for the front page.

The News also fronts (in a smallish box) the story of former Yankee Jim Leyritz, who has checked himself in to a hospital after threatening suicide to his wife and a friend. The troubled ex–major leaguer, who is facing charges associated with a 2007 incident in which he crashed his car, killing a woman, and then was found to be above the legal limit for blood-alcohol levels, was given up to police by the friend who said a series of phone calls showed him to be in deep distress. It’s all very sad. Mr. Leyritz was a big performer in the 1996 World Series, where  a hit of his was thought to open up the team’s lead in a closely fought game.

General observations: Today is hard. While the two tabloids are fighting over readers, they’re also fighting over the template for local tabloid news. The News has always had success fronting stories of anonymous victims of crimes where there is a good narrative to relate; the Post goes for stories with characters that sell themselves, whatever the story that surrounds them, and they’ve been pretty good at that, too. If either paper had chosen the other’s feature for the wood, it would have been a mistake.

But while the Post tells us pretty much exactly what we’re getting, which is moral outrage over the derailment of this strangely captivating and almost mawkishly public battle Ms. Fawcett is fighting for her life by a litigious creative partner, the News seems to be giving us a story we’ve heard before about someone we don’t yet know to care about. What the News should be selling, to be frank, is the prospect of a great crime narrative, not a sympathetic victim to choke up about on the subway. If the Post were selling the story, we’d have a picture of the suspect as well as the victim, and a simulated graphic showing some of their online conversation or some such. In other words, the reader knows he’s buying the paper to read a story.

Why either paper bothered with the little stories is a bit beyond us, but we call the Leyritz and Sabathia items a wash, possibly tilting slightly in favor of the News on story choice. What really happened was that Mr. Leyritz was put on a suicide watch over emotional distress he is suffering in the course of a drunk-driving death he may have caused. “LEYRITZ MELTS DOWN” seems, in those terms, like an undersale. For the Post‘s part, why put C.C. on the front page at all unless you’re going to transmit to the reader the fact that there may be more to say about last night’s win than just to relate that the Yankees won a game they were expected to win anyway?

Winner: New York Post

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