Finally, there’s a bit of good news for the financially-strapped, morale-sapped New York Daily News.
“When people do good work, they feel good about where they work at—and I’d like to think that’s where we are right now,” said Jim Rich, who took over in September as the paper’s 12th editor in chief since billionaire real estate mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman added it to his portfolio in 1993.
“We have a room full of incredibly talented, dedicated, and hardworking journalists here,” Rich told The Daily Beast, “and everything that the Daily News has done in the last couple of months is a direct credit to every one of them.”
Namely, a series of powerfully provocative front pages on the issue of gun violence and terrorism, backstopped by sharp reporting and blunt writing, has caught the public’s imagination—not only in the parochial confines of New York City but as far away as Asia and Australia.
A recent front-page cartoon lampooning Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States—depicting the Republican presidential frontrunner brandishing a sword to behead the Statue of Liberty—also cut through the media clutter. (Uncharacteristically, the Twitter-obsessed Trump has yet to take the bait.)
In a time of trouble for dead-tree journalism, the Daily News seems to have recaptured a bit of the old tabloid swagger, while capitalizing on the Internet’s potential—at least for the moment—to lure new eyeballs.
“The difference between a tabloid paper and broadsheet is you’ve got less space and fewer words, and you’ve got to get to the point faster—that’s what we do,” Rich said. “We use bold words and bold images, and we’re doing what journalists are supposed to do regardless of the format. We’re reporting stories on issues that are important to our readers.”
Yet like almost every other American newspaper struggling to survive in an industry confronted by the transformative disruptions of the digital age, New York’s traditionally working class, outer-borough tabloid—forever at war with Rupert Murdoch’s Manhattan-centric New York Post—has been suffering through a series of unfortunate events.
Eroding circulation, plunging advertising revenue, draconian layoffs, and ballooning deficits prompted the 78-year-old Zuckerman—who, unlike Murdoch, was never one to tolerate much hemorrhaging of money—to put the paper up for sale in February.
Zuckerman took it off the market after six painfully embarrassing, rumor-plagued months, during which he discovered that nobody was willing pay his price for a business with estimated losses of more than $20 million a year.
The 44-year-old Rich, who started at the Daily News as a sports editor in March 2004 after four years in the sports department of The Post and stints at small papers in Upstate New York, said Zuckerman has told him the Daily News is no longer for sale.
That, obviously, could change should the right offer come along, and Rich didn’t make Zuckerman’s continued commitment a condition of taking the top editorial job.
But he said Zuckerman, whatever second thoughts he might have, continues to be actively involved.
“I got three calls from Mort last week, all of which were praising what we were doing—which was good,” Rich said. “I’ve only been in this seat for a short while now, so I don’t have anything to compare this to, but he’s been interacting with me pretty frequently.” (Full disclosure: I worked for Zuckerman’s Daily News for a few years a decade ago.)
Rich replaced the Liverpool-born Colin Myler, a former Murdoch employee and Fleet Street editor (and, not coincidentally, ex-top deputy to Post editor in chief Col Allan) who fell out with his longtime patrons over his damaging testimony about heir-apparent James Murdoch during News Corp.’s illegal phone-hacking scandal.
Zuckerman’s hiring of Myler in January 2012 was widely seen as a stick in Rupert Murdoch’s eye; Myler was editor of the criminally implicated News of the World in 2011 when he presided unwillingly over the British tabloid’s abrupt shutdown in Rupert’s ultimately successful attempt to defuse the threats against his media empire and James’s continued rise at the company.
“When Colin arrived, it was a bit of a breath of fresh air,” said Rich, who had worked with Myler during his time at The Post. “The Daily News, I thought, had been going through a bit of a lull.”
Rich, who was deputy managing editor of sports at the time, said he was considering leaving the business. But after a chat with the new editor reinvigorated his enthusiasm, Rich was named night news editor and eventually executive editor, Myler’s No. 2.
He credits Myler for launching the paper’s initial gun safety campaigns in response to the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 first-graders and 6 staffers in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Colin had this idea of grabbing hold of an issue and not letting go, and doing it in a forceful and intelligent way, with some sound journalism,” Rich said about the paper’s anti-gun violence campaign. “It’s been the same thing for three years now—the story just keeps repeating itself and the problem has reached a frustration level which did not exist at any time during the period before Sandy Hook.”
After the most recent mass shooting December 2 in San Bernardino, California, the Post played up the radical-Islamic-terrorism angle, but the Daily News focused its fire on allegedly hypocritical Republican politicians who mouth soothing words of condolence to the victims of such horrific events but are too cowardly to defy the National Rifle Association by considering gun safety legislation.
The Daily News’s front page the day after the massacre—featuring the headline, “GOD ISN”T FIXING THIS,” and tweets offering “thoughts and prayers” by likes of Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Paul Ryan—was followed up the next day by a front page photo in which NRA leader Wayne LaPierre was identified as a “terrorist.”
“We purposefully used some strong and direct language to get right to the point,” Rich said, noting that LaPierre—whom the paper has called a “jihadist”—has not responded to an interview request or, for that matter, an offer of column space.
As for various critics on the right who accuse the Daily News of insulting religion with its “GOD” cover, “what is mind-boggling is the intentional misconstruing of the point of that as somehow an attack on religion or prayer,” Rich said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, as I said to anyone who would listen, if you are a person of faith, you should be angry at the politicians who so flippantly and callously take their religion and their faith in vain.”
The “GOD” cover immediately went viral, provoking an enormous reaction on social media, millions of page-views from around the planet, and a proliferation of media commentary pro and con. Rich estimated that the response from readers was 70 percent positive and 30 percent negative.
The Trump cartoon, Rich said, was a close second in impact and virality (although the editor remains mystified at The Donald’s apparent decision to stay mum on the subject; maybe he’s too busy watching talking heads natter about him endlessly on cable television).
Meanwhile, albeit less conspicuously, Rich has devoted the paper’s scarce resources to the tabloid version of longform journalism, as evidenced by this week’s two-part series on gang violence in New York City. It’s the product of a new team of writers and editors that the paper has dubbed the “Daily Dig.”
“It’s one of the less celebrated parts of our organization,” Rich said, noting that the layoffs of dozens of Daily News journalists, many of them his friends, have dominated coverage of the paper.
“A lot of headlines, rightfully so, went toward the people who parted ways, but there were also probably 15 or so new positions that never existed before at the Daily News.”
Rich describes his own path to his exalted position in journalism as “a little bit random.”
A native of the tiny upstate village of Buchanan, New York, he dropped out of college during freshman year out of sheer boredom and spent several years wandering in the career wilderness.
“I had given college the old one-semester shot right out of high school and thought, ‘ehhh,’ ” Rich recalled. “I thought, why should I do this when I could be out getting drunk every night?” Half in jest, he added: “Maybe that was a characteristic that got me hooked later into journalism.”
Rich did odd jobs as a seasonal worker, and at one point installed home security alarms before returning to school in his mid-20s.
“I took a summer journalism course—this was at SUNY Westchester—and my professor said I should think about writing for the student newspaper. And I said, ‘You mean, the student newspaper that’s, like for 18-year-olds, isn’t it?’ I was 26 or 27 at the time.
“Long story short, I took him up on the offer and pretty much had that epiphany, and thought, ‘Wow. Where has this been my whole life?’”