Newspapers: Who Still Needs the Venerable IHT?

In its heyday, the International Herald Tribune combined Parisian romanticism and American industriousness

In the mid-1960s, the New York Times and the Washington Post bought ownership of two-thirds of the Paris edition of what had been the New York Herald Tribune, whose proprietor John Hay Whitney had just folded the New York newspaper.

The International Herald Tribune (which came to be known as the IHT, although diehards held to the time-honored Trib), was as cool as a journalistic enterprise of that era could be. Located at 21 Rue de Berri in the center of Paris, just off the Champs Elysees, the newsroom was a maze of battered desks, around which waiters from the bistro downstairs navigated with trays of café filtre and stronger stuff for the editors: expat Americans and Britons, barely visible in the clouds of smoke from Gauloise and Lucky Strikes.

Presiding over the operation was the unlikely but irresistible figure of Murray (Buddy) Weiss, a refugee from the New York paper, who spoke almost no French yet did nightly combat with the communist shift-bosses whose minions set type and produced the paper under inflexible work rules.

Buoyed by the resources of the venerable New York Times and the expanding Washington Post, along with a small cadre of its own reporters and columnists (fashion, art auctions, and cycling were featured), the Paris operation produced a superb newspaper whose arrival across Europe by rail, air, or in the case of Moscow, mail, was a highlight in the day of Americans abroad.

The Paris sensibility and perspective somehow blended with the energy of American-style newsgathering, and the paper, it was said, even made the occasional buck for its owners. In the 1970s, the paper began sending pages to other printing sites around Europe, and later, Asia. Inevitably, the Rue de Berri site became a relic, and the IHT relocated to Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, where editors alternating between the Times and Post added to the paper's breadth, but the gauzy atmospherics faded into journalism legend.

This exercise in nostalgia is the result of a short vacation trip to Italy, providing a chance for the first time in several years to reconnect with the Trib, now officially known as the International Herald Tribune: The Global Edition of The New York Times. In 2002, after thirty-five years of partnership, the Times effectively maneuvered the Post into selling the Times their share by saying it was considering starting its own international newspaper. Whitney was long gone. Those were flush days for the Times company (and the Post also, for that matter, but their top management ultimately was less interested in being a national and international newspaper than the Times).

A very great deal has changed in the newspaper business since the split. Travelers, ex-pats, and the business community really no longer need the IHT. Your laptop, even your blackberry or iPhone, can give you everything in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune for no more than the cost of your data package or Internet connection. When the Times took over full ownership of the IHT, the widespread assumption was that it would be re-named the international edition of the New York paper. But marketing consultants recommended against the move, saying the strengths of the old Trib identity were valuable in terms of circulation and advertising.

Instead, the Times began investing in the IHT, adding editorial and business staff and printing, eventually, at thirty-six locations around the world. Focusing on emerging Asian audiences, the paper built its circulation in subscriptions, single copy, and bulk sales to about 240,000, compared to small losses for its major daily competitors, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal/Europe/Asia. By integrating its performance into the overall results of other Times properties, the actual levels of IHT revenues were not publicly accessible, but until the world-wide financial panic of 2008, by all accounts, the paper was making a positive contribution to the company's results. Throughout the news business, the past eighteen months have been very tough. But the Trib has been through lean times before, befitting a publication that actually dates its origins back to 1887. So the question for the International Herald Tribune is less about its viability than its relevance. Is the IHT really necessary in today's media world?

After a week with the paper, my answer is yes. In fact, the International Herald Tribune may be a model for a newspaper specifically shaped for an audience of "elite" readers. It is eighteen pages of quality news and analysis, with extensive business coverage and enough cultural and sports news to be comprehensive rather than overwhelming. Technology and pressure from management in New York makes it possible for the IHT to have most of the same stories on the day they appear in the domestic edition, subtly adjusted for an international audience. There is relatively little advertising in the paper, even less of course than before the crash. But there has never been all that much advertising. The key to revenue is a high cover price. In Italy, the daily costs €2.50 (about $3.40), and prices elsewhere are comparable. Subscriptions and presumably bulk sales come at a discount. But readers of the IHT are a self-selected group ready to pay for premium quality and convenience.

Looking beyond any sentimental attachment to the Trib of yore, there is definitely a role for today's version of the paper, and hopefully it will continue to have a proud place in the now myriad New York Times news products available on mobile devices, the Internet, and, because of the IHT, in print pretty much everywhere around the world where there is a newsstand.