Meet Arthur Browne, New York Daily News Editor 43 Years in the Making

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The New York Daily News has seen a decline in circulation, yet it remains an influential outlet. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

You may not know who Arthur Browne is, but you are likely familiar with some of his recent work. Last spring, as Bernie Sanders was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, the senator sat down for a conversation with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. Sanders has called Vermont home for a good half-century, but he is from Brooklyn. His primary interlocutor on the editorial board was Browne, its longtime head, who has always lived in Long Island but sounds Brooklyn through and through.

Browne started the meeting the way he always does, swinging hard for the chin, asking Sanders if he thought Apple was “destroying the fabric of America,” an allusion to the senator’s anti-corporatist rhetoric. Sanders flubbed the question, clearly unprepared for an old-fashioned Brooklyn brawl. I had seen plenty of others—senators, governors, local potentates—succumb to Browne’s journalistic assaults. But this was a presidential candidate.

It got worse from there, with Browne revealing Sanders to have a poor grasp of both high finance and international affairs. Most in the media declared it a disaster, and Sanders began his fall from electoral grace. On the lefty outlet Democracy Now, former Daily News columnist and liberal activist Juan Gonzalez sought to excuse Sanders’s seeming ignorance: “The editorial board is notorious, especially our editorial page editor, Arthur Browne, for his laser-like one question after another,” Gonzalez said, complaining that Browne had “bombarded” the Vermont socialist with questions.

“That’s just how Arthur Browne likes to do them in,” I told my wife. He does not care if you are the governor of New York or the assistant deputy director of libraries for Queens. “I need the numbers,” he would say as one of us toiled on an editorial about some municipal malfeasance no other city daily had yet touched (the bike lanes of Staten Island, the public swiming pools of Queens...). If you did not have your numbers, or if your numbers displeased Browne, he would let you know in that booming Freeport brogue of his.

I spent three years on the Daily News editorial board, from 2010 to 2013, and was its youngest member: Browne had been at the newspaper longer than I’d been on Earth, and he wasn’t even the longest-serving News employee on the board. I lost my job during a mass layoff that caught most everyone by surprise. I went home to my wife and infant daughter, stunned. Browne called a little later, making clear that he had another position at the News in mind for me. Indeed he did, and though I turned down that offer, the kindness reminded me—not for the first time—that Browne is not the son of a bitch he is often portrayed to be.

As others left, Browne stayed. He has outlasted Pete Hamill, the Brooklyn boy who became a Manhattan man of letters, and Martin Dunn, the Brit who’d helmed the paper for most of the aughts. After Dunn came Kevin Convey, a Bostonian brought in to turn the Daily News into a paper of record for the outer boroughs, especially Brooklyn and Queens. That failed, and thus Convey was gone. Many thought Browne would be crowned as the paper’s next editor-in-chief (especially since he was practically running the place). He wasn’t, though. Owner Mort Zuckerman hired former News of the World editor Colin Myler, a Brit who remade New York’s liberal tabloid into a clearinghouse of Kardashian news and cheesecake shots.

RTR4VMAC The New York Daily News has seen a decline in circulation, yet it remains an influential outlet. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Myler was pushed out late last year, as circulation slid and revenues followed. The paper had lost its soul and its direction, and this was obvious to everyone who had ever loved the News. Once again, Browne seemed ready for the top of the masthead. Instead, the job went to Jim Rich, who had the unenviable task of helming a newspaper that was up for sale. There were more layoffs and departures, and the sale failed to materialize after Cablevision pulled its $1 bid on the newspaper, which Zuckerman had bought for $36 million in 1993.

Improbably, Rich seemed to revitalize the Daily News with flame-throwing covers that viciously mocked Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association, two of its favorite targets. This was the old News, the paper of ethnic whites, not the one of slumming Brits. In an article about this unlikely resurgence, Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times wrote that the Daily News was “returning to its roots as a crusading tabloid”—or, as the News once called itself, “New York’s hometown paper.”

On Tuesday morning, Zuckerman announced that Rich had been relieved of his position (Politico whispered that Rich was fired because he'd sat on Donald Trump's tax returns, thus allowing the News to be scooped by the Times; this is just a rumor, but given what I know of Zuckerman, it rings true). Finally, 43 years after he started with the paper as a copyboy, Browne is its editor-in-chief. In a statement, he said, “The Daily News has been my life’s work,” which is not an exaggeration. He has held nearly every job in the newsroom, and he outlasted nearly all of his competitors—and many of his publishers, editors and writers. Politico once called him the “tortured heart and soul” of the Daily News. This also is not hyperbole, at least not entirely. He has covered nearly the entire spectrum of city life, from the Son of Sam murders of 1977 to the toxic dust at Ground Zero. An editorial series on the latter earned him and his team a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

The question is where Browne takes the Daily News. There aren’t many options. Its natural constituency—the white middle class, the bus driver from Bensonhurst, the teacher from Bayside—is quickly diminishing. Unlike its rival New York Post, which has become a right-wing rag under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the News was the domain of the lunch-pail Democrat, educated enough to care about world affairs and current events, liberal in his convictions but hemmed in by his Catholic or Jewish upbringing. This demographic has either disappeared or drastically dissipated from New York, leaving the Daily News without a base. Those left aggrieved by the postindustrial economy have turned to the Post and Fox News. Those who’ve prospered give their children subscriptions to the Times. The paper likes to call itself the “voice of the people,” which is the somewhat grandiose banner on its letters-to-the-editor page. Who those people are, today, nobody really knows.

Yet there may be an opening. The Times recently said it would attenuate its coverage of the city; the Post, for the most part, is concerned with bashing liberal mayor Bill de Blasio. There are many fine neighborhood blogs, as well as excellent web outlets like DNAinfo and Gothamist, but they do not have the penetration of a century-old newspaper sold at numberless kiosks throughout the city, hawked at subway entrances, left in the coffee shop for the enjoyment of fellow citizens with five minutes to spare. 

This is the New York of Browne, the unreal city made of concrete and flesh. I say this as someone who has walked with him through the brick bowels of an aqueduct in the Bronx and ridden with him up a rickety construction elevator to the 65th floor of a rising One World Trade Center. He is not only a lover of the Daily News but a lover of New York City, a believer in the promises it makes to those who want to (or have to) endure the privations of living there.

There was always something plangent about listening to Browne and other editors of his generation talk about journalism in the pre-digital age. Copyboys were expected to fetch liquor for writers from Costello’s, the Third Avenue bar, and in the basement of the Daily News building on 42nd Street, the presses minted a paper that at its height was read each day by well over 2 million people. Today, the circulation is only about 500,000, the newsroom in an anonymous red-brick building on the southern tip of Manhattan.

And then there is the internet, which was known as ARPANET when Browne started at the News. The tabloid format, intimate and conversational, the guy next to you at the bar, telling you about this one thing he heard about from his cousin out in Sheepshead Bay, is ill-suited to the internet, where virality often requires a kind of antiseptic universalism. It’s hard to make someone in the South of France care about the South Bronx.

Browne knows this, as did all of his immediate predecessors. But they didn’t know what to do about it. Nor does anyone else, really. A few hours after Browne’s elevation to the editorship was announced, I went to the Daily News website for the first time in a long while. Right there, splashed across the front page, was a story about Kim Kardashian.