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How New York City’s Seven Newspapers Are (Nearly) Surviving

On the southeast corner of 96th Street and Broadway, on any weekday morning, you would swear that the U.S. daily-newspaper industry isn’t dying. In the bodega there, New Yorkers who don’t already have the Wall Street Journal or New York Times tucked under their arms plunk down cash to buy the Daily News, the New York Post, and Newsday. At the nearby mouth of the subway, hawkers push the free tabloids amNew York and Metro at scurrying straphangers.

It’s a scene that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. In a city of outsize egos, you can credit some of the biggest in town for keeping alive at least the appearance of a once-thriving industry that is vanishing elsewhere. This is the biggest city in the country, and it’s the capital of capitalism, but why seven dailies? Why are there so many actual, physical daily newspapers you can hold in your hands, in an age where “thumbers” (as legendary newspaper columnist Pete Hamill calls them) can grab news for free on their iPhones and BlackBerrys?

“It’s not the health of newspapers. It’s the health of the newspaper owners,” quips NYU urban studies professor Mitchell Moss.

In other cities big and small, daily newspapers are stumbling toward the brink of financial ruin — and are increasingly the subjects of their own obituaries. Bars in other big cities make money off the wakes and reunions that reporters and editors conduct for their dead papers.

Big papers, we’re talking about. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News? Dead. Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer? Now online only. The giant company that owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times? Mired in bankruptcy court. Chicago’s other daily, the Sun-Times, is trying to hold on long enough for a pending sale to go through. The Orange County Register and Philadelphia Inquirer? Bankruptcy court. The Boston Globe? Threatened by its owner (the New York Times) with extinction. San Francisco’s only remaining daily, the Chronicle? Barely hanging on. The McClatchy chain of papers, in such cities as Miami and Sacramento? Stuck in bankruptcy court.

Overall, newspaper advertising revenue throughout the country dropped 29 percent in the second quarter, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). That translates to $2.8 billion less in revenue than during the same period in 2008 (which wasn’t a healthy year, either). The biggest portion of that drop was in classified advertising, which fell 40 percent in the quarter. Even before the Great Recession, ad revenues were plummeting, thanks in large part to Craigslist’s free classifieds and other Web-based operations that have changed the retail-ad landscape.

Less revenue equals smaller profits (or no profits) for these once-lucrative papers, which equals fewer jobs. The big papers have slashed their international and D.C. bureaus and have closed outposts for national coverage. Circling the wagons, they’ve abandoned even regional and state coverage and have abolished specialized beats. Columnists are vanishing like dodos as their dinosaur newspapers are dying.

“In the end,” says Hamill, also a former editor of both the Daily News and the Post, “it all depends on what’s in the newspapers. Someone has to acknowledge the notion that content costs money. A.J. Liebling is still as fresh today as he was in 1944, reporting from North Africa. But he didn’t do it for free. He got paid.”

Unlike most bloggers — many of whom used to work on newspapers, but now work for free — one out of every five journalists working in 2001 is now out of the business. John Sturm, president of the NAA, a trade group representing 2,000 papers, estimates that 30,000 jobs have been lost just since 2007, and says that newspaper readership is actually growing: “Newspapers’ print editions, combined with their websites, have a larger audience than ever,” he says, “and their content never has been more popular — even among young people. Although print circulation has fallen, the audiences for newspaper websites continue to grow at a rate that outpaces the losses in print.”

Despite all the buzz about newspapers’ charging for their Web content, Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, says the online pay model ain’t gonna fly.”That’s insane,” he says. “It’s like trying to attract customers by saying, ‘Our cars cost more to make. Pay us more.’ ”

Even if Sturm is correct that readership is expanding online, newspapers still haven’t figured how to make money from it. Life magazine recently ran a photo spread headlined, “When Newspapers Mattered.”

But newspapers — the things you hold in your hands — still matter in New York City. Sure, New York’s newspapers are hurting. Revenue is down. Circulation at the tabloids is down. None of the papers, except the Wall Street Journal, has figured out how to generate steady, significant revenue off the Web. But none of them has gone out of business.

Of course, the number of New York City dailies today is only a shadow of those of the past: In the 1920s, there were 11 dailies published in Manhattan alone, and four in Brooklyn.

Yes, New York City is a special case: The Times and Journal are essentially national papers in scope, and the New York Post aims at being the nation’s brassy tabloid. Newsday (unlike the Post and Daily News) aims almost entirely at commuters, not the residents of the five boroughs. And yes, amNew York and Metro are much smaller and little more than headline services.

Still, seven dailies is a lot, especially these days. The question is, Why? Well, people who work on newspapers love to hate their owners, but their jobs might only exist for the mammoth size of owner egos.

Owning a newspaper “allows wealthy individuals the opportunity to be important,” says Moss, a professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School. “Without New York, who would take their phone calls?”

Even if papers aren’t lining their owners’ pockets with as much money as they used to, the papers are “providing status,” he says. “We shouldn’t underestimate the social and psychological purpose they serve. If you want a newspaper, you’re doing it for the persona. It’s a lot better than being a real estate developer.”

Moss’s not-so-subtle reference is to Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, who makes his fortune as a real estate tycoon at Boston Properties, Inc. — he’s the only local newspaper mogul whose main income flows in from outside the media business. The other local big shots are Rupert Murdoch, international media baron and owner of the Post and Journal (not to mention The Simpsons and Fox); Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times and scion of the family that has owned the paper for a century; and James Dolan, son of Cablevision founder Charles Dolan and head of the company that owns Newsday and amNew York (and also the Knicks and Rangers).

The most visible and politically powerful media mogul in town, of course, is Mayor Mike Bloomberg, but his financial-news empire exists entirely on TV and computers and uses practically no newsprint. It helps that New York City is also the magazine- and book-publishing capital; the other moguls do get their share of ink in the only big city left, in which newspaper owners can still claim that distinction.

Lucky guys — they’re too rich to take the world’s only 24/7 subway system, but they benefit from it. “This is an information junkie’s paradise, and as long as people ride subways, they will read newspapers,” Moss says. “This is a city in which newspapers are an important part of our culture. The major newspapers in New York are not read by young people. Fortunately, we still have enough older people for whom it’s part of a daily habit.”

In addition, the city is more vertical than any other big U.S. city. Most other megalopolises, particularly in the West, sprawl, and covering them with newspapers is logistically difficult and no longer makes financial sense, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a major journalism think-tank.

“The areas in question are so big that if they try to really cover each locality, you have to have a lot of zoned editions, and it’s very expensive,” Edmonds says. “New York City is compact.”

And huge. With those huge egos. “The size of the market is number one,” explains Ken Doctor, an industry analyst with Outsell, Inc., in Burlingame, California. “But it is also the peculiar interests of the owners of the Post and the Daily News. We don’t have a lot of data, but we believe there’s a significant subsidy of money-losing operations there. It’s the anomaly of the egos and the ownership that is permitting it.”

These days, it’s possible to “maintain a competitive daily press” only if you’re willing to subsidize it to the hilt, says Doctor, adding, “For the Post and News, the question is just what the appetite is for continuing to lose money.”

Over the past six months, each local mogul has floated, or actually set in motion, actions they say will preserve their investments, no matter how much red ink they’re bleeding.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Owner Mort Zuckerman continues to show that he has the will to make the Daily News survive, despite its 14 percent drop in circulation since 2005. This summer, Zuckerman went all counterintuitive and bought new color printing presses with $50 million from a stock sale and $150 million from other sources. He told the mayor’s Bloomberg News from Morocco that the new presses will make the newspaper look a lot better and thus bring readers and advertisers back to the paper.

“Beyond that, it’s a commitment I made two years ago,” Zuckerman was quoted as saying. “I can’t just walk away from it, and I don’t intend to walk away from it.” Reflecting just how much the paper’s existence means to him, he added, “I think it will make a great deal of sense for the Daily News, to which I’m also personally committed.”

Boston Properties, his real estate firm, which generates most of its money from vast amounts of office space in the nation’s cities, is currently trading at $66 a share, an increase from last March, when it had dropped to $32 per share. Just one year ago, the stock was worth more than $100 a share, but the commercial real estate market in general is in for some rough times, according to many Wall Street observers.

Nevertheless, Zuckerman plunged ahead with the new presses, which some observers take as an encouraging sign for the general state of the printed-newspaper industry.

“It shows it’s not dead,” says Maurice “Mickey” Carroll, a former Times and Newsday reporter who is now a pollster for Quinnipiac University. “In the first place, no one can read news online. Yes, you can skim it. So I think you’re going to have to have something in your hand.”

Veteran newspaper-industry analyst John Morton says bluntly, “The Daily News is owned by someone with the resources and the will to keep the paper going. The purchasing of the presses shows he intends to stay.”

But Doctor says the purchases “seemed anachronistic,” adding, “There is some money to be made from better presses, but you’re investing significantly in a declining business.”

News spokesman Robert Leonard wouldn’t discuss the company’s finances, but he did say the paper has no plans to charge for online content.

Doctor does say that he likes one idea of Zuckerman’s: allowing sports gambling on the Daily News website, a practice that is currently against federal law. He floated the idea in an interview with Forbes earlier this year. “There is something that can be done [to save newspapers], and the federal government ought to do it: allow sports betting on newspaper websites,” Zuckerman said at the time. “Plenty of British papers do this — for them, it’s a crucial part of their net revenue stream. I know a major newspaper in London that makes $15 million a year from sports betting alone.”

WALL STREET JOURNAL

No other city in the country has such a powerful business paper, but no other city has Wall Street, either. The Journal is unique among the city’s big dailies: Only one in nine of its readers lives in New York State. Even more than the New York Times, the Journal is a national and international newspaper.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — already an international empire, with papers in London, the Fox network, and satellite companies — bought the Journal and Dow Jones in 2007 for $5 billion. There was some hair-pulling about Murdoch’s well-documented history as a meddler in many of his media properties, which include tabloids like the Post, serious papers like the Times of London, cheesy soft-core rags, and partisans like Bill O’Reilly. A cluster of Journal reporters pleaded with the Bancroft family not to sell the paper to Murdoch, arguing that the mogul would try to influence the paper’s coverage of the burgeoning economy in China, where he has business interests. The sale went through anyway, and though the paper hasn’t been remolded into the Post, it has been, as media analyst Lauren Rich Fine put it, “migrating” toward more of a general-interest style.

The Journal has been charging for Internet access for years, and the strategy has worked. News Corp. claims that the Journal‘s website is more successful than almost any other paid website.

Still a work in progress is how Murdoch plans to integrate the Journal into his empire, which includes the embryonic Fox Business News channel. “News Corp. needs to figure out how to use Journal content with its worldwide infrastructure,” Doctor says. “When he bought it, the question was, ‘How much did he overpay?’ But the payoff is that they could be the No. 1 business brand in the world.”

Always ahead of most other old-media companies in figuring out how to make money through new technology, the newspaper will start new charges next month for content sent to mobile phones. The fee will be $1 for subscribers and $2 for non-subscribers. The paper also has plans to start a San Francisco edition.

It wasn’t only the Great Recession that dragged the stock price of News Corp. down to as low as $6 a share, from $24 in 2007. The price started dropping right after Murdoch bought the Journal. Like many other stocks, however, News Corp. has rebounded: It’s now selling at $14 a share.

NEW YORK POST

The brash Post gets a lot of attention for its snappy headlines and gossip-mongering, but its bottom line is no laughing matter. In an SEC filing earlier this year, News Corp. acknowledged that the paper’s revenues were falling because of competition from new media and “shifting preferences among some consumers.”

“The Post has been losing money for decades,” Morton says. “But Murdoch has made clear that he intends to keep it going.” Jarvis calls the Post “Murdoch’s bully pulpit.”

The paper and the Daily News are locked in a neverending tabloid-to-tabloid contest. When the Post slashed its newsstand price to a quarter, circulation jumped; when the price went back up to 50 cents, circulation naturally dropped back down. The paper’s circulation, in fact, rose dramatically from 2000 to 2005, but has fallen 16 percent since then.

A recent makeover of the Post‘s website makes it much easier to navigate, but the free ride for online Post readers may be about to end. “Quality journalism is not cheap,” Murdoch said in early August. “We intend to charge for all our news websites.” The Post will not only start charging for its online content (probably sometime next year), but also may aggressively go after people who lift its content and post it elsewhere for free.

The Journal has been successful in charging for access, but the Post is not exactly full of specialized data and news pored over by lawyers and corporate types. Putting up a pay wall for the Post, says Doctor, would be a mistake. “It’s like putting up a white flag of surrender,” he says. “It just doesn’t seem to fit.”

News Corp. strategists are probably having a difficult time figuring out what to do with the Post. “There must be pressure inside News Corp. about where the Post is going,” says Doctor. “The conclusion has to be that it’s not going to contribute to the growth of the company.” Moss takes a broader view of the Post, noting that it has “a certain following.” “It has a national audience,” he says. “It’s really a British paper with a New York twist. They understand the appeal of headlines and cleavage.”

NEWSDAY

The company that once published a separate Pulitzer-winning paper in the city, called New York Newsday, has retreated to its Melville citadel, where the bosses focus on preserving the newspaper’s grip on the Long Island market. Despite its monopoly, the paper’s circulation has dropped 36 percent since 2000.

Beginning in 1995, with the closure of its city paper, Newsday has gone through a long series of cutbacks, layoffs, and staff buyouts as it has moved from control by Times-Mirror to the Tribune Co. and now to Cablevision, which also has a cable monopoly on Long Island.

The paper was still profitable enough that a bidding war for it erupted in 2008 among Murdoch, Zuckerman, and the Dolans. Cablevision wound up spending $650 million to buy it. Newsday also owns the free subway weekly amNew York, which essentially has replaced its New York City bureau.

Newsday has retreated to Long Island to make a stand,” says one of its many former reporters. “Newsday‘s struggle is not with another newspaper. It’s with generational change, and somehow convincing a new generation to buy the product.”

Wrestling with the same problem faced by other newspapers — how do you make money off the Web? — Newsday is currently working on a scheme that would require non-subscribers to pay for some articles. Details haven’t yet been disclosed, but the paper may have enough specialized content in its monopoly market to pull it off. “Newsday has a better shot with the pay site than other papers because it dominates the Long Island market,” says Morton, but he adds, “I think it’s going to be a struggle at first.”

Doctor notes that Newsday meshes well for its cable owners. “What I liked about the Newsday idea,” Doctor says, “is that they force you to take newsday.com with your cable television, and they assign a value to that bundle — say they charge an additional $2.95 a month for newsday.com access on your cable bill.”

In any case, the Dolans can now play hardball with their new-technology competitors. Last month, the cable company’s newspaper refused to accept advertisements from arch rival Verizon to hawk its FiOS Internet service.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Times won five Pulitzers in April, but the Sulzberger family can’t pay its debts with those trophies. Shortly after the good news, the New York Times Co. disclosed that revenue had dropped nearly 19 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Other less-than-prize-winning news: The debt load was at $1.3 billion. Operating profit was $6.2 million, with an operating loss at $61.6 million. The paper blamed the global downturn, a decline in ads, and what it called “secular changes” in the news biz. In January 2004, the company’s stock was trading at almost $40 a share, and, as recently as April 2008, it was still in the $20s. Now, it’s at $8, up from a low of $4. Not immune to the industry’s continual shedding of jobs, the Times laid off 100 business-side employees this spring and ordered a 5 percent pay cut for the survivors. The New York Times Foundation stopped giving grants; the company sold its New York City radio station and is mulling the sale of its portion of New England Sports Ventures, which includes the parts of the Boston Red Sox and a regional cable sports network. The Times is still trying to unload the Boston Globe, for which it paid $1.1 billion in 1993.

Amid other belt-tightening, including the shuttering of some of its extensive foreign bureaus, the paper folded its Metro section into the A section. Readers used to feast on the paper one section at a time, which lent each separate section a certain gravity, so this change was a big deal when it came to the Times. “The Times is the way that the elite talks to the elite — the people in Manhattan, Chappaqua, Montclair, and Brooklyn Heights,” Moss says, and the decision to do away with a separate metropolitan-news section has cost the newspaper some clout.

“Ever since it got rid of the Metro section, its local presence has suffered,” Moss says. “The Times has the lowest penetration of any major daily in its own city. It’s a national newspaper with a local name.”

Shrinking as other papers are, the Times has also folded its sports section into its business section, and editors have sharply reduced its Sports of the Times column from five writers to two, with one of those about to retire.

Murray Chass, the paper’s veteran baseball writer who took a buyout last year, is sharply critical, writing in his blog: “It’s like parents, knowing they are going to die, killing their children because they won’t be able to live on without them. The problem with this warped thinking in the case of the newspaper is the demise of the column, and the thinking behind the act will help hasten the newspaper’s demise.”

Chass acknowledges that newspapers have to change in the Internet age, “but why would the Times want to hasten its demise by eliminating a staple that attracts readers and prompts them to buy the paper?”

Doctor says the Times has been “dodging bullets, doing what it needed to do.” This includes raising money from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim (whom it once savaged in its news pages as a shady character), trying hard to rid itself of the money-losing Globe, and eventually selling other regional newspapers that it owns.

Still, the paper’s circulation has held steady in the past 10 years, in part because it has sought subscribers across the nation. “They’ve been on a program for at least a decade to replace New York metropolitan subscribers with national subscribers,” says Poynter Institute’s Edmonds. Indeed, figures comparing 2004 with 2009 show that while the Times‘ circulation within New York State has slipped, the numbers of subscribers outside the state has increased, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Doctor criticizes the company for not diversifying (the Washington Post, for example, rakes in cash from its Kaplan schools subsidiary): The Times, he says, is “wholly dependent on news. Most of the revenue comes from the U.S., but a third of their online readership is outside the U.S. Most of their revenue still comes from print.”

Back in May, the New York Post claimed that the Sulzbergers had lost more than 86 percent of their fortune, and suggested that the family might have to sell a controlling stake to an outsider. Family members may rush to sell their holdings before the worst happens, the Post intimated.

But Carroll says Sulzberger is committed. “You may argue with a lot of what they have done, but he’s fighting tooth and nail to keep the newspaper in the family,” says Carroll.

Henry Blodget, banned from the securities industry in a famous scandal earlier this decade and now a respected blogger of Wall Street’s doings, wrote last spring that the Times will reach the ceiling of its ability to borrow money by early next year. A couple of months later, though, Blodget lauded the Times for weathering a 32 percent plunge in advertising revenue during the second quarter of this year by cutting costs, selling assets, and successfully restructuring its huge debt load.

But to save itself over the long term, Blodget insists, the Times should charge for its highly influential online content. The newspaper tried that a few years ago with TimesSelect, but even though it attracted 200,000 subscribers, it was dropped.

Now, the paper’s execs have begun to talk openly about a new paid-content scheme, possibly geared toward “special content” or one that would kick in when readers want to delve further into a subject with the paper’s exhaustive archive of stories.

The paper seems to be preparing for the possibility of even more significant changes in how it markets its valuable product, which other news organizations and bloggers depend upon. Executive Editor Bill Keller noted last month in a letter to the New York Review of Books “a lamentable decline in the supply of professional journalism.” He predicted a “journalistic landscape five or ten years from now that will be a mix of survivors and start-ups,” with the distinction between mainstream and new media diminishing.

Ominously, for readers who don’t at all mind the ink rubbing off on their fingers, Keller added, “We will survive in print as long as the revenues justify it [and, thanks in part to growing circulation revenues, they still do], but we will grow, adapt, and ultimately prosper on all manner of nonprint platforms.” In sum, it seems as if Keller would have no problem going all-online, if necessary.

amNEW YORK and METRO

True throwaways, amNew York and its main competitor, Metro, were blamed for being the significant cause of track flooding — subway tunnels get clogged with newsprint tossed by readers — and were partly responsible for the massive subway flood back in 2004.

Of the two, amNew York (owned by Newsday) seems to be doing somewhat better than Metro, whose roots are in a European chain of similar little tabloids. CUNY’s Jarvis says there’s probably room in the market for only one of them to survive.

“Free papers are having real problems,” Doctor adds. “Print advertising is going down. When the economy was good, their pitch of reaching younger readers worked. But as advertising dried up, free papers were seen as a discretionary buy by advertisers.”

In the next year to 18 months, assuming the economy recovers, Doctor says, newspapers will feel as if they got something of a reprieve. “Not all of the advertising will come back, but some of it will,” he says. Indeed, Murdoch said at a Goldman Sachs press conference recently that the advertising market has improved in the past couple of months.

“I’m not an economist,” Murdoch said, “but my guess is that the consensus is about right, and [the economy is] going to get a nice bump, and then it will settle back to a fairly slow recovery.”

Which means that none of the city’s dailies, aside from the two free ones, are likely to die anytime soon. Moss is optimistic: “If you survived this downturn, why would you sell a newspaper now?” he says. “These are very resilient newspapers. If you’ve survived this economy, you can survive anything. And there’s a lot to be said for New York as a place to own a newspaper.”

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Paper-Trained? No.

Two of the four large-circulation newspapers left in New York City—the Daily News and the New York Post—are having another peeing match. More accurately, the Post seems to be going for the News‘ throat.

Their circulation wars are of course nothing new, but the latest chapter seems especially personal. And it would be laughable, too, if either of these two papers were doing a good job of covering the innards of New York City. The other two papers in Gotham are also weak in this regard—The New York Times, because it has always been reluctant to attempt a true warts-and-all picture of the city’s ruling classes, and Newsday, based on Long Island, because ever since its then owners shut down its New York Newsday offspring in 1995 for reasons of greed, it has limited its city coverage largely to the borough of Queens.

Just to summarize the latest PostNews unpleasantness: Some weeks ago, the Post reported that the News‘ new editor in chief, Michael Cooke, has a shoe fetish. Really? And how was that supposed to encumber his journalism? I was once told that a gifted and well-known newspaper editor liked to have sex wearing diapers. (I never followed up on it.)

More recently, the Post made a big deal—for several days—out of its disclosure that Cooke had recycled in the News a travel article he had written and published in the Chicago Sun-Times a year ago, when he was editor in chief there. Definitely a journalism misdemeanor, since he never disclosed its earlier publication or that his travel was apparently paid for by the owners of the English castle/hotel the gushy article was about. But it hardly compares to the Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair deceptions. Or to some of the crappy journalism that appears in the Post from time to time. Perhaps if the local papers spent more energy on news that actually affects New Yorkers’ lives, they wouldn’t have time to play internecine war games or to produce the superficial stuff that passes for local news now.

Personal disclosures: I was at the Times for 26 years, a few of them as metropolitan editor; I later spent nine years at New York Newsday. My wife, Jane Freiman, held a senior editorial position at the News; she left the paper two years ago.

The Post is the property of Rupert Murdoch and his global News Corporation, best known in the United States for its Fox television network. The News is owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, a successful real estate magnate who has not done so well in his media ventures.

Neither the Post nor the News makes public its profit and loss statements. The Post, however, is known to be a losing proposition—street gossip estimates of its annual deficits range from $20 million to $40 million. Murdoch, who started in Australia but has taken American citizenship, apparently is willing to subsidize the Post indefinitely with profits from his media empire, in order to have a newspaper footprint and editorial voice in New York. The News is rumored to have lost money in its earlier years under Zuckerman but may be turning a profit now. Zuckerman, who is from Canada and then Boston, also wants to be a figure of note in New York.

The issue here, however, is not how classic press barons behave but why the residents of the so-called media capital of the nation don’t receive superior, serious coverage of local news.

First, this isn’t just a New York phenomenon. It’s fairly common across the country and in many cities around the world. The mainstream press only occasionally gets daring enough to rock the mainstream boat. That’s because the owners of the mainstream press are usually on its passenger list. Yes, Big Journalism does at times find its courage and create some waves, but examples of such hard, investigative forays are all too rare.

For example, since 1987, when Gary Hart boarded a sailboat named Monkey Business in Bimini with a woman other than his wife, most of the investigative energies of the major papers have been devoted to stories about sex scandals or crimes related to sex. Think O.J. Simpson. Better yet, think Monica Lewinsky. Frankly, I’m surprised that some of these papers haven’t officially named these investigative teams “the Sex Beat.”

Let’s look at some local examples. The biggest New York City story in recent days was Mayor Bloomberg’s peculiar crusade to build a huge sports stadium on Manhattan’s West Side in order to attract the 2012 Olympics to the city. Suddenly, his plan having been blocked by state legislative leaders, the mayor says the stadium can be built in Queens on a site he had flatly rejected months ago. Why do I call his crusade peculiar? Because when he took office in 2001, he rejected his predecessor’s plan for a sports stadium on the same Manhattan site, saying correctly that the city had no money for it. It still has no money for it. The budget gap is daunting.

When are we going to see a multi-part series from the Times or the News examining how this usually pragmatic mayor got hooked on this pipe dream? Did the real estate moguls and the building trades unions gain control of his common sense? Or was the spell weaver Daniel Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, who has Manhattan real estate investments in his background?

In the meantime, I’d even settle for a strong series on Manhattan’s choked traffic situation, one of the reasons a Manhattan sports stadium was such a bizarre idea.

In American journalism, the phenomenon of not covering your own backyard too aggressively is sardonically called “Afghanistanism.” The suggestion is that we are allowed to cover the hell out of malfeasance and nonfeasance in faraway places but not in our hometowns.

A couple of historical notes.

When Bill Kovach was editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1980s, he decided to examine the workings of the Coca-Cola Company and the city’s big banks. The paper drew national attention and won a Pulitzer Prize. Kovach was forced to resign.

In New York City, during New York Newsday‘s 10-year run, that paper won two Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting, one more than the Times had won for local reporting in its entire history to that point.

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Be Stiff

At exactly 8 p.m. last Wednesday, Kraftwerk—sporting identical black single-breasted suits, gray shirts, black ties, and spit-shined shoes—materialized onstage behind identical black laptops, aligned in perfect symmetry.

Huge video screens beamed hyper-futuristic Commodore 64 visuals behind them. The band stood entirely motionless throughout the show, though they occasionally bopped their heads solemnly, and Ralf Hütter sometimes moved his lips for robo-vocals. (“You don’t want your doctor to jump around when you’re having an operation,” he explained to Newsday recently. “It’s the same intensity.”) From the looks of the adoring crowd, though, you’d think these guys were Led Zeppelin; when Ralf (“the cute one”) so much as cocked an eyebrow, the girls went into hysterics. If Kraftwerk were “so stiff they were funky,” then this was, hands down, the funkiest show of all time.

Kraftwerk chiseled their surgical grooves to perfection, from the heady kickoff of “The Man-Machine” to the endless looping of the “Music Non-Stop” (geddit?) closer. Even the mechanized robot torsos that surfaced onstage for “The Robots” seemed a little meaner than usual. The group’s subtly remixed classics sounded meatier and modernized—the tinkling melodies were a little harder-rocking, the elegant beats of yore more cutting-edge.

But Kraftwerk never specialized in the cutting edge; they were always best at dewy nostalgia, even back in the day. They hailed a time when the future seemed simpler and less complicated—when calculators were just for adding and subtracting, when people exulted in the glory of train travel, and when knowing how to count to eight was all that really mattered. During “Tour de France,” vintage black-and-white footage of bikers racing through the Pyrenees flickered on the screens. It was impossibly moving, and you could almost sense a deep feeling of pathos in Ralf’s unblinking eyes.

He also looked a little teary-eyed midway through the show, when something magical happened. With the shiver-inducing opening strains of “Trans-Europe Express,” the hip-hop heads and the technoids looked at each other and grinned. Everyone up front—a rainbow of black and white, art school and engineering school, old-school and new-school, Williamsburg and South Bronx—united under Kraftwerk’s benevolent greenish glow and started dancing.

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Tab War

The long-running barroom brawl between the New York Post and the Daily News spilled onto the street in recent weeks. Both papers landed stinging blows. Trouble is, their real fight might be with outside investigators looking at how they and other papers keep their books.

The recent tabloid dustup was triggered by the Scratch n’ Match fiasco, in which a misprint in the Daily News misled hundreds of people into thinking they had won cash prizes of up to $100,000. The Post smelled blood and pounced. It chronicled the disappointment of nonwinners, mocked the News‘ million-dollar makeup drawing as “peanuts,” sent a million peanuts to News offices, then shelled out the costs of a Disney World trip for one disappointed Scratch n’ Match family.

It was all good fun, but if you rubbed off your “Tabloid Wars!!” game piece, you found serious business underneath: circulation problems.

The Daily News trumpeted the Scratch game as a contributing factor to its late-2004 circulation growth, so the Post‘s nonstop hammering—coming even as the Post promoted its own new sweepstakes game—hit the News where it lives. From September 2002 to September 2004, the Post‘s reported weekday circulation boomed 20 percent, to 686,000, while the News‘ sagged slightly, to 715,000. (The News says its circ leapt to nearly 764,000 in the last quarter of 2004. There are no comparable Post figures.) The News‘ increasingly sensational front pages, which have given an awful lot of ink to the likes of Lindsay Lohan, reflect how tight the race has grown.

No wonder, then, that the beef quickly bounced from sweepstakes to sales. On March 29, after days of the News getting pounded over its botched game, a News piece accused the Post of “a frantic, desperate effort to jimmy up circulation numbers.” The News reported that the Post delivers thousands of newspapers to unoccupied homes or construction sites and then counts some of those copies toward its total paid circulation number—the figure upon which ad rates, the lifeblood of newspapers, are based. It was the first in a series of Daily News stories on the Post‘s circulation practices. Later last week, the Daily News asked the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) to investigate the Post‘s activities.

The Post had run a similar attack on News circulation practices back in October. In 2,982 words—which had to be a Post record for length—the Post reported that the News was pulling stuff like charging supermarkets for bundles of the newspaper, remitting payment to the stores for almost the same amount, and apparently counting the bundles toward paid circulation whether they sold or not. In other words, the News looked like it was buying its own papers. The Daily News said the deals were all kosher.

After the News printed its own exposé last week, the Post countered, reporting that the News gives out papers for free and counts them toward paid circulation even though many end up in the trash.

The back-and-forth is a variation on an old theme. New York City newspaper lore is full of stories of papers printing false news just to mislead the competition, shooting down the competition’s carrier pigeons bringing news from Boston, racing boats to get the foreign news off ships arriving in the harbor. Compared with that history, the current PostNews scuffle is a fencing match. But the stakes are just as high.

“In some ways good competitive newspaper battles are fun and in the great tradition, but some of these punches seem below the belt because circulation is the Achilles’ heel of American newspapers,” says NYU journalism department chair and A History of News author Mitchell Stephens.

Yep, the industry is no longer in the era when newsies in knickers cried, “Extray! Extray!” on the sidewalk. For instance, these are the days of the global media conglomerate. The Post is part of one: It reportedly loses millions each year, but its multinational daddy, News Corp., can easily absorb the red ink. The Daily News, on the other hand, is owned by one guy, Mort Zuckerman. He tolerated losses for many years, but the News has recently turned profits, and a batch of staff buyouts in the past few months suggests that Mort is inclined to keep turning them. What all this means it that the Post is better equipped to fight and lose a circulation war than the News.

What’s more, charges of fudging circulation numbers are no laughing matter in the wake of the scandal at Newsday and Hoy. As those papers admitted that they had inflated their circulation by tens of thousands of copies, The Dallas Morning News and Chicago Sun-Times also had to restate figures. A federal-local law enforcement task force subpoenaed records from the News, Post, and Times, and the SEC began a review of publicly traded newspaper owners like the Times (but not the News or Post). Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is part of the task force, and the SEC both declined to comment.

When you consider that the Tribune Company, which owns Newsday and Hoy, has socked away about $90 million to settle claims by advertisers over the false circulation figures, any finding by the ABC of fuzzy math at the News or Post would cost either paper dearly—even if the task force probe comes to nothing.

A message for Post spokeswoman Suzi Halpin was not returned. News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy tells the Voice that the Daily News is complying with current circulation rules. Those rules could change, and the ABC audit and task force investigation are pending, but Murphy insists, “We don’t feel that we have anything to worry about.”

It’s possible that ABC will find both papers’ circulations are legit—and rising, bucking the overall industry trend. While not quite Hearst versus Pulitzer, the fact that two tabloids are slugging it out on Gotham’s newsstands is itself an anachronism.

“We’re blessed—although some would not use that term—in New York City,” says Stephens, “to have at least one real area of competition between newspapers still.” The question is whether both the News and the Post can survive it.

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Missing Ink

Last week, the United States ended its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the leading rationale for a war that has now killed at least 1,300 Americans, wounded 10,000 more, and led to the deaths of—by a conservative estimate—thousands of Iraqis. The New York Times mentioned this on page A10 and in a second-day editorial, Newsday on A6, the Daily News in the middle of another story, and the Post not at all. The Sun relegated it to the editorial page, where it said the material may have been “secreted out to Syria.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post slapped it on A1.


jmurphy@villagevoice.com

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Lost and Found

Moments after the first presidential debate ended on September 30 at the University of Miami, the press charged into the none-too-subtly named “Spin Alley.” Dozens of Bush and Kerry surrogates were inside, trailed by aides carrying signs bearing their names (“Terry McAuliffe,” “Karen Hughes”). Most were thronged by reporters. One sign read “Bernie Kerik.” He stood under it, virtually alone.
A little more than two months after he was ignored at the debate press center, Kerik was nominated to lead the country’s defense against terrorism. The subsequent collapse of his candidacy exploded years of mythmaking led by a New York City press corps that—like the reporters at the debate—showed signs of knowing better.



The Rise: After nine years as a cop, a stint as Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 campaign bodyguard, and a posting to the corrections department, Kerik’s entrée to the city media scene came in early 1995, when jails boss Anthony Schembri quit and Kerik was elevated to first deputy under a new commissioner.
Kerik soon became the public face of reforms at the city’s lockups, discussing his anti-gang efforts on Nightline in April 1997. Two years later, after moving up to jails commissioner, Kerik’s media image blossomed. An incredibly flattering spring 1999 City Journal piece credited the “vivid, take-charge” Kerik with reducing violence at the jails. The Post cheered Kerik for “working miracles” at Rikers, and The Baltimore Sun took notice of his efforts there. The biggest coup came in November 1999, when The New York Times‘ Christopher Drew, who a year earlier had written about inmate abuse at Rikers, detailed Kerik’s anti-violence policies. Corrections officials liked the piece so much they posted it in the jails.

The commissioner nurtured this affectionate coverage. Kerik compared his jail policies to Giuliani’s anti-crime initiatives elsewhere in the city, which had received national attention. He even granted a reporter from the Voice—a paper not beloved by the Giuliani administration—several days of access to corrections facilities for a piece that was originally supposed to run in Harper’s. The success story Kerik sold was true, but incomplete: While slashings and stabbings did fall during Kerik’s tenure, the numbers for other types of violence held relatively steady. Yet even after he’d moved on to One Police Plaza, Kerik’s jail reforms were still getting good press: In January 2001, 60 Minutes II saluted him as the man who had run Rikers “with an iron fist.”

Over at police HQ, a few reporters called Kerik’s rise to police commissioner for what it was: Giuliani elevating a loyalist. But as “top cop,” Bernie usually received favorable headlines. His timing helped: The Giuliani administration’s value as a press target had faded after the mayor’s aborted Senate run, and Kerik’s predecessor had had an absolutely poisonous relationship with the media.

“You’ve got to understand that he followed [Howard] Safir, who was probably the most unpleasant man I ever met,” recalls veteran Newsday cops reporter Leonard Levitt. Levitt says Kerik replaced Safir’s abrasive style with a pleasantness that was at once calculating and natural. Kerik also boosted police morale, took steps to repair ties with the city’s minorities, and presided over a continued decrease in crime.

“He conducted himself on the surface, on the outside, with great dignity,” Levitt says. “The problem is that none of us realized what was going on underneath that.” Some of it was obvious, says Levitt: Bernie had made a habit of surrounding himself with cronies, rewarding cops who supported him with citations, and generally “bending the rules.” Levitt, who wrote several columns critical of Kerik during that time, adds, “The signs were all there.”

Then the bad guys crashed the planes into the buildings. There was Kerik at Giuliani’s side, speaking eloquently at funerals, touring ruins with the prez. Sure, Giuliani’s 9-11 Commission testimony had almost nothing to say about what Kerik actually did on the big day, and yeah, in hindsight the 2002 McKinsey report found that the NYPD lacked strong leadership during the crisis. Nonetheless, Kerik was hailed as a “hero,” a “pillar of strength,” if only for being a reassuring face amid chaos.

“Rudy and his people benefited tremendously from this September 11 halo, and I think they deserved it,” says Daily News reporter Russ Buettner, who broke many of the recent stories about Kerik. Bernie crystallized his heroic image when his life story, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, appeared soon after the attacks. “It created a persona that didn’t exist before,” says Buettner of the book. Levitt says Kerik’s publisher (and apparently his ex-lover) Judith Regan is “the one who made him a national figure.”

The resulting glow guided Kerik over some rough spots as his term ended, like a brief spike in crime and a scuffle between cops and firefighters at ground zero. Kerik himself took heat for sending cops to find Regan’s cell phone, dispatching city detectives to research Lost Son, using NYPD photos of the WTC ruins for the book, and taking time off to promote it. But nothing seemed to tarnish Kerik’s image as hero. The media, Newsday columnist Ellis Henican tells the Voice, “basically bought into the myth of Bernie.”

That legend followed Kerik to Giuliani Partners LLC, through his mission to train cops in Iraq, onto the Dubya campaign bandwagon, and right to the door of the Cabinet. After Bush nominated him, the Times‘ front page dubbed Kerik “street-savvy,” the Daily News said the job “needs a pit bull of a cop, and Kerik is darn sure that,” and the Post editorial page crowed, “Kerik’s the One.”



The Fall: In fact, he wasn’t the one, and considering all the dirt that’s emerged, was never going to be. The die was cast probably years before Bush gave Bernie the nod: Buettner says the trail to his recent stories goes back to a scandal involving a corrections official who allegedly used city workers on the 2002 Pataki campaign. Some of the damaging revelations date back to the 1980s.

But even if Kerik was DOA as a cabinet secretary, how did he manage to get to the threshold? Ultimately, Levitt blames 9-11. After the attack, he says, “The bottom line is, critical thinking stops.” Bernie’s burn-up could reverse that. Now Giuliani’s role in promoting Kerik is under scrutiny.
Maybe Kerik should have stayed in Spin Alley.


jmurphy@villagevoice.com

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Saint Bernard

WASHINGTON, D.C.—From the sagging row houses of Paterson, New Jersey, to the cocaine fields of Colombia, from the razor wire of Rikers Island to the streets of New York City, Bernard Kerik has dedicated his life to a single goal: to fight the injustice he sees around him.”Thus trumpets the cover copy for The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, by George Bush’s secretary-of-homeland-security-to-be. As New York City police commissioner at the time of the 9-11 attack—not long before the book was published—Kerik was hailed as a hero. In the memoir, Kerik portrays himself as a giant of a man—a figure haunted by the image of his poor mother, and bent on righting one injustice after another. He compares himself to former president Teddy Roosevelt, who also served as New York police commissioner.

New York pols are lapping up Kerik’s story. “If ever a state deserves to have a citizen appointed to [head the Department of] Homeland Security, it is New York,” Senator Charles Schumer told CNN last week. “Bernard Kerik knows firsthand the challenges and needs of New York and other high-threat areas,” Senator Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “As a member of the president’s Cabinet, he can make that case every single day.”

Before they say anything more, Schumer, Clinton, and yes, Teddy Kennedy ought to go read Jimmy Breslin in the March 7, 2004, Newsday. “At the World Trade Center, Kerik was in the back of his car dictating the last part of a book that was going to appear under his name. It had him writhing with delicious excitement. It was about his mother being a prostitute. ‘That’s what’s going to make me all the money,’ he told a friend of mine.”

A good deal of Kerik’s hero image is promoted, if not created, by Rupert Murdoch’s New York publishing genius Judith Regan. The Vassar graduate and onetime National Enquirer reporter is a Kerik workout partner. Her authors include Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Nader and Howard Stern. Some people get confused about Regan’s politics. Not a problem, Regan says. “We publish. You decide,” she explained in an ad.

For his appointment as secretary of homeland defense, Kerik may well owe thanks to his business partner and friend Rudy Giuliani. But Kerik also owes Regan big-time. And he has done his best to pay her back. After she donated $493,843 to the New York Police and Fire Widows and Orphans Fund in 2001, he awarded her an honorary commissionership, just to show his appreciation. When Regan lost her cell phone at a Fox TV show, Kerik dispatched city homicide detectives to find it.

Not everyone thinks Kerik is God. At the 9-11 Commission hearings last spring, one of the commissioners, John F. Lehman, secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, attacked him head-on, accusing both Kerik and Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen of hampering rescue efforts with their departments’ bizarre command and control functions. Lehman called the situation “not worthy of the Boy Scouts.” The commission’s final report turned this acid comment into one of its most memorable thumb suckers: “Whether the lack of coordination between the FDNY and the NYPD had a catastrophic effect is a subject of controversy.”

Kerik was always at the edges of some screwy, not quite crooked but decidedly creepy deal, like using pictures of ground zero taken by police detectives in his book or sending other detectives to Ohio to ferret out the truth about his mother, also for the book—he eventually paid a fine for this conflict of interest—and then giving one of the detectives a top police department medal. His poor mother, they’d discovered, was a prostitute found beaten to death in an Ohio flophouse. New Yorkers are plenty sick of hearing the “my mother was a whore” story every time Kerik opens his mouth, or how he “fathered” an illegitimate daughter while in the army in Korea. Father and daughter were publicly reunited at his retirement dinner in 2002, and she has been warmly welcomed into the Kerik family.

While Kerik was the city’s corrections commissioner, some $1 million in tobacco rebates for cigarettes bought with public funds and then sold at inflated prices to inmates were discovered to have been funneled into a foundation Kerik headed. A former aide is now serving a one-year prison sentence for mail fraud, for diverting some of this money to pay for inmates’ phone sex.

After 9-11, Kerik was widely celebrated. A corrections facility in downtown Manhattan was named after him, and the Police Foundation paid for miniature busts of Kerik, which he gave to friends. In 2003, he announced he was going on a special six-month assignment to train the new Iraqi police force. He quit after three months, citing the need for a vacation. Now insurgents are slaughtering the new Iraqi police by the dozen.

Kerik joined Giuliani Partners, the former mayor’s consulting firm. Two years ago, Kerik became a director of Taser International, manufacturer of the hot new stun guns whose safety has been questioned. Recently he sold his more than 100,000 shares of company stock for $5.7 million.

Newsday has done the best coverage of Kerik. “He couldn’t run the Rikers commissary without getting greedy and making a mess, in a jam,” Ellis Henican reported one corrections insider as saying. “Now he’s gonna be in charge of the Department of Homeland Security? Let’s just hope the terrorists don’t decide to come back.”

Added Henican, “He’s a personal and professional time bomb the Bushies will learn to regret.”


Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti

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Newsday Shakeup Could Signal Power Shift

“Inside Fallujah,” the New York edition of Newsday headlined today, as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops pushed an offensive aimed at ousting the Sunni city’s insurgent rulers.

Inside Newsday, the buzz was about an ouster of a different kind: The departure of editor Howard Schneider and his replacement by John Mancini, an assistant managing editor, effective Wednesday.

The change probably marks an effort by the troubled tab to try to close the door on this summer’s circulation scandal, but it could also herald the ascendance of the paper’s New York faction over its Long Island–centric nemeses.

The switch won’t be painless. At least 50 job cuts were expected as well, although no final number had been decided by midday Tuesday because the budget for next year was still being finalized. Buyout packages were expected to go out to employees within a week, with the hope that enough people would leave voluntarily to make layoffs unnecessary.

Reporters were to hear a formal announcement of the change in editors at mid-afternoon, but in memos circulated late this morning, Newsday publisher Tim Knight said Schneider stepped down after “it became apparent that we have basic differences in how best to position Newsday for the future.”

In a farewell note, the 35-year Newsday veteran Schneider—the paper’s editor for 15 months—said that his leaving was “a painful decision, but one that became increasingly apparent because of fundamental differences between Tim and myself about the direction of the paper.”

The shakeup comes only months after Knight’s predecessor as publisher, Raymond Jansen, was forced out in August, and only days after the paper’s transportation chief, John Tedesco, was let go—all amid the circulation scandal that has led the Chicago-based Tribune Company to bank $90 million to settle potential claims from advertisers against Newsday and its Spanish-language daily Hoy. Both papers misstated their circulation figures by tens of thousands of copies going back to 2001. A final report on the circulation mess is still pending from the Audit Bureau of Circulation. But Wall Street gave its review this summer: Tribune’s stock price took a beating when the news was really bad this summer.

Newsday employees said there were hints for some time that job cuts were coming. One insider at the paper speculated that Schneider got the ax Tuesday because the buyout packages were about to be circulated and employees deciding whether to stay or go would want to know who was the boss. But the roots of the dispute between Schneider and Knight are deeper and older than that.

When longtime editor Tony Marro stepped down in August 2003, he and Jansen installed Schneider despite Tribune’s preference for bringing in fresh blood from the outside, according to sources familiar with the paper’s internal workings. Tribune deferred to Jansen because of his success in guiding the paper—a record that collapsed once the circulation bubble burst.

The Long Island–loyalist Schneider, meanwhile, became a lightning rod in the long-running internecine struggle within Newsday between the Island and New York factions. With Jansen (publisher since 1994) out and the number-crunching Knight in, Schneider was exposed—and, on Tuesday, expelled.

Mancini gets a big bump up the management ladder from assistant managing editor for New York to top man in Melville, L.I., where the paper is headquartered.

In some ways his move to the top of the Newsday masthead mirrors that paper’s off-and-on relationship with New York City. Since New York Newsday folded in 1995—with Mancini as city editor—the paper has gradually renewed its ties to the metropolis, most recently opening a satellite office on Park Avenue with about 30 editorial staffers.

Now a question confronting Mancini and Knight is where that relationship will go next, and in particular whether the main city desk of the New York edition will move from Kew Gardens to the Manhattan offices.

Newsday staff members sang Mancini’s praises Tuesday, describing him as a spirited team player. Columnist Ellis Henican described the well-traveled editor as “great, energetic, fun—truly a new generation of leadership here.”

However, the looming buyouts are testimony to the resource constraints Mancini will face in building up the New York side. Mancini’s promotion might help to lift the gloom at Newsday, but as the circulation scandal has illustrated, in the end numbers matter.

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Say What?

“If you want a poll on the Kerry-Bush race, sit down and make up your own. It is just as good as the monstrous frauds presented on television and the newspaper first pages.” —Jimmy Breslin, Newsday, 9.16.04



Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese and David Botti

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High-Stakes Tests

As the city’s increasingly apprehensive third-graders were being drilled by their teachers for the fateful April reading and math tests, the hosannas for the mayor’s “Monday Night Massacre” of dissenters on the Panel for Educational Policy resounded on the editorial pages:

Bloomberg’s Finest Hour – The New York Sun

Mayor Mike in Charge – New York Post

Mayor Bloomberg’s invigo-rating show of power – Daily News

Victory for Mayor, School Kids – Newsday


But the headline in the New York Times lead editorial, “Politics and School Promotion,” put dunce caps on the other editorial writers: “This mayor,” the Times continued, “who has virtually no experience in education,” has “made a political mistake in reinforcing the worst fears of opponents of mayoral control of the schools.”

Bloomberg figures that the 2005 scores will insure his re-election, with the low scorers screened out of the fourth grade. In any case, he will have officially told thousands of kids that they are dumb.

Oh, but their parents need not fear. They are promised by the mayor and his compliant chancellor that there will be intensive remediation for these laggards: In the Daily News, Nicole Bode and Joe Williams report on new 19-day, four-hour-a-day summer schools; a “work folder” for each child to ponder his or her practice tests; and “a log of interventions.”

And you know what, kids? The adults, including the principal and the math and literary coaches, will now be known as “Student Success Teams.” And everyone will be pulling to win the next test results for the Gipper—Coach Bloomberg.

But in the same March 17 Daily News story, Bode and Williams get to the core of the educational three-card monte game. Students who fail next month’s math or reading tests, and flunk them again after more drilling in summer school, “will remain in the same schools with the same teacher and the same curriculum next year.” (Emphasis added.)

The same teacher, trapped in the same curriculum imposed on the system by the removed deputy chancellor Diana Lam,will be in charge of the same further demoralized children.

Michael Winerip, who appears every Wednesday on the New York Times education page in the Metro Section, is the most perceptive, incisive, and challenging writer on schooling I have read since the days of Paul Goodman and George Dennison.

In his justly indignant March 17 account of the civics lesson the mayor and his chancellor “gave the one million school children of New York City” in “voter manipulation” two days before, Winerip notes that critics of the mayor’s nostrum for ending social promotion “say the money is better used to improve education starting in kindergarten, including reducing class size.”

This year, Winerip continues, “class size has increased citywide in every elementary grade.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, in his front-page New York Times story the same day, David M. Herszenhorn points out, “Over the last two decades, dozens of studies have led many educators to conclude that policies forcing students to repeat a grade are costly and counter-productive, resulting in no gains in student achievement and sharp increases in dropout rates.”

Actually, education should start in system-wide pre-kindergarten settings with teachers of such experience and skills that they get paid more than what is mandated by the one-size-fits-all union contract.

But as for the current third-graders, the Bloomberg-Klein “interventions” for those who need them should involve moving them into the fourth grade with teachers who have the necessary skills rather than keeping them back with part-time specialists, and the same third-grade teachers who failed them before.

There is another crucial question. How many kids treated as failures are mislabeled? In the March 17 Newsday, reporter Wil Cruz quoted a teacher with 13 years’ experience: “A child may be showing progress in the class and they may do better on classroom tests . . . [but] might be a little below grade, and will struggle on a [high-stakes test as in April] and not be promoted.”

Bloomberg-Klein have belatedly tried to reassure critics by setting up an appeals process for the kids who flunk the fateful tests. However, true to theircorporate-style myopia, once a teacher files that appeal, it goes up the bureaucratic ladder to be decided on finally by the local instructional superintendent, who has likely never seen the child.

And what of the kids who don’t test well, spooked by fears of disappointing their parents or being mocked by their contemporaries? Or those “failures” who have hearing and sight problems that are not obvious and may be undetected in large classes?

At the core, however, of the Bloomberg-Klein systemic misunderstanding of how and why kids learn is what former New York State education commissioner Thomas Sobol told the state senate Standing Committee on Education in September last year:

“We are imposing one uniform style of curriculum and teaching, whether it fits all teachers and students or not. . . . [High-stakes tests] stand whether or not the student has access to an appropriate curriculum, adequately prepared teachers . . . and a safe, orderly environment. . . . Penalizing students for the failures of the system is unfair.”

The Bloomberg-Klein system sure fits that description. And Sobol reminds us all: “Tests don’t teach children. Teachers do.” In Newsday, a Queens teacher says that she devotes about five hours to test prepping each week. “Social studies, science, they get put to the back burner.”

That’s where the voters should put Bloomberg and Klein.

Next week: The City Council flunks the mayor’s jerry-built “retention” plan and proposes one that could work.