The New York Daily News: A newsroom that feels like home

One of my favorite hidden delights in Manhattan is the lobby of the old Daily News building on the corner of 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Though the newspaper abandoned this Art Deco masterpiece nearly 20 years ago for a home on the dreary Far West Side – a bland space that the paper will leave this spring for even cheaper digs downtown – the lobby of its eponymous building is still dominated by a massive revolving globe, described neatly by RoadsideAmerica.com:

A 1941 postcard image of the globe in the lobby of the old Daily News headquarters.

The globe is 12 feet in diameter and weighs 4,000 pounds. It is housed in a mirrored circular pit beneath a black glass dome, and is lit from below. A sunburst, inlaid into the terrazzo floor, radiates out from this spherical beauty, with text marking the direction and distance to major cities around the world. The lobby walls are decorated with contraptions of precise measurement such as thermometers, wind speed indicators and an ornate world clock.

I loved that clock! I used to visit the lobby regularly when I worked catty-corner at 800 Second Ave. in my first writing job after J-school. The inlaid bronze rays of the sunburst, indicating the mileage to Valparaiso, Paris, Tangiers and other locales more or less exotic, never failed to stir me. Back then, anyone could walk through the main lobby to dally along two aisles of galleries displaying Daily News photos, past and present. It was a wonderful way to spend a lunch hour.

I took the students in my Reporting in NYC class to visit the New York Daily News last month, courtesy of News Editor John Oswald, who handles many of the paper’s internships and whom I’d gotten to know by phone and e-mail. Globe or no globe, bronze sunburst or no, after our visit a week earlier to the austere Temple of Journalism on Eighth Avenue, aka The New York Times, I wanted the students to see a traditional newspaper newsroom.

Though the busy lobby at 450 W. 33rd Street lacks its predecessor’s charm, it possesses a certain big-city bustle. The building houses not only the News (at least for now), but also the Associated Press and WNET-Channel 13, so one imagines the crowd rushing in and out includes reporters off to cover the 8 million stories in the naked city. Upstairs, the newsroom is screened from the elevator banks by exhibit space: a glass case housing Speed Graphic cameras, once the paper’s signature bit of technology and still a part of its logo, a hallway lined with blowups of important Daily News “wood” (the front page, so called because the large letters once used to print these blaring headlines were made from wood), framed photos of city streets through the years.

Coming through a narrow, photo-lined hallway, one emerges into the main part of the newsroom. It’s a no-nonsense space lined with high, clerestory windows, meaning no views of the Hudson River or the nearby West Side rail yards.

What this newsroom has in spades over the Times is good, old-fashioned clutter. Desks sag under stacks of folders, piles of loose papers, souvenirs from press conferences. Partitions boast family photos, yellowed clippings, old cartoons. At the Times, friends there tell me, the décor police politely ask staffers to remove anything that detracts from the newsroom’s clean, serene lines. The word “architect” doesn’t come to mind when you’re in the Daily News newsroom. The difference between the feel of the Temple of Journalism newsroom and that of the Daily News is the difference between the hushed impersonality of a mansion’s foyer and the living room of a two-family house in Elmhurst. Majesty is all right in its place – but the Daily News feels like a home.

We headed into the paper’s cramped conference room to observe the 11:15 meeting, at which editors from each section talk over the news of the day and begin to shape the layout of the next day’s edition. The editors agreed there was no frontrunner for the wood and went on from there. There was some chortling around the table about a story on the puzzling absence of OB nonapplicator tampons from store shelves. The story ran the next day with this straight-faced lead: “The recent disappearance of a popular tampon brand is really cramping the style of city women.” And the paper got a second-day story out of it, too, reporting that news of the shortage had prompted scores of online auctions. Between them, the two stories reeled in 65 comments and thousands of “likes” on Facebook.

Now the sad thing about the once-thriving Daily News is the staggering falloff in its circulation, from a height of 2.1 million in its heyday, according to a fabulous 1999 New Yorker piece about the News and its tabloid rivals, to just about 535,000 on weekdays, making it the nation’s sixth-largest paper. Of course, circulation at most U.S. newspapers has declined shockingly, but few have fallen as far as the News. The good news is that the paper’s website has held its own, coming in as the sixth most-visited newspaper website in the nation. Now if anyone ever figures out how to make online revenues commensurate with revenue from print ads, which still bring in 10 times more money per ad, the News will be all set.

Few outside a small circle of Daily News executives know the paper’s real financial situation. It is privately owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, a billionaire real estate executive with a sideline in media, and doesn’t publicly report its results. But it is widely believed that the News making little, if any, profit. Zuckerman, however, invested in color printing presses that allow the paper to put color on every single page – a big bet on the paper’s survival.

Even John Oswald, the editor who generously came in three hours before the start of his shift to show us around, said that despite his inborn pessimism, he’s beginning to see a change for the better in the newspaper world. Hiring is up. One way he’s seen the impact of increased hiring is in the smaller pool of applicants for the paper’s paid summer internships. J-school graduates are getting jobs, or believe they will, and aren’t as eager to take a three-month internship as they had been in the past several summers, he said.

At the same time, Oswald said, internships are more important than ever. Getting a newspaper job without having had an internship is nearly impossible. And most of the recent hires at the News, he said, first came to the paper as interns. Where the paper used to hire seasoned reporters from the best regional papers around the country, he said, the chief route into the News today is to get an internship there and impress the hell out of the editors.

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    • michele
    • June 21st, 2011

    John Oswald, trying to get in touch,Michele schindler

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