Richard Aregood: The spicy tabloid recipe

Posted: May 16, 2011

"TABLOID" isn't a dirty word.

It's merely a description of how the paper folds. In Britain, many quality papers are tabloids, as are some popular papers that make the National Enquirer look like the Christian Science Monitor (also a tabloid these days).

It's also an art form. If you're looking for the most cosmic story of the day, it likely won't be the lead story on Page 1 of a tab.

On a pretty typical day last week, the big stories in the New York Times were a crime wave in Egypt and the interconnections among Wall Street hedge-fund sleazebags. In the Daily News, it was the endlessly entertaining Street Show, the longest-running brother act since the Everlys.

The idea is to grab your attention at the newsstand so you plop down a buck with a smile.

What it isn't is some cold-blooded intellectual exercise to rank things in order of importance. Nobody in his or her right mind thinks "Nipplegate," the case of the firefighter disciplined for exposing his manly chest for a calendar, was more important than the continuing repercussions of the death of Osama bin Laden that had happened two days before, but much of the art of the tabloid is knowing when a story is approaching its sell-by date.

Besides, didn't "We got the Bastard!" and "We're Back!" do the job of attracting, reporting and entertaining - as did "When Bouncers Go Bonkers," "Bugger Off" (a "sick of the royal wedding" headline) or "Hyper Hawaiian" (Stan Hochman's moving account of Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino's victory over attention deficit disorder)? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on another subject entirely, you can't define a good tabloid front page, but you know one when you see it.

Frank Rizzo once told me that people who accuse reporters of "only wanting to sell papers" with some government scandal were wrong. "Only two things sell papers. Sports teams. And me."

I checked. Record sales of the Daily News came the day after the 76ers won the championship. The rest are also sports.

And him.

Real greatness

Since the days when Jim "Dr. Death" Nicholson wrote them, my favorite part of the DN has been the obituaries, especially the mini-biographies of real people whose families the paper stands with in remembering them. They do more to give a feel of the city than anything else in the paper.

These days, major obits are done by the elegant writer Jack Morrison, whom I met long ago when he was one of the Evening Bulletin's great rewrite men. I hope someday to get a Jack Morrison send-off. Everybody should.

Few people outside the family, the church, the school and the neighborhood knew Mary McNulty, Jack's subject on May 4. But that obituary made me wish I'd met the lady.

He wrote a pitch-perfect account of the life of one of the people who make up the backbone of Philadelphia. Here's an excerpt:

"Her duties, with seven children in Catholic school, might have discouraged a less dedicated mom.

"There were uniforms to wash and iron. Mary was at the washing machine every day and the ironing board every night. In between, there were meals to prepare for the hungry family and guests.

" 'We had a big kitchen,' [her daughter] Nancy said. 'She felt there was no difference if you were cooking for 10 or 12. She cooked five pounds of potatoes every night. I think she cooked a ton of potatoes in her lifetime.

" 'There was always room at the table. People just stopped in for a meal, and she would send meals to people in the neighborhood and cook for the church.' "

Jack quoted Mrs. McNulty as saying - when daughter Nancy thanked her for being a good mother - "That was my job."

Some of what a newspaper does is try to give a reflection of real life. It doesn't get any realer than raising seven kids, and nobody deserved to have a tribute in the paper more than somebody who did all that loving work.

Slogans galore

I really should have known. I tried to start a conversation about news analysis in the newspaper and decried the current slogan-slinging as lame. What I got was slogans. One guy called me a "liberal sycophant," then backed his argument by quoting me saying things I never wrote, said or even imagined. Another advocated affirmative action for conservatives in newspaper hiring. (If that improves salaries, I'm for it.)

A few things for my new sloganeer friends: George Soros does not run Media Matters, for which Will Bunch occasionally writes. He gave them a million bucks a while back. Bunch has a considerably tighter financial relationship with Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox News), who published his book. Writers write for money.

I'm depressed that my students don't read newspapers, not proud, as one mind reader said in an email. I might also point out to this gentleman that if he's a fan of Murdoch's cable "news" outlet, opinion rearing its head shouldn't bother him, even if it's in the newspaper.

And that will be all I have to say about clich├ęs of the right and left. They are nowhere near as interesting as Shane Victorino, Mary McNulty and that shirtless firefighter.

Richard Aregood is the Charles R. Johnson Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota.

Email him at yodailynews@gmail.com.

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