Since its inception in 1919, the New York Daily News has been many things, but certainly never quiet. As America’s first tabloid, the News quickly established itself as purveyor-in-chief of the news in pictures, before reinventing itself as a more serious publication, fighting corruption and the oppression of minorities, towards the end of the century.
Despite tumbling from its throne as the United States’ most-read daily newspaper during its formative years, the Daily News remains one of the most circulated papers in the nation. Join us as we look back on the many highs and lows from a hundred years of Daily News history.
Turn the page to:
- Founding and Early History
- America’s Biggest Newspaper
- Peak Years
- Hard Times
- The Brief Tenure of Robert Maxwell
- The Zuckerman Years
- 21st Century
Founding and Early History
The New York Daily News was founded in 1919 by Joseph Medill Patterson, a publisher of the Chicago Tribune. In the Windy City, Patterson and his co-publisher (and cousin) Robert R. McCormick were having difficulty agreeing on the editorial direction and content of the Tribune, and so in the interest of all parties, it was decided that Patterson should launch a new Tribune-owned paper in New York City.
After meeting with Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, Patterson decided that his new publication, which would be entitled the Illustrated Daily News, should adopt a tabloid format akin to Harmsworth’s London-based Daily Mirror, becoming the first of its kind in the United States. The Illustrated Daily News launched on July 26, 1919 as “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, a slogan it would carry until 1991. In his introductory editorial, Patterson outlined the paper’s populist standpoint:
The policy of the Daily News will be your policy. It will be aggressively for America and for the people of New York.
After a slow start, the newly-renamed New York Daily News found readers on the city’s subway system, as commuters found its smaller tabloid size and layout easier to handle and navigate, particularly during busier times. The paper also penetrated a gap in the market with its content, utilizing large pictures and photographs and focusing on more scandalous and titillating stories, as well as reader contests and cartoon strips. By the time of its first birthday, New York Daily News circulation had reached the 100,000 mark.
America’s Biggest Newspaper
By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, the Daily News had established itself as the biggest newspaper in the entire country, reaching approximately one million readers every day.
The success of the Daily News at this time must surely be attributed to its sensational pictorial coverage, and a willingness to go one step further than its competitors in the pursuit of an attention-grabbing front page. Never was this more evident than on January 12, 1928, when Chicago Tribune reporter Tom Howard strapped a small hidden camera to his leg in order to capture the execution of Ruth Snyder, sent to the electric chair for murdering her husband. The image of Snyder mid-electrocution was published the following day in the Daily News with the headline “DEAD!”.
At the end of the 1920s, with circulation now at 1.5 million, the Daily News moved from Park Place to a new headquarters at 220 East 42nd Street. Patterson commissioned Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, who had also built the Chicago Tribune Tower a few years earlier, to erect a 36-story freestanding Art Deco structure, which would become known as the Daily News Building. Criticized by some for its “utilitarian” appearance, the News Building would form the inspiration for the Daily Planet in the Superman franchise.
New York Daily News building
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Daily News continued to flourish through the mid-20th century. In the 1930s, it was an early user of the Associated Press wirephoto service, employing a large staff of photographers, as well as columnists such as Ed Sullivan, who would of course go on to host The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The paper was widely praised for its coverage of the Second World War; “The brassy, pictorial New York Daily News led all the rest”, wrote Time magazine. In 1947, Daily News distribution hit its peak, with a readership of 2.4 million daily and 4.7 million on Sundays, solidifying its status as the nation’s largest newspaper. The same year, the Daily News established what would become New York’s fifth television station, WPIX.
In 1975, The Daily News rolled out what would instantly become the most famous headline in its then-56-year history. After President Gerald Ford had delivered a speech the previous day vetoing a bankruptcy bail-out for New York City, the front page of the October 30th New York Daily News read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”. Ford would later identify the headline as a contributor to his losing the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. It was around this time that the Daily News, historically a staunch Republican publication, began its shift to a “flexibly centrist” stance, exemplified by such subsequent slogans as “The Eyes, the Ears, the Honest Voice of New York” and “The most New York you can get”.
In 1978, the Daily News shut down for almost three months due to a multi-union strike. However, while the strike also affected their major competitors in the city, The New York Post and the New York Times, it was the Daily News that was hit the hardest, losing 145,000 in daily circulation. The Times suggested this loss in News readership wasn’t solely due to the strike, though, highlighting a price hike and production problems that came about once the strike was over. In any case, the first cracks in the Daily News’ previously impenetrable exterior had begun to show.
Throughout the years when the Daily News had been most profitable, it had yielded to union demands regarding rules, job numbers and overtime. As a result, by the time the 1980s rolled around, the paper was operating at a loss of $1 million a month. In 1982, its parent Tribune Company offered the tabloid up for sale, to no avail. Closing the newspaper altogether was also considered, but considered too costly due to severance pay and pensions, which reportedly would have amounted to in excess of $100 million.
In 1985, a strike at the Chicago Tribune resulted in the hiring of non-union workers as replacements. The Tribune Company’s new reputation as a union-buster would be placed under the microscope five years later in New York. When union contracts expired in March 1990, it was reported that labor costs were swallowing 44 percent of the Daily News’s revenue, a large contributing factor toward the paper’s $115 million loss since the beginning of the 1980s.
The Tribune Company’s desired outcome was the expunging of up to a thousand jobs. In response to this, in October 1990 the newspaper’s ten unions, joined together as the Allied Printing Trades Council, embarked on a devastating five-month strike. While the Daily News continued to publish by using non-union replacement staff, it did so at a $70 million loss in the fourth quarter of 1990 alone.
New York Daily News, August 28, 1952
The Brief Tenure of Robert Maxwell
In March 1991, controversial British media mogul Robert Maxwell purchased the paper from the Tribune Company. Amongst Maxwell’s portfolio was the Daily Mirror, the tabloid on which the Daily News had been based way back in 1919. Maxwell negotiated successfully with the unions, finally bringing the 147-day strike to an end. But by this point, circulation had dropped to below 800,000 copies daily, less than a third of its 1940s heyday.
Though it may have appeared that the publication was turning a corner, the darkest days in New York Daily News history were still to come, and soon. On November 5, 1991, Maxwell suffered a heart attack aboard his yacht, and accidentally drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. An investigation found that Maxwell’s media empire was hundreds of millions in debt, and that he had fraudulently used pension funds to sure up his companies’ stocks. A month later, the New York Daily News filed for bankruptcy.
A bidding war ensued between The Atlantic owner Mort Zuckerman, who had attempted to acquire the paper before Maxwell did, and Conrad Black, the founder of Hollinger Inc., which published the Chicago Sun-Times and Britain’s Daily Telegraph. While Black’s offer was significantly more substantial, the newspaper’s management, led by editor-cum-interim publisher James Willse, were effectively forced to sell to Zuckerman due to contracts he had already successfully negotiated with nine of the paper’s ten unions. In January 1993, Zuckerman officially acquired the New York Daily News for $36 million, less than half the amount Conrad Black had offered.
The Zuckerman Years
Zuckerman made several big changes to the Daily News in an attempt to rediscover its earning potential and reposition it as a “serious tabloid”. In the fall of 1993, Zuckerman invested $60 million towards color presses, enabling the News to match the visual quality of USA Today, the largest daily newspaper in the country. At the end of 1993, the Daily News, which had been on the brink of extinction two years earlier, was once again operating at a profit.
In 1995, with the company’s printing soon to be operated out of a newly-built plant in New Jersey, the Daily News left its home of 65 years, the News Building, and relocated to a single floor office at 5 Manhattan West. In 1996, the paper started publishing the quarterly (later monthly) insert BET Weekend for African Americans, which by 1997 had grown to a circulation of over a million across fifteen different markets nationwide. This was followed by another successful insert, Caribbean Monthly. The News also began publishing articles on the internet in October 1996.
In the late 1990s, under the leadership of new editors-in-chief (first Pete Hamill and then Debby Krenek), the Daily News developed a reputation for protecting the First Amendment, as well as the rights of the people of New York City, particularly those perceived not to have a voice. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary in 1996 for E.R. Shipp’s pieces on race, welfare and social issues, and again in 1998 for Mike McAlary’s coverage of police brutality against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
By 1999, the Daily News had developed a completely electronic publishing system, claiming to be the first metropolitan paper in the country to do so.
With the explosion of the internet and online news in the early 21st century, no printed newspaper came away unscathed. By 2016, the readership of the Daily News had dropped to below half a million for the first time in almost a century.
The emergence of and massive public interest in the Donald Trump presidential campaign offered the Daily News an opportunity to re-establish itself amongst the city’s most-viewed media outlets. The News harked back to its roots, employing a more provocative style and tone, giving Republican senator Ted Cruz the middle finger via the Statue of Liberty’s hand, and rehashing its most famous headline in the direction of the incoming President: “TRUMP TO WORLD: DROP DEAD”.
But while the New York Daily News may have enjoyed some resurgence in terms of visibility and notoriety, the key numbers continued to wane. In 2017, circulation halved from the previous year, and in September its former owners the Tribune Publishing Company (at that point temporarily rebranded as “Tronc”) re-purchased the newspaper for the monumental sum of one dollar. The following year, Tronc embarked on a firing spree, with editor-in-chief Jim Rich amongst those on the chopping block. After the cull of half of the paper’s editorial staff, the Daily News was left with 45 staff members, a far cry from the 400 plying their trade in the News Building in the late 1980s.
Front page of the New York Daily News, June 5, 2000
Below is a list of the circulation figures for the editions of the New York Daily News (print only):