Why Did Editor-in-Chief Jim Rich Leave the New York Daily News?

Jim Rich, who made a splash with attention-getting front pages, was immediately replaced by Arthur Browne.

10.19.16 12:00 AM ET

The money-losing, morale-sapped New York Daily News—whose tightening belt has increasingly come to resemble a noose—sustained yet another shock Tuesday with the abrupt departure of Editor in Chief Jim Rich.

The 45-year-old Rich, who made a splash with attention-getting front pages after Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman installed him in the top job a mere 13 months ago, was immediately replaced by Arthur Browne, the longtime editorial page editor and Zuckerman confidant who joined the 97-year-old tabloid as a copy boy more than four decades ago.

Browne—who briefly left the paper 16 years ago during the internet bubble for a veterinary website and Bloomberg Media and then happily returned—will formally take over “following a short transition,” according to a staff-wide email signed by the 79-year-old Zuckerman, which landed without warning in newsroom in-boxes.

Although newsroom speculation was rampant concerning the circumstances of Rich’s departure—notably the tabloid’s failure to follow up a few weeks ago after receiving a copy of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns that New York Times nursed into a front-page blockbuster—Zuckerman gave no reason for the shakeup.

“I also want to thank Jim Rich for his hard work and contributions to the newspaper during his tenure as editor-in-chief and wish him well as he prepares for the next chapter in his career,” the owner’s email said, not bothering to explain why Rich was relieved of his duties three weeks before a historic presidential election.

Zuckerman, Rich and Browne didn’t respond to interview requests, and Bill Holiber, the CEO of the Daily News and Zuckerman’s other media property, U.S. News & World Report, advised in an email to The Daily Beast: “We will not be making any further comments regarding Jim Rich or Arthur Browne other than what was in the announcement. Thanks for your interest.”

Rich, the 12th editor in chief since the mercurial commercial real-estate billionaire purchased the paper in 1993, presided over dozens of layoffs soon after his promotion in September 2015 when Fleet Street veteran and New York Post alum Colin Myler departed after three and half years in the top job.

On Tuesday stunned staffers, who are already operating in a newsroom peppered with empty desks and disconnected computers, expressed fears that additional firings are inevitable.

Rich’s appointment came after Zuckerman spent half a year trying and failing to find a buyer for the Daily News, which had been losing an estimated $20 million a year or more.

“We’re used to this at the Daily News,” a newspaper staffer told The Daily Beast, asking not to be named so as not to jeopardize his job, “but we felt like we were doing OK once the belt-tightening [of last September] came, and Mort tried to sell the paper. But now the feeling is more immediate. Now we’re really staring off the edge of the abyss at this point.”

The paper’s daily circulation, which at its height after World War II was around 2.4 million copies, has been on a steep decline in recent years and now barely tops 300,000, with parallel plunges in advertising revenue.

During a morning meeting with apprehensive employees in the newsroom—these days a smallish space on the 7th floor of an office building in Lower Manhattan, a block from the Staten Island Ferry—Browne announced that he will be spending time with each department to assess the newspaper’s needs, which surviving staffers took as an ominous sign of bad things to come.

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According to the anonymous staffer, Browne also mentioned that the paper’s coverage of the Republican presidential nominee needs to improve—a comment which was interpreted as a none-too-veiled reference to the Trump tax return snafu.

Published reports said the Daily News—which has printed cover after cover deriding Trump, including a viral front page, with the headline “GRAB THEM BY THE P***SY,” that Saturday Night Live featured in a sketch last weekend—dropped the ball after Rich personally received by snail mail a copy of Trump’s 1995 tax returns.

While Rich apparently passed the returns on to a junior staffer in the Washington bureau for further vetting, the Times assigned multiple reporters to the story and ended up revealing that a $916 million loss that Trump claimed could have allowed him to avoid paying a cent in federal taxes for 18 years running.

Rich’s defenders point out that while the Gray Lady’s journalists operate with perhaps 10 times the resources available to the scrappy tabloid, Rich’s decimated newsroom, which no longer even boasts a business section after last year’s cuts, was hardly in a position to compete.

Zuckerman’s email announced not only Browne’s promotion but also a new role for Zuckerman’s nephew Eric Gertler, a venture capitalist who as of Tuesday assumed the title of co-chairman and co-publisher.

“Eric currently oversees Ulysses Ventures but, as you may know, early in Eric’s career, he worked in various positions at the Daily News, including as general counsel (legal and labor affairs), head of business development and editorial administration, and founder of the web site,” Zuckerman’s email said.

As for Browne, who led a team that won the [2007] Pulitzer Prize for editorials that documented the epidemic illnesses afflicting thousands of 9/11 rescue and recovery workers, according to the email, Zuckerman declared: “I have long respected Arthur’s sound judgment and appreciated the friendship we have developed over the years.”

Zuckerman quoted Browne as saying: “The Daily News has been my life’s work. I am now entrusted with joining all of my colleagues to deliver the great journalism that has distinguished the Daily News as a publication that stands for the interests of New Yorkers and Americans at large, fairly taking on those who do them wrong and celebrating those who do them right—while reveling in the fun and wonder of life. What a job description! What a privilege!”

Late Tuesday night, Browne provided this statement to The Daily Beast: “My grandfather was an early employee of the DN soon after its establishment in 1919. Two of my aunts worked in what was then known as the Women’s Department. They both wrote how-to service columns. My uncle worked for roughly 40 years in production of the now-defunct Sunday magazine. As a young man, my father worked for a time in the accounting department. I can remember being in the city room when I was about 8.” Browne added that he had no comment on the shakeup.

Former Daily News Editor in Chief Martin Dunn, who served twice in that role—in the early 1990s and again in the early mid-2000s—praised the choice of Browne.

“You can prick Arthur and Daily News ink bleeds out,” Dunn told The Daily Beast. “There is no one who knows more about the Daily News and more about the city, more about the history of the city and the politics of the city than Arthur.”

Alas, bleeding of a different sort is likely to occur under Browne’s editorship.