Bravo's 'Tabloid Wars' gives an inside look at the New York Daily News

New York Daily News police reporter Tony Sclafani: 'Everything's news.'
New York Daily News police reporter Tony Sclafani: 'Everything's news.'

Most people outside the field of journalism have no idea what goes on inside the newsroom of a big-city newspaper. If they think about it at all, depending on their age they might recall a scene or two from the fictional newsrooms of the big-screen classic The Front Page or TV's Lou Grant or Deadline.

But those have about as much to do with actual newspapering as MTV's The Real World has to do with the real world.

Now Bravo, a cable channel owned by NBC, is set to give viewers a peek behind the scenes at a real newspaper - and one of the country's largest ones at that: the New York Daily News. An original six-episode series called Tabloid Wars, which premieres at 9 tomorrow night, is a lively documentary that follows reporters and editors as they prepare all manner of stories - under deadline pressure and against cutthroat competition - for a newspaper that's sold to nearly 800,000 people each day.

Filmed over a three-month period last summer, the series is what Bravo is calling a "procedural drama," meaning that it's unscripted, but edited and presented like a traditional dramatic series. The cameras were given full access to the newspaper's staffers as they went about their daily routines, and many of their conversations are peppered with bleeps, supporting at least one clich: that newsrooms are hotbeds of "colorful" language.

As a tabloid paper, the Daily News isn't The New York Times, nor does it try to be. Its sensibilities are attuned to those of its readers, for whom local crime and celebrity news often takes precedence over the latest goings-on in Congress or in foreign capitals.

And as Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke, a veteran of racy British tabloids, points out early in the program, a late story is nearly as unacceptable as no story at all.

"You've got a 10:30 deadline, and you can't miss the deadline," Cooke says. "You can have the best paper in the world, and if it's not where it's supposed to be, it does not get sold."

The series' first episode illustrates the newspaper's tricky balancing act as its staffers work equally hard to bring its readers stories of both substance and silliness. City reporter Kerry Burke is trying to gather information on a brutal beating in which three black men were attacked by a group of young whites armed with baseball bats. The attack occurred in Howard Beach, a neighborhood in Queens where a similar incident several years earlier triggered a wave of racial confrontations in the city and gained national attention.

Burke is a "runner," a reporter who spends most of his time on the streets, knocking on doors, questioning people who don't want to talk to him, and doing the other nonglamorous grunt work that is often necessary to produce the details that make for a compelling news story.

While working that story, though, he's called to check into a tip that a housekeeper working for actor Robert DeNiro has assaulted DeNiro's wife. Hey, that's pretty juicy. Did she have a baseball bat?

Oops, it turns out the housekeeper didn't attack Mrs. D. after all, but merely lifted some of her jewelry.

Oh. Never mind, then.

But wait. Among the loot was a pair of earrings worth a million bucks, and the suspect also worked for a couple of other big names.

Well, that's better.

Burke is remarkably candid about the varying demands of his job.

"I loathe celebrity stories," he says. "Celebrities aren't news." He pauses a moment, then offers a clarification. Kind of.

"They are news, because people are interested ... but c'mon, this lady swiped some earrings. That ain't exactly like a triple homicide in the South Bronx."

Assisting Burke in collecting facts is police reporter Tony Sclafani, who is anxious to finish his shift because he's getting married the next day. But besides the DeNiro caper and the Howard Beach attack, he also has to run down details on a report that actor Christian Slater pinched some girl's behind and was arrested for it.

Which is why Sclafani finds himself staking out a theater on Broadway where Slater is performing to see if he can get a comment after the show. While waiting, Sclafani and other news hounds are subjected to a rant from a passer-by who yells at them for their interest in "faux news" while they should be covering important things such as the war in Iraq.

Sclafani laughs off the guy's diatribe, but later reflects on it. "Everything's news," he says. "I mean, there's going to be an Iraq story in today's paper, too. We all can't focus on one thing. If we did, nobody would buy the paper."

During daily news meetings, the paper's top editors discuss the day's developing stories, and they try to decide which ones might be worth placing on the front page. And they don't always look for the most gruesome or sensational stuff - at least some of them don't.

Presiding over a news meeting, Cooke asks, "What have we got that's joyful and wonderful and uplifting?"

A section editor pipes up: "The acid story is as uplifting as a battery-acid attack story could be."

Despite tabloid newspapers' reputations for putting sensationalism above all else, there's a strong underlying sense of responsibility for presenting things accurately and with some sensitivity. Before all the details of the Howard Beach attack have become clear, the paper's reporters and editors, well aware of the neighborhood's history, agonize over whether to characterize it in print as a racially motivated crime.

"You put the wrong thing in the paper [and] you could have riots in the streets," says Burke, who comes off as a thoughtful spokesman for his profession.

But Burke's boss, Cooke (a short-timer who has since moved on to another tabloid in Chicago), tempers that measured stance with his blustering. "At the end of the day, I'm the editor," he says archly. "I get what I want."

A fair amount of the juicy, behind-the-scenes celebrity dish in the Daily News is written by a husband-and-wife team of gossip columnists, George Rush and Joanna Molloy (whose columns appear occasionally in The Blade's Peach Plus section). The two have contacts all over New York, and they rub elbows daily with the glamorous, the famous, and the infamous.

Rush, a transplanted Midwesterner, says he and his wife don't fawn over the famous people they write about. In fact, he delights in tweaking them when he can.

"Occasionally you can squeeze ... powerful people in New York and make them yell or threaten to sue you," he says while chomping on his ever-present wad of gum. "And that's kind of a kick."

His wife, a fifth-generation New Yorker, has no illusions about why the two are on the A-list for the city's hottest parties.

"The minute that I don't write for the New York Daily News anymore, I'm home eatin' Cheez Whiz and watching Lucy reruns."

Curiously, despite the series' title of Tabloid Wars, there's little mention of the Daily News' bitter tabloid rival, the New York Post, which it wages war against every day. And nobody from the 700,000-circulation Post is profiled or interviewed, so viewers get only a one-sided view of the tabloid war.

Future episodes of the series will feature a flurry of stories, from the high-rise dive to death of a cop killer to secret details about Jessica Simpson on the set of The Dukes of Hazzard, from a helicopter crash in the East River to an alleged affair between a high-ranking Catholic clergyman and his secretary.

Needless to say, each story will be pursued with equal tenacity, and with that inflexible deadline firmly in mind.