New York, New York

Nothing Like the Sun

New York’s new daily paper The New York Sun was launched two weeks ago with great expectations, brio, and fanfare. So far we’ve seen a lot of wire stories, copy errors, and sloppy writing.

When the New York Sun debuted April 16, everyone expected it to be a little biased, what with Conrad Black & Co. fronting a good chunk of the startup cash. And most agreed that the project had at least a chance of making it; after all, it’s backed by $20 million, helmed by journalism vet Seth Lipsky, and manned by a brace of Ivy League alums. And if bias was all there was to worry about—well then, as the New Yorker’s Hendrick Hertzberg quipped, the Sun was ‘to be welcomed’ as one more conservative voice in the media choir, ‘whether or not that’s what it will be preaching to.’ What could go wrong?

Everything, apparently.

Already in its third week of publishing, the Sun has yet to pass a single day without a major, basic-rules-of-journalism-violating mistake. Unsourced assertions, manipulated quotations and editorial infringement abound, not to mention the paper’s unrelenting support for charter schools, Israel, and Forgea, the dog trapped on an Indonesian freighter (a wire story that, inexplicably, ran front page for three consecutive days). It’s bad, and not simply in a beginner’s bad-luck sense of the word. We’re talking state-university-weekly bad. The very pundits who foresaw the Sun as a boondoggle vanity project forgot that vanitas rarely has a hold on veritas, at least enough to bring in readers. If the Sun is a voice in the choir, it’s a journalistic John Ashcroft.

Those who saw the paper as a possible cross between the Times and the Wall Street Journal got it right, if only in terms of its design—like the Journal, a content-heavy front page, but also a smorgasbord of all-cap headlines, bright photos, and clunky blocks of news. Layout 101 says you’ll scare the reader with too much text up front, and yet the Sun’s debut ran with nine—nine—front-page stories and an extended caption, only two of which had any claim to being called ‘news.’ A sports story, an article on Rolodexes, a Peggy Noonan-penned profile of Lech Walesa, an analysis of Hillary’s Senatorial travails, an interview with the head of the Iraqi National Congress, a bit on a suit by New York wine lovers—all got Page 1 prominence. The front page has settled down a little since then, but at seven columns wide, it could stand to be taken down another notch.

The Sun’s copy editors could do with a little remedial education themselves. The lead photograph on April 19 showed a police officer holding what is clearly a single-barrel shotgun—identified by the Sun as a rifle. A small matter in the grand scheme, sure, but that’s what they pay these people for. April 22’s lead photograph, showing French citizens reacting to the presidential election results, was the exact same AP photo that ran on the front of the Times that day—inexcusable, given that the Sun brags about having the latest press time of any New York paper so its editors can see what its competitors are doing. Other gaffes have followed: a front-page misspelling of Andersen (the auditing firm) as Anderson, lazy headlines like ‘Best of Boston Barely Enough to Beat Bombers’ and ‘Ravitz Declines to Run Again for Another Term’ and the grammatically ugly ‘Published at New York City’ that runs in the bottom left of the masthead everyday.

The Sun’s motto is ‘It Shines for All,’ though ‘it’ seems to refer more to the paper’s unabashed conservatism than its journalistic luster. It shines so brightly, in fact, that Sun editors seem positively blinded by it—how else to explain April 25’s ‘Frontrunner’s Law Firm representing Accused Polluters,’ an anti-Andrew Cuomo attack dog disguised as a report of his law firm’s client list? The Sun must have realized that this in itself isn’t news—Cuomo, a Democratic candidate for governor, doesn’t work with those clients—because it goes on to claim that ‘the fact is raising hackles of Republicans’ (whatever that means). But the groundswell the Sun wishes were there isn’t. The writer, R.H. Sager, could only drag up a single, conditional quote, from the state’s Republican committee executive director: ‘The fact that Andrew Cuomo could be guilty of hypocrisy is no surprise … He will say anything to get elected.’ Not exactly evidence of hackle-raising, much less front-page news.

Lipsky, an avowed Zionist, spent several years leading the Forward, New York’s Jewish weekly, and a number of his staff—including Managing Editor Ira Stoll—worked there as well. Normally a newspaper tries to distance itself from any whiff of conflicting interest, but the Sun seems to positively revel in it. April 19’s ‘Bush Gives Nod to Israel’s Forces at Ramallah, Bethlehem,’ claims that the president is sending $92 million to the Palestinians that can be funneled to terrorists—all without a single piece of evidence. The editorial page, however, tells us the Sun got its info from a press release sent by the Zionist Organization of America. Seems logical that a source so close to the hearts of the Sun staff would be backed up by, say, a verifying statement from the State Department, if only for propriety’s sake, but the Sun editors obviously disagree.

The paper’s less political stories, on the other hand, have also been its best, its most balanced. April 23’s lead ‘New Yorkers Spurn Med School While Swarming Deans of Law, Journalism, and Business,’ while a questionable choice for the top spot, covers all the necessary bases—writer Rachel Kovner interviews deans at NYU and Columbia and really gets into the meat of the story: the impact of HMOs, the length of study, the dropping salary expectations. But then again, this is a softball story, non-ideological and uncontroversial. This type of story won’t make or break the paper. If nothing else comes of this little experiment called the Sun, its writers will have learned that it’s much easier to write balance than bias, at least convincingly.

Lipsky spent the better part of the last few months billing the Sun as an antidote to the Times, not only for the Gray Lady’s liberal-media poison but also because it was, supposedly, a local paper that shunned all things local. But the Sun has failed in that category as well—stories about New York’s Rolodex users do not local coverage make. Nor does a meeting about a TV antenna on Governor’s Island, nor a bill to label broken mailboxes as security hazards. The paper’s single scoop has been to attack the Post for fudging reader plaudits in its advertising. Gripping news, sure, but where’s the skinny on City Hall? Most glaringly, the paper didn’t have a story covering the April 25th explosion in a Chelsea office building, which injured more than 40 people—a story that the rest of the local media jumped on. Instead, the Sun’s lead story detailed city efforts to crackdown on residents who claim their country houses as their primary residences. Not the sort of story most New Yorkers can relate to, nor the sort of barnburner that should have prevented the Sun from sending a reporter uptown for a few hours. Editorial decisions like these aren’t going to translate into the sort of readership the Sun needs to survive.

Then there’s the issue of sheer weight, or lack thereof. At an average 12 pages—10 if you don’t count the full-page ads—the paper comes in with about 25 news stories a day, of which only a fraction are written by Sun staffers. April 25 had 20 wire stories and only five from the Sun (one of which was written by the anonymous ‘Staff Writer of the Sun’). Thus 80 percent of that day’s news content could be found online, for free. The Sun is not what those in business would call a ‘value-added product.’

Which is going to be the paper’s undoing: business, and the impact the Sun’s journalism-lite will have on its balance sheet. Granted, there are a lot of poorly written rags out there—just look at the checkout line racks. But the Weekly World News has a niche, as does the Post, as does the Daily News. The Sun doesn’t. So far it’s squandered the only image it could have hoped to have built on: a smart, well-written broadsheet with a conservative, local angle. Conservative it is. Local, hardly. As for smart and well written—it has a ways to go.

Can it improve? Sure. As Lipsky himself has told the Washington Times, ‘there are thousands of daily newspapers in the world, and every one was started.’ On the other hand, there are thousands of failed papers, every one of which folded.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen