The truth is, the recent focus on Murdoch's tabloid values has only reminded me exactly how much I value his flagship tabloid, the New York Post.
A hometown paper with an increasingly national profile, the Post is, quite simply, irresistible. Next to "The Daily Show," there's not another news-focused old-media product I look forward to each day with as much giddy relish. Like most newspapers, the Post is generally grave and serious when it needs to be, but unlike most newspapers, it's funny when it should be -- and a lot of times when it sort of shouldn't be -- which puts it squarely in sync with the subtext of gallows humor that not only informs Jon Stewart but also has propelled civic-minded satirists through the ages.
Next April will mark the 25th anniversary of the Post's famous "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" headline. But that pop landmark is hardly the pinnacle of glory days gone by. You can't be a steady reader of today's Post, as edited with obvious glee by Col Allan (like Murdoch, an Australian import), without regularly smiling in reaction to the paper's packaging genius. A recent case in point: the paper's front-cover banner headline "V-D DAY!" which was subtitled "Paris liberated, bimbos rejoice" and superimposed over a photo composite of Ms. Hilton held aloft by a delirious Times Square crowd.
And the mischief invariably continues on the inside. One of my all-time personal favorites: a story headlined "AIR MORE STINKY, KIDS LESS THINKY" -- about research showing that the offspring of mothers who breathed air in the city's most polluted neighborhoods while pregnant suffer delays in cognitive development. When I saw that, the first thing I did (after LOL-ing) was tear it out and send it to a relative, a mom with kids, who lives in the New England countryside. (Headline aside, the story itself was straight-laced and soberly reported.) I suppose it was my way of saying "What are you gonna do?" To live in New York -- to live in America -- these days, you have to, of course, laugh to survive.
Dark humor aside, it's worth noting that the headline and short piece (487 words) delivered the gist of the news pretty instantly. So, yeah, the paper's a guilty pleasure, but it's also a very efficient news-delivery system. (According to a New York Times spy quoted on Gawker, the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, recently suggested to his staff that "the 1,200-word stories could be 800 or 900." Well, duh.)
The Post is always about giving readers more news in less time -- and it does so by striving to be in sync with the vernacular rhythms and sensibilities of contemporary news consumers (and the ever-ascendant blog culture, for that matter). The Post thinks and talks how real people think and talk.
It's also been canny about targeting specific constituencies to make sure various business and creative leaders have something in the paper they think of as a must-read. For example, as countless other competing media reporters have come and gone, the indefatigable (and loveable media-man-about-town) Keith Kelly remains the undisputed dean of the pack. Likewise, Michael Riedel, the paper's theater columnist, has made the machinations of the country's leading theater artists and producers into an engaging, gossipy, ongoing narrative filled (as it actually is in real life) with intrigue. And the paper's gossip franchise, "Page Six" -- despite its recently exposed (and unsurprising) history of favor trading -- remains as idiotically fun as ever.
Do the paper's clumsy politics make me cringe sometimes? Of course. But honestly, I actually appreciate the way the Post remains entirely obvious -- blatant, even -- about its assorted agendas. Whereas many of us were duped preposterously long by now-disgraced and -deposed New York Times reporter Judith "WMD" Miller (whose slow unmasking as a stooge of warmongering neocons remains a bigger blot on the Times' reputation than even the whole tawdry Jayson Blair affair), the Post always just is what it is, take it or leave it. In fact, its none-too-subtle conservatism (conspicuously at odds with the politics of many of the rank-and-file reporters, by the way) and editorial-page bluster have often served as a deliciously transparent roadmap of what passes for state-of-the-art conservative political thinking during the decline and fall of the Bush empire (case in point: the legendary "SURRENDER MONKEYS" cover).
Is the Post sloppy sometimes? Yeah. (I still cherish the time it spelled my name both wrong and right within the same item.) Does it go too far sometimes? Sure. Is it a harbinger of what's to come at The Wall Street Journal? In the broadest strokes, obviously, no.
But is it a model, in many ways, for presenting news briskly and engagingly? Definitely. In a word, the New York Post is a better, more cannily populist marketer of news as product than just about any other news organization still slapping ink onto newsprint. Of course, the Post is merely doing what many British, Australian and European newspapers figured out how to do long ago but most American papers (with the notable exception of a handful of the best alternative weeklies) have largely forgotten.
So for that, Rupert, thank you. And whatever the hell you end up doing to those poor bastards at The Wall Street Journal, let the record show that I love your New York Post just the way it is.
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