You gotta hand it to the New York Post.
Its editors may not be able to count. (They call their main gossip column “Page Six” but publish it on Page 10.) Their audience may not be the demographic elite. (In what is probably an apocryphal tale, but one widely believed in New York, a prominent retailer supposedly once rejected Post Publisher Rupert Murdoch’s pitch for advertising by saying, “But Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters.”) Nevertheless, the folks who created my favorite newspaper headline of all time -- “Headless Body in Topless Bar” -- couldn’t have timed their Southern California debut more propitiously if they’d put a horseshoe and a four-leaf clover in each copy of their first edition.
The Post -- the nation’s eighth-largest daily newspaper -- came to Los Angeles and Orange counties determined to attract New York transplants eager for every smidgen of information about New York sports teams. So what happens?
Last Sunday, the day before the first edition of the Post was published here, the New York Giants blow a 24-point lead and end their National Football League season with a crushing 39-38 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Not only that, but the next day, the NFL admits that officials muffed a crucial call on the last play of the game, depriving the Giants of one last chance to win the game.
So for their first two editions here, the Post -- as well-known in New York for its colorful, aggressive sports coverage as for such legendary headlines as “No One Is Safe From the Son of Sam” -- was able to give ex-New Yorkers in Southern California just what they wanted: huge amounts of angry, cynical coverage of the Giants.
On Monday, the news of the loss topped both the front page and the back page. “GIANT CHOKE,” said one headline. “What a Big Blue Choke!” read another, stretching across two pages, atop two of 11 stories on the game.
On Tuesday, the story dominated both the front and back pages again. “It’s official, the Giants were ... ROBBED” was the Page 1 headline. Fifteen stories on the game were spread over 10 pages, under headlines with words and phrases like “Blame,” “blew it,” “DAY OF DEJECTION” and “Anatomy of a calamity.”
The Post has long had a largely blue-collar audience in New York, where its total circulation is 590,000, but many white-collar readers -- though horrified by the Post’s sensationalism and conservative politics -- buy it for its sports coverage.
“It’s the best sports paper in the country, without question,” says Bill Frank, an ex-New Yorker and former television executive now living in Los Angeles. “I love the way the Post goes after New York teams when they’re playing poorly, something the L.A. Times sportswriters just don’t do.”
Frank is exactly the kind of reader the Post covets.
But there’s one problem.
“I can get the Post on the Internet for free,” Frank says. “Why should I buy it?”
When I called a friend who’s also a big sports fan and a transplanted New Yorker and asked him about the Los Angeles edition of the Post, I got a similar response -- especially when I told him it sells for $1 (compared with 25 cents in New York).
“The first thing I did Monday morning was go to the Post’s Web site to read about the Giants,” he said. “If it were a quarter here, I would have bought the paper. You just can’t get their kind of sports coverage in the New York Times or the L.A. Times. But a dollar? No way.”
Joe Gilkey, circulation director for the Post, thinks these two men are exceptions.
“People still like to feel the paper,” he says. “They like flipping through it. We think there are plenty of ex-New Yorkers and people who do business in New York who’ll buy our paper in L.A.”
The Los Angeles edition is identical to the New York edition except for the addition here of two pages of local horse racing coverage. The Post first experimented with this approach two years ago on the east coast of Florida -- an even greater haven for ex-New Yorkers -- and Gilkey says 8,000 to 12,000 copies a day are sold there now. He hopes to sell 15,000 copies a day in Southern California within three months, “then build on that.” (The Post has been selling about 500 copies a day of its day-late New York edition here, but Gilkey thinks the same-day Los Angeles edition will have far more appeal.)
The paper is printed in Ontario and is available, he says, at 1,800 locations -- among them, newsstands, hotels and airports (and a coin box in front of The Times’ main office). Home delivery is $5 a week for all seven days.
The numbers don’t lie
How big is the potential audience?
According to IRS records analyzed by my colleague, computer wizard Richard O’Reilly, almost 30,000 tax filers moved from New York City to Los Angeles and Orange counties from 1990 through 1999. I’m sure there are some ex-New Yorkers who don’t file taxes -- they are New Yorkers after all -- and I’m equally sure there are some two-taxpayer households. So let’s say 30,000 is a good ballpark guess at the possible audience. (I figure that if you moved here before 1990 and still long for New York, there’s at least a modest likelihood that you’re too brain-damaged to read even the Post.)
The Post would have to reach 50% of these 30,000 homes to meet its goal. Given that it reaches fewer than 20% of the households of people now living in New York, that seems almost as unlikely as some of the paper’s most notorious headlines. Besides, the Post sells heavily to subway riders in New York, and anyone who counts on selling a lot of papers on what passes for a subway system here is a good bet to go broke faster than you can say Derek Jeter.
The Post’s sports section is good -- both provocative and comprehensive. But Gilkey and other Post executives say they’re also counting on the paper’s entertainment coverage to lure readers. Apart from gossip columns, though -- and the Post publishes at least three a day -- the biggest entertainment story I found in Monday’s Post was about celebrities “upgrading” their romantic partners (e.g., Kate Winslet divorcing Jim Threapleton, an assistant director, and allying herself with “Oscar-winning helmer Sam Mendes”).
The Post did publish a two-page spread on the Grammys on Wednesday, but Tuesday’s major entertainment story -- at least I think it was supposed to be an entertainment story -- was about exercise that provides more pleasure than pain; as near as I could tell, it was published only so the Post could feature another Rupert Murdoch tabloid tradition: photos of bosomy, scantily clad young women.
I realize that folks have long criticized The Times’ coverage of the entertainment industry, but whatever our failings, I don’t think the Post is going to lure readers away with photos of Carmen Electra’s “long, lean muscles” and Anastacia’s “rock-hard abs,” no matter how salaciously those muscles and abs are displayed.
On the other hand, the Post does publish a daily “Weird but true” feature, and in the first week here, readers have already been treated to items on canine waste, a passenger who hanged himself in the bathroom of an airplane, 61-year-old identical twins who live with 166 birds and a teacher in South Africa who “stripped in front of class and paraded around in a yellow g-string.”
I don’t think The Times carried any of those stories, so it may be too early to count the Post out here.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com.