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The Last Deadline

Seth Lipsky chose a bad month to find new backers for his broadsheet. The seven-year run of the New York Sun.

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Seth Lipsky and the offices of the New York Sun, Monday, September 29.  

Last Monday, on what must have been the worst day in recent memory to find funding for anything, New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky was trying to save, of all things, a broadsheet daily newspaper. On September 4, the paper had published a letter by Lipsky outlining the paper’s financial woes. Plainspoken and unflinching, it announced that should new funding not be found, the Sun would close at the end of the month.

“Our losses, which are substantial,” Lipsky wrote, “have been covered so far by a group of investors whom we would call heroic.” It would seem, however, that after seven years and reported expenditures of more than $100 million, it was more the losses that were heroic. The paper’s crusading conservatism was dear to its backers, and in the recent neo–Gilded Age New York, much wealth had been put to long-shot use. But the Sun was losing more than $1.5 million a month, and its cadre of right-leaning Jewish investors—Michael Steinhardt, Roger Hertog, Bruce Kovner, and Thomas J. Tisch—were unwilling to pay to keep the house organ playing.

“It was really starting to wear on us a little,” says Michael Steinhardt, a retired money manager. “What we needed, as a minimum, was an investor or a group of investors who would contribute $10 million per year, to be matched by the current group of investors. That would give us about $20 million, which is what we were losing.”

And so Monday loomed as perhaps the Sun’s final day of operation. In the preceding weeks, Lipsky had been frantically taking meetings and phone calls in hopes of a last-minute cash infusion (looking as far afield as Bernard-Henri Lévy). Even at midday, he reported to his staff that there was still “an active effort being made to save the paper.” But as the afternoon wore on, with still no word from their editor, the Sun staff became increasingly anxious. In an ominous coincidence, Congress rejected the Wall Street bailout, and the stock market plummeted. It seemed a symbolic sigh at the end of a tense month. Lipsky came from his office into the newsroom to give the bad news: The paper would fold.

“We couldn’t have had a worse time,” says Steinhardt of the financial climate surrounding Lipsky’s last push for cash. But the Sun was also born at an inopportune moment. It started staffing a month after 9/11, in the depths of the city’s last recession and at the beginning of the precipitous decline in print media that has threatened the fates of newspapers around the country. The Web 2.0 ethos was taking hold in the newspaper world, and it was becoming clear that not only were print editions costly but Websites were in fact a more immediate way of breaking news—a notion that found traction with the performance of the New York Times home page on 9/11.

Lipsky was out of step; he had apparently missed his journalistic era by a generation. What he had in mind was not just a daily broadsheet but a resurrection of a New York paper that had existed from 1833 to 1950. Lipsky even tried to secure the offices of the old Sun for his reanimated version. (The paper later settled at 105 Chambers, where the rent was exceedingly cheap in the wake of the World Trade Center’s destruction.)

Nevertheless, he was able to raise money for the paper, an achievement met with some bewilderment by media observers. New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg has followed his career since Lipsky founded the English-language version of the Forward in 1990. “I was flabbergasted that he was actually able to play out his boyhood fantasy,” says Hertzberg, “which was to be a shirtsleeved New York newspaper editor, down near Park Row, getting that story and stopping the presses.”

From the beginning, the Sun was an advocacy paper, its editorial position combining the economic leanings of Adam Smith with the hawkish foreign policy of Menachem Begin, whose portrait Lipsky painted and displayed in his office at the Forward. Its neocon politics aside, the Sun was renowned for its cultural coverage, book reviews in particular, as well as its sports pages, done with a much smaller staff than its competitors. The crossword was considered by many a rival to the Times’.

Lipsky is known for cultivating young talent and has referred to himself as a journalistic “horse buyer.” Among those who have worked for him at either the Forward or the Sun are Philip Gourevitch, now editor of The Paris Review; Jonathan Mahler, a writer for The New York Times Magazine; Rachel Donadio, Rome bureau chief of the Times; and Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent at The Atlantic.


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