A Tabloid Flower Fades and Dies

July 27, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- There's been much wailing and lamentation lately over the recent demise of a New York tabloid newspaper which not all that many people read. Especially as we in the Baltimore area are about to lose a paper of our own, it's worth a moment to consider what all the fuss is about.

As is often the case when journalists yowl about business decisions, especially those affecting their own industry, much of what's been said seems exaggerated -- and in some cases downright hypocritical.

From the tone of some of the commentary, you might have thought that Newsday's New York edition had been a work of journalistic art, which it wasn't, and that because he pulled the plug on it, new Times Mirror president Mark Willes committed a terrible crime, which he didn't.

Mr. Willes, a financial expert who came from General Mills, the cereal company, has been nicknamed ''Cap'n Crunch'' at Times Mirror. He's caricatured as a philistine with an eyeshade, but since he swung the ax Times Mirror's stock is up. And while the previous management may have thought itself more creative, its vainglorious New York caper still managed to lose $100 million over 10 years, helping to nudge the entire corporation toward the skids.

Was it all worth it? Some media heavyweights think so, although the reasons they offer aren't very persuasive. Take the critic John Leonard, who in a recent CBS commentary decried the loss of the writers published in New York Newsday. He especially lamented the absence of Murray Kempton, who's a very fine columnist indeed.

If he really wants to keep reading Mr. Kempton, however, all Mr. Leonard has to do is arrange to pick up a copy of Newsday itself. It's published out on Long Island, where it makes a nice profit and will continue to print the Kempton column. Surely a few copies will make their way into Manhattan, to be sold perhaps at a surcharge.

But that's too much trouble for Mr. Leonard, or too expensive. He apparently thinks somebody -- the Times Mirror shareholders, the government, whoever -- should subsidize a newspaper just because he and his friends happen to like it. This is the Public Broadcasting System mentality applied to print.

Or consider Geneva Overholser, the Washington Post's ombudsman. Ms. Overholser mourns New York Newsday because it was, golly, urban -- ''a journalistic commitment to the city.'' And she blames the end of that commitment on, guess what, greed. It was all because ''newspapers are having a terrible time making the huge profits to which they've become addicted.''

But if it was noble of pre-Willes Times Mirror to try to establish another tabloid paper in a city which already has two of them, plus the New York Times, why wouldn't it have been even nobler to start one in a city which doesn't have a tabloid at all? In Washington, for example. Ms. Overholser doesn't say.

The fact is, Times Mirror and Newsday went into New York not out of a sense of public service, but in response to a surge of corporate and editorial machismo. They wanted a paper in New York City, and they had a lot of money to throw around, so they started one. It was an ego trip, not missionary work.

There's nothing wrong with that, it ought to be noted emphatically. For 10 years, readers, advertisers, and those with newspaper jobs all benefited from Times Mirror's efforts. And if those efforts were ego-driven, so what? The other New York tabs, Rupert Murdoch's Post and Mortimer Zuckerman's Daily News, are kept afloat by ego too.

The trouble is, the politics of the Post and Daily News are too populist for the likes of Mr. Leonard, Ms. Overholser and the rest of the crowd now in mourning over New York Newsday. Those papers made a ''journalistic commitment to the city'' too, and theirs turned out to be stronger than Times Mirror's.

Had the Post or the Daily News been the tabs to go under, it's a safe bet the eulogies offered by the cultural heavyweights wouldn't have been as eloquent, and the shutdown would have been explained as a failure to meet the public's needs.

Those who cluck over Times Mirror's refusal to continue subsidizing its loser in New York should have put their money where their mouth is and bought the paper. That's how Mr. Zuckerman saved the Daily News from extinction. That's how the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who thought Washington ought to have a conservative daily newspaper, came to start -- and continues to underwrite -- the Washington Times.

They didn't have the money to rescue New York Newsday? Oh. Then they ought to understand why the Times Mirror stockholders pressed management to recognize that perhaps Times Mirror didn't, either.

It's truly sad when a newspaper closes. It's sad for devoted readers and sadder still for faithful employees thrown out of work. But it's no more a moral issue than the frost that nips the flowers in the fall.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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