Reading habits tough to break, especially today

In the midst of a painful strike at the Daily News in 1990, we in management launched an afternoon edition to try to boost sales in the city, while we battled distribution and retail sales problems. 

Our competitor, the New York Post, a morning paper like the flagship edition of the News, had once been an afternoon paper and still sold well to the homebound commuter crowd.  So one afternoon I walked up 42d St. to Grand Central to see how our fledgling edition was doing.  What I saw was an eye-opener.

Here came the well-dressed commuters, headed for Westchester County and Connecticut, reaching in their pockets for change to buy the Post WITHOUT EVEN LOOKING AT THE FRONT PAGE, let alone our News editions in the adjacent pile.  Buying a newspaper was essentially a habit. (This was a few short years before the Internet blew apart the newspaper industry.)

I thought of this when I read New York magazine’s long, well-reported piece on Rupert Murdoch’s plan to challenge The New York Times with an eight- to 16-page New York section in the daily editions of The Wall Street Journal.

It will be a suicide mission for the Journal.

While it should be tending to its staple, the coverage of the economy and business, the Journal will be distracted by this hopeless undertaking.I’m not saying the Times is formidable in its local coverage — though it does have one former governor and another soon-to-be former governor who could attest to its reporting expertise — but personally I have seen this movie before — in two versions — and this type of journalistic assault just doesn’t work. 

It didn’t work when print was king and I see no reason why it should do better in this multi-platform era, even if habits are less well-defined there.  (Disclosure: as editor of The Boston Globe, I was an employee of The New York Times Co. and receive a pension from same.)

Story No. 1: In the mid-1990s the same Wall Street Journal launched a Boston edition.  They put together a fine staff and on occasion embarrassed us with some scoops.  But it mattered not a wit.  Obviously, like all newspapers, the Globe was entering a period of diminished returns, but the Journal’s Boston edition was the least of our problems.  Eventually, it withered and died.  Its then-editor, Caleb Solomon, now works for the Globe.

Story No. 2: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Newsday launched New York Newsday, aimed at Times advertisers and Daily News circulation. Even with the News’ strike, it failed in its mission. Newsday killed its New York edition in 1995.

We old ink-stained wretches admire Rupert Murdoch as one of the few newspaper owners who still pours money into the business.  And he’s not to be underestimated in determination and guts.  I hope his announced mission drives the Times to better quality coverage.  What it won’t do, despite Murdoch’s dreams, is drive the Old Grey Lady out of business.

 Matt Storin, a former editor of The Boston Globe, is currently an adjunct professor in the Gallivan Program for Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

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