It's high noon for New York's Sun

Conrad Black's newest US newspaper sells just 26,000 copies a day, and the losses are mounting. James Silver asks: how long will he keep the title going?
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The Independent Online

On the morning of The New York Sun's launch, 18 months ago, a hundred hacks gathered in the newsroom at the rival New York Post, in the News Corporation building on the Avenue of the Americas. Rupert Murdoch's staffers were holding a sweepstake on how long the Sun - pitched at conservatives and Wall Street types disaffected with the allegedly liberal bias of The New York Times - would last. "We were certain it would fail," recalls a Post executive. "Everyone wrote dates on a long piece of paper, trying to predict when the Sun would finally set. Well, if nothing else, the New York Sun comfortably outlasted the naysayers here at the Post."

But, while continuing to publish in one of the most media-saturated newspaper markets on the planet may be viewed as an achievement in itself, the Sun's circulation certainly isn't worrying its rivals. The latest six-monthly ABC figures show an average sale of just over 26,000. Over the same period, the juggernaut Times had a weekday circulation of 1.13 million, while The Wall Street Journal sold 1.82 million. In the tabloid market, the New York Daily News and the Post are at 737,000 and 620,000 copies respectively.

The Sun - backed by Conrad Black, owner of Britain's Daily Telegraph - is a minnow, with an editorial team of just 39, compared with the Times's 1,000 staffers. But despite its disappointing start, its marketing is both aggressive and hyperbolic. "The New York Sun is the fastest-growing major metro newspaper in America," screeches one advert. A spokeswoman for the newspaper stands by those (hard to verify) claims. "Internal figures show that we hope to reach a circulation of 50,000 by the end of the year." But rival newspapers dismiss those "internal" figures as pure fantasy. "Internal Sun circulation figures are about as trustworthy as Dick Cheney," alleges the Post executive.

Other industry sources say the Sun - which has been bankrolled by Black and other conservative businessmen to the tune of $20m - is haemorrhaging cash. Free sampling, trial subscriptions and a cover-price slashed by 50 per cent to just 25 cents (the Times is $1), combined with a lingering recession in America's media sector, have reportedly hit it hard. Turning a profit in New York's newspaper market is notoriously difficult. The Post is thought to lose Murdoch up to $20m a year, while the Daily News - owned by property-magnate Mort Zuckerman - is also said to operate at a loss, albeit a far smaller one. So how much is the Sun really losing? "The New York Sun has not commented on its losses," says the paper's spokeswoman.

The Sun's veteran president and editor, Seth Lipsky, similarly refuses to be pushed on his newspaper's bottom line. "The success of The New York Sun will be measured by whether it achieves both its idealistic and business goals," he says cryptically.

It's those same idealistic goals that Black hopes will ensure that the Sun, a skinny 20-page broadsheet trying to pinch readers from the Times, a multi-section door-stopper of a paper, will punch above its weight in media circles. Its editorial stance is hawkish, neo-conservative and stridently pro-Israel. Rumours abound that Lipsky and his team toasted the start of the war in Iraq with champagne on the editorial floor.

When asked to define the Sun's politics, Lipsky says its tone is "similar to the Telegraph under the proprietorship of Lord Black, a line with which Ira Stoll [vice president and managing editor] and I agreed long before Hollinger's [Black's company] investment in the Sun." He also indicates that Black is a hands-on - though distant - boss. "We're no doubt far from his biggest responsibility, but he has attended nearly all of the meetings of the directors. He has expressed himself on key strategic and tactical questions, he has been unfailing in his encouragement and straightforward in his criticism."

Reviving a newspaper brand name which vanished from New York's news-stands in the 1950s, the Sun's backers - Black aside - include Charles Brunie, a former chairman of the ultra-conservative Manhattan Institute, and Roger Hertog, its current chair. Lipsky worked at The Wall Street Journal for 20 years, before editing the Jewish newspaper Forward. Stoll, meanwhile, founded smartertimes.com - a daily web critique of the Times which purported to catalogue that newspaper's perceived liberal and anti-Israeli bias. Recent columnist signings on the Sun have included the former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan and the ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, best known for coining the phrase "Axis of Evil".

At its launch, Ed Kosner, editor-in-chief of the Daily News, described the Sun as "an intellectual vanity publication". That's now echoed by several other industry analysts. "If people do have an opinion of The New York Sun," says Salon.com's Eric Boehlert, "it's probably that it's a curious vanity publishing experiment."

The Sun has also inspired satirical websites. Like Father, Like Sun (http://parsol 1789.blogspot.com/) was founded by Grady Olivier, who attacks the newspaper for urging the US "to finish the war" against "the Arabs" (and calling for the NYPD to arrest anti-war protestors "for treason"). "We deplore the paper's recycled Cold War worldview," says Olivier, describing the Sun's backers as "a gang of plutocrats".

So how long can The New York Sun keep publishing? The consensus among media commentators is: as long as the money-men are prepared to soak up their (relatively small) losses. "The difficulties of starting up daily newspapers, particularly in this city, are so great that it's hard to see how the Sun might overcome them," says Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University.

Lipsky claims he never expected to win over the doom-mongers. "Those who were saying nay at the beginning are still saying nay," he declares. "But I'm more optimistic than ever." The sweepstake-winner at the Post may have a long wait on his hands.

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