MEDIA BRANDS: Dull news content makes for no clear winner in the duel between New York's free tabloids

Each morning at the subway station near my office, I'm greeted with a very in-your-face reminder of the newest media war to hit New York City: the struggle between Tribune Company-owned amNew York and Metro, the latest offering of the Metro International chain of newspapers.

Each morning at the subway station near my office, I'm greeted with a very in-your-face reminder of the newest media war to hit New York City: the struggle between Tribune Company-owned amNew York and Metro, the latest offering of the Metro International chain of newspapers.

At both the bottom and top of the stairs that lead from the platform to the street, there's a person pushing papers into the hands of passers-by. The scene recalls images of bygone days when newsboys would hawk papers on the street, calling attention to special editions with the simple cry of "Extra." Not even that much on-the-ground marketing goes on in today's free-tabloid wars. These distributors, though working in a competitive environment crowded with other newspapers and magazines, as well as a plethora of electronic options, offer nothing more than a shout of the paper's name. They might as well be handing out coupons for Ranch 1. Given that, it's hard to tell why a reader would rationally choose one over the other. In a lot of ways, this graceless approach is indicative of the bland sameness that permeates the pages of the papers themselves. These tabloids are both fighting for supremacy in a space that, in any long-term sense, is uncertain as far as advertisers are concerned. Yet there is by all appearances a marked inattention to differentiation within that space. A recent story in Editor & Publisher groped for ways to explain exactly what distinguishes Metro from amNew York. The writer's main conclusion was that amNew York focuses more on local news, while Metro is preoccupied with national and international news. This isn't terribly surprising when you consider that the Tribune Company also owns Newsday, one of the city's major metro dailies. It's also a very minor difference. Once you get past the front-loading of New York news - both, after all, cover much of the same ground, even locally - you realize there's little else to set them apart. The similar feel of the wire-dominated news pages and extremely mainstream features doesn't exactly make for an obvious winner. As media wars go, this is a lot like Grenada - very localized and with causes that few remember - compared with, say, Cold War-style conflicts like CNN versus Fox News or the New York Daily News versus the Post - with all their ideological undertones. Both of these rivalries spill out of the media themselves into the media that cover them, billboards, and word of mouth. They're fought out by dynamic media brands trying to stake out clear positions and, in doing so, offering legitimate options to consumers and ramping up the competition for scoops. While this mentality has its drawbacks, it also brings with it a certain vibrancy. I think most news consumers welcome amNew York and Metro and, along with them, a new media fray. Yet, most must be wondering whether this newest war has to be so uninspired in its content.

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