The truth is that the New York Post has been happily existing on life support for a generation. As long as Murdoch has owned it, it’s never been a business. “The Post lived in a world where it didn’t have to do things a business has to do,” said one recently departed executive. “I don’t think it ever made money.”
For Murdoch, that mattered little, since the Post had any number of other functions. In New York City, it served as his clubhouse, where he could plot his attacks on all manner of enemies.
Murdoch weaponized the Post, skewering adversaries and elevating friends, and playing games with the city’s most illustrious personages. In 1977, shortly after he bought the paper, Murdoch gave little-known congressman Ed Koch crucial support, waging a campaign in the paper’s news pages that propelled him into the mayor’s office.
Murdoch likes nothing more than to get ink on his hands, and in the Post’s newsroom, he loved to play journalist, pulling up a chair to make headline suggestions, occasionally phoning his reporters with stories, which were duly published and attributed to anonymous sources. Reporters didn’t always know if they were true. Famously, in the summer of 2004, the Post trumpeted on the front page that Democratic nominee John Kerry had selected former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as his running mate, when in fact the next day it was revealed that Kerry had selected former North Carolina senator John Edwards; the source for the un-bylined story was said to be Murdoch. The Post denied this.
Partly because “Page Six” was the New York Times of insider and celebrity gossip, the paper managed to set the talking points for a certain kind of New Yorker well into the aughts, which was, for Murdoch, much better than profits. In 2001, Murdoch brought in Col Allan, a fiery Australian with a chip on his shoulder, to edit the Post. You could disagree with its politics, and much of its audience did, but Allan’s Post was a pure distillation of the tabloid spirit, gleefully pounding its enemies or sticking animal heads on them (SURRENDER MONKEYS; AXIS OF WEASELS), throwing fuel on New York’s bonfire of the vanities. A great tabloid has a relentless comic cruelty, which is what Allan brought to his job. Most recently, Anthony Weiner engendered an endless series of penis puns. Ugly as the spectacle could sometimes get, it is hard to imagine New York City without the Post’s scabrous running commentary.
Allan was never burdened by financial concerns—no one in the newsroom could remember his ever bringing them up. And so much fun was being had at the Post that the changes in the media business over Allan’s tenure barely intruded. Even as the Post moved from front-page triumph to triumph, newspaper readers were migrating from newspapers to the Internet. But Allan held the line, and its website was mostly a balky afterthought. “Col hated digital,” says a former employee. He couldn’t fathom why reporters would want to put their Twitter handles next to their bylines, raging loudly at their self-indulgence. And he lobbied Murdoch not to overinvest money in the web. Allan’s position was: Let’s not abandon what we have.
It was never abandoned, but it was eroded. From a high of 700,000, achieved in 2007 when the paper dropped its newsstand price to a quarter, print circulation plummeted to under 300,000 last year (Rupert Murdoch, by comparison, has nearly 500,000 Twitter followers). A sense of desperation seemed to drive some of its coverage as it clawed to get a piece of big stories. The Post had never observed Columbia Journalism School rules—but recently there have been a series of glaring howlers. The Post labeled Nafissitou Diallo, the African woman who claimed she was assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn while cleaning his hotel room, a “hooker,” which caused her to sue, and led the Post to settle. And after the Boston bombings in May, the Post featured a fuzzy photo of two unnamed bystanders carrying backpacks, with a headline blaring bagmen. The two men, who were of Moroccan descent, turned out to be running enthusiasts.
Another factor in the Post’s current situation is that Rupert Murdoch for the past several years has been in the midst of another newsprint passion. In 2007, he paid the outlandish sum of $5.6 billion for The Wall Street Journal and its parent, Dow Jones. News Corp. soon wrote down the investment, conceding in effect that it had paid almost twice what the organizations were worth, but to Murdoch it didn’t seem to matter. With the Journal, he could go head-to-head with the New York Times, long his personal bête noire and one that he knew the Post could never take down, no matter how entertaining its headlines.