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The New Old News

With the Journal's new look, the Times' new section, and the New York Sun's exercise in journalistic nostalgia, newspapering is suddenly hot. Is there a future on paper?

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In my lifetime, most newspapers in this country have closed or been merged out of existence. It's true that many of the remaining ones, often holding a monopoly in their communities, have made big profits, but that's because their owners have pulled cash out and invested very little back in (when you visit newspapers around the nation, you step into time warps of superannuated pay scales, furniture, and technology -- always with a portrait of the founder in the lobby). Owners, quite reasonably, don't want to reinvest because their readers are aging so inexorably -- virtually no one under 40 has a daily newspaper "habit." If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its almost-certain end.

But some people, because they are captive to a family patrimony, or because they believe in the business myth of the last man standing, or because they are hopeless sentimentalists, persist in newspapering. Hence, the launch of the New York Sun last week, the recent addition of pastel colors to the Wall Street Journal, and the debut of a new section -- "Escapes" -- at the New York Times.

In the case of the New York Sun, the crotchetiness of its editorial views and style is perfectly expressed by the fact that it is a newspaper. The very notion of launching a daily metropolitan broadsheet is a militant statement of old-fogy-ness (certainly, its founder, Seth Lipsky, is the old-fogy-est guy in town). It's deep nostalgia. The Sun even tried to rent the offices of its namesake paper, which ceased publishing in 1950 (merging with the World Telegram).

In fact, although the paper looks old, with the slightly awkward wingspan of a broadsheet and a boring, or unedgy, pretelevision sort of presentation, it is not old-fashioned in any way. The paper is really a cleverly postmodern thing. It's media for media. The Sun aims to be of interest, or amusement, or annoyance, to other people in other media, through whom it will have its voice reflected and amplified.

The Sun's pre-launch publicity is almost up there with Talk magazine's -- another publication that, of course, had no prospect of financial success. The paper, which hopes to have 25,000 to 35,000 subscribers by the end of the year, gains most of its stature because of an investment by the former Canadian newspaper mogul Conrad Black. His few million dollars of support (Lipsky claims to have raised $20 million, whereas bringing a daily general-interest paper in New York to profitability might reasonably be thought to cost something like a few billion) translate into a story about a world-famous press lord launching a newspaper in New York.

Black has tried to break into New York on two prior occasions: first when he failed in his bid for the bankrupt Daily News in 1992 (Mort Zuckerman, a real-estate mogul, might have known less about newspapers, but he knew more than the hapless or clueless Black about negotiating with newspaper labor unions and won the bid); and next when he agreed to buy the New York Observer, abruptly backing out of the deal at the last second. But the Sun does not appear to be such an effort. In fact, more than plunging into new newspaper ventures, Black appears to be getting out of the business. He has recently been wrapping up his Canadian enterprise (which has suffered big losses) and, having relinquished his Canadian citizenship, decamped to London, where, courtesy of the queen, he's suddenly Lord Black of Crossharbour.

The launch of the Sun, which hopes to propound a certain order of political and cultural conservatism -- an anti–Britney Spears, pro–Ronald Reagan–ness -- seems rather like a way for both Black and Lipsky to be in the newspaper business, and to get a seat at the media table, without really having to be in the newspaper business. Likewise, we other media people also have the vicarious thrill of a new newspaper in our midst -- with the so-far-undelivered promise of barking-mad columnists and a certain school-boys-showing-off provocativeness, even a kind of English newspaper style in New York -- without really having any new competition. It could be great fun for everyone.

Meanwhile, the only two truly old-fashioned moneymaking newspapers in the city, the Times and the Journal, are trying to create the opposite illusion from the one the Sun is seeking. They don't want to be old-fashioned newspapers at all, but information brands, sensibility vehicles, targeted upscale-consumer media outlets.

They both (along with their cheesier cousin, USA Today) want to be America's national newspaper (even though there has historically never been such a thing, nor is there much indication of demand for such a thing).

Indeed, the Times and the Journal, which have always coexisted in the same demographic group with easy equanimity, increasingly find themselves as each other's most direct competitor. One possibly lively result of what many newspeople see as both papers' emphasis on ever-more banal magazine-y, lifestyle-y, service-y sections is an old-fashioned newspaper war.

The common wisdom in the newspaper business is that there is room for only one newspaper in a community. That wisdom may now be revised to one newspaper for the country -- or at least one per economic group. The battle that has been joined is for the hearts and minds of the 2 million or 3 million wealthiest and best-educated people in the nation, and the sense of how to wage this fight, beyond complex distribution strategies and enthusiastic use of color presses, is to become the voice of the more or less generic good-suburb sensibility (personal finance, technology, self-help, health care, travel, lawn advice).

In the past, you might have had journalism purists in bitter, if mostly ineffective, opposition to this largely marketing-driven view of newspapering. But there's very little of that now: Any journalist with any career prospects is also a marketer, and packager, and all-around design- and demographic-conscious media professional. Every journalist is also a worried journalist, united with the business side in concerns about "being viable."

Indeed, while many people might argue that the Journal has become the most consistent high-standard news organization in the nation, possibly the true paper of record, it is its "Weekend Journal" section, with its emphasis on leisure and real estate, that has drawn the most attention and come to define the ambitions of the paper.

The section has been the triumph of its creator and editor, Joanne Lipman. The new front-page palette, the two-column head, and most of all the new service section, "Personal Journal," are even being called the Lipmanization of the paper. She is the paper's tonal revolutionary -- dramatically shifting the paper from its traditional white-shirt sensibility to a new leisure-time, lifestyle-plus gentility (the Journal's editorial page looks more and more like a vestigial condition). Depending on whose theory you're listening to, and which camp at the Journal it's coming from, Lipman is either the inevitable replacement to the longtime, well-loved editor, Paul Steiger (she's the villain and vulgarian), or his instrument (underneath his unassuming demeanor, he's revealed himself to be the true vulgarian). Or she may be both.

The Times, of course, has been trying to achieve a more national tone -- less Washington–New York -- and a more advertiser-friendly design for years. But the launch of "Escapes," a soft-focus paean to places other than New York (you'd be hard-pressed to find even passing reference to the city in the new section), may be its most calculated and brazen effort to achieve national genericness (even "Circuits," the Times' other substandard section, at least had the rationale of the digital bandwagon to justify its launch).

The dedicated commercialism of "Escapes" as well as the paper's national strategy are part of the next-generation ambitions of the paper's restless publisher and CEO, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who seems determined to set a new course for the future (he tried the Internet and has of late been flirting with television) as soon as possible. His ability to set this course and implement new plans has probably been enhanced by the appointment of his own editor, Howell Raines (the former editor, Joe Lelyveld, tended to treat the younger Sulzberger with a certain condescension and barely veiled disdain for his next-gen ambitions).

Indeed, Raines, who in recent weeks has been trailed around the Times building by media Boswell Ken Auletta, for a lavish profile in The New Yorker, may be the Times editor, more than any other in the paper's history, most expected to combine (even embrace) business concerns with editorial ones. Likewise, Sulzberger himself may be the publisher, and the Sulzberger, most actively engaged in the editorial direction of the paper.

Nothing is very sacred, in other words.

It is odd, though. Both the Times and the Journal (or its parent, Dow Jones) have remained, obdurately or stupidly, print companies. They took the road less traveled than that of the other media giants. In the little more than ten years that Time Inc., for instance, transformed itself from a magazine company into a cross-platform colossus, the Times and the Journal remained frozen in time.

Now, though, it is possible to argue that the Times and the Journal, no matter their own business worries, or even the growing geriatricity of their customer base, are in qualitatively better shape than their media-behemoth brethren. It is possible that they have been far-seeing rather than retarded. It's even possible that sticking your head in the sand is a pretty good strategy.

Each company is a powerful niche media play. Each dominates its traditional market. Each has a hold on its audience dramatically greater than the hold any other consumer medium has on its audience. And the Times and the Journal brands are (unlike, say, AOL) true brands -- as distinctive and beloved products as you're likely ever to find.

Still, both organizations are deeply insecure about the choices they've made, embarrassed to be publishers in a mogul world, envious of electronic scalability and ubiquity, tempted by media deal-making culture (the Times and the Journal have, on many occasions, tried to diversify but have almost always failed). What's more, they both fear, as much as anyone, for the future of newspapers. In some sense, what they are trying to do with their redesigns and new sections and dreams of national upscale monopolies is to imitate the media big-boy approach -- to expand their franchises, extend their brands, follow their audiences, achieve scale and ubiquity, reinvent themselves.

It is not unlikely, however, because they are newspaper people, and, by long tradition, terrible business people, that they are exactly missing the point of what's going on. That a newspaper, with an identifiable and loyal audience, is smart stuff. That locality, and specificity, and personality, are soon to be all the rage. That a simple media company is better and more valuable than a complicated one.

Which is why, unlikely as it seems, Seth Lipsky may be onto something.

As the media business is more and more engulfed by self-doubt, as AOL Time Warner becomes the next corporate punch line, as the notion of size and scale and reach and footprint becomes just so yesterday, newspapers could come back again. It's always possible.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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