Breaking up is hard to do

When The New York Times gained overall control of the International Herald Tribune, the global paper lost some of the world's best reporters. Their departure has provided a surprising boost for a rival title, reports Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online

In the rarefied world of international daily newspapers, something is stirring. The first distant rustling began early this year, soon after The New York Times bought out The Washington Post's half of the International Herald Tribune to become its sole owner. Far from making the IHT the dominant international daily in Europe, however, this may be having almost the opposite effect. The rumble of real competition is coming closer.

It is now a year since The New York Times, to the dismay of The Washington Post, broached its buy-out of the jointly owned "Trib". Times executives in New York saw the Paris-based paper as a bridgehead into the global newspaper market. But almost nine months after the purchase was completed, The New York Times - which has endured its own internal and quite unconnected ructions in the meantime - is still pondering the Trib's future. A relaunch is provisionally planned for early next year.

Time, however, may be more of the essence than current thinking at The New York Times or the Trib would have us believe. As the NYT continues its discussions and market research into the options for the Trib, the venerable Wall Street Journal is threatening to steal a march on the dowager of Paris in her own, European, backyard.

While the solely owned International Herald Tribune has swiftly evolved into a paler, thinner, sometimes rather out-of-date version of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Europe has quietly moved in the opposite direction. What was an austere, very business-orientated newspaper, has become a more substantial read, with more comprehensive foreign news coverage and more general features. Its opinion pages, which used to be predictably right-wing, conservative and single-mindedly free-market - all couched in a very American style that this European reader, for one, found quite alien and off-putting - have become a forum for more diverse views.

The reason for this is not some dramatic change of policy at the top of the WSJ, or not exactly. It is the result of an unusual form of collaboration with The Washington Post, which is supplying dispatches from its foreign correspondents and a selection of its opinion columns to supplement the work of the WSJ's own writers. The Post pieces are reprinted only in The Wall Street Journal Europe and Wall Street Journal Asia - that is, those editions of the paper that do not compete in The Washington Post's home market.

The IHT is relevant here, not just because it is the main American competition for the WSJ in Europe and Asia, but because the change in the WSJ is a direct consequence of the New York Times buy-out. Ousted from the Trib, The Washington Post feared that its international profile would be diminished. Post correspondents abroad also feared they would lose the access they had enjoyed to leading officials in the country where they were based, because the paper they represented would no longer "count" abroad.

In a bold step that now looks thoroughly vindicated, the Post approached The Wall Street Journal about possible co-operation. Richard Tofel, the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, who also has overall responsibility for the Europe and Asia editions, says that the Journal was "very eager to negotiate". The arrangement began in February and both sides say they are delighted with the result.

Operationally, everything has gone much more smoothly than either side envisaged. Each day, The Washington Post nominates a number of stories, and The Wall Street Journal editors decide which to reprint. They are scrupulously attributed to The Washington Post, as is one of the three opinion articles that appear on the leader page of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

The collaboration has given The Wall Street Journal a different feel from the rather stuffy, conservative business daily of before. Tofel says that the WSJ did not set out to broaden its appeal beyond the international business community. "The Wall Street Journal," he says, "is a paper for global business people, and we are not seeking to look elsewhere." But he expresses an almost innocent satisfaction with the outcome.

There is no obligation on the Journal to promote The Washington Post, he says, but the Post's stories have appeared on the Journal's front page more often than anyone had expected. The Iraq war coverage is a particular source of pride. "The Post had more people in the field," he says, "and we could draw from both. This made for enormously strong war coverage, probably the best of any war coverage at all." He is looking forward to similar benefits during the next big US story: the 2004 presidential campaign.

He says that the precise contribution of The Washington Post to the WSJ Europe, either to circulation or to advertising, "is not something that is measurable". But, he says, he shares the sense that the WSJ Europe has been made stronger, and says that surveys supported that impression. Some 60 per cent of those asked, he said, believed that the Post had made the WSJ Europe "more valuable", and that judgement applied to readers across all categories - subscribers, non-subscribers - and across all regions.

Steve Coll, the managing editor of The Washington Post, is another happy man. Foreign correspondents, he says, had benefited from the sources and visibility they enjoyed in the Trib, "and we didn't want to lose that". He says that the co-operation with the WSJ "is not a fully adequate salve for all, but for many it turned out to be quite a substantial compensation".

The Post, which sees itself as a local Washington DC publication, as well as a national institution in the US, has no global publishing ambitions of its own. "We have no plan to enter the very vigorous and rewarding competition in transnational circulation," says Coll. The Post is concentrating instead on the internet and digital services.

The New York Times has not had an easy year. Shaken by the scandal of Jayson Blair, the young reporter found to have plagiarised articles and filed stories from places he never visited, and the resultant changes at the top of the paper, it is perhaps understandable if the Trib has not been at the centre of its attention.

Even so, the approach of The New York Times does appear somewhat leisurely. No decision appears to have been taken even on whether the International Herald Tribune's identity will remain, or whether it will become The New York Times International. Richard Wooldridge, the president and chief operating officer of the IHT, says that sales of the Trib have been "slightly down this year on last", but then - with the Iraq war - it has not been a good year for newspapers generally, or for advertising. And anyway, the Trib's news-stand sales have risen in six of seven countries - the seventh being Britain, where the Financial Times is the main competitor.

He insists that the Trib's market is safe. The paper has "massive opportunities" and its readers are "amazingly loyal". He is most emphatic about The New York Times's commitment. "We're working to a five- or 10-year time-frame. This is a serious, serious move by the NYT. It is not just for one year, it's a long-term plan." Asked about competition from the WSJ, he says: "We are the prime general international newspaper. They are not that. They're a business paper. There is not a lot of cross-over." This may be true now, but it may not be true much longer.