For the 57th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Mike Jaccarino about his colorful stint as a reporter for the New York Daily News from 2006 to 2011, during its fight with the New York Post for exclusive interviews and information.
Mike Jaccarino is a New York City journalist and author of America’s Last Great Newspaper War: The Death of Print in a Two-Tabloid Town.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Mike Jaccarino (00:04):
And this turned what was already a pitched fight into an existential, gonzo tabloid war that really America will never see again and hadn’t seen since Pulitzer-Hearst.
Nick Hirshon (00:17):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:28):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:33):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:37):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon (00:42):
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
When Mike Jaccarino was offered a job at the New York Daily News in 2006, he was asked a single question: “Kid, what are you going to do to help us beat the Post?” The competition between the two tabloids drove armies of journalists to push ethical boundaries in pursuit of the day’s top stories. Reporters sneaked into hospitals and funeral homes, and photographers resorted to placing phony police lights a top their cars in order to overcome traffic on their way to crime scenes. Jaccarino himself engaged in high-speed car chases with Hillary Clinton, O.J. Simpson, and a World Series hero. Today the News and the Post have both fallen victim to the digital age. Their circulations have declined, and their staff sizes have dwindled. But today we will relive a colorful time when the two tabloids were still national heavyweights, an era that inspired the title for Jaccarino’s new memoir, America’s Last Great Newspaper War.
Mike, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Mike Jaccarino (02:08):
Hey, Nick. Thanks for having me on. Really appreciate it.
Nick Hirshon (02:10):
Of course. We’re here today to talk about your new book, America’s Last Great Newspaper War: The Death of Print in a Two-Tabloid Town. And before we begin, we should let the audience know that we’re former colleagues. We both started at the New York Daily News in the same year, 2006, and turns out we both left in the same year, 2011. I was working out of the Queens bureau for my six years there. So one of the boroughs of New York City, middle-class borough, working mostly on community news, while you were often reporting out in the field all over the place as we’re soon to discover.
So at the time, just to give the listeners a bit of context here, you described in your book how the Daily News and the Post were heavyweights on the national level and you write that over the six-month period that ended on March 31, 2006, right around the time that we were beginning there, they were both ranked the sixth and seventh most widely circulated American daily newspapers. They’re only behind juggernauts like USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post. And the News had a weekly circulation of 700,000 readers compared to the Post’s 673,000. The News had almost double the sales of the Post on Sundays. And some key figures in the newspaper war, as you described them, the two owners of the papers, Mort Zuckerman from the Daily News and Rupert Murdoch of the Post. So as we begin to learn about this newspaper war, what can you tell us about Mort Zuckerman, Rupert Murdoch, and how they embody this newspaper war?
Mike Jaccarino (03:43):
I mean, they were two titanic egos, right? Two titanic personalities. You know, Rupert Murdoch, this, this swaggering piratical tabloid publisher from Australia. I think when he bought the Post in 1976, it was something like his 84th or 85th newspaper. Mort Zuckerman was a real estate titan, famous for owning Boston Properties, which is a publicly traded rete. They were, there was more – as one journalism industry analyst described it to me, there was more than circulation at stake. There was the right to be called the biggest and best local newspaper owner in New York City. I mean, you know, everything about New York City is outsized, including the tabloid war, and that certainly was the case for the two owners of these newspapers.
Nick Hirshon (04:34):
It certainly always seemed to me when you were working there that Rupert Murdoch was obviously much more well known, maybe more flamboyant. Zuckerman seemed to be a little bit understated, although I would see him every weekend on the McLaughlin Group.
Mike Jaccarino (04:48):
Yeah. He would, he would look like a deer in headlights often when he would get on those shows. It was, I kind of felt bad for him.
Nick Hirshon (04:54):
So I was at least glad to see, hey, there’s some representation of the Daily News.
Mike Jaccarino (04:59):
Yeah, I mean, look, you know, he wanted to be a, a personality. He wanted to – and the Daily News was his entree into that world. Right. It gave him a reason to go on those shows and, and talk about things. I mean, Murdoch was a real journalism guy. I mean there are tales of, if you go back and you read the clips from the late ‘70s after he bought the Post in 1976, I mean, he’s intimately involved in the decision making of what’s going on. I mean, nominally he was the publisher, but I mean, he’s involved in editorial decisions shaping the format of the magazine and most importantly as, as concerns this book, from the moment he bought the Post, he was obsessed with destroying the News. I mean, it was almost as if, I mean, there’s no contending the fact that that Murdoch was a visionary in his field.
You know, he started with newspapers. He started as a, as an ink-stained type guy, but he had a lot of money behind him. He, you know, he didn’t attack it from the typical approach of a journalist, but he could do almost any job in a newsroom, I was told, from headlines to, you know, front page, and, and he was involved. But again, for the purposes of this book, the Post, just to give listeners a little bit of a context, when, when he bought the Post in 1976, the lay of the land, and this will kind of — this will kind of set things up for the rest of our discussion: When he bought the Post in 1976, they weren’t two competitors. Certainly not apocalyptic Hatfield and McCoy-type rivals. And this came as a bit of a surprise to me.
The Post was a – if you can imagine it – at the time was a sober newspaper. It was restrained. It was known for long, thoughtful pieces on weighty topics like education and foreign affairs. Its editorial pages were liberal. It was, it was a – and most importantly, it was an afternoon newspaper. It came out on people for people on the way home. They would get it and they would get the closing stock prices. But from the moment Murdoch bought it, he was, as I said, he was obsessed with not only challenging the News but eradicating it and his visionary eyes, he almost realized from that moment that the town was at some point only going to be big enough for one of these newspapers. And he, he completely changed what the Post was. He turned it into basically what it is today.
He instituted Page Six in 1977. He devoted half the paper to sports. He enlarged photos, went heavy on crime. And most importantly in 1980, March of 1980, he turned it into a morning newspaper. So before 1980, both papers were not really competing necessarily head to head. They had different readerships. Again, the Post would cater to the people who bought the paper on the way home from work. And the News was a morning paper with a massive Sunday circulation and, and Murdoch turned it into a morning newspaper so they competed head-to-head in March 1980. And, and from then, the war kind of expanded exponentially until the point when you and I both got to the Daily News in 2006. Interestingly enough, when we got to the News in that, in that year, in October of 2006, the Post surpassed the News in circulation for the first time in the history of both papers.
That was the first month, October of 2006, for the six-month period trailing because they come out with these figures every six months. For the six months trailing October of 2006, ending Sept. 3, that was the first period in the history of both papers that the Post surpassed the News in circulation, and it made a pitched fight completely gonzo. And there was one other factor involved just to give the last piece of the puzzle, laying the context for this. At the time that you and I got there, not only had the Post surpassed the News in circulation, but both papers were beginning to feel the pressure of digital. It wasn’t profoundly felt. You know, this is before, if you could think back to 2006, this is before mobile devices, before the necessary bandwidth for readers to consume news on mobile devices.
So it really was kind of, it was still an ancillary way of, of people getting the news product. But as the years went on, as we were there, digital news played a bigger and bigger role. The readership grew and grew, and the print circulation began to diminish. And this turned what was already a pitched fight into an existential, gonzo tabloid war that, that really America will never see again and hadn’t seen since Pulitzer-Hearst, is the way it was described to me by people who were, were historians for newspapers and follow this sort of thing. So, you know, it really was, we were there at a very special time. It was a — it was a crazy time. And you know, as I’m sure that you know, losing wasn’t an option. Everything that we did was judged in the context of what the Post had achieved or failed.
Every success that we had was judged against the success or failure of the Post. Every decision that we made was made with the Post in mind. I have one more little story to tell you. This, this is fantastic. A great representation. It kind of nails it right on the head. In 2008 there was a State University of New York basketball player who was over here for no other reason than to play basketball. He was from Serbia and he pummeled a fellow student into a, into a coma during a bar brawl, I guess some drinking had been involved. And before he could be arrested, he got on a plane and he fled back to Serbia. His, the town that he lived in was about 90 miles north of Belgrade. So the News dispatched one of our colleagues, Rich Schapiro, who’s now at NBCNews.com, to go and door-knock his family in Serbia.
And so by the time Rich gets there on the ground in Serbia, gets a local fixer and gets to the door and he knocks on it to talk to the family and find out, you know, what the heck happened, they open it and they say, “I’m sorry, Rich. The Post has already been here. And not only have they been here and talked to us, but they’ve extracted a promise not to talk to any late-arriving news reporters.” I mean just think about that for a second. Two metro newspapers competing in Europe. And, and by the time that the Daily News reporter gets there to conduct the door-knock, the Post has already been there. I mean, that will never, ever happen again. And again. It really gives you a flavor of, of just the lengths that we were willing to go to, to beat the Post, and they were willing to go to beat us.
Nick Hirshon (11:30):
And if I recall correctly from that story, ‘cause I distinctly remember it while I was a reporter, that this didn’t even take place in the confines of New York City. This was a brawl in upstate New York, in Binghamton, I believe.
Mike Jaccarino (11:43):
It wasn’t even a New York City story. I mean, that was amazing. I got another great story that that kind of like, it speaks to this. I had, we, we very rarely had days off if you were a runner. What I did was, we could talk a little bit about this later. You know, I was on the street, so basically, you know, my job was to run to the scenes of breaking news scenes, collect the quotes, color, information and radio back to the news desk and, and we never had a day off. You know, they feel that armies in the field, both the News and the Post, sometimes 20 to 30 to 40 field runners on a single story. Both sides covering different locations, staked out at different locations. Just to make sure that we never got beat on any angle of the story. I mean, when Spitzer resigned, it was, it was madness.
I mean, there were dozens of people in different places. When Vito Fossella, the congressman in Staten Island, all this is described in the book, it was discovered that he had a love child with a woman in Alexandria, Virginia. I mean, we, we went all over the country and everywhere we went the Post was there as well. But here’s a great story that really kind of again encapsulates what this robbery was about. I had a very rare day off ’cause, ’cause I was working seven days a week. And I called the city desk because a lion or a tiger had escaped its pen from the San Diego Zoo and it went on a rampage in the zoo. And I thought this would make for a great story. We routinely, you know, when far afield of New York City, as you pointed out, I called the city desk and I asked to get on a plane to go over there and cover it and the city editor said that there wasn’t enough of a local New York City angle.
So I, you know, I hung up and I went about my day off. My rare day off. And then later in the day, I found out that we had indeed dispatched another one of our colleagues, Tamer El-Ghobashy, and a photographer. And the reason that was given to me is because we found out somehow that the Post had sent their own team to San Diego. Now this is an interesting point. Not only are we making a decision to fly two people to San Diego to cover a story solely on the basis of the fact that our archenemy has done so as well. But how does the News know this? Right? So in researching this book, there were several people who swore that both newspapers had moles on the city desk of the other side that were paid off to tip off the people on the other side too. Can you just imagine like, you know, some guy on the city desk, he’s not making a lot of money, right?
He’s answering phone calls. Maybe he’s taking, maybe there’s a reporter who’s not making a lot of money. You know, as soon as he hears that we’re dispatching someone somewhere he, you know, he hustles out to a, to a pay phone and, you know, drops a dime to the other team. It may not have been the case in that regard. It may have just been as simple as a photographer who, who found out that his buddy was going to San Diego and blabbed about it on the street to a News photographer who then told our photo desk. And that’s how we found out. But you know, the point is that this was madness, right? It was just, it was madness. There were car chases. When Leona Helmsley died – Leona Helmsley for your listeners who don’t know she’s been out of, you know, she’s been gone a couple of years now.
She was, she was married to this famous real estate developer named Harry Helmsley, and she didn’t have a lot of friends. She was a, you know, by all accounts a fairly misanthropic woman. But when she died, she left a good chunk of her fortune to her beloved dog, Trouble, who was, you know, one of the, one of the, you know, one of the few creatures that she had some sympathy for and had some sympathy for her. We sent one of our photographers, Debbie Egan-Chin, up in a helicopter to fly over the Connecticut estate that Leona Helmsley had, just so that we could get a photo of this dog. I mean, there’s all kinds of stories like that. It’s just, and, and today, if you look at what, you know, the overarching story of the book is that, you know, if you look at today, there’s one runner on the street.
The News is selling in the low hundred thousands, if that. I mean, the Post as well. The war is over. You know, you, you opened by saying, talking about the circulation figures. In 2006, when we got there, the News was selling 710,000 copies daily. The Post was right neck and neck. It just had surpassed it, as I said. It sold over a million copies on Sunday. Think about that. They’ve lost 85 to 90% of their circulation in less than 10 years, 10 years, you know, 12 years, whatever, all because of digital and, and, and you know, this sort of thing will clearly never happen again between two metro newspapers. So this book documents that last gasp, right, it documents how this trend of the death of, of print media in America played out in very dramatic fashion in one city in America.
Nick Hirshon (16:12):
And certainly for a lot of readers who may have been buying one of these two papers during that time, but I don’t know if they understood the extent of that newspaper war. I think you do a really good job in the book of introducing your readers to a lot of the lingo that we used at the Daily News. Much of it is written from the perspective of reporters and photographers who worked on breaking news stories like you did and we called them runners and shooters. You’ve described this a little bit in our conversation so far. So how would you explain that concept of running and shooting? And then also you mention in your book a bunch of these asides that you have, you call “runners’ tradecraft.” These are insider tips on how to be an effective runner, a field reporter. You’d tell editors only what they need to know, nothing more, unless you have very good news. Don’t be verbose cause then they’ll criticize you and say, “I would’ve done that differently.”
Mike Jaccarino (17:06):
Yeah, this is great. So I’m really glad you asked about this. So this, this book doesn’t take place in a newsroom, right? It takes place in the street. Now let me back up for a second. I had been a reporter probably, you know, six or seven years for the Press of Atlantic City and the Jersey Journal by the time I got to the News in 2006 and the, the concept of running, right, didn’t exist at other newspapers. Other newspapers, you went out, you collected the quotes, color, and information that would form the, would fashion your story. And then you went back to the newsroom and you wrote it up. And that’s the way that it pretty much works at most newspapers in America, but when I got to the — I had never even heard of the term running when I got to the News, but when you, when you get to the News, they have a division of labor and the Post does this as well. So they have people who are completely devoted to working in the street.
Those are called runners, who go out and run on stories. They run to the scenes of breaking news, collect the quotes, color, and information that will form the final account. And then instead of going back and writing it, you call the news desk, who puts you through to a rewrite man, and then you dump your notes. You tell them what you found out, and then you go and you find more or you run to the next location. In addition to running, right, there are shooters on the street, right? There are photographers, that’s, that’s their job. They never go into the newsroom. But let’s put shooters aside for a moment. So for running, I don’t think I saw the inside of the newsroom two or three times my first year at the News. It was, it was strange, right? I remember my interview with the News where the guy looked at me and he said, “You know, you’re gonna be an adrenaline junkie. You’re gonna run from place to place and you’re not going to stop and, and, and this is gonna be your job.” And I looked at him, his name was Dean Chang. I mean, I mean, you know who he is. He hired you as well.
And I looked at him like he was nuts. You know, I’m sitting there and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hey listen, I’m a great writer. What do you, I’m not going to write? What do you mean I’m not going to be in front of a computer?’ But I didn’t say that because I wanted this job so badly. I wanted to write for the Daily News. So he put me on the street and this is what running looks like, right? You’re, you’re at a location and you’re waiting for news to happen. You’re sitting in your car and you’re listening to the scanner and then you’re, you’re, you know that the Post has their runners out in the field as well, geographically dispersed throughout New York City so that you could strategically get to locations quickly.
There’ll be two in Brooklyn, one in North Brooklyn, one in South Brooklyn, one in North Queens, one in South Queens, a couple in the Bronx, a few in Manhattan. And we’re all spread out around New York City waiting in our cars. And we’re listening to the scanner, listening to the FDNY and the NYPD and, and the EMS emergency dispatch frequencies. And then you hear it happen, right? “There’s a fire in Woodside.” And that’s it. That’s the starting pistol on a race. You know you’re listening to it and the Post people are listening to it on their radios as well. And then it becomes a matter of who can get there first. And that’s why we called it running, right? Because the – I always said that if I taught a journalism class, the very first thing that I would tell people is get there first.
You have to get there first. Because if you don’t get there first, number one, the police are going to put up a police tape around it. Remember, this is Ray Kelly’s police department. They don’t, they don’t really like giving out information. They don’t want the press to know too much. So if you get there late and if you’re gonna, going to face a perimeter that’s probably four or five blocks from the location of whatever event is taking place, whether it be a fire or a shooting.
So you’re not going to be able to interview witnesses. Second of all, the witnesses begin to disperse. So you need to get there quickly in order to get the people before they start walking away in order to be able to interview firsthand witnesses to, to whatever has happened. And third, people don’t like — the unfortunate thing about our job was a lot of what we did was interviewing people who had experienced terrible tragedy. You were, we were often chasing death. You know, these were tabloid newspapers who are focused heavily on crime and fire and a lot of the events that we went out to involve people at the worst moments of their lives. And if you’re asking a mother or a father or, or, or a child who has just lost their mother or father, or the mother or father has just lost their child, what it’s like in that moment, what are they feeling to accurately document the anguish that they feel? And that in those moments, this was the key part, the bread and butter of what we did. Nobody wants to talk about it twice, right? And more often than not, they’re all, if you’re lucky enough to get it that first time, they’re going to shut down and go behind closed doors.
So that’s the other reason why you need to get there so quickly. So let’s go back to the car. You’re waiting in the car, you’re listening to the scanner. And then you hear that news has happened and it’s a race, right? And this is before the days of GPS. So the first thing you do is you reach into your glove compartment and you get your Hagstrom five-borough atlas and you try to chart a course to wherever you’re going. And then you’re driving 85 miles an hour down, you know, down some narrow street in Queens with one eye on the road and one eye on, on the Atlas. And some photographers would put phony police lights on the top of the roof mounts of their car and, and others would, would drive relentlessly on the shoulder of highways and the BQE. Go, go, go down the opposite lane in the, in the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.
I mean, it was madness, okay. But we were completely obsessed with what we did and beating the competition and getting that get and, and, and, and that was, we were constantly running. And as soon as you hit one scene and you collected the information and radioed it back, you were more than often than not going on to the next scene. And then the next scene. And sometimes I would hit five boroughs in a single day. Sometimes I would hit four boroughs and then the phone would ring and they tell you to go out to some foreign city or, or you know, Las Vegas or LA, if something had happened there. And that was the way I lived my life for basically three and a half years. And that’s what this book documents. And no matter where we went, no matter what scene we went to, no matter how far afield – it could be Serbia, it could be San Diego – the Post was always there.
And it was your job once you got there to beat them, to get the information, to get the quotes, color and information that would, that would amount to victory on that given day. I mean, it was epic. It was epic. It was intense. And it was, it was wearing emotionally, you know, if you could imagine chasing these types of stories that involve human suffering and anguish on a daily basis, seven days a week, year after year, running, living out of a suitcase. But you know, this is what this book documents, this is what you see, you know, as you, as you, go through the pages.
Nick Hirshon (23:45):
What strikes me, too, is that journalists are trained to get the story for the readers. It’s all about your audience and doing what’s best for them. But it seems that so much of the ethos at the Daily News and the Post that you’ve captured here was really just beating the other side, even if you didn’t quite know why you were doing it, even if you didn’t think the story was all that important. And you described, for example, this instance of reporting on a scandal involving New Jersey’s nominee for the 2007 Miss America pageant, this kind of minor scandal, but you and the Post are trading these, trying to get these exclusive stories and getting up early, staying out late to make sure that the other doesn’t get something. You know, do you think that that permeated a lot of the, not just the runners, but the entirety of the newsroom? I’m just –
Mike Jaccarino (24:32):
We were completely obsessed. I mean it was, it was totally, it was an obsession. You know what I mean? I thought about, you know, I still thought about this is a good story, right? This is, this quote is going to make for a good story. I mean it wasn’t completely, I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t completely where you thought, you know, I’m going to, I’m not doing this to beat the Post entirely. You are, you know, I’d been a reporter for quite a while before that, so I knew journalism before I got there. But I mean, look, the editor-in-chief of our newspaper, a guy named Martin Dunn at the time, and the editor-in-chief of the Post, Col Allan, would go through the papers line by line and compare articles. So if there was a shooting in the Bronx, right, each editor-in-chief in the morning would go through the story from the News and, and he would go through the story from the Post and he would compare the quotes and the detail.
And if you didn’t have a little detail that they had, you would get asked about it by the morning assignment editor the following morning. And it became a, it became a, you know, it became its own dynamic in and of itself. I mean, people, Major League Baseball players, I mean, let’s think about like, you know, the greatest rivalry in sports, right? The Yankees and the Red Sox, for instance. They’re playing baseball for the love of baseball, but they’re also playing completely, it’s like a pennant race. You’re in a constant pennant race and you’re, you’re thinking entirely in those terms. It just — it brought a complete – look, at the time, both papers were in an existential fight.
We were talking on the street at that point about which one of our employers was going to survive, which one of our employers was going to be still standing when the cloud of, of digital had lifted. It turns out that neither paper is probably gonna make it in the end, but – or at least as a print, as a print product. But I mean, you know, it was, it was existential and it, and it, it turned, as you mentioned, the Miss New Jersey story, which was comparatively a small story, but it made even the small stories feel like this Darwinian exercise. It made even the small stories, it mushroomed them into these, these, these epic incidents of great consequence.
I compare it in the book to the way that America fought, conducted foreign policy during the Cold War. You know, lose here no matter how farflung the jungle, and everything is going to fall. Right? If you could think back to your history lessons about the domino effect. That’s the way, that was the mindset of the way that America conducted foreign policy during the ‘50s and ‘60s. That was the same way the News and Post dealt with things. Lose here, no matter how far flung the story, no matter how stupid this, this burglary or shooting is in the Bronx, and we’re going to lose the war. And it, it just, it made us do crazy things. It kept you in a perpetual state of intensity and this is what you’re going to see. This is, this is what you’re going to see when you read the book. It’s, it was madness and again, it’ll never happen again. It’ll never, ever, ever happen again.
Nick Hirshon (27:34):
And then just to introduce the listeners to some of these many characters that you described in the book, and a lot of these are colleagues that I remember very well. The runners and shooters that occupied the front lines of this newspaper war. There was Ellis Kaplan, an aging Jewish photographer for the Post who had a nebbishy Brooklyn twang, as you put it. And I certainly was out on many stories with him. And just the other day I was talking to Joel Cairo, photographer for the Daily News, who occasionally wore a gorilla mask — you reminded me in your book – on prolonged stakeouts. Sometimes when we would be assigned to wait outside the home of someone involved in a news story until they came home or until they came outside from the home. And we’d just be sitting there for hours and hours trying to figure out how can you kind of keep yourself occupied and you didn’t have smartphones or whatever. So Joel Cairo would put on this gorilla mask. But then the man who’s kind of at the focus of a lot of points in your book, Kerry Burke, you call him the king of the runners. He was a short Irish American in his 40s with a Boston accent who called everyone “brotha,” and that’s “brotha” with an “a,” right, not the “-er.” So Kerry was legendary for going above and beyond to get information and interviews. What’s your favorite Kerry Burke story?
Mike Jaccarino (28:45):
You know, I, it doesn’t take place while I was on the street anymore. This, this kind of – Kerry, all these people that you’re discussing, right? There, there, I guess there was the job of running, right? It attracted some very, very unusual, colorful people, people who weren’t necessarily fit for office work or working in a corporation. I’m sure that, that if they didn’t do this job, you know, some of them wouldn’t, would have trouble finding regular employment in the working world.
You know, the, but we were all – but we were not only eccentrics, but you know, we were obsessed with gets. We were obsessed with getting the get, the get. And the get is an interview. It’s a, it’s an exclusive piece of information. It’s a term of art in journalism that means you know an exclusive, a scoop, a get, you know, and, and we were completely obsessed by it and we were driven by it. And Kerry, Kerry was, you know, I think he was the most obsessed with gets. He pursued them. If you, you know, if you could, I think I describe it, “with a llama’s purity of purpose.” You know, sometimes I’ll run into Kerry even on the street now, and he’s coming back from a story and he’s describing how he infiltrated some building and, you know, got words from somebody.
He, my favorite Kerry Burke story was, I was on the rewrite desk. This is after I left the street. And we sent him out to Macy’s where Beyoncé was unveiling her newly branded perfume. It was, it was a stupid story. The Daily News, a paper like the Daily News would never have covered it, but we had like a huge advertising relationship with Macy’s. So I guess we did it as sort of a favor. And he went there and he was probably the only serious journalist there among all the, you know, fashion and, and, and industry bloggers and, you know, trade publication types. So, so Beyoncé was probably there thinking that she just going to get a bunch of questions for her perfume. But she was pregnant at the time, I think with her first child.
And Kerry, he hounded her like, like she was a perp. He just wouldn’t let it go. You know, he, he – so I’m taking the feed. I was the rewrite guy. He was, he was the runner in the field and he called me up and I had to write this up. And he’s like, you know, “I followed her down to” — he talked in this Brooklyn, this Boston accent – “I followed her down the hallway, brotha. I wouldn’t let her go, but you know, she just wasn’t talking. I kept asking him, what are you gonna name that cat? What are you gonna name that cat? You know? And she just wasn’t having any of it.” And, and that just showed you, right, this was a mail-it-in story if there ever was a mail-it-in story. It was a, you know, a Wednesday night, you know, at eight o’clock, he’s out there covering some nonsensical story that’s a favor to an advertiser and he’s treating it like it’s the Pentagon papers.
But that’s what, that’s what Kerry was. And that’s what we all were, right? If you read this book, like these strange eccentric people like Ellis Kaplan and Joel Cairo and Todd Maisel – how about Todd Maisel? Todd Maisel was a photographer for the Daily News at the time, who was probably the photographer version of Kerry Burke. Completely obsessed with getting the get and, and beating the Post to the point where if you call Todd on his cellphone, it would answer, “Hi, this is Todd Maisel. I’m at a fire or a homicide. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I’m done, off deadline.” You know, Todd, people are going to blanche when they hear about this, but you know, when Todd wasn’t occupied, let’s go back to, to my instance, my example when I gave up running, right? Todd is waiting in his car, but he had a very practiced method of how he would approach this on slow news days while he was listening to the scanner waiting for news to happen.
Todd would wait out by the ice skating rink at Prospect Park in the winter time, waiting for somebody to fall through the ice so that he would be in good position to get that photo if it actually indeed happened, listening to the scanner, waiting for the, the starter’s pistol on news breaking that would start the running. And in the summertime, he would wait out by Coney Island in case somebody got caught up by a riptide. Now, you know, when I tell people this, and I describe this, this sort of mindset, people look at me in horror, right? They think, Well, this man must be, he must be strange or unbalanced. And, and you know, maybe he was a little bit, maybe we all were, but that just, we didn’t look at it in those terms. When, when I learned that this was Todd’s approach, my reaction was, well, that’s good trade tactics, right? That’s, that’s the way that we’re gonna get gets. I mean, we were, we were — there’s a long-winded answer. We’re very colorful people who were, who were given a — were part of something special and, and it was great. It was really great.
Nick Hirshon (33:41):
Well, and you’ve mentioned, obviously this era has passed and a lot of these names that we’ve been talking about no longer work at the News or the Post. By the time that you left the News in 2011, you wrote in the book that you had become cynical and disillusioned. You were fed up with the traffic, the stakeouts, the door knocks. Why did you become cynical? How do you feel about that today?
Mike Jaccarino (34:04):
It wasn’t necessarily the, the – I mean, sure, the traffic. I lived in Jersey at the time, you know. The reason why we did running in New York and we had that division of labor, I didn’t explain it earlier and why other papers didn’t do this. As New York, you know, New York is 305 square miles and has a lot of logistical hurdles to getting to locations, tunnels, traffic, bridges. So you really couldn’t just go to a location, get the information and then come back. And that’s why, you know, we had runners in the field and rewrite reporters. And I lived in Jersey, so I was constantly coming back over the bridge from Queens into Manhattan during rush hour. ’Cause my shift ended around 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock fighting through Midtown traffic going through the Lincoln Tunnel. Sometimes it would take me two, three hours just to get home from some job out in Queens.
But it really wasn’t the traffic that, that did this. It was a different dynamic. If you’re chasing death, you know, for, for three, three and a half years – when I first started at the News, it didn’t matter, right? I was just so gung-ho and so glad to be at the News and so obsessed with scooping the Post and, and seeing my name in one of the largest newspapers in the country and being a part of this epic tabloid war that it really didn’t matter, right? But you know, what we would do is, we would constantly, as I described earlier, we would, we would ask people to share their innermost feelings during which, what was probably the worst moment of their lives.
And it wore on you, right? I mean, and it wasn’t just asking that first time. One of the dynamics that’s described in the book is that because we were a part of a tabloid war, because we had this, this archenemy that we were constantly battling against, it pushed us to do things that we wouldn’t have otherwise done. And that made us better journalists, right? But it also made us do things that may not have been ethically right. Let me give you an example. A girl, a girl from a very wealthy family – I think she was either going to NYU or an Ivy League school — she was dating a chef, a sous chef at some restaurant in Manhattan, and he killed her. And the family lived out in some tony suburb on Long Island. And we both drove out there, the News and the Post.
And you know, we knocked on the door to get words from the father and he didn’t want to talk to us, right? I mean, his daughter had just died and he shuffled us off. So we go back to our, but that doesn’t mean that we leave, right? Both sides aren’t going to leave, because if we leave, the other side may get something and that’ll, you know, that would represent defeat. So we would charge back to our cars and stake out the, you know, lay siege to their home. And this went on for days. So we would go back again later in the afternoon. “Please leave us alone. Please, we’re mourning.” OK. Go back to our car. Try again. The next day we’re back out there again at 8 a.m. Knock on the door again. “Please leave us alone. I put out a statement. It should be enough.”
OK. Go back to the car again. Days pass by, constantly over and over again, knocking on the door. The editor in New York didn’t care, right? He doesn’t have to look that father in the eye. But you know, “give him another shot,” he would say. “Go try him again.” And you know what the calculus behind this was? Because if you didn’t do this, the Post would, and you would be beaten. One other quick example with regards to this, it was a firefighter who died in the Deutsche Bank building. There were two of them, Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino, and you know I’m covering the, I’m out at the location of his widow’s house and you know, she obviously despises the fact that we’re laying siege to her house after her husband died. But we, you know, we’re out there to get photos and capture her mourning and to see if, you know, she’ll talk to us. And then comes the day of the funeral, which is a couple of days after the death.
And, and the rewrite guy wants me to go infiltrate the funeral parlor to get eyes on the coffin. He wanted to know what kind of wood it was. Yeah. I mean, you know, if you, if you think about this, this is the level of madness that ensued. So, you know, I was like, I was game, you know, I didn’t want to do it. I knew it was wrong, but it’s not like you were in a position, this is your job. You know, this is what you’re gonna do. So I snuck into the funeral home and I remember walking into the room and it was probably an hour before the actual viewing had taken place. And I’m looking at the coffin and I find out what kind of wood it is, and you know, I see the, his helmet, you know, poignantly resting on the, on the coffin and the flower arrangements.
And then I’m walking out and I get stopped by a firefighter. “What are you doing in there?” he asks me. I didn’t, you know, I didn’t really have an answer, you know, I just told him, you know, “I’m there to document what’s happening so that when Joe Graffagnino’s kids will look back on this years later, they’ll know what a hero his father was.” and it was BS, right? It was a complete, it was a BS answer. And he called me on it. He looked at me and he goes, “You keep telling yourself that.” But the truth of the matter was, if I had been really honest with that firefighter in that moment, the answer I should have given him is, “We went into that room to find out what the wood of that coffin was and to get eyes on his, on his, you know, his viewing parlor, because if we didn’t, the Post would, and that would represent defeat the following day.”
So that’s the dynamic really that I tried to document in this book. It not only pushed us to become what I believe was probably the best journalists in the country during that period. I mean, when we went to, to cities far afield to compete against the national media, the News and Post would win hands down every time. Every time we would go out to some, you know, Minneapolis, a bridge collapsed back in 2007 or 8 or whatever. You know, whatever story we went out to go out and cover on a national basis, we would whoop NBC and CBS and all the other, because we were battle-hardened troops that were used to this on a daily basis. And it pushed us to become great journalists and go that extra mile, but there was a dark side to it as well because it, it pushed us to do things that were wrong and that wore on you spiritually and emotionally as the years went by to the point where I remember at the end I couldn’t take it anymore.
I just couldn’t knock on one more door and face one more widow and ask her to describe to me what she was feeling in that moment, especially if she had told me five times prior to just leave her alone. It just, it became a physical reaction from me. I just, I couldn’t do it anymore. And, and you know, that was, that was really the end, the end of my time on the street. And so, you know, there’s a transition, there’s a journey that you’ll, that you’ll see in the book from somebody starting out very gung-ho to see his name in lights and to make a name for himself to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I don’t think I was unique in that way. There are a lot of runners who experienced the same, the same sort of thing.
If we have time, can I tell you one more story with regard to, to that kind of dynamic that really drives it home?
Sure. Sure, of course.
So Derek Jeter – this is a great story for your listeners because they’ll identify with the character. Derek Jeter was, was busted by, he wasn’t arrested, but he was caught by New York state tax people for potentially cheating on his income taxes. He was doing that Florida state income tax dodge where he was claiming residency, full-time residency in Florida, so he wouldn’t have to pay, they don’t have state, they don’t have state income taxes out of Florida. So he was, he was claiming full-time residency in Florida so that he wouldn’t have to pay New York state income taxes. But they had discovered, in order for that to work, you have to spend more than 183 days a year in Florida.
And because his name is constantly in the newspaper, some bureaucrat up in New York had discovered that he had not been in Florida for the requisite amount of time. So this, this was big news, right? Derek Jeter, right? One of the biggest names at the time in New York is a tax cheat. So they sent me and a photographer the first day out to his parents’ house in northern New Jersey. And the first day the photographer was Andrew Theodorakis. And, and Andrew who had, you know, Theo as we called him, had no qualms about what we were doing. For him it was just a get, as it was for me at that particular moment, it was again, you know, the fact that we were intruding on someone’s lives, it didn’t really factor in.
But that night they didn’t come home, Mr. and Mrs. Jeter. So we left. The next day we came back, I was there with a photographer named Mike Albans, and Mrs. Jeter did come home from the grocery store that day. So, you know, we’re staked outside the house and we see her carrying her groceries up, up the porch. And I, you know, as soon as I see her, I run up to her and I go, you know, “What do you think about your son being a tax cheat?” I don’t know if I worded it like that, but you know, you get the picture. She drops the groceries, she clutches her heart, and she’s, she looks, she’s, she’s, she starts crying and she looks like she’s going to have a heart attack. She actually says, “You’re giving me a heart attack! My boy does everything right! He’s a good boy and all you want to do is tear him down!”
And she starts wailing and hysterically crying on, on the, on her porch. And I’m thinking to myself, This is awesome. I got a great get here. Mrs. Jeter is having a meltdown on her front porch and we’re not only getting photos of it, I’m getting these great words. And it was indeed the front page the next day. But then at some point I realize that Albans behind me is not photographing what’s taking place.
So I turn around and I look at Albans and I go, “Mike, what are you doing? You’re not shooting her!” And he looks at me. “I’m not doing it,” he says. I said, “What do you mean you’re not doing it?” He goes, “I’m not doing it. I’m just not doing it.” I said, “You better do it.” I go, “This is gonna be the wood the next day.” That was what we called the front page.
I go, “I’m gonna call the city desk if you don’t do it. We got to get this photo. Get her before she stops crying.” So he looks at me and he goes, “I’ll do it, Jaccarino, but you’re scum.” And he shot her and we got the quotes. And as I said, it was indeed the front page the next day, but a month later or two months, very, very short period of time, Albans quit. And he went out to like, you know, I don’t know, Oregon or Washington or Idaho, and he built himself a log cabin. He had had it right. He had had it. You’re, you’re, you’re constantly chasing people and, and getting into their lives, as I said, at the worst moment of their lives. And there are emotional consequences to that and that, and that, I think that that kind of gets at what you’re trying to ask me about.
Nick Hirshon (44:46):
Certainly. I mean, I think, as you said, the burnout was not unique to you. I maybe had a different experience because I was not running on a regular basis. That was a very infrequent thing for me in the Queens bureau. We were often developing local beats, kind of more akin to probably what you were doing before you got to the Daily News, where you’re covering police precinct council meetings and community board meetings and just openings and closings of businesses in the community. And a lot more of that sort of stuff. You call it mundane or whatever. I kind of liked it because it was from the neighborhoods that I had grown up in. But either way, it, there were some of those adrenaline-rush moments where we were assigned to a scene of a murder or rape or some crime that had occurred, but they were fewer and far between. So I could certainly understand why that happened to so many. As we kind of, like, move forward here then, if people are reading this book and they want to kind of share their insights with you or ask you more questions, maybe things that I wasn’t able to get to today, how could they catch up with you?
Mike Jaccarino (45:50):
I’m on Twitter at @MJaccarino1 on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you. Give this book a shot. It’s a lot of fun. I spent a lot of time on the prose turning phrases. There’s a lot of great tabloid phrases. It’s fun to read. It’s breezy. It is not, it is not a, you know, I mean, it documents the war, but it’s not an academic work by any means. There’s car chases, there’s hospital infiltrations, bidding wars, you know, flying all over the country to fight the competition. It’s a fun read. It’s exciting. And I hope you give it a shot. And I’d love to hear from everybody who gives a shot to get, to get their opinions of, of what they think of it.
Nick Hirshon (46:33):
And one last question for you, Mike, before you go, we always end the podcast with this question for the guests. Why does journalism history matter? I know you’re not a journalism historian, but obviously what you’ve produced here, I think, is a valuable contribution to a certain era in journalism history. Why do you think that matters?
Mike Jaccarino (46:53):
Well, I mean, our democracy depends on journalism, right? And it’s, there’s — as print journalism dies and, and digital has not really replaced it because we haven’t in our business learned to make money off of the digital product. There’s nobody manning the walls anymore. So what happens to journalism in a larger sense is important to our democracy. They don’t call it the fourth estate for no reason. And you know, as these local papers shutter, as they sky their staffs, there’s nobody on the wall, right? There’s nobody watching anymore. There’s nobody going to those council meetings. There’s nobody. And what you were doing arguably was far more important than what I was doing at that time. That nuts and bolts journalism is what, is what democracy is based upon. Looking over budgets, looking over, talking to public officials, holding their feet to the fire. So you know, when, when that, that has gone, a pillar of our democracy is undermined and we’re all the worse for it. In regard to this particular book, this is, this is the last gasp of print journalism before the fall. I mean, you know, the 2008 financial crisis really ended it all. It didn’t at that particular moment, but that was really the, the, you know, digital had already been gaining steam and, and that, that knockout blow just accelerated the process. So if years from now, decades from now, when people want to know what it was like and what happened during those final years, I would love to think that they might read this book to see how this incredible trend that not only that, that affects our democracy, that, that, that affects an industry. How it played out in one city on the ground in a dramatic, very, very human personal way. And they’ll go to this book and they’ll see it, you know, they’ll see how, how the last gasp of, of journalism before things changed irrevocably.
Nick Hirshon (48:49):
Well, thank you for documenting it and thank you for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Mike Jaccarino (48:53):
Nick, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. You were a great colleague, and I really appreciate you having me on.
Nick Hirshon (48:58):
Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”