A daily bulletin of news & opinion

27 April 2010

Most visitors to New York City newsstands began yesterday as they do every morning, choosing between the New York Post and New York Daily News. The venerable tabloids fought for readers’ attention on familiar turf: both papers’ covers trumpeted a victory by baseball’s New York Mets, and each brandished a well-earned scoop on an urban-transit scam: the Post on taxis scamming riders by slowing down at bridge and tunnel crossings while the Daily News reported on an illicit business in all-access subway keys. The Post also managed to find space for “Boobquake Day”, pointing to a well-illustrated fashion story proposing cleavage as a rebuke to Iranian fundamentalism. “Ladies of Manhattan: Shake what your imam-a gave you!” instructed the Post.

Down the rack, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had embarked on the first day of their own battle for readers, which can be considered America’s first highbrow big-city newspaper war. The Journal yesterday launched a “Greater New York” edition, complete with a full local section, part of what it promises will be a full assault on the Times‘s home market. They will apparently compete over a demographic able to start its day without a look at boobs, and duelled instead with data-intensive infographic maps. The Times showed historical changes in citywide subway-usage patterns, while Journal went with tallies of rat infestations by neighbourhood.

The Times has long been Rupert Murdoch’s top American quarry, a competitor that he manages to see as a force for both evil and boredom. Since taking over the Journal three years ago, Murdoch gutted the paper of its ambitious narratives and quirky picaresques as part of a strategy to block the Times‘s plans of becoming the dominant general-interest paper for elites nationwide. In its place, the Journal has become a more responsible if less memorable paper, combining defensive news coverage (dutiful reports on every flood and congressional hearing) with clever but leisurely lifestyle writing (taste-testing mail-order cupcakes).

Now Murdoch is going after the Times‘s local base. The Times has slowly cut back on local coverage as its ambitions have turned global, ending its standalone Metro section and folding the contents elsewhere in the paper. But for serious New York readers – who want political coverage, restaurant reviews and their sports coverage with more insight than bluster – the Times remains indispensable. The Journal‘s push has provoked an unusually combative response from the institution known as the Old Gray Lady, previously known for her genteel if aloof manners.

“After 120 years of existence, The Wall Street Journal this morning has finally decided to cover New York north of Wall Street,” Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger and CEO Janet Robinson wrote in a note to employees just hours after the Journal‘s first New York edition hit stoops and kiosks yesterday. “The New York Times has been the paper of record in New York for nearly 160 years, and we know just how difficult it can be for start-ups to develop a following.”

On day one, the Journal showed its priorities. There was street level coverage of the Upper East Side (site of an alleged rat outbreak) and a piece about foreign pasta chains trying to break into the Manhattan market. The Journal broke the day’s only political news – planned mayoral policy announcements handed out by City Hall – but the Times had the best story on the beat: a report from Bermuda, where Mike Bloomberg keeps his second home, on the secretive mayor’s weekend habits. The Times ran the story on page one, a quiet suggestion that for a great newspaper the local and the global did not have to stand too far apart.


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