'New York Sun' may need Santa's help before long

 

ON WALL STREET: Newspaper people are by long tradition terrible business people, as Michael Wolff, media analyst of New York magazine, reminded readers last week. He made the comment in an essay on the launch of the New York Sun, a five-day-a-week metro broadsheet which is now available on news stands in the Big Apple, competing with the New York Times and two tabloids.

After giving it a few weeks to settle down and show its colours, New Yorkers seem inclined to the view that its backers have indeed made a terrible business decision. Nor would it be the first time for one of the most prominent investors. Media tycoon Lord (Conrad) Black of Crossharbour, who has twice before tried to get into the New York media market with failed bids for the Daily News and the weekly Observer, recently lost $300 million (€328 million) on his Canadian newspaper, the National Post.

The Sun, which has attracted $20 million in backing according to its founder Seth Lipsky, seems on the face of it to be a bad bet. It is aimed at conservatives in a liberal city. Its 12 pages include no weather forecast, no sports coverage and no television listings. It has an editorial staff of fewer than 20 compared to more than 100 in the New York Times metro section alone. At 50 cents it costs twice as much as the bulky New York Post.

The broadsheet relies heavily on agencies and syndication. On one typical day, seven of its 26 news stories were generated by staff, three came from the Daily Telegraph syndication service, one from the Jerusalem Post and the rest from AP and Bloomberg (the Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post are owned by Hollinger International of which Lord Black is chairman).

Much of its fashion, arts and dining coverage comes from a free website called Dailycandy.com.

Where, one might wonder, is its appeal then, the key to future commercial success? Mr Lipsky said the Sun would champion limited government, individual liberty and constitutional fundamentals. This has translated into a heavy slant towards political and cultural conservative issues, and in particular, uncritical coverage of what a Sun editorial headline called "The War Against the Jews". As an example of its uncompromising stance, the Sun has compared US humanitarian aid for the Palestinian Authority to the collaboration of Swiss bankers with Nazi Germany.

There is a niche market for that kind of stuff in New York. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in Manhattan exhorted his congregation to take out subscriptions to the Sun as an alternative to the New York Times, which many conservatives feel is not sufficiently pro-Israel. But it is not a very big niche, as acknowledged by the modest print run of 60,000 compared to New York Times daily sales in the city of 320,000, and many would say it has already been filled by the Post which is very sympathetic to Israel.

Launched at a party hosted by Tina Brown, editor of the ill-fated Talk magazine, the Sun does not expect to make a profit for three to four years, according to chairman Roger Hertog, vice-chairman of Alliance Capital Management. A cursory read on any day shows that it is attracting few advertisements.

Interestingly, however, the arrival of the Sun coincides with changes at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which have abandoned peaceful co-existence to compete for the high-end advertising markets. The Times has beefed up its business coverage while the Wall Street Journal has encroached on the preserves of the Times with a weekend leisure section and a daily Personal Journal.

The point Martin Wolff was actually making about newspaper people being bad business people was that the Times and Wall Street Journal might be missing the point - that they are distinctive and beloved brands with loyal audiences that are in better shape than behemoths like AOL Time Warner, and that trying to become something bigger and better may not be that smart, and that the Sun might actually shine longer than forecast.

However it is worth recalling that the last New York Sun, which expired in 1950, is remembered for its 1897 editorial proclaiming "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus".

On present showing the new version may need him before long.