Forty years after my own graduation there, I had one of the great joys of parenthood in seeing my son get his degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism a week ago. The New York visit brought many memories and comparisons flooding back.
As a student I stopped each morning at the kiosk at the Columbia subway station at Broadway and 116th Street and bought all the morning dailies for two cents each. There were about half a dozen a.m.s then of the 11 papers published.The kiosk is gone, along with most of the corner newsstands. And gone too are most of the papers, great names like the World-Telegram, Herald-Tribune and Sun, and the not-so-great, like the bumptious Mirror and Hearst's Journal-American, all victims of the TV and other forces beyond their control.
Now our biggest city has four communitywide papers, if you count the Long Island Newsday city edition and the two tabloids, which are both in financial trouble. They sell for 35 or 40 cents.
New York has always been multi-ethnic, a babble of tongues, but is more so now. In addition to the community papers, the city has a multitude of papers in Spanish, Greek, Hebrew and other languages. Six in Chinese circulate in Chinatown.
And the city has always been noisy, squalid in parts, elegant in others, brash, but never dull, just like its tabloids. Some observations:
-THE TABLOIDS are loads of fun, but you don't expect to learn much about the world from them.
You expect and get a quintessential tabloid story in every issue, "Bloody Man Tells Horrified Diners, `I Killed My Wife.' " You expect characterization, like "colorization-mad media czar Ted Turner." You get hep to the headline shorthand, pols for politicians, doc always for doctor and cop always for police officer. Headlines always refer to celebrities and even the not-so-famous by first names or nicknames - Ron, Gorby and now even Morgy (for the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau). The one exception is in obituaries. Ex-Sen. Magnuson's name on his death notice came up just that way, not as Warren. I liked that.
-A WOMAN JOGGER beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park April 19 has been of consuming interest in the tabloid press and on TV. Minute details of her treatment and convalescence have been reported daily. Why should this one beating and rape be spotlighted in a city where these crimes are everyday occurrences?
Among the answers I hear is that the story was racist, because the woman's assailants were black and she a white investment banker. Another theory is that her attackers were the vanguard of a new, ugly phenomenon, called "wilding," in which respectable middle-class kids throw off the traces and show their machoism in unspeakable behavior.
Even the tabloid press rarely reveals names of rape victims, and despite the prominence this case has attained, the woman's name has not been used.
-THE NEW YORK POST, which was owned until recently by media kingpin Rupert Murdoch, is having rough days under its new owner. A Sunday edition was started 11 weeks ago as a key to the newspaper's survival, but the Sunday paper has been slipping and now circulates just 300,000 copies compared with the daily edition's 500,000.
A successful Sunday newspaper brings in close to half of a paper's revenue. Consequently, Sunday editions have been growing in both number (up from 735 to 834 in the decade) and circulation (now equal to the dailies' at 62 million) while the number of dailies has been declining and their circulation stagnating.
The Sunday Post is trying to beef up circulation by halving its $1 price and slashing costs by cutting out sections like USA Weekend.
-FRIVOLOUS AS THEY ARE, the New York tabloids make more concessions to serious news than their close cousins, the British popular papers. I picked up a copy of Robert Maxwell's Mirror, which, unlike the British quality papers, is hard to find elsewhere in the United States. The lead story told how electric baths were the secret of Margaret Thatcher's marvelous energy and youthfulness. The China story, which occupied several pages in not only the New York Times but also the tabloid New York Daily News that day, was confined to half a column on page seven.
-CHINATOWN HAS BEEN HUNGRY for news from Beijing and overall sympathetic to the students, though two of its papers are subsidized by the Chinese government. Its six Chinese language papers have printed extra copies and have been selling out. The press has been getting news not only from reporters in Beijing but also directly from Beijingers by fax. One editor getting these direct dispatches said his paper carried more details than AP and UPI.
In Beijing, the government made a major gaffe in pulling the plug on the foreign TV satellite transmissions. You cannot seal off an event like this in today's world. But by all indications, the controlled press has become much more candid about the demonstrations as the "revolution" has progressed. The papers never deal with disputes among the top party and government cadres. But reading them reinforced my observation that the Chinese press is more open than the demonstrations would lead one to believe.
The official Beijing English-language China Daily, printed verbatim in New York from the Beijing edition by satellite, is available in Chinatown. The issue of May 19, at the height of the hunger strike, had four stories and a full page of pictures headlined "Moving days of tears and cheers." The top headline was, "A million march in support of students." Another story, with three pictures, was headlined "Fasters making history." The following day the lead story toed a middle line by reporting that neither the students nor the government was willing to compromise. It listed the student demands.
China Daily also had, amazingly, a story about the censorship of the weekly Shanghai World Economic Herald. The dismissal of its editor by municipal authorities aroused such indignation that it helped spread the protests beyond students, especially among journalists.