The Obits and the News

Ernest B. Furgurson

November 02, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

NEW YORK. — New York.

IN JANUARY 1928, they electrocuted Ruth Snyder, the first woman sent to the chair in New York. Most of Manhattan's newspapers ran columns of purple prose about it. Page 1 of the Daily News told the story in one word and one picture.

The word, in huge type, was DEAD! The blurred picture below it was of Snyder at the instant the shock hit her -- taken by photographer Tom Howard with a hidden camera strapped to his ankle.

That may have been the News' most famous front page, at least until the one in 1975 when the president refused to bail the city out of its financial crunch. The headline that day was was FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.

The word ''dead'' has figured often in the 71-year-history of the News; the paper has specialized in crime reporting, and printed the best. But for the past week, since a long-feared strike began, some of its own employees have become actors instead of narrators in a running crime story.

Starting with the first editions after the strike began, competing papers have covered it as if the News itself were on its death bed, as it may be. There are three tabloids in New York, and the common wisdom is that not more than two can survive. If the strike and management's determination to break the unions does kill the News, one of those rivals might have the bad taste to run its own gleeful headline proclaiming the News DEAD!

That would be the Post, once stodgily liberal, now wackily conservative, catering to readers downscale from the News' hard-core blue-collar fans. The other, more upscale, is New York Newsday, the Manhattan sister of Long Island's Newsday (owned by Times-Mirror, which also owns the Baltimore Sun).

The way the three of them handled the strike story that first day exemplifies what New Yorkers have learned to look for in each. Of course the Times, the dignified non-tabloid, had a balanced story full of facts but slim on color.

That day's 100-page Post had a Page 1 exclusive: ''Slain Millionaire's wife breaks silence: WIDOW TALKS: Says she forgives 'other woman' who stole husband.'' Only in a single line at the bottom did it announce ''Violence at the Daily News.''

N.Y. Newsday seemed pulled both ways, trying not to cheer out loud but already suiting up for the funeral. On Page 1, it reproduced the News' famous nameplate, with its old-fashioned Speed Graphic logo in the middle. Careless customers could have picked it up by mistake, for beneath its own and the News' nameplates it said in big type: ''New York's Strikebound Newspaper: Unions Walk Out After Drivers' Dispute, Firings.''

But the big difference was inside, where 152-page Newsday went with its reportorial strength: while the thinly staffed Post ran two stories, Newsday ran three full pages -- five stories and six photos, credited to 14 reporters and three photographers -- plus a prominent opinion column headed, ''On the Death Watch at the Daily News.''

That column, by Jim Dwyer, was mostly a street-reporting description of the truck drivers' agony over being shut out. But it concluded, within hours of the strike's beginning, that ''Somehow the best-selling American paper of this generation was on the verge of death.''

That has been the assumption for months, as News employees worked without a contract to avoid a showdown: that once something set off a strike, it would be all over. The parent Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, had hired a law firm that specializes in strikebreaking, and immediately started moving in replacement workers, known to strikers as ''scabs.''

One line of grumbling among News employees has been that the company wanted some excuse to shut down the money-losing paper. The company line is that it must end costly featherbedding by outmoded unions or the paper cannot survive.

On the first strike day, the News' own Page 1 was loyal to tradition: ''DRUG DEVILS ON THE RUN: Cops Bust 158 in Playground Crusade,'' and on the back page, BUSTED in three-inch block type -- not about its own plight, but about what happened to Buster Douglas in Las Vegas.

The News gave the strike the bottom half of the front page, and only one of its 46 inside pages. While others ran its obituary, nowhere did the News use the words ''dead'' or ''death watch;'' indeed, it promised to keep going.

If it folds, that will be one more murder in a series that has sent the Sun, Mirror, World-Telegram, Herald-Tribune, Journal-American and lesser Manhattan papers to the graveyard since mid-century -- and once again, the guilty will walk.

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