Saturday, April 20, 2024

NY Daily News: Ex Publisher Mort Zuckerman’s Hidden Mental Decline Spelled the End of the Paper He Loved


The New York Daily News was gutted today by its new owner, Tronc, formerly the Tribune Publishing Company. Half the staff was fired. But Tronc was never the real publisher. From 1993 until last year, Mort Zuckerman protected his passion project.

Mort Zuckerman loved the New York Daily News. If he were well, and still in charge, Mort would never have let the paper fall into the clutches of people like Tronc. But Mort– who I met in 1985 when I went to work for him at The Atlantic Monthly Press Publishing Company– has secretly suffered from a form of dementia for the last several years. No one talks about it, and when the News was sold to Tronc last year for $1 no one mentioned it.

Over the years when Mort owned the paper, his employees and critics complained about him– because that’s what you do when your boss is a real estate billionaire. Mort went through editors like water through his fingers. But the paper was a symbol to him, and he propped it up the way Rupert Murdoch runs the New York Post. Mort knew his News was an essential to counterbalance in New York to Murdoch’s zany conservatism.

But Zuckerman has not been photographed at a public event in two years. A staple of Page Six, he slowly retreated from¬† public views. Zuckerman– who has daughters aged 20 and 9 — essentially turned the paper and his real estate business over to his devoted nephews and associates three or four years ago.

Mort bought the paper– rescued it, really, in 1993– when Czech-born billionaire Robert Maxwell, who owned the News, mysteriously drowned at sea. Mort installed Harold Evans, former editor of the Times of London, editor in chief of Random House, and my old boss at the Atlantic Monthly Press, to run the paper. In the 90s, the News enjoyed a Renaissance that continued into the 2000s– right up until the digital age came calling like the Grim Reaper.

No one ever discussed Mort’s declining situation. I wrote a piece about it, sort of, three years ago. At this point, lady friends of his escorted him to dinners. He was in a jovial mood. His dementia (it could be Alzheimer’s) had softened him and made him even more charming. You could see why famous women like Gloria Steinem had dated him. At a January 2016 dinner for the movie, “Creed,” he introduced me to his companion by saying, “This is Roger. He knows everything.” He clasped my hand in his, recalling our old acquaintance-ship. At that dinner, Mort bragged about his new editor. “What’s his name?” I asked. Mort hesitated. “I could tell you,” he said, “but you could look it up.”

Obviously something was wrong.This was not the Mort Zuckerman I knew: when we worked for him, he was ruthless. He sold the Atlantic Monthly Press to the highest bidder, a novice with money, not to the established Italian publisher who wanted it, because it lost money. “I don’t own companies that lose money,” he said. In the 80s he’d bought US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, and the book company. Then in 1993, the Daily News. They were passion projects, and solid platforms to advance him as a TV presence on places like the McLaughlin Report. He was fiercely pro-Israel, which always endeared him to people who sometimes might be mad at him for other things. (Evans was a key part of his success. He wrote all of Mort’s editorials for US News, at least back then.)

If Mort had stayed well, he might have been able to fight the digital slaughter. But his illness coincided with the rapid rise of the internet. The physical paper, his bailiwick, was suddenly irrelevant. It slipped away almost as a metaphor for his own decline. I don’t know if Mort — who I’m told is well taken care of– has any idea of what happened recently. His family sold the paper to Tronc for a dollar– one dollar. When you pay a sawbuck for something, it has no value. Tronc didn’t care about the history of New York, journalism, any of it. And today they showed it.

The gutting of the Daily News today– it’s a tragedy to so many of us. I wrote for them in the early 90s, a lot. My editor was Harriett Lyons, who was wonderful. She ran NY Live, the paper’s Sunday magazine, a great read. Liz Smith had her famous gossip column at the News for years. She was followed by Rush & Molloy, Mitchell Fink, all of whom broke tough stories and were supported by Mort. The paper was full of strong voices like Pete Hamill, Mike Lupica, and Stanley Crouch.

Even recently the News won a Pulitzer Prize.¬† Last year it seemed like Tronc might be investing in the paper. Editor in perpetuity Arthur Browne and Time Magazine editor Jim Gaines interviewed potential new hires. But it was not to be. Jim Rich succeeded Browne after having left once before. Beleaguered Rich ran the paper like every edition was the last. His Trump covers were brilliant. To think that Tronc ‘troncked’ him today, is insane.

But there we go. Kids read their phones. Newspapers are too expensive to produce unless you’re willing to lose a lot of money. The Daily News needs a billionaire like Mike Bloomberg or David Geffen to swoop in and save it, in honor of Mort Zuckerman.




Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

Read more

In Other News