NEW YORK — THROUGHOUT its 73 years, the New York Daily News has portrayed itself as the people's paper - the tabloid directed at the Big Apple's tempestuous mix of ethnic groups, new immigrants, and laborers. Bold and sassy, using large photos and huge Page-1 headlines, the News was always the paper of the "straphanger" on his or her way to work in a crowded subway.
But now, as new owner Mortimer Zuckerman takes command, the question emerging is whether the newer straphangers - many recent non-European immigrants with no special attachment to the News - will become the next generation of readers and allow it to survive.
That question becomes relevant in the wake of threats by Newspaper Guild members here to mount a boycott against the News designed to reduce readership. Some 170 employees of the paper, many longtime Guild members, were given dismissal slips last week immediately after Mr. Zuckerman gained ownership.
Zuckerman, a wealthy real estate developer, also owns US News & World Report and The Atlantic magazines. He beat out Canadian newspaper magnate Conrad Black to buy the News, New York's largest daily next to The New York Times. The News was put up for sale in a bankruptcy proceeding following the mysterious death of British publisher Robert Maxwell in November 1991. Before Mr. Maxwell, the News had been owned by the Tribune Company of Chicago.
Zuckerman is paying some $18.25 million in cash and absorbing about $18 million in debt. The paper once had the largest circulation in the United States, but has been eclipsed in recent years by The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
"The threat of a boycott," whether a formal boycott by the Guild or an informal protest by a small group, "is a very real one in this highly competitive newspaper market," says Mitchell Stephens, journalism department chairman at New York University. A strike against the News in late 1990 was instrumental in reducing advertising and circulation, and thus prodded the Tribune Company into selling the paper to Maxwell.
The News, despite its reputation for sensationalism, has had a major impact on US journalism, media experts say. Founded by Joseph Medill Patterson and the Tribune Company in 1919, the paper helped pioneer the use of photographs. Once known for its short, often graphic, stories, the paper has broadened its appeal, earning solid marks for coverage of international and domestic issues.
The Newspaper Guild was the only union representing news employees that was unable to reach an agreement with Zuckerman, largely because the Guild refused to give up union rights over such issues as arbitration proceedings for job dismissals. Unions representing printers, drivers, and other workers all struck agreements with Zuckerman that provided for layoffs and the giving up of staffing positions within the paper.
New York "is an anomaly in the US in that it is the only big city with four major dailies still competing against each other," Professor Stephens says. While three of the four papers are tabloids, one - Newsday - is considered a "serious" paper. The feisty New York Post, which went through its own managerial retrenchment, is considered the lone politically "conservative" paper.
All four papers have sought to broaden local coverage and expand news about minority groups. Part of the reason is the changing nature of New York's ethnic mix; descendants of the older European immigrant communities that dominated the Big Apple earlier this century have moved to the suburbs. In the meantime, newer immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia have poured into the city. Currently, there are more than 20 "ethnic" dailies in New York, some with large circulations.
"The heart of the Daily News's circulation base has always been its 250,000 to 300,000 readers in Brooklyn," says Gary Hoenig, editor of News Inc, an industry trade publication.