New York’s newspaper war: Times one, Journal bupkis

New York’s newspaper war: Times one, Journal bupkis

Recently, I spoke with an editor at The New York Times who grew up on Canadian journalism and plied his trade here until the late ’90s about the nostalgia that grips his former colleagues when they discuss the early days of the National Post. “They get all weepy when they talk about it. You’d think it was Paris in the ’20s or something.” Well, yes, it was—if by Paris in the ’20s you mean Don Mills in the late ’90s. Sure, there were fewer good restaurants and the architecture was a little less je ne sais quoi, but for writers, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.”

Back then, writers wrote and wrote and wrote. There were hardly any ads to get in the way, and some awfully talented people really got to swing away. The likes of Patricia Pearson, Charlie Gillis, Chris Jones, Jeet Heer, Patrick Graham, even, dare I say it, Rebecca Eckler, all found their stride under the Ken Whyte regime. The competition improved, too—it had to—and the showdown between the Post and The Globe and Mail became the stuff of legend.

Now what used to be a genuine newspaper war, with money flying around like F-18s, has been reduced to a low-intensity border skirmish on the furthest flung borders of a dull empire: guys in bearskins pitching rocks at each other. The real action is in New York City, where a new media war is under way between The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Both papers have a reason to fight: the Journal has a new owner, Rupert Murdoch, and progressive new management; the Times is under huge competitive pressures (both journalistic and financial—rapacious hedge funds have recently bought up 19 per cent of common stock) to get leaner and meaner. This is the journalistic story to watch, and its reverberations will affect the trade for years to come.

For the moment, they’re no doubt popping victory champagne corks at the Times as they have more or less owned l’affaire Spitzer. Today, the paper took the rare step of splashing a headline all the way across page one, reinforcing the perception that, having been inside the process (the governor’s office, the federal investigation, Silda’s head, the prostitute’s daybook) from the get-go last Friday, it was “their” story. This must have particularly galled Murdoch, who promised to make the Journal snappier and more populist in its approach while at the same time holding its traditional base on Wall Street.

So here it is, Wall Street meets Main Street at the corner of sex and corruption. And the Journal is absolutely nowhere. So thoroughly did the Journal get its ass kicked that it ran a sour grapes op-ed by one of its more rabidly right-wing columnists blaming the media for being Spitzer’s “enablers.”

Insane? Sure. But hey, c’est la guerre.

Spitzer’s Media Enablers [Wall Street Journal]• Today’s Paper [New York Times]