The Birth of the Sun

New York is littered with the carcasses of failed newspapers. What are the chances for the latest upstart?

By David Carr

On the chilly last day of a very bad year in Lower Manhattan, Seth Lipsky headed into an office building on the corner of Church and Chambers and took an elevator to the second floor. The space, which Lipsky inspected with his colleague Ira Stoll, was in the midst of a build-out, with aluminum rails marking spaces that would soon be inhabited by employees of their nascent business. In the midst of the dot-com boom the scene would have been typical to the point of cliché: proprietor of a much anticipated new enterprise walks through unfinished downtown office space trailing his loyal sidekick, etching the future as construction proceeds.

But Lipsky is not reprising a dot-com reverie. A man who wears a hat, favors well-worn trench coats, and writes out messages with a ball-point pen is hardly an avatar of new technology. He's responding to the darkest year in New York's history and the worst publishing economy in decades by launching a five-day-a-week newspaper, the New York Sun, in a move so ill-timed and audacious that it leaves even some of Lipsky's investors hard put to describe the risks. A journalist who was encouraged to leave his position as editor of The Forward, a Jewish-centric weekly, after its board tired of his unrelenting conservatism (and his steady push to make the weekly a daily), Lipsky will be up against three well-funded dailies, two of which—the New York Post and the Daily News—lose gobs of money every year.

Lipsky, a free-market absolutist who occupies the far reaches of the far right, believes that there's room in the city for a daily that isn't afflicted, as he sees it, by the genetic liberalism of The New York Times. His strategy, which calls for a metro-focused broadsheet with a single section that will run no more than twenty pages daily, to be circulated Monday through Friday at around 20,000 or 25,000 copies, probably will not worry the Sulzbergers much. But it would be silly to dismiss the effort. Lipsky is not a frivolous man. He assisted in the development of the Asian and European editions of The Wall Street Journal, and he took what had been a tiny Yiddish-language weekly to English-language prominence. "He understands the dynamics of publishing, and he will be more aware of the risks than anybody else," says Peter Kann, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal and Lipsky's longtime friend. "He will have thought them through. I think it has a reasonable chance of financial success, and I'm certain it will be an artistic success."

Under Lipsky, The Forward published a number of important scoops: the discovery, when Lani Guinier was a Clinton nominee, of Guinier's legal writing in support of what critics saw as racially based quotas; the revelation that Hillary Clinton had a Jewish step-grandparent; and the fact that many Jews were finally about to recover property and money lost in the Holocaust. These stories, produced by a hardy young group of reporters, were followed up by major newspapers at the time.

But Lipsky drove the historically progressive Forward Association meshuga with right-field editorializing on such hobbyhorses as the benefits of tax cuts, the pitfalls of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the status of Ronald Reagan as one of the nation's most accomplished Presidents. He was finally forced to resign in 2000. Lipsky then started putting together $15 million from a team of eleven investors that includes Michael Steinhardt, a retired money manager and a former member of the Democratic Leadership Council with a long interest in Jewish affairs; Roger Hertog, a vice-chair of Alliance Capital Management, the chair of the Manhattan Institute, and a trustee at the American Enterprise Institute; and Lord Black of Crossharbour, the chair and CEO of Hollinger International, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post, and The Daily Telegraph of London, among other papers. It's one measure of the bereft state of the Web that a group of men seeking a bit of Manhattan mindshare feel they have to plunk broadsheet pages onto New York's streets. And just in case a new New York daily doesn't make the money disappear efficiently enough, Steinhardt and Hertog are, as of this writing, negotiating an agreement to assume two-thirds ownership of The New Republic, the Washington political weekly known for generating lots of interesting ideas and very little profit. Steinhardt knows what to expect, having already sunk $5 million into The Forward in support of Lipsky's tenure. So does Hertog. "The experience of starting a daily paper in New York will probably bring new meaning to the word 'humility,'" he says.

Lipsky, a careful student of newspaper history, understands that the path he is about to tread is littered with newspaper carcasses. The attraction of a daily place at the table in the densest media environment in the world isn't hard to understand, but the price is dear. The last attempt at a new Manhattan-based daily, New York Newsday, lost $100 million over a decade before closing in 1995. The Trib, funded by a conservative cabal, was launched in 1978 and burned through $4 million in just three months before imploding.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"Journalism"
An overview of newspaper journalism and publishing in America through the Civil War. By Mark Canada, a professor at the University of North Carolina.

"The Sun and the Herald Are Born"
The story of the beginnings of New York's Sun and Herald newspapers in the early nineteenth century. Posted as part of a PBS children's education exhibit.

Lipsky thinks that by contracting out for printing and distribution and keeping circulation small and expenses down, he can gain a toehold. He finds inspiration in the penny press of the mid-1800s. "New York was a sink of pro-slavery sentiment, and it was crawling with Copperhead Democrats," he told me, tucking into a waffle at a nearby restaurant after our short tour of the offices. Horace Greeley was putting out the staunchly abolitionist Tribune, but "he wasn't willing to go to war." One of his editors, Charles Dana, was, and they eventually split over the issue. Dana served as an assistant secretary of war under Abraham Lincoln, covering the war for an audience of one. In 1868 he became the editor and part owner of the New York Sun, a penny-press paper started in 1833 by Benjamin H. Day, a printer looking to increase business. (Greeley called the Sun "the slimy and venomous instrument of Locofocoism, Jesuitical and deadly in politics and grovelling in morals.")

"Dana set the paper on a trajectory of limited government, equality under the law, free markets, pro-growth, strong foreign policy, integrity in government," Lipsky says. It's a constellation of issues that makes Lipsky entirely comfortable, which is why the name of the Sun—the old paper was folded into the New York World-Telegram in 1950—will rest atop the new enterprise. (The old Sun gave the editors of the world "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." It also published, in 1835, one of the greatest paper-selling hoaxes in journalism history: a new and powerful telescope revealed that the moon was populated by winged men who spent time "collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing, and loitering about upon the summits of precipices.")

Like Dana, Lipsky is willing to go to war. After graduating from Harvard in 1968, he covered civil-rights battles for the Anniston Star, in Alabama, for a year. He was then drafted and went to Vietnam to cover the conflict for Stars and Stripes. He has been a steadfast soldier in behalf of Israel, even if from behind a desk. The sanctity of the State of Israel is the single issue that unites the Democratic Steinhardt, the Republican Hertog, and Black—a media baron more conservative than Rupert Murdoch, if that is possible.

Some men of a certain age and status buy a fleet of cars, keep a stable of horses, or become golf bums. Steinhardt and Hertog, both of whom have huge personal fortunes, are enamored of policy and publishing, especially as they relate to Israel. In obtaining two thirds of The New Republic they will be joining Martin Peretz, whose commitment to Israel is writ large in the magazine week after week. Apart from being able to argue forcefully in both major media cities that a Jewish state is a vital American interest regardless of the price, the two men will bask in the peculiarly validating glow of print.

Steinhardt is not linking arms with Lipsky in the belief that it will add to the millions he already has. "This is a long shot financially," he says. "And even if you win, you don't win big. This is something I just want to do." His interest in The New Republic arises from a similar personal imperative. "I don't expect to get rich in either endeavor, but I have a history of involvement in political matters with an emphasis on Jewish and Israeli issues," he says. "For many Jews, Israel represents an ideal, and the fact that it doesn't remotely resemble that ideal does not matter so much. There's an emotional depth one feels about this issue that allows us in some important ways to be irrational about it."

Lord Black of Crossharbour, the former Conrad Black, actually made his money in publishing. Through the National Post, in Canada, which he began in 1998 and sold last year, he attempted to affect the political culture of an entire nation. It didn't work. Despite his $200 million attempt to re-educate them, Canadians were still the "whining, politically conformist welfare addicts" he described them as in a 1993 memoir. Black unsuccessfully sued the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, after Chrétien spiked his first effort to ascend to the House of Lords. Black renounced his Canadian citizenship, and later became a Lord; he now lives in London. He is committed to a number of issues, including Israel's security. That stance was made memorable in December, when Lady Black, who writes a column in her husband's Daily Telegraph under her maiden name, Barbara Amiel, reported, "Recently, the ambassador of a major EU country politely told a gathering at my home that the current troubles in the world were all because of 'that shitty little country Israel.'" Fleet Street had fun with the ensuing dustup, naming the offender—Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to Britain—and debating the wording of his remark.

Lipsky courted Black for a year, saying that Black's publishing experience—especially his ownership of the Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post, both of which could provide international stories—made him a critical component of the deal. Black has coveted a role in New York media for years; he made an effort to buy the Daily News in 1993 and came close to buying the New York Observer as recently as 1999. He has a pattern of entering a market in a small way in order to gain leverage for a larger play. In Canada, after a failed attempt to buy the Financial Post, he bought the well-respected magazine Saturday Night and then launched the National Post. He eventually acquired the Financial Post and folded it into the National Post. And in Britain he bought the weekly Spectator in addition to the Daily Telegraph. Many have wondered if his interest in the Sun will serve as a stalking-horse for other, more epic plans, even though his company, Hollinger International, issued a press release in December emphasizing that it has only a minority stake in the Sun, and that its role will be a minor one.

Given the heft of the names involved and Lipsky's reputation for seriousness and scoops, the Sun will most likely be part of the civic dialogue in New York for as long as it is published, even if it never explodes into a huge business. Steinhardt says that the nearly simultaneous launch of the Sun and purchase of the majority share of The New Republic is coincidental, and that there will be no editorial or business synergy between the two publications. But the fact that Hertog, a steadfast conservative, will have a stake in The New Republic has its staff worried.

Lipsky replies with a hard stare of disbelief to any suggestion that he will be involved with The New Republic. His plate will certainly be full. He's planning to cover New York City in fairly comprehensive fashion, with a staff of no more than twenty-five reporters. Asked about the wisdom of signing up for the relentless cadence of five days a week, he replies, "I have said to those who have proposed starting a weekly that perhaps we should purchase Macy's and keep it open only on Fridays. I think that journalistically, it generates more horsepower as a daily."

While at The Forward, Lipsky did a lot with a little by spotting talent in its early stages. Forward alumni include Jeffrey Goldberg and Philip Gourevitch, both now at The New Yorker; Jonathan Mahler, who went on to Talk; and Jonathan Rosen, the author of The Talmud and the Internet. Lipsky is old school all the way, telling his reporters that if they get the basics right, the rest will follow. In the tradition of Charles Dana, who gave lectures on the journalistic craft (they were eventually assembled into a book, The Art of Newspaper Making), Lipsky held forth in weekly meetings on how to practice it.

"In spite of his political leanings," Jeffrey Goldberg says, "I would describe those weekly craftsmanship meetings, as he called them, as very Maoist. He was one of the most incredibly annoying and maddening bosses I ever had, and I would send any talented twenty-five-year-old I know to work for him. He is one of the great scoop artists of all time. He would just push the fundamentals, telling us to get the document, any document, and then we could write the story."

Lipsky's ability to inspire reporters with his walk-around, "whaddyagot?" style of newsroom management will come in handy. "In an age of buttoned-down newspaper executives, Lipsky is a homburg-wearing, oil-painting, thunderclap-editorial-writing creator," says Ira Stoll, who was Lipsky's managing editor at The Forward and is a key player in the new paper. (He also runs smartertimes.com, a daily Web spanking of The New York Times.) "The universe of newspaper executives is made up of guys who went through quickie business-executive training at Harvard or people who were lucky enough to inherit papers from their grandfathers. This is a dream he has been working for twenty years."

Russ Smith, the CEO and editor in chief of the weekly New York Press and an admirer of Lipsky's politics, thinks that the Sun will find a spot between the New York Post, which, although conservative, "writes in big block letters," and the Times. "The best possible scenario for them is if they eventually reach a hundred thousand circulation, running maybe forty broadsheet pages ... sort of like The Washington Times versus The Washington Post," he says. The Washington Times owns its own jingoistic corner of the debate in that city, but at hellacious expense to its owner, the Unification Church.

Lipsky, unlike the dot-com visionaries who moved out of his new neighborhood sooner than they planned, entertains the possibility that his view of the future may not come to pass. "Obviously, Ira and I, along with our backers, would like to see this succeed," he says. "But failure at something like this would not be the most disgraceful thing in the world either."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/the-birth-of-the-sun/302431/