Big battle in the Big Apple

Conrad Black is preparing to take on Rupert Murdoch by launching a new newspaper in New York. But with advertising down and fierce competition, it's not going to be easy. David Usborne previews a heavyweight contest
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The Independent Online

Conrad Black is not known for his stealth or humility. Yet he seems almost chagrined by the brouhaha surrounding the decision by his Hollinger International company to invest in a new newspaper in New York. Indeed, we probably would not have known anything about it but for the news being scooped last month by The New York Observer.

Details of the project are slowly coming into focus. If all goes to plan, the paper, to be called The New York Sun, will launch in the spring. It will hit the stands five days a week, will be only about six pages thick, and will be edited by Seth Lipsky, a columnist of The Wall Street Journal and former editor of the Jewish Forward weekly. It will be distinctly conservative in tone. Of course it will, otherwise Black would hardly have been interested.

The impending incursion of Black – now Lord Black of Crossharbour – into Gotham is not an event that the rest of the media community is going to ignore. It comes as he completes his withdrawal from the Canadian newspaper scene and finds himself with extra time and money. And it may be his third time lucky. He failed in 1993 to buy the Daily News in New York, and two years ago made a doomed pass at The New York Observer itself.

Hollinger has done its best to help downplay whatever Black is up to. Last week, it issued a statement dismissing comparisons with his involvement in the three-year-old National Post in Canada. (He bailed out of the loss-making daily, which, at first at least, was very much his baby, in August.) The company said its role in The New York Sun would only be "a passive and minority one. This is in contrast to the National Post in Canada."

The company, in fact, says it is likely to invest about $2m in the venture. Other backers will include Michael Steinhardt, a vice-chairman of Forward, and Roger Hertog, vice-chairman of Alliance Capital Management, the Wall Street brokerage. Altogether, the paper will start life with about $15m to support it. How it will fare and where it will sit in the market are questions yet to be answered. In other words, what is it for?

Hollinger executives have described The New York Sun as a paper that will be "very upmarket, certainly neo-conservative in its ideological views". It seemed at first that it might seek to poach sophisticated readers from The New Yorker, who may have grown tired of its mostly liberal pedigree, as well as from the more ideologically mixed New York Observer, which is a weekly. Some takers of The New York Times might not defect, but they might at least add The New York Sun to their breakfast reading.

It is possible that the backers of The New York Sun, Lord Black included, are getting into this for a bit of fun. "This could be just a hobby thing," notes Michael Wolff, who writes on media matters for New York Magazine. He makes the comparison with The Weekly Standard, that provides Washington with a conservative mirror to The New Republic. The Weekly Standard is widely regarded as an indulgence of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. "There is no indication that this can be a serious business endeavour or actually a serious publishing endeavour," adds Wolff.

This may be unkind. It does, however, seem like an unpropitious time to be starting a new title in famously rough-and-tumble New York City. The economy in the city is as worrying as it has been in years, and estimates suggest that the disastrous downturn in advertising that is hurting the whole industry has at least a year more to run. In that sort of climate (over here, there's talk of job cuts at Lord Black's Daily Telegraph... see The Word on the Street, right), opening The New York Sun would seem like an expensive way to have fun.

Or are we missing something? The main distinction of The New York Sun will be its right-wing viewpoint. There is one other newspaper in town that is, at least, on that side of the fence. It is Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. If that is the target that Lord Black has his sights on, then a familiar feud may be in the offing. Black and Murdoch are longtime adversaries, not least in London, where the battle between The Daily Telegraph and The Times goes on. Is that the mission assigned to Mr Lipsky? To go after the New York Post?

"He can compete with the New York Post," Rick Hertzberg, managing editor of The New Yorker, suggested in The Boston Phoenix newspaper last week. "He can make it lively, he can make it intelligent, and he can go way, way up-market with it, with a raffish edge. He's going to have more fun than anybody in the world. I envy him."

That would be hard to carry off, however. At first, at least, The New York Sun would be a gnat on the backside of the New York Post. While it may be a tabloid, the New York Post has a serious edge, with a huge team of hungry reporters, pursuing stories in city politics, business and sport. (And, of course, celebrity gossip.) "Conrad and the boys are going to have a hard act to follow doing that kind of reporting," noted Peter Kaplan, editor of The New York Observer. "What Murdoch has paid for is a ton of reporting. Reporting is expensive. Sensibility is cheap." Indeed, in the early days, The New York Sun is slated to have a staff of just 25 with a daily print run of about 6,000 copies.

One more scenario offers itself. It is delicious and not too far fetched. Indeed, it becomes more credible when you examine what is going on at Murdoch's New York Post. It is haemorrhaging money despite huge efforts to turn it around. And the word is out that Murdoch, who has plenty of other problems at News International, has lost patience. So is that Black's game? He sends in the commandos to establish base at the The New York Sun. He bides his time and then takes control of the New York Post.

Wolff, over at New York Magazine, says this need not be far-fetched. "Black might well be interested in buying the New York Post, which I think may well be for sale," he argues. "But even Conrad Black might look at the financials and demur. The likely scenario is that we are already in the last days of the New York Post."

Perhaps Black himself does not quite know how this latest of his many ventures will end. If we are to go by history, it could be in embarrassment and financial loss. (The Trib, a paper with a similar slant was launched by a group of American arch-conservatives in New York in January 1978. It had folded by April that year.) On the other hand, his small investment in The New York Sun may give him the bridgehead to something almost every newspaper mogul has craved: control of a large New York daily. But it wouldn't be called The New York Sun. It would be the New York Post.