Politics & Policy

Bright Light in a Big City

A high-spirited paper encourages a real marketplace of ideas.

Think of last Thursday as a tale of two front pages. Splashed across the top of Paper A was the headline, “BRITISH ASSESSMENT CLEARS BUSH ON URANIUM.” Paper B buried the Butler Report story on page six; similarly buried, on page seven, was coverage of the Philippines’s capitulation to terrorism. This was front-page material for Paper A, which, just under the Butler headline, proclaimed, “FILIPINO RETREAT CALLED A CAVE-IN IN FACE OF THREAT.” What was deserving of front-page coverage for Paper B? A triumphant “SENATORS BLOCK INITIATIVE TO BAN SAME-SEX UNIONS; Amendment, Endorsed by Bush, Fails After Days of Debate.” Paper A, to its credit, also put this story on its front page, but with the less hysterical “Vote on Gay Vows Leaves Issue Alive; Marriage Amendment Halted in Senate.”

#ad#Until recently, if eight million-plus people wanted to take in a broadsheet with their morning’s coffee, Paper B–the New York Times–was their only option. In 2002, this monopoly was broken by Paper A: the New York Sun.

This was not the first time the Sun had saved New York from media imbalance. In 1868, when journalist Charles Dana returned to New York–after covering the Civil War at Abraham Lincoln’s behest–he arrived in a city that, prior to the war, had been a cesspool of pro-slavery sentiment. It had also lacked an outspokenly abolitionist voice among its news offerings; Dana did not want the same tepidity to afflict the Reconstruction era. He wanted a newspaper that would argue in favor of limited, honest government, free enterprise, and equality before the law. So Dana acquired the New York Sun, which he transformed into a standard-bearer for these values, and a vehicle for high-quality, literary journalism.

One hundred thirty-four years later, when Seth Lipsky sought to establish a new daily newspaper in New York, he wanted to accomplish much the same thing. Inspired by Dana’s example, he settled on reviving the Sun–which has challenged the liberal domination of New York’s media since.

A MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS

Taking up challenges seems to be Lipsky’s specialty. Prior to reestablishing the Sun, he and Sun founding partner Ira Stoll had tried to take the weekly Jewish Forward daily. “We failed at that,” says Stoll (who had been the Forward’s managing editor), with a grin. “So we decided it would be easier to take on the New York Times.”

Lipsky and Stoll both have very flattering things to say about the Times. So does Roger Hertog, one of the Sun’s “financial angels”: “The New York Times is a great paper; it’s a well-written paper. Its journalists are among the most talented in the world.”

“But on many issues,” Hertog adds, “they have a worldview that I don’t quite agree with. And so if you believe in free markets and free minds, then competition in the world of news makes some sense.”

This is not to say that the Sun exists only to challenge the Times. “You don’t have to hate the Times to love the Sun,” Lipsky assures. In fact, the Sun responds to several New York publications: “The New York Post–which we love–is a tabloid,” says Stoll. “And the Wall Street Journal is a national business paper. So we saw an opening in the market here for an upscale, right-of-center broadsheet.”

Upscale and right-of-center it is. Across its 20-plus pages, the Sun reflects the intellectual sophistication, stylistic flair, and high-spirited energy of the city that hosts and shapes it. And fittingly so: The paper started out with a “New York on Page One” slogan (to combat the Times’s shift away from local coverage). When the Times met this challenge by moving Metro stories to the front page, the Sun settled into being its own entity, making sure that all of its coverage–local, national, international–embraced the paper’s values and priorities.

WINNING THE CULTURE(D) WARS

Those values and priorities are rare among metropolitan dailies. Take, for example, the Sun’s culture coverage, which has made an impact on the city’s arts criticism, accruing rave reviews in the process. This accomplishment belongs largely to deputy managing editor Robert Messenger, who, as culture editor in the paper’s first year, effectively built that section from scratch. Prior to joining the Sun, Messenger had been an associate editor at The New Criterion, and brought many of its values to his new publication.

Messenger attributes much of the culture section’s success to its critics: “We want writers who have strong opinions,” he explains–writers who are enthusiastic about their respective arts. But the section is also distinguished by its traditional perspective on art criticism. “It’s the idea that there’s one set of standards, which doesn’t recognize whether you’re black or white, male or female,” says Messenger. One is unlikely to find this viewpoint in many newspaper arts sections, insofar as they exist at all. (Messenger notes ruefully that the Washington Post–which he considers one of the nation’s finest papers–has only a “Style” section.)

The Sun’s priorities are also on display in its opinion pages, which are a source of special pride for Lipsky: “We’re starting to build a great lineup of columnists: Bill Buckley, William Hammond, Michael Barone, Daniel Pipes…. And I think our editorials have been well received.”

Perhaps this is because they take positions unpopular among the “media elite,” and argue them daringly, and well. The Sun is passionately in favor of lower taxes, school choice, and tort reform. It has been highly supportive of the war in Iraq, and has tried to bring balance to coverage of the conflict there. It is also a strong proponent of Israel’s right to defend itself. Explains Stoll: “There are people who think Bush should pressure Israel to make more concessions to terrorists. But we think he should support [Israel] in fighting the terrorists. I don’t get why, in a city attacked by terrorists, and with a large Jewish population, people would think otherwise.”

But people do–like the people shaping editorial opinion at the Times, and, indeed, in most of the rest of the world media. The Sun’s position is a relatively lonely one, requiring a brave attitude to embrace it, and a bold voice to argue it.

A MAN AND HIS DREAM

This courage and passion are the paper’s defining qualities, and can, in large part, be traced to Lipsky–and his love of journalism.

“I’ve been pretty much set on a newspaper life since I became conscious,” says the journalism romantic. “I also knew that I would eventually try to organize my own paper in New York–probably since I was about five.” This lifelong dream would eventually come to fruition, but not by the most direct path: Lipsky spent 18 years at the Wall Street Journal, where one of his assignments was to help set up the Asian Wall Street Journal. “For someone with my entrepreneurial bent, it was just a fabulous experience.” So was working under Robert Bartley, whom Lipsky describes as “one of the great influences in my life–not just intellectually, in the battle for ideas, but also just as a great newspaperman and scoop artist.”

Lipsky’s Dow Jones adventures took him to Brussels, to be editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe. “If one wants to talk about the romance of newspapering, it just doesn’t get more romantic than to be in league with Amity [Shlaes, Lipsky’s wife] in Europe during the climactic years of the Cold War.” As proof, Lipsky recounts a climactic Cold War event: Returning from a business trip, Lipsky landed in Brussels–where he and Amity were living–”on the morning of November 10, and found a note on my desk saying she was staying in Berlin owing to events.” So Lipsky caught a flight to Berlin, where “people were in the streets. We went to the East, and came back through Checkpoint Charlie. People were swarming over the Wall; people handed us rock-climbing hammers; and we set to chipping away at the wall with a hundred thousand people.”

After that experience, Lipsky figured it was “a good time to go back to New York, and on to the next story.”

TEACHING BY EXAMPLE

This spirit of journalistic adventure infuses the Sun–and spills over to the rest of the 90-person staff. “A newspaper startup kind of attracts an adventurous, high-spirited group,” Lipsky observes. Small wonder: A startup comes with no small amount of risk, as the Sun’s (re)founders know all too well. Explains Hertog: “Great projects are never started by the faint of heart. You have to take some risks, and you have to really believe in something. And you have to have people who really believe in something.”

Those affiliated with the Sun definitely believe in their paper, which is why they are so excited about the steps it has already taken, and the strides it has yet to make. And deservedly so: In bringing greater ideological balance to–and, through competition, improving the quality of–the city’s media, the Sun is an invaluable addition to New York journalism. Its benefits, however, are not confined to the city: First, those outside the Sun’s print-distribution range may read the very well-formatted online version. Next, there’s the fact that it has been picked up by other news outlets, and has begun to influence debates nationwide. And then there’s the power of its example. Says Stoll, “If we’re successful here, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in other cities where there are liberal-monopoly newspapers, people might think about mounting challenges.”

Readers in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago…take note. And readers in New York?

Be grateful.

Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.

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