The Tribune Follies, cont.

It occurred to me that I'd written a commentary in Adweek when the Tribune Co. replaced Robert Hunt, who'd come from Chicago, with James Hoge, who was born in New York, as publisher of the Daily News in 1984.

I dug it up.

It ledes with a quote from Hunt: "I'm not just another turkey from Chicago," he once said in a "meet your publisher" meeting. It ends by pointing out the lede of the release announcing Hoge's appointment: "James Hoge is a native New Yorker."  

The theme is familiar. Looks like I've been consistent, if nothing else. The Trib Co. sucks. All hail local stewardship! Clearly Hunt was another turkey from Chicago. Hoge ably guided the News, which won a Pulizter under him, until its sale to bunco-artist and itinerant professional vandal Robert Maxwell in 1991.

While flipping through the scrapbook, I came across another story about the News — "Can the Daily News Survive?" — written shortly after the sale to Maxwell. In it, I say that the Daily News first got into trouble by trying to follow its upwardly mobile readers — there's that phrase again — to the suburbs rather than serving the new immigrants to the city.

The real test of whether a mass-market media will survive the millennium in the U.S. will be played out at the Daily News. Forget about the declining number of network TV viewers. The nets will find a nice enough niche in  demographic-land. But if ever there was a product created for the masses, it was the scrappy Daily News. It was designed to be bought at the newsstand and read on the subway. Its authority came from its irreverence. It began to lose that authority on the day that the words "demographic" and "psychographic" were taken seriously by its executives.

The Daily News advertising department had proved, after all, that the "mass" readership was as desirable as the "class" readership. One market research project in the early 1920s showed that brands such as Borden's, White Rose and Royal had a strong franchise in a ghetto where the News sold well. It concluded that a resident of the Lower East Side of New York actually had more money to spend than his counterpart in ritzier neighborhoods. "His surroundings, associates and social status spare [ him ] many of the expenses the rest of us take for granted and unthinkingly assume. Consequently," the News concluded and its advertisers came to believe, "he can splurge in many directions and the native born cannot."

But as these immigrants prospered and moved away from the city, the News went on the defensive. It attempted to hold on to the readers it had -- and suburban circulation did rise initially -- rather than aggressively pursue the new immigrants moving to New York. The loyal readers had, after all, acquired credit at the department stores, and the new immigrants presumably had not. The Daily News lost its direction as a paper that, as its first editorial promised, "will have no entangling alliance with any class whenever." It had become torridly entangled with the upwardly mobile. Like many a blue-collar worker who now drove a Buick instead of  riding the "A" train, it put on airs of respectability.

Capt. Joe Patterson, the founder of the Daily News, erstwhile Socialist, was a newspaper guy. First and foremost, an editor. Never mind that he was born in Chicago and was a cousin of Col. Robert McCormick, the grand poohbah of the Tribune.  Once it became clear that Patterson's idea for a tabloid newspaper in New York had legs, he left Chicago. He settled in Westchester but he rode the subways and insisted that his editors "tell it to Sweeney." He famously said that the scrappy newspaper he created  would not survive him by more than five years. It has by 60 years, but not because the paper ever figured out how to tell it to Rodriquez. We've had our fingers crossed for an awful long time.

As I read this over, it does look like I have it in for the very idea of upward mobility. I'm sure I don't. We all want to improve our situation. What I don't like is someone getting ahead at the expense of someone else, or someone ripping down a perfectly sound house to put up a McMansion just to announce his arrival in the neighborhood, or someone pretending to be something that he's not. Pretty much the American ethos, or least it was, I think. I do admit to a Romantic streak.

By the way, and I'm just sayin', but there seems to be something Maxwellian about Sam Zell, what with all the leverage and dependence on givebacks from his workforce. That's better than saying that there was something Zellian about Maxwell,  I suppose. 

    Copyright © 2006 - 2017 Thom Forbes, all rights reserved.