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Tribune and Tribulation

For some, summer means Paris, and Paris means the "International Herald Tribune." But is the paper slowly being submerged by the flood of global information?


Summer media is reruns, baseball, big dumb movies, the JVC Jazz Festival, and, most enduringly, the International Herald Tribune. What's summer without Europe (in my view, anyway), and what's Europe without my Herald Tribune ("Un Herald Tribune." "Si, Treebunay")?

Part of the point about summering in Europe (at least, if you're the European-summering type) is that you get to take the long view about America. You sit down in the morning (outside, of course) and spend an hour or so with this 30-page confection of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Pretty soon, you start to feel that not only is America containable, explicable, coherent, small even, but that what you have in your hands is, doubtlessly, the best newspaper in the world.

A reverse telescope.

Now, admittedly, part of the paper's perspective and clarity come from the surroundings in which you read it -- in the Luxembourg Garden, say, where Hemingway read the paper, too. Would it be so sublime at a Starbucks in Menlo Park? And of no little importance: It's in English. An oasis of English in the still stubbornly non-English-speaking world. But even on its own merits, it's succinct, pithy, well written (some stories, having been first edited in Washington or New York, are edited again by the Tribune's editors in Paris), and tensely paced -- it takes those two bilge engines, the Times and the Post, and reduces them to their purest essence -- and it adds an eye-opening new perspective (i.e., a world outside the United States!).

It is, in some way, an idealized newspaper. It selects from the best of the two leading papers in the country (whose coverage is better on, say, the Russians' early entry into Pristina? Who has the better book review of Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century?). And then it gets to be read in a context in which no newspaper is read anymore: You have time on your hands, you're relaxed, you are even open to considering the world (writ large). And unlike the fractured readership of almost every other newspaper, most of its readers have a very large, overriding issue in common -- they're not at home.

It is almost perfect media: an attentive audience interested in the same subject focused on the same page.

For American journalists, the paper holds additional meaning. There isn't one of us who hasn't thought about working for the Tribune. (I've only known one American journalist who actually went to work in Paris -- twenty years after she returned to New York, she's still identified as having gone to work for the International Herald Tribune.)

The fact that we all first discovered the Herald Tribune as college students backpacking across Europe -- has there ever been such a time? -- adds to the evocativeness of the brand and our loyalty to it.

As it happens, the preceding picture hardly describes a cutting-edge information company. Indeed, the International Herald Tribune has a paradigm problem -- which is among the worst sort of problems you can have these days. In a world of frantically changing media-business models -- to converge, to aggregate, to disintermediate, to portalize, to propagate -- the International Herald Tribune's might well be the most anachronistic.

Its premise that Americans who find themselves outside the U.S. for whatever reasons -- as tourists, as businessmen, as expatriates -- however removed, will in some way want to stay in touch with what's going on at home, largely ignores the communications revolution. (In fact, the harder job may be staying out of touch.) The IHT's paradigm is, of course, pretty much the paradigm of all old media: Find an audience that needs a certain kind of information and deliver it. While the IHT is not necessarily uncomprehending of the new-media paradigm -- unlimited information for all -- its response is a quite understandable (and not unattractive) mix of stoicism and denial. After all, it has stayed tenaciously on mission -- bringing news of America to English-speaking people in the foreign world -- for more than a century now:

The paper publishes continuously from 1887 until Paris is occupied in 1940, then jumps back into business in 1944. It flourishes while its parent, the New York Herald, languishes; the Herald merges with the New York Tribune (the Paris Herald becomes the Paris Herald Tribune) and then is bought by John Hay Whitney (a.k.a. Jock, of the Whitneys, and also the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain) in 1959.

In the mid-sixties, the New York Times tries to muscle into the paper's market. Whitney, whose New York paper has collapsed after the 1966 New York newspaper strike, seeks the help of the Washington Post. The Times decides not to slug it out, and a tripartite commission is formed. The Tribune, morphing into the International Herald Tribune, will be jointly owned by the three papers, with Whitney's company running the show. When Jock Whitney dies in 1982, his brother-in-law, the 80-year-old William Paley, newly retired from CBS, takes over the Whitney interests.

When Paley dies in 1990, the Times and the Post divide the paper in half, agreeing on a management charter that is certainly odd. It is a charter that clearly treats the IHT as something less than (or more than) just a business. It is a hobby. An adventure. An eccentricity. By the charter, every five years, the Times and the Post trade off management duties. At the changing of the guard, a new manager ventures forth to this remote outpost.

The Post went first, leaving well enough (or what an IHT executive characterizes as "a major management mess") alone. Then, in 1996, the Times took over and immediately turned its attention to the paradigm problem: the IHT, which had pretty much been the sum total of English-language news for Americans abroad, was going to have to survive in a world awash in English-speaking media.

The Gulf War had, dramatically, made CNN the major international-news player and redefined the global-news market. CNN was followed into the satellite news business by Murdoch's SkyTV, the BBC, and CNBC. What's more, from the global business boom flowed a Niagara of international business information. Britain's Financial Times and Economist went global; the Wall Street Journal launched its international edition; USA Today saturated hotels everywhere; and Time and Newsweek revved up their international editions.

And, then, the Internet.

In the new paradigm, media outlets needed some other advantage -- brand, distribution, sweepstakes, endless supplies of cash -- to survive in a world of unlimited information.

So, the Times sent the Tribune to business school, dispatching two of its seniormost management-type managers -- Kathy Darrow and Ann Blinkhorn -- and hiring the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to study the situation and propose a rehabbed, re-jiggered, rejuvenated business model.

In some sense, however, after 100 years, the paper is a lot more European than it is American (at least in the spread-sheet-mission-statement-brand-position sense). While it doesn't particularly make money -- teetering back and forth between scant profitability and minor loss -- its editorial subsidies from the Times and the Post could well keep it going (without hurting anyone too much) indefinitely. Not to mention that, because the paper is headquartered in Paris and ruled by French labor laws, it isn't exactly possible to fire anybody.

Indeed, the Times managers are treated as foreign interlopers. "Opinionated, confrontational, without a doubt in their minds, they do love to fight," is how one longtime IHT insider characterizes the Darrow-Blinkhorn team. The BCG experts were regarded as a mercenary force. "You had to give them a course in the newspaper business," complained an IHT veteran.

The upshot of the Times determination and the BCG business prescription (one of the BCG proposals was that the paper should be given away free and become a loss leader in a new branding strategy) is a new corporate ethos that, practically speaking, almost nobody believes in -- but it doesn't much change the paper, either. To wit: There is a new global demographic, a stateless, wandering, international citizen of business. The IHT will be for him and her. For investment bankers, for globe-trotting executives, for supermodels. "If you read it in Geneva, you can count on your counterpart in Bangkok reading the same thing," says Michael Getler, the IHT's executive editor, hopefully. It is a premier brand, after all, in a growing information market, with top-tier partners. Why shouldn't the International Herald Tribune be the flagship paper of the global economy?

The answer is partly in the awkwardness of distributing a paper, a physical paper, to 228,000 readers across 184 countries -- i.e., why would you? It is in the nature of its editorial arrangements with the Post and the Times -- can you really create an international voice from these two exceedingly American papers? ("Well," say people at the Tribune, backing into the argument, "people want to know what people in the U.S. are reading.") It is in the paper's peculiar stateless condition -- it isn't merely an offshoot, a brand extension, a goodwill ambassador of another business (like the Financial Times or Time or Newsweek); it exists only on the kindness of strangers. And, most of all, it probably isn't going to leap to the forefront of the superheated, up-to-the-minute global economy because its brand says steamer trunks, Idlewild Airport, and, well, Paris.

"When all was said and done," says a Times executive, "and a lot of time was spent on what is, relatively speaking, a very small business, it turned out that the International Herald Tribune is really a paper basically for tourists and expatriates."

"Why," I asked, "don't the Times and the Post sell it?"

"To whom?"

But you gotta believe someone will find a business here. As Tuscany becomes a hipper Hamptons, why shouldn't the Herald Tribune be a kind of Dan's Papers? A theme paper to evoke the experience of visiting Europe and distant ports. How depressing is that?

I am afraid that globalization, that economic, social, and communications sea change by which we are all connected, actually, for the International Herald Tribune, sucks. It's not only the competition, or the ubiquity of English, or the fact that trips get shorter and shorter, but that the actual problems and true romance of remoteness are lost. We are never far away -- therefore we don't have to worry about staying in touch. America is, of course, everywhere.

Still, this summer, and for a few more, I know what I'll be reading. Happily.

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