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Meet the (Meta)Press: Paul Colford

Who reports on the reporters?

- December 9, 2003

New York Daily News media columnist Paul Colford started freelancing for The New York Times when he was in college, and he's been working for New York newspapers ever since. A New Jersey native, he wrote Garden State stories for the Times's Metro section back in the mid-'70s. He spent 20 years at Newsday and, later, its accomplished, if ill-fated, offshoot New York Newsday, before being lured to the Daily News by former editor Ed Kosner in 2000. The past year has been a busy one on his beat, with everything from Martha to Rosie to Jayson to Howell, and he talked to mediabistro.com last week about some of the bigger issues on the media landscape.

Birthdate: September 24, 1953
Hometown: Jersey City, New Jersey
First section of the Sunday Times: Metro section

How did you get into media writing?
I was always a big reader. I was someone who would always read Publishers Weekly very closely—it's a very dry magazine, and it always has been, but it's just chockablock with information about books and authors and what was coming out and who was buying what, and I just found it as interesting as someone who might follow a sports team. So I was pleased to be asked to do this on an ongoing basis. And as New York Newsday morphed into a real kick-ass daily paper all its own, very much different from the Long Island paper, this was seen as just another part of the mix.

Do you get competitive with your column?
I would say that the column is competitive. I think it's probably less gossip-driven than Keith Kelly's column. I think it's pretty news-driven. Ed Kosner never spelled this out in so many words, but I think there's a desire to make it widely accessible without overlooking some stories that are just fascinating in and of themselves to the industry.

Is that changing at the Daily News at all? I read recently that there were discussions about whether to make the paper more gossipy.
I won't speak on behalf of [new editor] Martin Dunn, but I'm doing the same thing I've always done. I think that all of us are waiting to see what Dunn will do over the long term for the paper. He's clearly a very energetic guy, and I think everybody has picked up on that, but he just got here so it's hard to see where it's all going.

What's been the reaction to gossip columnist Lloyd Grove starting at the News?
I happen to sit near Lloyd, and he came in with a pretty high profile. Most people were quite impressed that his arrival merited a page one story in The New York Times. You don't see that everyday. I was congratulating him just last night on having this juicy bit about Gwyneth Paltrow being in the family way and teasing him about the fact that the business he's in, the side of the business he's in, it's really kind of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of thing.

Isn't most journalism that way?
Yeah. That's exactly what it is, and it's almost indescribable to people who are not a part of it. Some people's best stories are important until about 10:00 in the morning of the day they appear, and then it's off to the next one.

What was your take on The New York Times stuff earlier this year?
Certainly it was quite extraordinary. Over a six-month period I just did dozens and dozens of stories about what was going on at the Times. It took on a life of its own as a part of my beat.

I had some good sources, I think, who were genuinely concerned about what happened and—not being in a position to report it out themselves—they saw helping me as being a way of helping themselves find out how it worked. Reading it in the next day's paper informed them about what was going on at their own paper.

I would say these were not sources for the most part who ratted out the Times—who were ringing me with gossipy leads. There was sort of a reticence about most of them. But they didn't hang up the phone. At first, the more the story chugged along, the more struck I was by how really saddened and grieved and upset and pissed off so many people were over there. It seemed to anguish people because it was the heart and soul of the institution—the news product. And the arrogance that was perceived on the part of Howell Raines just horrified a number of people who didn't really particularly know him or deal with him on a regular basis but who just sort of felt he had radiated something terrible at the place.

And what about the Rosie O'Donnell trial?
Well there was the whole spectacle of the Rosie thing, but that actually just leads to the real train wreck.

You mean the circulation figures?
Yes. It's like pushing back a rock when you were a kid and noticing there were all of these really slimy worms underneath. I think most publications probably have nothing to worry about in terms of how they do their business and how fairly and professionally they represent themselves to advertisers and readers as a business. But it did raise the question—and I certainly hear competing publishers expressing some irritation about this—it has raised suspicions about other circulation question marks out there.

But is there an alternative to using this system for tracking circulation?
There's the Audit Bureau of Circulations and the MRI, which puts out these fascinating demographic score sheets twice a year about how many people are reading. The circulation is X , the total readership is maybe twice that because of pass along, and what the household income is. That's all interesting stuff. You will see some wide differences between magazines that have well-heeled readerships and some that have less affluent readerships. Those all go in the mix when someone's placing an ad for Macy's or Bloomingdale's, but what was at issue was what was reported to the Audit Bureau. The bureau takes what you report and then they subsequently go and audit your book. You can tell them that you have a million circulation, and they may find out you only have 950,000. If they don't find that out right away, then they don't audit you right away. But I think the circulation side of magazine publishing will invite greater scrutiny to some degree because of the testimony at the Rosie trial.

In a magazine landscape where Maxim and Lucky have risen to the top of the heap, do you think there's a trend towards a simplification of content?
The magazine business was so extraordinarily competitive already, and competition has intensified hundreds of times over because of the escalating glut of media. The infinite numbers of cable channels, the digital cable packages, the additional numbers of magazines—each of them hoping to get a slim piece of the pie—video games. With all of these distractions—

It just becomes who shouts the loudest.
You've really got to scream out of the newsstands and titillate and fascinate and hope that the person who pays $3.50 for the magazine this month may become a subscriber next month or two months down the road. And editors' careers are made or broken on this strength of newsstand performance. It's not the only thing that happens. Subscriptions are what pays the bills, but that sense that the newsstand is giving a Technicolor image of how popular or hot or attractive or important a magazine is—it may be more true now than it was 10 years ago.

It's unfortunate for a lot of magazines that are quality magazines that won't survive because their DNA would be corrupted if all of a sudden they decided to just try to make themselves a newsstand read.

But I think Maxim has converted a lot more of its newsstand readers to subscription buyers and they should be given credit for that. Many newspapers would prefer to have far more home delivery people because those people are going to get their paper whether it rains or snows. They're not going to stay home and keep their 50 cents in their pocket. I think that the biggest challenge, for all media, network television, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, is the proliferation of a million distractions—on the Internet, DVDs, video games, digital cable, gazillions of movies opening every weekend—to hold your ground and broaden it as a publication amid all of that distraction, a lot of it cheaper than the cost of a subscription or single copy. That is the struggle of the ages. There's just no question about it. It will only get harder and clearly only the strong will survive as time goes by.

How do you feel about the interplay of the Internet and journalism?
Some papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal rush more now than they did years ago to put up breaking stories that are written by their own staff as opposed to just slapping up a story that dribbled over the wire. The other extreme is often stunning—when you come across publications that have an anemic or half-assed web presence, where you can barely even search on their website for articles in that day's issue. That's almost a kind of cheap indifference to value what the website has. It just seems to be so foolhardy because of the fact that younger people in particular access a publication's information through the website.

Do you think that this instantaneous quality makes the paper version less relevant?
I don't think so. I think the websites are clearly seen as a lively extension of the publication. There's no question that a thoughtful paper like the Times, and I think for the overwhelming number of people who swear by it each day, is something they want to hold in their hand, rip apart, clip stuff, and that will also be true of stories that they may have initially ran into online the evening before. I don't see any obsolescence creeping into papers that put more and more of their stuff online. For example, I do marvel at the number of readers who are not in the New York area who read my column just because they encounter it online. I don't even know where there are but they're clearly out-of-state. They may have accessed the column through mediabistro or through Romenesko or any number of other places that I can't even imagine. And they'll say, "Out here in the Midwest, we don't give a damn about Bonnie Fuller," or whatever the remark happens to be. They're not spending 50 cents for the paper but I'm sure the Daily News is delighted to have them just the same.

David S. Hirschman is the news editor of mediabistro.com and a full-time freelance writer and editor.



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