When Donald Trump won the presidency, the New York Daily News greeted his victory with a front page image of a stars and stripes flag in a position of distress and lowered to half staff in front of the White House and the headline: “House of horrors”.
New York Daily News runs White “House of Horrors” cover after Trump’s election victory https://t.co/zBkkXr3vwM pic.twitter.com/giAwxKCtOt
November 9, 2016
Since then, Trump has been featured on the tabloid’s front page in clown’s facepaint and under fierce all-caps headlines ranging from “Off his meds” to “Liar” and “racist”.
Hardly subtle, but certainly in the fine tradition of the no-holds-barred tabloid journalism which has kept the rich and powerful off balance in New York for more than a century.
This week, some of the colour and a lot of the scrutiny was lost from the New York journalism scene as Tronc, new owners of the Daily News, abruptly fired half of the editorial staff after a meeting lasting one minute. The move came little over a year after Tronc bought the tabloid for $1, assuming responsibility for all of its operational and pension liabilities.
A city which once had nine daily titles is now down to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, what is left of the Daily News and the upmarket New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which have both cut back significantly on reporting their own city in favour of greater analysis, national and international stories. The Village Voice has closed its print edition and lost most of its staff, while the news website DNAinfo has gone extinct and Gothamist was closed then re-opened by WNYC in a much-reduced form.
The Daily News has been on a roll, winning its 11th Pulitzer Prize in 2017, and it has been clearly galvanised by Trump – it was even inspired by his excesses to reprise the most famous headline in its 99-year history.
The Daily News front page on 30 October 1975. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
It was in 1975 when Gerald Ford vowed to veto a bail-out for bankrupt New York City that his hectoring speech drew the headline: “Ford to city: drop dead”. The Daily News waited four decades, but when Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, the editor-in-chief, Jim Rich went with “Trump to world: drop dead”.
The Daily News front page, 2 June 2017. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
This week, Rich was gone in the cull that left the paper with 45 staff, down from more than 400 in the late 1980s. Rich declined to be interviewed for this article, but his Twitter profile bio captures his mood: “Just a guy sitting at home watching journalism being choked into extinction.”
If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then today is a good day for you.
July 23, 2018
For a city of 8.6 million people, concerted local coverage is at a low point in a place where brash, pungent tabloids have long reflected New York’s manic pace and stark inequalities.
The label “yellow journalism” was coined as a shorthand for New York’s early tabloid rivalry during the 19th century battle between the press barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. A much-loved cartoonist, whose key character Yellow Kid was seen as a circulation booster, was poached by Hearst to help sales of his New York Journal. The term soon became synonymous with its sensationalist style as they whipped up anti-Spanish sentiment to sell papers and help create conditions for the Spanish-American war.
American photographer Weegee in 1963. Photograph: Moore/Getty Images
Later, the post-depression-era grit of the freelance street photographer Weegee was a vivid expression of the highly competitive battle to be fast and exciting.
Christopher Bonanos, author of Splash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, said Weegee “was shooting to eat” and he knew that getting a picture first and making it evocative would help it sell.
So instead of focusing on the burning building, he would aim his lens at the people weeping as they watched their home burn down or, as in a picture he captioned “Their first murder”, a crowd of children fixated on the grim sight of a bloodied body in the gutter.
“He had a police radio next to the bed and a fire bell in his apartment connected to the fire department headquarters,” Bonanos said. “He would sit there drowsing all night listening to the radio and the second something came over he would throw on his jacket and be on the street 20 seconds later. Sometimes he was on the scene before the police would arrive.”
By the 1950s, movies such as Sweet Smell of Success revelled in the sleaze, with Burt Lancaster as the conniving columnist JJ Hunsecker, stepping between corrupt cops, philandering politicians and low-life publicity agents, to declare: “I love this dirty town!”
Whatever the industry’s perceived seedy glamour, the great strength of the Daily News came from its beat reporters – and the fact that the powerful dared not ignore it. Once the biggest circulation newspaper in America, selling 2.4m copies per day at its peak, it is down to around 200,000 today, but the power of the Daily News has survived.
Sarah Ryley, now writing about guns and policing at the Trace, landed that Pulitzer for the Daily News and ProPublica in 2017, with a series of articles about people being evicted from their homes based on secretive police reports which had never led to charges against them. Her reporting – which led to 13 new laws – was three years in the making, and started from information picked up during other investigations.
“I was almost about to give up on it, but part of the reason the city council responded in the way that they did was because of the power and influence the Daily News has in the city. They can’t just ignore a piece that runs in the Daily News.
Instead of focussing on the burning building, Weegee would aim his lens at the people weeping as they watched their home burn down. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
“The first story I wrote, we ran it online on a Friday and in print on a Sunday,” she said. “All day Friday, I was calling every city council member and got no response. When it ran in print on Sunday, they were tripping over themselves to respond – it’s just a testament to the power and influence of the Daily News in the city over the past 100 years. So it’s not just something that can be replaced.”
The national picture of newspapers in decline is no better – 40 of America’s 110 largest daily newspapers have suffered layoffs since January 2017, a new study from the Pew Research Center found this week. The senior researcher Michael Barthel said: “Over the past three years, there has been about a 15% fall in the overall number of newsroom employees, from about 46,000 to about 39,000.”
Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, said: “We’ve been wringing our hands about this problem now for years. I really see this as the death spiral phase. I think there is no sign of it levelling off; it’s getting worse. What’s scary is the worse it is, the harder the case is going to be to save some of these places.
“This is the dirty secret that nobody talks about – because a lot of these outlets have been so starved of resources for so long, a lot of them are frankly not that good. I’m not talking about the Daily News, but small local papers around the country. When I travel and I ask people, ‘Why aren’t you reading the local papers?,’ they say, ‘Have you seen the local paper?’”
Former New York Daily News editorial staff members embrace after layoffs outside the newspaper’s offices in New York City. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
But as he points out, local papers break stories that matter deeply to their communities. “The case that now has to be made is ‘What would you lose if this coverage went away?’ When you talk about the best of local news, it’s not esoteric or conceptual – it’s things like there was a guy running a school gymnastic programme who was abusing children and a local newspaper in Indianapolis exposed it.”
The reporter Erin Durkin had been at the Daily News 10 years before she lost her job this week, rising from intern to beat reporter in the now shuttered Brooklyn bureau before spending the past six years covering city hall.
She has watched the field of rival journalists in the Room 9 press room thin out and the Daily News’s own politics team shrink from 14 reporters and editors to just two reporters. She has a keen sense of what is being lost when it comes to scrutiny of the city.
“It’s about being there day in and day out, being able to tell the city what’s going on in the neighborhoods, in the government, in the city,” she said. “The Daily News has always been the paper that did that. It’s always been the paper of the city, of the working class, of the boroughs. You don’t know the big story until you do the small story to find the big story.
“It was the Daily News that published the video of Eric Garner’s death. And that is something which became a huge story, but that wasn’t obvious from the beginning.”
Garner’s death in 2014 caused revulsion around the world – captured on video as he pleaded “I can’t breathe” while a New York police officer held him in a chokehold. That officer will now face disciplinary charges, the Daily News revealed just last week.
Durkin said: “We didn’t know the circumstances of what happened and we didn’t know how huge of an injustice story this was, but we went there anyway because somebody died and it was something people needed to know about. They went there and showed the city, and really, the whole world, what happened there.”
The photographer Ken Murray, who tracked down the video, lost his job this week, along with the entire photographic staff. The Daily News continues to have an image of a camera in its masthead.