The Me in Media

Mortimer Zuckerman hires editors with such verve and determination that it certainly seems as though he has some clear plan in mind for his media empire. Now he’s hired Edward Kosner, a longtime editor of this magazine and more recently editor of Esquire – the kind of high-powered, socially connected magazine editor TV movies are made about – to edit the Sunday Daily News, that package of police stories, lottery tales, color comics, human-interest bromides, and ethnic special sections that, it might surprise many Manhattanites, is still published every Sunday.

While this may seem like a really obvious error – hiring a person whose interests and aspirations are at odds with those of the readers of the publication he’s supposed to edit – it is also something of a consistent strategy for Zuckerman. Earlier this year, he hired Harry Evans, the bon vivant and former editor-in-chief of Random House, to be his editorial director. Indeed, Zuckerman, who made his fortune in the real-estate business, has hired an astounding array of highbrow talent to edit his middle- and lowbrow publications.

Oh, yes, the other part of the Zuckerman strategy seems to be that before his celebrated editors can do much of anything to his publications, he fires them.

The publishing business has a long history of mercurial owners who want something that is often elusive: respect, notoriety, smart dinner conversation. But Zuckerman’s mercurial nature and his quest for personal stature may, even in the publishing business, set a standard.

“What does Mort want?” is the question that comes to frustrate nearly all of his lieutenants and managers. How he plans to get it with the Daily News is an even more perplexing question.

And yet while what he wants often isn’t very clear to the people who work for him, he doesn’t hide it, either. Seldom has a man’s acquisitiveness been so out in the open. We in the Manhattan media world believe we know him – and what he wants. “Mort is Mort,” we say.

Indeed, though he’s a fabulously rich guy, there isn’t more than a degree of separation between him and us. I have one friend who was hired and resoundingly fired by Mort and another who was his girlfriend; my wife, a media lawyer, had a client who got clobbered by Mort.

And, of course, you can always read about Mort. He is as well documented as any mogul – more so, certainly, than your average real-estate billionaire. You can read Betty Rollin’s book, First You Cry, about her fight with breast cancer, and the boyfriend who dropped her because, after the cancer, she couldn’t have children – that was Mort. Or you can read Gloria Steinem’s Revolution From Within, in which she offers her tale of betrayal at the hands of a hard-hearted paramour – that was Mort.

Since Manhattan became a two-horse town – Wall Street and media – there have been lots of rich people who have demanded inordinate attention. But Mort is not, as my friend his former girlfriend says, “just another slobbering shopper” like so many other billionaires. He moves in the company of writers – I haven’t known a writer to reject his seduction – and reeks of class and distinction. At the same time, Mort is Mort, a poster boy for “I want what I want when I want it.”

But what he wants is not just the big house (although he does have a very big house on the beach in East Hampton), or the trophy wife (after a series of well-chronicled courtships, he married Marla Prather, a National Gallery curator, in 1996; they had a daughter in 1997), or the rapid compounding of his fortune (he has continued his real-estate business and leapt up the Forbes list). He also wants the literary life, to be able to talk as an equal with intellectuals, to hang not just with businessmen but with the artistic and the stylish. The fact that he can appear often on Charlie Rose to talk earnestly about foreign affairs encapsulates his achievement.

The path that led him to his place in the media pantheon is an almost pulplike narrative of glamour and accomplishment. After Harvard Law School, he executed a series of big-time real-estate deals that left him a wealthy, socially ambitious Boston bachelor. He became involved with Rollin, a writer and television journalist, and began to travel in media-minded circles. Then, in 1980, he stepped forward to rescue the Atlantic Monthly from likely death. The deal cost him relatively little and quickly yielded a substantial return. “It turned out,” says my friend whom he fired, “that there was a symbiosis between a publishing operation and a real-estate operation. In the real-estate business, you need access to credit markets. When you own the Atlantic Monthly, people on Wall Street call you before you call them.”

He came to New York (showing off the cover of the Atlantic featuring Philip Roth’s novel Zuckerman Unbound), shepherded around by fellow Harvard Law School graduate Jeffrey Steingarten, a socially prominent lawyer, now Vogue’s food critic. The suddenness of Mort’s arrival, the perfection of all the details – the sympathetic Chinese driver, the airplane ready to go to Boston – his appearance at A-crowd media parties, the slightly prefabricated nature of his patter (repeating the same joke throughout a night on the town) made him seem a little more than just casually Gatsby-like.

Then there were the women. Rollin and Steinem. Nora Ephron. Arianna Stassinopoulos. Diane Von Furstenberg. Suddenly, he was a fixture in New York, famously beginning his Russian Tea Room lunches with a spartan grapefruit.

He entered the bidding for U.S. News & World Report in 1984. The nation’s third-largest news magazine (put another way, the last among three) – the only one based in Washington – offered entry to the political world. Because U.S. News had substantial property, it was a real-estate deal, too, giving Zuckerman an edge in financing the acquisition. With U.S. News – hidebound, with an aging readership – Zuckerman began his strategy of hiring prominent editors and, in effect, pretending his publication was what he wanted it to be instead of what it was. Shelby Coffey lasted a year. David Gergen went 29 months; Roger Rosenblatt, 13 months. After the seven-year tenure of husband-and-wife team Michael Ruby and Merrill McLoughlin, James Fallows served briefly before he “resigned” last June, citing chapter and verse as to Zuckerman’s difficult nature and editorial interferences. None of this squabbling seems to dim Zuckerman’s enjoyment – in fact, the casting-director element seems to increase his fun.

Still, it’s a large leap, or free fall, from the middlebrow U.S News to the classically downmarket Daily News. The Daily News is a paper of the boroughs, of families in neighborhoods where Zuckerman has never been. Also, it was broke. After a circulation-and-advertising hemorrhage, the paper was rescued by Robert Maxwell in 1991. In short order, on the verge of ruin, Maxwell took his final dive, and the Daily News filed for Chapter 11.

Chapter 11 to a real-estate guy has a powerful attraction; it’s a kind of financial musk. With the paper up for grabs in a bankruptcy proceeding, Mort cut a deal with the key unions and snatched the paper from the other bidder, Canadian mogul Conrad Black. By securing the unions, he was in essence able to get the other unsecured creditors to finance his acquisition. “He could say to everybody else, ‘Take it or leave it,’ ” says a lawyer who sat on the creditors’ committee. “In other words, he got it for bubkes.

The ultimate parvenu, the personification of glittering Manhattan, now owned a paper read by the nannies, drivers, and doormen of his friends. You could deal with this joke in a couple of ways. Like Charles Foster Kane, you could, in fact, become a tabloid publisher. Or, like Mortimer Zuckerman, you could count on some kind of alchemy turning the outer boroughs into Manhattan.

Zuckerman tried the Murdoch approach – create a campy tabloid rich in media gossip to appeal to people in Manhattan – by hiring the top editors at the New York Post. In short order, he fired them. He imported an English tabloid editor but got rid of him. He gave Pete Hamill – who could talk about Brooklyn from Elaine’s – a shot before axing him. Then he installed a News veteran, Debby Krenek. Krenek was in the job all of a month when the Evans shoe dropped.

Evans was the toast of Manhattan publishing before being forced out of his job at Random House and into Zuckerman’s arms (Zuckerman is the godfather of one of Evans and Tina Brown’s children) as a sort of supernumerary editor. The question “What does Mort want?” now had a companion: “What does Harry do?” Was he going to devote his attention to the News? And could there be a less-likely person running an outer-borough tabloid, after Zuckerman himself, than Evans?

More quietly, something else was happening. By bringing the Daily News out of bankruptcy, restructuring its debts, and moving it from the storied 42nd Street headquarters to discount space on the far West Side, Zuckerman, whether by design or not, turned the News into a lean and mean tabloid machine. What’s more, Zuckerman’s partner, Fred Drasner, was running the business side with an effectiveness not seen in twenty years.

The News works. It has stabilized its circulation fall, growing from a year ago (its daily circulation is 723,000 against the Post’s 437,000). It has increased its advertising base. And it covers the city in a style that resonates with New Yorkers off the power curve, converting itself from the Archie Bunker paper to the paper of New York’s immigrant neighborhoods.

There are two Newses now. There’s the News run bya stable of veterans that emphasizes not only the traditional crime, human-interest, metro-level reporting but also targeted ethnic sections attracting rich new advertising revenues. This is what News employees – a startlingly loyal guild – will tell you is the soul of the News, a patrimony of which they seem fiercely and bitterly protective.

The other News is the Harry-and-Mort News. What will they do? How will they interfere? When and how will they fire Krenek? These are the questions that trouble the News staff but don’t really interrupt the business of putting out the paper. While there does not seem to be an iota of affection for Mort – in the newsroom, they ridicule his slight lisp and wonder if he’s ever been outside a 30-block radius in Manhattan – there is still an acknowledgment that he saved the paper. It’s here, after all. It goes on. Against truly amazing odds.

“Why, though?” remains the question. “What does Mort get out of it?” Does he want to own a great blue-collar institution? If so, the answer seems to be, he wouldn’t have hired Ed Kosner and Harry Evans.

Some people think that what Mort gets is the Sunday News. It’s the English way – and no doubt a Harry Evans proposal – to have a separate and independent editorial package on Sunday. One rationale is that the Post, by cutting its price (50 cents against the News’s dollar), has initiated a circulation war that will create two losers. But with Ed Kosner, there’s a chance to create what media buyers call an “upmarket environment” for advertisers – restaurants, boutiques, retailers – who find the Times too expensive. Ideally, too, Kosner can create a paper that, even if Mort’s friends don’t quite read it, has a buzz they hear.

Friends of Kosner’s say he is still wounded by the perception that it was his tenure at Esquire that all but killed the magazine. They say he is looking for redemption. The Sunday News, revitalized, could offer that. This is, no doubt, what attracts people to Mort. With Mort, everybody’s needs are pretty naked. It’s not just Mort, after all, who’s drawn to the center of attention. It’s not just Mort who wants to be on Charlie Rose, now, is it? Not just Mort who wants what he wants. Of course, it’s got to be a little dispiriting to work for a man whose measures of success are so clearly about only him. Still, Ed and Harry, who, in all likelihood, Mort will dispense with, know this and didn’t have to go to work for him. But the truth is we – the thrusting, lunging, grasping as well as chattering media class (who do not read the News) – want what Mort wants; we enable each other.

Meanwhile, the Daily News seems to be doing just fine. Go figure.


The Me in Media