Above, Convey considers options for the next day’s “cover” with a graphic designer.
The “Rot in Hell” edition of the Daily News was the biggest daily seller of Kevin Convey’s first 12 months heading up the nation’s seventh-largest daily. It’s one of two big-city tabloid newspapers still operating in New York City’s ultra-competitive daily newspaper market that includes Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the New York Post, as well as the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, which now reports on metropolitan news.
The telephone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s British tabloids this summer was front-page news around the world, and the Daily News did its part to keep the story alive. In July a Daily News cover featured an unflattering close-up of Murdoch. It carried the headline “Humble Pie,” which played off Murdoch’s apologetic appearance before Parliament that concluded when a prankster tried to cram a cream-pie in the News of the World owner’s face.
Convey’s predecessor encouraged the competition between the Daily News and the Post to spill over into its news columns. But while Convey’s paper did cover Murdoch getting pied in Parliament, Convey doesn’t think readers care much about squabbles within the newspaper industry. “I feel it’s a distraction,” said Convey, who worked for Murdoch from 1982 to 1987 when the global media baron owned the Boston Herald. “I think journalists are more interested than people are. Our sales the day we put Murdoch on the front weren’t particularly great.”
The competition, though, is real, as the News and Post duke it out each morning, with the city’s fickle readers often making their morning newsstand-buy depending on what mix of crime, celebrity, sports, and breaking news is splashed across the covers. In the most recent audited circulation report, the Daily News narrowly led, with an average of 531,000 News copies sold each weekday, compared to 523,000 Posts.
Convey arrived in New York as the industry continued to struggle through its wrenching transformation from newsprint to an uncertain digital future. The Daily News print edition still sells more than 500,000 copies a day, providing up to 90 percent of the company’s income. But circulation continues to drop—down 24 percent from 708,000 each weekday in 2005. And though revenue continues to rise at www.nydailynews.com, which draws 20 million-plus unique visitors a month, Convey says he has to appeal to both audiences to keep his publications on the cutting edge of today’s journalism. “The great bargain has been that advertisers were willing to pay enormous amounts to have access to the audience that newspapers were able to aggregate,” said Convey. “The air fell out of that paradigm as circulation has dropped and advertisers discovered other ways to reach those audiences. Those ways may not be as convenient, but they are far less expensive.”
He sees the print newspaper of the future as a niche product, with readers paying substantially more for the daily edition. “The mass medium will be on the web and available through a host of personal electronic devices, some of which have yet to be invented,” he said. “So we’re trying to figure out how to negotiate the transition to being digital first, in a business sense, while still preserving the franchise. It’s like trying to change the wheels on an Indy 500 car while the race is underway and without making a pit stop.”
Convey has embraced the digital world. A survey of top newspaper editors by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies found that Convey was the only one to regularly use the social media site Twitter to keep in touch with readers. Convey—@NYDNKevinConvey—tweets to alert his followers of the best his paper offers that day. He also follows top commentators in the field of social media and digital news. “I’m surprised more editors aren’t doing it,” said Convey, a gourmet cook and music aficionado. “That’s testament to how many hard-core, ink-stained wretches at the top in the newspaper industry still aren’t plugged into what’s happening underneath them in this amazing, and somewhat terrifying, digital revolution.”
Twitter is not the only way Convey keeps in touch with the paying customers. He periodically interacts with readers at breakfast meetings in New York’s outer boroughs. He also convenes online chats with readers for discussions on such topics as the Daily News’s coverage of celebrities, his march down Fifth Avenue in the Puerto Rican Day parade, and the newspaper’s fascination with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “Sarah Palin is a hit machine for us and our website,” Convey said. “I don’t know why she fascinates people so, but the fact that she does is incontrovertible.”
Driving web traffic, however, comes at a cost. The Daily News, like many newspaper websites, allows anonymous comments at the bottom of stories, attracting the kind of vitriol and name-calling that’s disallowed in the news columns or in a traditional letter to the editor. But there’s an audience for such exchanges, and a story’s comments section can attract a bigger audience than the story itself. “I’m really, really torn on this,” Convey said. “The newspaper is about free speech, and that also involves readers having the right to talk back to the newspaper. But allowing anonymous comments drives the civility of the comments into the ground. It’s a real problem. I’m struck by the racism, sexism, and the coarseness of it all.”
In August, as Convey prepared for the afternoon news meeting with his top editors, he lamented the doldrums of late summer. The biggest news that day focused on Washington, D.C., where legislators wrangled over the federal debt ceiling. Other stories up for page one concerned an elderly schoolteacher who was dismissed because she took too long bringing her students to the bathroom, a Britney Spears concert, and a school principal’s firing over his anti-Semitic rantings, which had been uncovered by a diligent Daily News reporter.
There was also that night’s New York Yankees game, which could make the cover if the Bronx Bombers were victorious. Convey, a lifelong Red Sox fan, says he puts aside his fondness for the BoSox when it comes to the next day’s news. “When I’m wearing the Daily News eyeshade, I’m also wearing pin-striped underwear,” said Convey, referring to the Yankees’ classic pin-striped uniforms. “If the Yanks lose, newsstand sales are down. But a dramatic Yankees win can boost sales. There’s no one thing more important to the Daily News than the New York Yankees.”
The Yanks triumphed that night, and slugger Mark Teixeira shared the cover the next day with news of the debt deal. The stock market may have plunged, but for the Daily News, newsstand sales were up.