For most of 2016, the NY Daily News was America’s paper of opposition to President Trump. But in the months since the election, just as Trump’s war with the press started going nuclear, the Manhattan-based tabloid has largely pulled back on its famous anti-Trump covers in favor of a decidedly more measured tone.
The change followed a shakeup in editorial leadership just weeks before November 8.
The previous editor, Jim Rich, had been resisting pressure from management to soften the Trump covers, people familiar with the matter said.
He was told they were diminishing an already much diminished print subscriber base, these people said, particularly among blue-collar readers in certain corners of New York’s outer boroughs, where Trump’s nationalistic populism apparently resonates in a way that is anathema to the city’s cosmopolitan districts and immigrant enclaves.
After Rich stepped down on Oct. 18, his successor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, longtime News fixture Arthur Browne, made clear in a meeting with editors that he believed the paper’s front-page Trump coverage needed to take a different direction, sources familiar with the remarks told POLITICO. At times, he has described the earlier anti-Trumpism as an “adventure,” according to someone who heard the remark, suggesting that the adventure is over.
Now, many News staffers and alumni feel like the air has been sucked out of the room, and they are perhaps coming to terms with the notion that Trump is more popular with segments of their readership than they thought, even in deep blue New York.
“The dissent is probably close to unanimous,” one insider told POLITICO.
Throughout almost all of last year, the News fired off dozens of withering front pages opposing Trump’s candidacy — collected here in an online photo gallery — that were tailor-made to grab the attention of the national media and go viral online.
It was a classic tabloid campaign, and it made people take notice of “the Newly Relevant Daily News,” as The New York Times described the century-old publication in a favorable profile last year.
That was then, this is now: The past four months have produced more ammunition than the entirety of Trump’s campaign. Yet even as many mainstream outlets have come under siege from the new administration, reaping the benefits of a “Trump bump” in the process, the News seems less inclined to bring out the cannons.
Out? Page 1 battle cries to “STOP THE DON CON” or “BURY TRUMP IN A LANDSLIDE” or “DELETE YOUR CAMPAIGN!” Takedowns like “OFF HIS MEDS!” or “HAD EYES FOR A 10-YEAR-OLD” or “LOCK HIM UP!”
In? Treatments that are generally more even-handed, sometimes delivered with an uppercut, but nonetheless a far cry from the swashbuckling crusade that put the News on the map during election season.
At a glance, this past Sunday's front page about the president’s unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower — “NUTS!” — might seem like a scathing attack. The difference, some insiders would argue, is that under the previous regime, the News would have called Trump out directly, and aggressively, for being deceitful. (Hypothetical headlines: "YOU'RE THE TRAITOR!"; "BIGGEST LIE YET!")
The anti-Trump “adventure” began when Rich was named editor in chief in September 2015 after rising through the ranks over the course of his 11 years at the News. On the heels of a similarly high-profile gun-control campaign kicked off by Rich’s predecessor, British tabloid veteran Colin Myler, Rich “doubled down on Myler’s emphasis … of publishing to the new digital beat: faster, more national, and increasingly fueled by a certain populist partisan glee,” as Sridhar Pappu put it in a New York magazine feature last January.
“The latest and most visible manifestation of that new strategic direction,” Pappu wrote, “is a reinvention of the paper’s ‘wood’ — newsman-speak for page one — for an era of hyperpartisan social sharing. Just as tabloid covers used to amuse, inform, and outrage passersby on the sidewalk, enticing them to pick them up and read all about it, the Daily News has arguably been the most aggressive and successful newspaper brand at turning the old-school institution of a front page into an irresistibly ‘like’-able image on Facebook ”
Covers like this one of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, from the Dec. 19, 2015 edition, were the talk of TV news and digital media, and the bosses seemed thrilled. During a rare newsroom appearance last January, according to people who were there, owner Mort Zuckerman, the 79-year-old real estate mogul and long-time Democratic donor, gushed about what the News was doing and all the buzz it was getting.
At one point, according to two of the sources present, he turned to Rich and quipped, “Where have you been all my life?” (It’s no secret in New York media circles that Zuckerman’s health is in decline, which is why he has now fully stepped away from running the paper, entrusting that responsibility to his nephew, Eric Gertler.)
Starting in the summer, however, Rich began hearing complaints from management, according to sources familiar with the matter.
They said he was asked to dial down the Trump fronts because they were costing the News subscriptions in places like Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. After Rich stepped down amid a disagreement putatively having to do with cost-cutting, it quickly became clear that things were about to change. (Rich would not comment for this story.)
Browne did one more front page in the previous mold — “HOUSE OF HORRORS,” with an upside down American flag on the White House lawn — the day after the election. But it was “the last of that breed,” a News journalist said, adding that the change “was jarring and confusing, and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us.”
In an interview, Browne disputed that the shift was a business calculation. Rather, he said, it had to do with covering Trump the candidate versus Trump the president.
“It’s one thing when you are taking a stand against a candidate both on personality and on policy grounds, and you want to depict him as a clown,” Browne said.
“Once an election is over, I think it would be counterproductive and ineffective to continue to depict someone as a clown. How many times can you do that? ... The difference here, and I think this is really significant, is that we’re not attacking or commenting on the man. We are reporting on the policies and the actions as this administration plays out.”
Nevertheless, there’s a palpable sense of demoralization within the newsroom. Even if not everyone was on board with Rich’s approach, which people who worked for him agreed was “polarizing,” the place had begun to feel like it was alive again, and on a mission.
Unlike broadsheet newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, which keep their opinions in the opinion section even when their news coverage veers into adversarial territory, tabloids have a long tradition of adopting strong positions on divisive issues, and of editorializing or advocating on the front page. That’s how the News was able to get a piece of the Trump story despite the atrophy of its national political-reporting muscles.
“Even if we weren’t in a position where could really be breaking Trump news because we don’t have a big staff or resources, we were still able to be a leading voice in the conversation because we were channeling the outrage around his rhetoric,” a News journalist told POLITICO, summarizing frustration within the newsroom thus: “Now that much of the country and the rest of the world is galvanizing, we’re taking a step back. … The energy has left the room. It just really feels like a missed opportunity. That’s what’s killing me.”
Brown pushed back on the suggestion that the way the News has handled Trump under his editorship has been soft or cautious. During a phone call, he rattled off a list of recent front pages that he said didn’t pull any punches, including: “RUSSIAN FOR THE EXIT”; “CLOSING THE GOLDEN DOOR”; “BANANAS!”; “POOR BABY!” and “WAR ON TRUTH.”
“I will leave you to make the judgment about those front pages and the consistency of the coverage,” he said.
But various current and former News journalists pointed to specific examples they said were “galling,” as one put it.
For instance, the day after Trump unloaded on the media during an hour-and-a-half news conference, a spectacle that dominated the news cycle into the weekend, Trump wasn’t even the lead story on the wood — he was eclipsed by Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis’ assault and robbery charges.
The cover that raised the most eyebrows among News insiders and tabloid-ologists was the paper’s inauguration edition, “DON OF A NEW DAY.”
It was shocking, some of them said, not just because of its reverential tone, but because it was the exact same headline used by the Post, a red-blooded rival owned by Trump-supporting mogul Rupert Murdoch. (And a reliable proponent of right-wing causes over the years, whereas the News has traditionally been more progressive.)
“I saw that, and my jaw hit the f--king floor,” said someone who worked at the News for a long time but would only comment anonymously, like most of the current and former News-ers who spoke with POLITICO for this article.
“To align so perfectly on this, that was to me where the News reached rock bottom.”
“The ‘Don of a New Day’ cover was a disgrace, and it was so disheartening for those of us who took pride in what the Daily News had done with Trump and the election,” said Andy Martino, a reporter at the News before opting to take one of the buyout packages offered to staff at the end of last year.
“After nearly two years of calling Trump what he is — a clown and a dangerous racist, among other things — the paper normalized him at the worst possible time. That told you all you need to know about the shift away from an essential place in the conversation.”
Browne, who was head of the editorial board when it published an 8,000 word piece laying out why Trump shouldn’t be elected, isn’t fazed by the critics.
“They can be galled all they like,” he said. “If somebody is an anti-Trump partisan, and believes the Daily News should carry out their own anti-Trump partisanship, then that’s too bad.”
In any case, as America goes farther down the rabbit hole of Trump’s chaotic, confounding, anything-goes presidency, and as his war with the news media (presumably) intensifies, there will be no shortage of opportunities to ignite some real tabloid fire in New York, a media and political capital where Trump’s history with the tabloids is the stuff of legend.
“I think the potential is still there for them,” said George Rush, the former longtime Daily News gossip columnist.
“Their best way of staying in the story is to take the role of the gadfly, and to do it with satire, because that’s what resonates. If they don’t continue to roast him, I think it would be a missed opportunity.”