The office where the New York Daily News Produced Itself Has Permanently Closed After 101 years
By Amanda Mikelberg
I’d been given a company thermos, when I started as an overnight web producer in the New York Daily News newsroom at 4 New York Plaza in 2011, that is now an artifact from a lost world.
My interview for the position had taken place at the newspaper’s headquarters on West 33rd Street; they were in the process of moving from the congested midtown space into an open-concept office, furnished for the frontlines of the era’s “digital first” initiative. The new downtown place, where I’d slung said coffee mug to stay alert until 4 am, was as big as a football field and about as competitive an arena. Around sundown, I would land at the South Ferry subway station, Water Street wind driving at my back, to board the Daily News battleship.
Coincidentally, the day my Daily News mug surfaced in my parents’ Isaias-visited basement, was the day I learned that their flagship newsroom had sunk. On August 12, Tribune Publishing, the owners since 2017, announced that the News’ newsroom was permanently closed, and that its journalists would carry on remotely until further notice. The newsrooms of several other Tribune titles, Orlando Sentinel, Pennsylvania’s Morning Call, and Maryland’s Capital Gazette and Carroll County Times, would also cease to exist. Yet, the Baltimore Sun office as well as the Chicago Tribune at the publishers’ headquarters remain open, belying the suggestion that a newsroom isn’t possible to have right now. Pandemic is the excuse, but cost-cutting is the reason.
At the time of my tenure, the vigorous push to grow the NY Daily News brand online was succeeding at making a name for itself with an internet audience, with a strategy to dominate the Google News algorithm. That effort aside, it was the newspaper’s reputation fortified since 1919 that gave the News its potential to scale; respectful of this, the digital initiative sought to preserve the traditions of the print institution for productive coexistence. Maintaining a physical infrastructure to support a heroic news operation was as much of a priority in the digital expansion as big monitors and the Polopoly web content management system.
The imposing Infrastructures that housed the Daily News in different locations during its 101 year history became closely associated with metropolitan might. Its first and second locations were based inside the authoritative stone buildings at City Hall park, constructed in the early 19th century during the founding of American governmental systems. From 1929 to 1995, the News lived at its most iconic location at 220 East 42nd Street—an Art Deco edifice specifically designed for the news publication by collaborators Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells. Howells had won the Chicago Tribune building competition (what’s now called the Tribune Tower in Chicago and is primarily a museum) with a similar design in 1922. New York’s version was commissioned by then Daily News owner Joseph Medill Patterson, and is still called the Daily News Building. So heroic the image of the press earlier in the 20th century, and the News so much a symbol of it, it is said that it was the inspiration for The Daily Planet, the fictional workplace of Superman’s Clark Kent, and served as its setting in a couple of the Christopher Reeves films. A very nice piece of real estate for the Fourth Estate.
I also visited their saddest location change after Sandy rendered their two floors at 4 New York Plaza unsafe, flooding the building with oil and river water. In the wake of the storm, about half of the newsroom and admin were transplanted to an incredibly tiny space packed with grumpy people at the paper’s regular printing plant in Jersey City. A portion of the editorial team were the pioneers of “remote work”—indeed a more technologically challenging thing for 2012 than it is today. Quite a few staffers swam with the fishes, supposedly for the boat to be saved. Sandy was the excuse, maintaining continuous Daily News service was the reason. About a year later the newsroom returned to the downtown office.
In 2017, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the paper’s owner for 25 years, sold the farm (including U.S. News and World Report), to Tribune Publishing, which at the time was calling itself “Tronc Inc.”, for the historic sum of $1.
Less than a year later in 2018, Chicago-based Tronc Inc. went ahead and truncated more than half of the remaining New York Daily News employees, around 93 people. Sadly, this was not the first time newsroom staff were substantially reduced. Zuckerman’s paper lost people to overtly grim treatment of his burdensome asset’s performance. Such brutality to the News’ personnel had begun to win out against the mission of the press, and also created very cutthroat conditions among newsroom employees.
Tribune Publishing’s Second Quarter 2020 results from Aug. 5, a week before its announcement to shutter a bunch of newsrooms, reported a 40 percent year-over-year increase in its digital content revenues—quite good. Net income losses decreased by $1.6 million—not bad either. The report states that operating expenses were down because “The decrease reflects the Company’s ongoing disciplined cost management and aggressive efforts to reduce our overall costs.” This line reads like a confession of guilt of their actually simply pursuing an agenda to deny people of their employment and resources, tucked conveniently inside the excuse of the pandemic. Worse yet is that the digital expansion once blamed for company losses and punished with layoffs, has finally shown growth, but is again being used as the grounds for not properly staffing, paying and organizing their editorial team members.
“Fixed costs including real estate and other infrastructure are under constant review. We believe that a reduction in infrastructure costs, coupled with substantial growth in our digital subscriptions business, has placed the Company in a position to succeed in its digital future,” company leadership quoted in the report.
The decision to make this announcement about bombing their own newsrooms, and chalking it up to digital expansion, makes it as blaringly obvious that Tribune Publishing knows as little about journalism now as they knew about branding during their “Tronc, Inc.” phase. Where digital expansion was once a raison d’etre for a bigger office, it is now a very disingenuous excuse to potentially lay off workers and disenfranchise the survivors by denying them a place to cooperate effectively with their colleagues to produce on-brand daily news.
The company gave current staffers a glimmer of hope, an industry source told me, that a smaller newsroom may reopen, somewhere, after the pandemic. Yet the promise of a grand re-opening of the newspaper is currently about as guaranteed as hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19.
News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch was smart to keep funding the New York Post, his pride and joy, and make it clear that it won’t profit unto itself, and yet is important enough to maintain. Without newsprint’s foundation, the media would become unmoored from the traditions of journalism that are what give it its strength in a multitude of ways. Politics aside, Murdoch recognizes the importance of what happens inside of a newsroom, inside of the headquarters of a complex organization, as his business’ most valuable asset. Without a physical office there is no fortress. To lose the NY Post, News Corp. would lose its core. In creating a void at the center of a container, the container collapses.
The Daily News, “New York’s Hometown Newspaper” is just as important to Murdoch as his pet Post. With its Pulitzer Prize winning journalism and courageous reporting of our shared experiences as New Yorkers, such as 9/11, and Sandy, the News is the Post’s only true competitor in the tabloid sector, setting the standard and the scene for properly reporting the city, checking the facts. But without the power from a solid center, will this star of free press keep shining a light of truth on the city?
WRITER BIO: Amanda Mikelberg is a freelance journalist and digital designer in Upper Manhattan. She has reported for several outlets including the New York Daily News, New York Post, Metro New York, and holds an MA from Columbia University in journalism, class of 2015. You can respond to her story at firstname.lastname@example.org