By Yom Kippur, A Paper Might Die
09/29/08
Associate Editor
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By this time next week, in the somber shadows of Yom Kippur and Wall Street, The New York Sun will live or die. The Sun’s editor and founder Seth Lipsky announced to colleagues and readers (Sept. 4) that the paper would likely “cease publication at the end of September unless we succeed in our efforts to find additional financial backing.” The paper launched in 2002, promising to be an alternative to The New York Times, and it has been that and more, as defiantly on the right as the Times is on the left. And yet, according to the Sun, even those with whom it has differed have offered praise. David Remnick of The New Yorker called the Sun “just plain good.” “OK,” Remnick told the Sun, “I agree with about ten percent of your editorials, but so what. ... I’m a lot happier, and richer, for having faced the Sun in the a.m.” The Nation called it “a fabulous read for culture,” but also “a journalistic SWAT team against individuals and institutions seen as hostile to Israel and Jews.” That critique, intended as damnation, was precisely why the Sun was loved by Jewish readers who were seeking a serious broadsheet alternative to mainstream media that precisely exemplified that perceived hostility. Different papers care about different things. The Sun understood Jewish fears, assuming a radical Islamic, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel threat until proven otherwise. The Times catered to other fears, devoting dozens of stories to the Duke rape case that wasn’t, for example, with columnists presuming the guilt of white “privileged” men on the Duke lacrosse team, and more recently the racism against Barack Obama, until proven otherwise. Surely, there were many Jews who saw the Sun tilting right (carrying water for the right?), as there were many who thought the Times tilted left; both papers providing ideological gunpowder for dueling, stimulating debates. Pity the one-newspaper town. But fiercely defending Israel, and consistently placing items of Jewish interest on the front page, wasn’t enough for the Sun to build a viable circulation, said to be only 14,000, with another 60,000 distributed in free promotions aimed at creating a niche market for advertisers. The Sun’s circulation wasn’t helped by a $1 price that was double that of the Daily News, New York Post and Newsday; the absence of box scores in a highly cerebral sports section; and financial constraints that limited the Sun to 18 pages while the weekday Times might be more than 80 pages, much of it compelling journalism having nothing to do with the overtly political. Nevertheless, a cold economic wind is blowing across the entire media landscape that is still learning to accommodate the Internet, with circulation and advertising slipping, and staff reductions hobbling even the great thoroughbreds of the business, from The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times, let alone newer papers still learning to balance on coltish legs. Lipsky who revived the Sun title, absent since the demise of the World Telegram & Sun in 1966, delivered on the paper’s conservative promise. Just the other week (Sept. 22), the Sun featured a five-column spread (above the fold) on the very strong words that Gov. Sarah Palin would have delivered in support of Israel, had her appearance at the anti-Iran rally not been cancelled because of clumsy Jewish politics. No other paper had that. The Sun’s editorial added, “What a disgrace that the political constellations couldn’t figure out a way for her to express her sentiments,” protesting the Iranian threat “against Jewry, America and the Free World.” The Sun was almost quaint, loving and wanting to protect the “Free World.” The Sun cared about smaller stories that other papers didn’t care about. In sharp contrast to the Times, and to many Jewish leaders who share a reflexive, liberal wariness against any crack in the Constitution’s wall between church and state, the Sun offered singular coverage (June 2) of Justice Antonin Scalia’s important and revealing address to Agudath Israel’s annual dinner, where he demonstrated that the Constitution never intended to exclude religion from the public square. Said the Sun editorial, Scalia “offered marvelous insights into the thinking of at least one-ninth of the highest court in the land,” let alone his awareness “of the light of Sinai, which animates so much of the tradition in which America prospers.” In an age where religious readers too often ambushed by irony and skepticism, the Sun was one of the few places in the daily media where Judaism and Christianity were treated fairly, favorably even. Imagine a newspaper speaking of “the light of Sinai,” without hastily adding “and the Koran.” The Sun took the lead in monitoring anti-Semitism in academia, headlining (Sept. 12) Columbia University’s hiring of a professor who “Backed Academic Boycott of Israel.” The Sun took seriously the challenge made by those suspecting a radical Islamic Trojan horse within the Khalil Gibran public school that specialized in teaching Arabic. However the challenges are sorted out, proved or disproved, the fact is that the Sun took it seriously. The Sun was not only conservative politically but sartorially. Reporters say it was a Lipsky mandate that male interns had to wear suits, no sports coats, no jeans. The Sun was smart, urbane. “Going into the office,” says columnist Lenore Skenazy via e-mail, “always reminded me of going into the dining hall at some Ivy League college. All these young people were slinging around ideas. Except instead of talking about the mind-blowing courses they were taking, they were talking about their beats: real estate, education, city government. And instead of talking about the professors that changed them forever, they were talking about those other life-changers, Seth and Ira [Stoll, co-founder and managing editor]. “Then there was the office itself — a big, old room with well-worn floorboards and windows that have been rattling since the Coolidge administration,” Skenazy continued. “The reporters all sat together — no cubicles — and this made the place feel right out of ‘His Gal Friday.’ All that was missing were typewriters and maybe a flask or two in a filing cabinet. (And Cary Grant.)” Lipsky and Stoll are now somewhat like Huck and Tom at their own funeral, hearing advance eulogies from governors, congressmen, artists and journalists. Former Mayor Ed Koch said, “It is the first paper I read in the morning, and I have six papers that I read.” The Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg said on his Atlantic blog, “The Sun is a great newspaper, a bracing read, even when — especially when — you don’t agree with its line. So come on, you conservative-leaning billionaires, it’s time to pony up: You don’t need more planes. Everyone has a plane already, anyway. What you need is a newspaper.” Stoll told The Jewish Week, “the situation is essentially the same” — no new major investor has stepped up to the plate — “but it’s not over yet.”  

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