Vive la Difference

When The New York Times and The Washington Post announced that they would dissolve their joint 50-50 ownership of the International Herald TribuneThe Times will purchase The Post's stake and own the paper outright—the news was widely reported as another nail in the coffin of old-time media ways.

The Associated Press framed the story as it was framed almost everywhere, with the Paris-based IHT cast as a quaint vestige of the media past: "Once a staple for American businessmen and homesick expatriates, the International Herald Tribune is up against a lot of competition these days. Cable news broadcasts are global and 24-7. Sports scores and hometown news are available on the Web. Newspapers and magazines simultaneously publish in Europe, Asia, and the United States."

In other words, the IHT was put in play and possibly in danger—there's speculation The Times will eventually eliminate the paper—because technology has fundamentally altered the world of news. But there are a couple of problems with this argument. First, if the IHT is so out of date, why is The Times forking over around $75 million to take over its money-losing operation? And isn't there a way in which a publication billed as "The World's Daily Newspaper" is not only not an anachronism, but tailor-made for these allegedly global times?

Some stories tried to tackle these questions. The AP suggested the IHT can survive by adapting to the changing realities of news: "In a world where cell phones and computers are hawked internationally, a newspaper with a more global reach is appealing." An analyst said The Times might sell "package deals for ads in both newspapers." (Sometimes, the bold new world of media seems awfully small and prosaic.)

But behind all the chatter about this terribly modern age, there's a very old-fashioned way of understanding what's going on with the IHT. If this story teaches us anything about the news, it's that media outlets are still defined by the specific places, the cities and towns, where they are based. The Internet may be hurtling us toward a borderless future, but in the media world of right now, geography is still fate. The IHT, The Times, and The Post are, each in its own way, cases in point.

Though "International" is the IHT's first name, at heart it's a creature of Paris. "For people in Paris, it was almost like the New York Daily News," writer Ward Just told The New York Observer. "It covered Europe, but it had a real Paris flavor." In the middle decades of the last century, Paris was riding high, and so was the paper. As Paris slowly lost its energy and importance, the IHT's star dimmed with it. The same Observer article quoted author Gay Talese: "Paris meant a great deal more than it does now. It was the cultural center of the world.... Now, Paris means nothing."

Today, New York City is the cultural center of the world. So it makes sense that New York's leading paper should want to become the world's daily newspaper. But even as business types talk about the IHT as a "platform" for launching The Times globally, it's worth remembering that The Times has risen to its current pre-eminence because it's a thoroughly New York institution. The values and personality of that city—or the elite slice of it that is The Times' core constituency—inform every sentence it publishes. Like New York, The Times is dashing, ambitious, cocksure, and imperious. It has cannily chosen New York's big moment in the cultural spotlight to sell this style of journalism to the world, and it will succeed exactly to the extent that it holds on to its New York-ness, rather than diluting it into something more homogenous and global.

For many years The Washington Post was also a paper with a New York sensibility and style. The Meyer family, which bought the paper in 1933, had come to Washington from New York and retained strong ties to that city for decades. Katharine Meyer Graham was born in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and though she lived in Washington, she was back and forth to New York all of her life. Her paper was packed with people who, while not necessarily from New York, had the swagger and chutzpah that we associate with that city. Indeed, for many years The Times was famously politic, while The Post was the one with the scrappy, thrusting, New York personality.

In the decade or so since Graham turned over the helm to her son Don, The Post has shed much of that personality, and has become more like the city it serves. Washington is a city of bureaucrats, people who are risk-averse, who prefer gray to black and white. Washington—the real, permanent city—never swaggers. It shuffles to its cubicle and writes a carefully hedged memo. And The Post today reads like one of those memos. When you pick it up in the morning or surf to its Web site, it doesn't bowl you over with wit, sophistication, audacity, or strong ideas. Like a good Washington bureaucrat, it earns its crust (a nice fat crust) by being a safe, responsible, solid citizen—a mainly local paper that cares about its community and does right by it when the chips are down. Even its Web site has a decidedly local feel.

So it seems fitting that The Post didn't emerge from the IHT fight with the prize. Assuming that prize does translate into a larger global presence, what would The Post do with such a thing? It's no world-beater like The Times, not any more. And when you come down to it, do we really need two of those?