One reason the columnist Mary McGrory confessed that she “always felt a little sorry for people who didn’t work for newspapers” was that they had never been exposed to the dynamism of a big-city newsroom. “Newsrooms are large places, full of messy desks and lippy people who hang around gossiping and making cheeky remarks about their betters,” she later wrote. Her first glimpse of one was The Washington Star’s in 1947. “It was heaven,” she remembered.
Mine was of the Daily News’s. For nearly 65 years, two-thirds of its existence, the tabloid newspaper was written and edited in the Art Deco skyscraper on East 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, which I first entered as an intern home from college in the summer of 1966. I would return after graduation and remain for 15 years, as a reporter, columnist, and city editor during a glorious Götterdämmerung of a circulation war in the last American city where two tabloids had survived to do battle.
Today, the Daily News and the New York Post endure largely to gratify their publishers’ egos. To save on rent, the Daily News moved from its eponymous headquarters in 1995, first to a warehouse-like space on the far West Side near the Hudson River, then to Water Street in Lower Manhattan. Earlier this month, Tribune Publishing, which owns the Daily News, announced that it was shuttering the downtown newsroom altogether because the rent there also was too damn high. Which begs the question: Can a newspaper or news site survive without a newsroom? Journalism, for all the single bylines atop articles, is largely collegial.
“How it throbbed with human life and thought, quite like a mill room full of looms or a counting house in which endless records and exchanges are being made,” Theodore Dreiser wrote in his memoir Newspaper Days. To me, the Daily News’s city room evoked less a counting house than a frat house. One hotheaded reporter who scrawled “Impeach Nixon” on a wall was suspended for two weeks—then, when Nixon resigned, demanded his days back. More than one office romance not only began at work but was consummated there. An inexperienced switchboard operator connected an editor’s wife with his mistress.
“There is no writer’s block in a newsroom,” the columnist Carl Hiaasen once explained. “There’s only unemployment block.” But telling a story succinctly was more challenging at a tabloid than at a broadsheet. When one of Mark Twain’s editors demanded a two-page story in two days, Twain responded by telegram: “Can do 30 pages 2 days. Need 30 days to do 2 pages.” After I transferred to The New York Times, in 1983, and plunged into 3,000-word takeouts, an editor complained that he was dealing with 15 years of pent-up frustration on my part.
Copy was edited around a horseshoe-shaped desk by an oddball but highly competent crew that was surprisingly cosmopolitan for a tabloid; at various times, its ranks were said to have included a German spy and an I.R.A. agent. (The reportorial staff included the former public-relations man for King Farouk, who covered Queens.) One copy editor was so exacting that a reporter named Bruce Drake suggested that the editor would have asked Charles Dickens, “But, Charles, how could it have been the best of times and the worst of times?”
More than one office romance not only began at work but was consummated there.
Drake was something of a stickler himself. He had interviewed an ex-Marine who survived an airport terrorist attack, and calmly recalled the incident in detail. When the first edition of the paper arrived in the newsroom, Drake was surprised to read that the Marine was shaken and trembling uncontrollably. He confronted the re-write man, who replied, “You did your job, and I did mine.”
“No other newspaper in New York or, very likely, anywhere else has a closer relationship with the masses,” The New Yorker’s Jack Alexander wrote of the Daily News in 1938, and its home reflected that. When a couple was stranded because the city marriage bureau was closed during a snowstorm, we recruited a judge to perform the wedding ceremony in the newsroom. (“It’ll never last,” he predicted after pronouncing them husband and wife.) On another deadly quiet Sunday, a desperate fugitive called to surrender to us, but by the time he showed up we had discovered that nobody wanted him.
Despite several renovations, the newsroom still conjured up a stage set from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play, The Front Page. The props were pastepots and the sharp metal rods on which editors “spiked” unusable copy (later outlawed by OSHA). The permanent haze of cigarette and cigar smoke (which no one complained about) mixed with the pungent odor of melting lead and printer’s ink, and the sound of clacking typewriter keys or shouts of “boy” to summon college-educated messengers who delivered copy from reporters to editors never ceased. (Later they were no longer all boys; at the Daily News they included Caroline Kennedy. People were surprised to hear that I tipped her when she got me coffee, but I explained that I would not impose a means test in granting gratuities to the clerical staff.) At the appointed time every evening, the seismic rumble from the sub-basement reassured all of us that the day’s work was being turned into something tangible that would be disgorged on conveyor belts to the fleet of distinctive delivery trucks idling in the dark like horses stoked for a cavalry charge.
Most of the day, the newsroom was meant to be empty, since, in theory, reporters were out covering the news. In reality, they might be fortifying themselves at a grungy saloon called Louie’s East across the street or at Costello’s, which was distinguished by its original Thurber drawings, or at the Gold Coin. If after-hours drinking was an occupational hazard that prematurely ended some careers, it advanced others. Costello’s was a night school, an extension course for the stuff they don’t teach in journalism schools like the one I had considered attending. The Daily News recruiters persuaded me that I would learn more on the job than in J-school, and they were right.
Despite several renovations, the newsroom still conjured up a stage set from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play, The Front Page.
This bygone gregariousness proved to be a godsend in the perilous transition to computerized typesetting. One evening, when an entire day’s stories vanished in a flash, I knew exactly where to find and retrieve most of the staff, and within minutes, they had refiled their copy. Even during the day, bars were preferable to the building’s cafeteria, which evinced a soul-crushing feng shui. The invitation-only Publisher’s Dining Room, on the other hand, featured dinner plates with famous front pages. (I would make sure to arrive early to avoid the place setting with the photograph of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted of murdering her husband, strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing under the headline: Dead!)
Captain Joseph Medill Patterson was said to have conceived the Daily News in conversation with his cousin Colonel Robert R. McCormick, standing next to a manure pile in France during World War I. Unlike his cousin, Patterson was a socialist. The paper’s empathy for its (then mostly white) blue-collar readers was palpable. The Daily News was skeptical but not cynical and took its responsibility to the city—but not itself—seriously. Where else could we begin a crusade to repeal the so-called Hot Dog Tax—a levy on restaurant meals under $1—with a searing quote from Felix Frankfurter? Or, when Gerald Ford initially refused to offer New York federal loan guarantees, run the headline Ford to City: Drop Dead, five words which may have tipped the 1976 election? (The headline that was originally suggested was Ford to City: Fuck You.)
The following summer, terrorist bombs linked to Puerto Rican nationalists exploded at Manhattan office buildings and department stores. Studio 54 opened. And a psychopathic serial killer armed with a .44-caliber revolver and dubbed Son of Sam held New York hostage. We shamelessly exploited an exchange of letters between the serial killer and our columnist Jimmy Breslin, who gained his confidence, no doubt by congratulating him on his deft use of the semicolon. When a mountain climber from Queens named George Willig scaled the World Trade Center, we smuggled him into the building, hid him from the competition until midnight, and published his personal account on the front page.
The Daily News recruiters persuaded me that I would learn more on the job than in J-school, and they were right.
When Bushwick, Brooklyn, was ravaged by fire and looters during the citywide blackout that July, the Daily News convened a mayoral debate under a stuffed bobcat in the living room of a local family, the Casusos, and, for decades, we held the city’s feet to the fire to deliver on its promises to salvage the neighborhood. In the late 1970s, the Casusos couldn’t give their house away; by the 2010s, after sticking it out as paradigms of civic pride, they were rejecting offers of $1.5 million and more. Luckily for us, Superman was being filmed at the Daily News Building. We were functional, in the loosest sense, because the newsroom was bathed in klieg lights. Mike O’Neill, the editor in chief, confided at one point to the film’s director, “I’ve got a lot of actors pretending to be journalists working for me, too.”
Pete Hamill, who died earlier this month, defined sentimentality, as opposed to nostalgia, as a genuine emotion, “an ache for the things that are gone, that actually existed and that you experienced.” The newsrooms of The Front Page and of my favorite newspaper movie, Deadline-U.S.A., which was filmed in the Daily News’s pressroom, are no more. (The only time I heard anyone yell, “Stop the presses!,” he was met with a reply from an editor who peered indifferently over a copy of the Racing Form: “You jerk, they haven’t started yet.”) In today’s newsrooms, those that have survived, plenty of reporters and editors are smarter—not just better educated. Their writing is less stenographic. Google has armed them with research capabilities that we never dreamed of. But when I worked for the Daily News we had more copyboys than the paper now has reporters.
We shamelessly exploited an exchange of letters between the serial killer and our columnist Jimmy Breslin, who gained his confidence, no doubt by congratulating him on his deft use of the semicolon.
Carved into the limestone façade of the Daily News Building is a quote attributed to Lincoln: “He Made So Many of Them.” It referred to the presumption that God must have loved the common man. No other newspaper in America came close to the Daily News’s peak print circulation of more than two million daily and three million on Sunday. But like common sense, the common man—at least the one who bought the newspaper every day—was not common enough to keep the Daily News solvent. So many core readers fled to the suburbs or turned to television and the Internet that the daily print run has plunged to 200,000. By 2017, Mort Zuckerman was lucky to unload the paper to the company that publishes the Chicago Tribune, its original owner, for $1 (plus tens of millions in pension liabilities).
About the only relics that survive today from the Daily News Building’s newsroom are the copyboys’ bench, which incubated generations of journalists, and the four-faced wooden clock. I can now confess that I gained a 10-minute editing cushion on the city desk by making the clock five minutes slower facing my bosses and five minutes faster facing the reporters whose copy I awaited as a deadline approached.
Time and place merged uniquely in tabloid newsrooms in ways that can’t be duplicated by working at home. “A tabloid is not a newspaper of record: the past is too far behind to worry about, the future too far ahead,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker in 1999. “Yesterday matters only insofar as it supplies copy.”
Sam Roberts hosts The New York Times’s weekly television program on CUNY-TV and is the author of a dozen books