An Englishwoman in Paris takes the Tribune into its digital future

Alison Smale, the most powerful British female editor overseas, tells Ian Burrell how her global paper has been made over in print and online

Visitors to the French Open tennis championships, which starts in May at the Stade de Roland Garros in Paris, might be surprised to look up at the street sign and find they are standing in Avenue Gordon Bennett. They might be further intrigued to learn that Gordon, eccentric character that he was, deserves to be known as one of the most insightful entrepreneurs in the history of English language media.

Bennett's story is rooted in the French capital and a posthumous new chapter is added today as the International Herald Tribune – the title which he founded as the Paris Herald in 1887 – takes on a fresh identity both in its printed form and, perhaps more importantly, online.

One of the three truly worldwide English language newspapers – along with the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal – the IHT is, as the strap beneath its masthead points out, "The Global Edition of the New York Times". Yet it is something very distinct from the "Old Gray Lady" of Manhattan.

There is something more chic about the "Trib". In Jean-Luc Goddard's 1960 film Breathless, Jean Seberg plays a student who aspires to work on the New York Herald Tribune, as it was then called, selling copies on the Champs-Elysées, close to the paper's original offices on the Rue de Berri.

Much has changed since then. The paper is now based in the affluent western suburb of Neuilly and for six years it has been owned outright by The New York Times, after it bought out its partner and great rival, TheWashington Post. Since December, the paper has been run by Alison Smale, surely be the most powerful female British journalist working outside of London.

"I like to think that we have managed to combine the global voice of the Herald Tribune with the very savvy journalism of The New York Times to create something for an elite that travels the globe," she says. "If you want to know what's going on in the world, we offer a clear guide through those sometimes very confusing events."

Today, Smale, 55, presides over the IHT's first redesign in a decade and a shift in its online position, whereby it becomes central to nytimes.com, the biggest newspaper-owned English -language website in the world. Although its current bespoke address, iht.com, will continue to exist, it will offer the same content as a new "global" offering on nytimes.com, reflecting increased interest in international news. The online change could grow awareness of the Tribune's brand but there is a risk that going forward it will be subsumed by that of The New York Times.

The most obvious element of today's redesign is that the key adjective "international" has been give equal prominence to the other two words in the paper's masthead. "It partly results from a desire to have one uniform script and partly from the desire to say we are global," explains Smale. The IHT has given up its Pointer font in favour of a variant of the Cheltenham font intended to echo, but not replicate, The New York Times.

Smale admits the IHT is suffering a "marked" downturn in advertising, though no worse than the rest of media. She is based in Neuilly but is on a visit to the IHT offices on the edge of Bloomsbury, central London. Because of the title's origins, she says, it will always enjoy a strong following in France. "For a certain part of the French elite we are 'indispensable' – you will go round and people will say 'C'est le meilleur journal du monde' because of the cachet that comes from reading something at this level of English," she says.

The circulation, just shy of 250,000, is split evenly between three groups; American ex-pats, nationals of other countries who want a global paper, and third country nationals ("the Norwegian living in Hong Kong", as Smale puts it). There is little crossover between the readership of the print product and iht.com, an oddity which Smale suspects might be partly linked to the paper being often bought for plane journeys.

As former deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, she is fully aware of the talent at her disposal, notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "We have enormous depth in Iraq, I think The Times of London are saying that they're the only people with a full-time correspondent in Baghdad. Well, The New York Times has about 100 people in Iraq, counting security."

Another key partner of the IHT is Reuters, which supplies specialist commentary as well as business news. Following today's redesign, the paper's business coverage has been given greater prominence, including the back page, a challenge to its global competitors. The three Asian editions of the IHT (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong) are also of growing importance, with the IHT outselling The Wall Street Journal in this key market.

Though she distinguishes the IHT from the business dailies by saying "We are a general interest newspaper", she admits sports coverage is a difficulty. "Sport is where we are at our most schizophrenic. We must cover baseball, we must cover basketball, and we must cover what is called in our paper football, which we would call American football," she says. Association football is branded "soccer".

Such things have hindered the IHT's progress in Britain. "If I may venture to say this, I think our American-ness is more of an issue in Britain than in other places because we spell things the American way and that immediately leaps out to a British eye."

Smale herself grew up in London and studied at Bristol University, where she hoped to be a journalist. An interview at the BBC helped convince her that she should pursue those ambitions overseas. "The first question was 'Why didn't you go to Oxford or Cambridge?' Which was the point at which I thought 'Perhaps I shall just leave altogether'."

A prestigious scholarship to do a journalism masters at Stanford University in California led to a job at the UPI news wire, from where she went to Associated Press, later covering the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Her vantage point leads her to suggest that British journalism cannot match the seriousness of parts of the German press. "The Anglo Saxon approach to life and to newspapering is fundamentally different to continental journalism in general and German journalism in particular. You are expected to be more of an essayist in the German press," says Smale, who speaks French, German and Russian.

Like her readers, and her paper's founder, James Gordon Bennett Jr (whose strange behaviour, including an obsession with owls – which became the paper's symbol – is said to have inspired the famous expression of amazement), she is very much a global citizen. "The paper that he founded was for rich Americans who came to summer in Paris or Europe, to discover the belle époque, to buy fine clothes and buy art," she says of its 122-year history. Unlikely as it might seem in these dark times for media, Smale is hoping that, for the International Herald Tribune, a new belle époque is about to begin.

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