The Daily News's City Room in the early 1950s. Standing is longtime press agent, publicist and political fixer Morty Matz, then an assistant picture assignment editor at the paper. Photo: Collection of Morty Matz
A single pointed word, perfectly chosen, speaking volumes. The telltale exclamation point that follows. A haunting photo that, once seen, can never be forgotten. The visceral presentation, in print no less, that can shock, anger, inform and take your breath away, all at the same time.
This was newspapering at its most elemental, and, I would argue, at its finest: On January 12, 1928, murderess Ruth Snyder went to the electric chair at Sing Sing after she and a lover garroted her husband. The next day, a photo of the execution ran on Page One of the Daily News.
There was the one-word headline — “DEAD!” — topping a picture of a woman in a black dress, sitting upright in a chair, an electrode strapped to her leg, her face masked, her head helmeted, an autopsy table at her side, at precisely the moment a fatal current coursed through her body.
OK, it was lurid. And sensationalistic. Illicit, too. You can’t just snap photos in a death house. So a News lensman (yes, we actually called them that) smuggled in an ankle camera, a long cable release running up his trouser leg, and recorded the horrifying scene.
Now, why is this a good thing? It was the mission of “New York’s Picture Newspaper” to show, not just tell. Its duty to readers was to present a vivid account by camera, not just pencil and paper. The editors wanted to show you what really happens deep within an execution chamber.
Did they want to sell newspapers? Of course. Yet look at what else they accomplished. Opposition to capital punishment was galvanized. A movement to reform American criminology was launched. Debates now raged in state legislatures and European parliaments over the power of the state to kill its killers. Suddenly, the death penalty itself was in play.
Call it the doing-good-by-doing-well school of journalism: “It was not about public service, it was the drive to get something the other guy hasn’t got,” said longtime press agent, publicist and political fixer Morty Matz, 93, who worked on The News’ picture desk from 1949 to 1960.
“But it evolved into a public service,” he added. “Legislative arguments and political arguments were made, and people opposed to the death penalty came forward. In those days, there was always a war going on, and that was the whole idea behind it — competition.”
It had been four years since I considered the Ruth Snyder agonistes. But every day for 17 extraordinary and life-defining years, I would walk past that slightly blurry image of her final moments.
You see, I was lucky enough to work for the Daily News — on a dozen different beats, as reporter, rewriteman, bureau chief, editorial page writer, investigative reporter – from 1996 until a round of mass layoffs in 2013.
And there she was, hanging on a wall, down a long hallway at 450 West 33rd Street, the paper’s headquarters at the time, along with dozens of other Page One mock-ups that recounted nothing less than the history of New York City, the nation and the world, in that precise order:
“WHO’S A BUM!” proclaimed the Brooklyn Dodgers’ seventh-game triumph over the hated New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series. “WE WUZ ROBBED” told of how gunmen stole sackfuls of cash from the paper’s Brooklyn printing plant in 1961.
“TEDDY ESCAPES, BLONDE DROWNS” telescoped the chilling crash in Chappaquiddick in 1969 that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and dogged Senator Ted Kennedy’s political career. “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” skewered President Gerald Ford for nixing loans to a nearly bankrupt city in 1975.
“HE DIED IN THE CHAIR AFTER ALL” bid farewell to Albert Anastasia, “Lord High Executioner” of Murder Inc., who was assassinated in the barber’s chair of the Park Sheraton Hotel in midtown in 1957. “SAY GINA WAS OBSCENA ON LA SCREENA” reported an Italian magistrate’s ruling that starlet Gina Lollabrigida’s 1966 sex scenes were indecent.
You felt the weight of all that history when you worked there. You felt real connectivity with the city because your paper was indelibly woven into its fabric. You felt the burden and responsibility, too, when you put on that press pass, for you had a tradition to uphold, a charge to amplify the authentic voice of everyday New Yorkers
And there were few professional joys greater than riding the Lexington Avenue line and watching a straphanger clutching your paper — and reading one of your stories.
All of this came to mind as news broke on September 4 that the Daily News had been sold for $1 – the cost of a single newsstand copy – to a company called Tronc, which is also assuming $26.5 million in pension liabilities, as well as insurance and workers’ compensation obligations.
Despite its unfortunate and widely-ridiculed name, Chicago-based Tronc, short for “Tribune online content,” has a long history with The News. Formerly the Tribune Company until its recent rebranding, the publisher founded the paper as America’s first modern tabloid in 1919.
The Trib hailed it as the “common man’s paper.” Competitors sneered that it was the “servant girls’ Bible.” A famous 1992 ad proclaimed its mantra, “Tell it to Sweeney,” with the coda, “The Stuyvesants will understand.”
In other words, speak to your core working-class readers, then largely Irish- and Italian-Catholic, and the blue-bloods and merchant princes will respect you, perhaps even advertise with you.
So now the question becomes, “Will Tronc understand?”
Can it take a humbled paper — in a single story, Keith J. Kelly, The Post’s adjective-loving media columnist, dubbed it “beleaguered,” “money-losing,” “money-bleeding,” “ailing,” “teetering,” “troubled,” “stagnant,” and “perpetually downsizing” – and restore it, if not to its past obstreperousness, then at least to a measure of stability and solvency?
Well, let’s break down the deal. Tronc gets a prize that, monetarily, is worth far more than its print acquisition, and that is ownership of the paper’s printing plant in Jersey City plus a 49.9 percent stake in the adjoining 25-acre property.
Which raises a couple of questions: Is this a newspaper deal in which a conglomerate that already owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune reenters the nation’s biggest media market? Or a real estate deal centered on a vulnerable paper’s most valuable asset – prime land that overlooks the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline?
The answer, of course, is that it is both a media and a property deal, or as Tim Knight, Tronc’s president, bluntly put it, the land was “certainly an added inducement to this transaction.” No kidding.
Exiting the picture is Mort Zuckerman, who himself has masterminded mega-real estate deals, acquiring trophies like Citigroup Center and the General Motors Building as the former-chairman of Boston Properties, which he founded in 1970 and which made him a billionaire.
The 80-year-old Zuckerman, who now has health problems, could never stanch the flow of red ink. Perhaps no one could. Waves of large-scale dismissals played out over multiple years. It got pretty tough. The paper was diminished. There was blood in the water. The Post knew it, too. Mercilessly, it began taunting what it called “The Daily Snooze.”
Yet one can never forget: Mort had saved the paper from a near-death experience. He bought it out of bankruptcy in 1993 after a devastating five-month strike, followed by the mad reign of British publishing mogul Robert Maxwell, a supposed white knight who plundered $1 billion from his company’s pension funds before jumping or falling from his yacht in the Canary Island in 1991.
That was Mort’s great gift to the city — an extra quarter-century added to the life of a newspaper, the continuance of its doorstep reporting, the thrill of its irreverent and two-fisted headlines.
Yes, the News lost much of its zest and brassiness. But that wasn’t all bad. Drinking and smoking vanished from the City Room. Women took on enhanced roles. Bawdiness and sexism didn’t disappear. But they were curbed.
Oh, two other things. Under his watch, the paper earned five Pulitzer Prizes. And after a period of somnolence, it found its voice all over again with the rise of Donald Trump, who became the paper’s arch-nemesis over the past two years.
Back came the “screamers” — tabloid lingo for exclamation marks, also known as “slammers” or “bangers” — behind such Page One classics as “NUTS!” and “OFF HIS MEDS!” and “LOCK HIM UP!” and “STOP THE DON CON!”
Naturally, Trump didn’t take kindly to the barbs. And the paper was elevated anew when he branded it “worthless” and “a loser” and “yesterday,” and labeled Zuckerman “dopey” in several 2016 campaign tweets.
So if I can offer a few unsolicited words of advice for Tronc: Wear those Trumpian slurs as a badge of honor. Remember an old slogan that can still define your paper, “The Eyes, the Ears, the Honest Voice of New York.” Respect your history and your heritage.
No, you don’t have to be a prisoner to every past Page One hanging in a hallway. But you do have to honor the glorious tradition from which those headlines sprang.
And lest you contemplate a future erasure of the sacred trust you have just purchased, remember the hugely popular lapel buttons worn by your reporters during the existential crisis of 1991 and 1992: “DAILY NEWS: TOO TOUGH TO DIE.”