On the morning of Semptember 23, 2003, it was pouring rain. I was walking to my first day of paid work in journalism, as a news assistant to the editor-in-chief of the New York Sun, Seth Lipsky. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement — I had already heard that Lipsky was gruff and a challenge to work for. But I was determined to make the perfect impression. During my job search, the Sun was the only print outlet in the city (I sent my résumé to a couple dozen) that had even granted me an interview. Before leaving the apartment I had selected my favorite tie and blazer. But by the time I reached the office, I was soaked from head to toe, and my blazer clung to my sides like an eighties party dress. So I resignedly took it off, along with my tie, and hung it up in a window to dry as I sat down to work. Shortly afterward, Seth Lipsky stormed into the newsroom for the day. Without even pausing to look me over, he grumbled, “You can’t look like that. You have to wear a suit every day.” Before I could protest, he entered his office and shut the door behind him.
Sound familiar? I hastily put back on my soaking work clothes, and sat in misery for the rest of the day.
It was an inauspicious beginning. Throughout the entire time I worked there, I continued to be terrified of Seth Lipsky. Even though the Sun had existed for barely a year, Lipsky (who had previously edited the Forward) acted like a hardened, old-school newspaper editor. He wrote with beautiful fountain pens and insisted on very specific kinds of stationery. He was always ready with a lesson in journalism history, and had each of his editorials bound into a set of tasteful hardcover volumes.
His professionalism was mismatched with the company, which was really a hardscrabble start-up — the office (which is featured in the end of The Devil Wears Prada) never had its heating right, and it couldn’t keep a staff. But I think Lipsky knew this, and maintained his sense of seriousness and dignity at all times to pass on to his writers and editors the weight of their responsibility. It certainly worked. While I was there and afterward, the Sun squeezed better writing out of a younger, smaller staff than I think any other paper in the city.
That’s why I came to love the New York Sun. I once asked Lipsky why he had hired me, since I didn’t know anybody and had no strings to pull. (This was, I assumed, why I hadn’t gotten an interview anywhere else.) “I hired you because you were the most qualified for the job,” he said, as though any other reason would be ridiculous. Within a year, I was covering metro stories, and saw my byline on the front page of a New York paper. Sure, it was a small paper with a meager subscription base, but it was the kind of “local reporting” experience you’re told you need before working at a major paper — and I didn’t have to go to Topeka to do it.
People often asked me if the paper’s neoconservative, Zionist politics bothered me, because those were what most everyone seems to know about it. They never did. For one thing, the paper’s editorial stance was pro-gay and evenhanded on city issues, I thought. Plus, their sense of conservatism was steeped in a sense of history (American and theological) and in loyalty to the men and women the paper’s editors deemed good and honorable. I was, in fact, inspired to see a set of people who were working because they believed in something. The Sun was launched in New York because a set of high-profile moneymen wanted a certain voice to be heard in New York. That voice was a combination of Lipsky’s graceful style and the vociferous opinions of managing editor Ira Stoll. (He was founder of the critical blog Smarter Times. Also terrifying, FYI.) Even when I was there everyone knew the paper wouldn’t have the financing to last forever. But it made it longer than we all anticipated, because investors (and a fair amount of readers) found its voice to be lyrical and wise.
Now, according to Lipsky, the Sun may be on its last legs. Simply put, this makes me sad. There is so much great writing in that paper, from daily scoops to wonderful cultural writing. (I’m told the sports coverage is good, too, but let’s face it, I have no idea.) Seth Lipsky just wanted the best things for journalism in general. When I got my first freelance assignment ever, it was for Hustler magazine. I was terrified to ask him permission, and when I did, he urged me to reconsider — your clips, he argued, make who you are as a writer. (I told him I needed the money, and he understood. You know how we have that question in our “21 Questions” list about whether you’d live in the city on $35,000 a year? Yeah, I know my answer.) When I got a job at the Daily News, he encouraged me and we kept in touch. In fact, his regular (and catalogued) correspondence and friendship with members of the media both high and low were another testament to his enthusiasm for the medium.
I hope the Sun doesn’t stop “shining for all” in the end. But if it does, it will be remembered by me and by many others whose careers it launched, as a funny, scary, and wonderful place. It may be old-fashioned, but it has been anything but tired. And most of all, it’s been brave. The city has been better for its existence.
The Future of the Sun [NYS]