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The Last Deadline

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The offices of the New York Sun, Monday, September 29.  

“He has a singular ability to make that type of working hard be really exciting,” says Vanity Fair writer Seth Mnookin, who worked for Lipsky at both the Forward and the Sun. “When you’re working with him, you feel like it is the era of The Front Page and His Girl Friday. One time when I was at the Forward I went in to his office to talk about a job, and he said, ‘Well, it’s clear that what we need to do is get you a three-piece suit. No reporter should be without a three-piece suit.’ Literally, we went down to Cambridge Clothiers and he bought me a three-piece suit. And at another point he took me to J.J. Hat Center on Fifth Avenue. Because he came in one day to the office and was like, ‘Mnookin, what are you doing? Where’s your fedora?’ ”

Many of Lipsky’s trappings can be somewhat amusing, as if he has been called up from central casting to play a gentlemanly, tumbledown big-city editor. His office is lined with barrister bookcases filled with bound volumes of the old Sun, and he sits behind what looks to be a vast desk but is actually two tables covered in a green felt cloth. He always wears a suit, and he expected his reporters (even his interns) to be well turned out as well. But Lipsky’s emphasis on proper dress is something more than a sartorial holdover. “It’s designed to instill in these young men and women a sense of pride at being a newspaperman,” he says. “It’s a serious calling. I don’t want them walking around in here in overalls, with their shirts untucked. They have to be assignable.”

Indeed, Lipsky believes strongly in the idea of the journalist as historical actor. It is significant to him that Theodor Herzl was a journalist, and he thinks the Forward, in its original Yiddish iteration, went a long way toward winning the Cold War. If asked what precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lipsky will say that in part it was a single question posed at a press conference by Daniel Johnson, later the Sun’s London correspondent. (As Lipsky tells it, Johnson stood up and asked Communist Party official Günter Schabowski simply, “Herr Schabowski, what about the Wall?” When Schabowski clumsily answered that the Wall would become an artifact of history, thousands of East Berliners, watching the coverage live, streamed from their living rooms to pull the Wall down.)

“He really believes that newspapers are weapons that defend the country just like other armaments,” says former Sun books editor Thomas Meaney. “Seth would I’m sure say, ‘Yeah, I’m ideological, but it’s for us.’ There’s a real sense that ‘they might have Al Jazeera, but we have the Sun.’ ”

Peter Kann, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, who has known Lipsky since the two were reporters in Vietnam, sums up his friend’s worldview as “Free markets. Free people.” True to form, in its penultimate edition, the Sun ran two unsigned editorials, one urging a continuation of aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, the second a further condemnation of the Wall Street bailout as government meddling in the business of capitalism. Even as capitalism made its margin call on the Sun.

At about 4:15, microphone in hand, Lipsky called the staff together and read from prepared remarks. He congratulated and thanked them for their years at the paper, and mentioned prominent people who had sent their regards, including Mayor Bloomberg and Cardinal Egan. He also made a nod toward posterity, saying, “All of you will be able to tell your children and your grandchildren or simply your friends that not only did you appear in arms in a great newspaper war but that you did so on your own terms, for principles you believed in.” As the speech concluded, the newsroom broke out into spontaneous applause.

The outcome was hardly a surprise, but Lipsky had pulled off fund-raising coups before. There had been a chance. (“There are all sorts of people in this city who purport to love reading the Sun who could easily have said ‘I want to be part of this,’ ” says Steinhardt.) But in the end, there was no help to be found. The staff would be paid two months’ severance, along with health benefits through the end of the year.

After Lipsky left the newsroom, the staff dispersed. There was some sentimental looting, with reporters taking Sun memorabilia for their apartments. A group of staffers and former staffers (technically, they were now all former staffers) headed to a local bar, on the way stopping to inform a waiter at Edward’s that they wouldn’t be in for meals any longer. Those responsible for the next day’s paper returned to their desks. Lipsky, who had gone back to his office to write his last words for the New York Sun, was hammering away on his keyboard. He looked up from his work only to say, “I can’t talk now. I’m on deadline.”

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