When Will The Sun Set? New Paper Mulls Late Nights
The debut issue of The New York Sun remains months away, and in the meantime, editor Seth Lipsky and managing editor and sidekick Ira Stoll are trying to get a newsroom ready, wrangling with Verizon for phone service at the paper’s Chambers Street office and sifting through résumés and clips in order to assemble a staff.
But one thing appears certain: A day at The New York Sun is shaping up to be one of the longest days in the New York journalism business. Sources tell Off the Record that Mr. Lipsky wants to close his paper late at night– really late: late enough to get a peek at the early editions of the other papers in town and maybe make some adjustments to his own issue. One source said that the five-day-a-week paper was considering closing as late as 3 a.m.
Mr. Stoll acknowledged that a late closing time was under consideration, but said that no time had been decided yet. “We’re still working out the logistics of the late close. It’s actually a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “Every newspaper wants the latest deadline it can possibly have.”
A late closing would have its benefits, of course, especially for a fledgling paper looking to make a splash in New York’s competitive daily-media marketplace. Mr. Lipsky is said by people who know him to like the way old afternoon dailies could get a half-step ahead of the news and offer commuters a fresh read on the subway home after work. If The Sun aspires, as some suspect, to be a second read to The New York Times , it might make sense to close the paper late and react to that day’s Times coverage.
Of course, afternoon papers have faded in America. The Daily News ended its free afternoon-commuter edition, the Express , last fall after a short-lived run. The Sun will be a morning paper, but with funny hours for staff. It goes without saying that a late closing time is not a cakewalk for staffers. Asked who might remain in The Sun ‘s newsroom après -midnight, Mr. Stoll said: “Well, me and some other members of the editorial staff.”
Mr. Stoll, of course, is no stranger to funny hours, having woken up at the crack of dawn for the past two years to work on Smartertimes.com, his New York Times -critiquing Web site. “It’s a little-known fact, but I do not sleep,” he joked.
Meanwhile, Mr. Stoll and Mr. Lipsky have kept mostly mum about their plans for the newspaper. Part of this is strategy, of course. “I don’t see the advantage to us in describing months ahead of time a product in great detail when it comes out,” Mr. Stoll said.
Still, he did discuss a few details about the paper, which is being financed with $15 million by a group of 11 investors, including Conrad Black. The Sun will be a one-section broadsheet, he said, and portions of it will resemble a standard daily newspaper. The front page will carry news, he said, and there will be an editorial and op-ed page, an arts-and-culture page and a feature page that will cover “shopping, food, travel, restaurants, health and fitness.”
Mr. Stoll wouldn’t say how many pages each issue will run, nor what the plans for circulation would be. “The page count will depend on how many ad pages we sell, and it will vary from day to day,” he said. But sources who have spoken to Messrs. Lipsky and Stoll say that the initial plan is to publish a 16-page issue each day, and then take it from there.
It’s a lot of space for him to fill each day, and people who have visited the Sun offices–which take up the entire second floor of 105 Chambers Street–say that there are a lot of empty desks. Mr. Stoll said that there are “approximately 10” people working out of the office right now, including himself and Mr. Lipsky, a person running the business side of the paper, the two reporters they’ve already hired and two support-staff members. Mr. Stoll said the paper will announce some editorial hires soon.
This month’s Atlantic Monthly reported that the paper was looking to put together a newsroom of “no more than 25 reporters,” but Mr. Stoll wouldn’t confirm even that vague figure. But it’s going to be a small staff. “Seth and I have something of a track record of producing scoops with a small staff, and we hope to continue that,” he said.
Mr. Lipsky also has a track record of getting a lot out of a staff of young, relatively inexperienced and–a quality that’s important when you have just $15 million to start a daily paper–cheap reporters.
The two reporters hired so far, Benjamin Smith and Rachel Kovner, both fit that description and have been, in recent months, filing earnest metro-beat stories for the Smartertimes.com newsletter. Steering clear of breaking news, the two have been writing off-news features that lean a little to the pointy-headed side. For instance, on Jan. 10, Ms. Kovner published a story headlined “Universities May Be Tempting Target for City in Search of Revenue,” which looked at the city’s tax exemptions for universities.
Mr. Stoll promised that The Sun ‘s news pages will have an open relationship with its editorial pages, but he said, “We’re going to run an honest, objective news report that can’t be dismissed as conservative, that will be newsworthy and lively.”
As for issues, Mr. Stoll gave the example of rent control: The editorial page will seek to overturn that policy, and he’ll be looking for stories about an heiress living in a $400 apartment for the news pages. “When I say ‘honest’ and ‘objective,’ that means we try to get the heiress on the phone and try to get her to explain why it’s a good policy, and why she should be able to pay this little money each month,” he said.
But that’s getting ahead of things, because right now The Sun is having difficulty getting anyone on the phone. Located only blocks from the World Trade Center site, The New York Sun is having a lot of difficulty getting its phones to work. Mr. Stoll wisely had only kind words for Verizon–”They’ve been very responsive, but there are difficulties”–but when we went to print, The Sun office had just one phone line that no one could dial into.
A couple of months back, when Time Inc. began phasing out its old e-mail system in favor of the one provided by corporate mothership AOL Time Warner, AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case stopped by the office of Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., to say hello. When asked by Mr. Case how the e-mail switch was going, Mr. Pearlstine replied: “Don’t ask.”
“It was not a judgment about the e-mail system,” Mr. Pearlstine, a self-described “technophobe,” recalled later. “It was a judgment on my abundance of thumbs.”
Well, Mr. Pearlstine may fault himself for his trouble with the new system, but no one else at Time Inc. does. Indeed, the halls at the House of Luce are currently filled with disgruntled executives and editors and writers, all of whom say that the same folks who brought you “You’ve Got Mail” have created lots of problems while solving none.
As one Time Inc. source put it: “AOL’s giving us dog food and they’re making us eat it.”
Another source put it this way: “I hate this fucking thing. It’s a nightmare. Our tech guys are going crazy. Everybody’s bitching and moaning.”
So what’s wrong?
To begin with, the AOL e-mail system, sources said, can’t perform even basic tasks. You can’t, they say, forward messages with attachments. You can’t get a receipt when someone opens an e-mail. Nor will it automatically tell you when you’ve actually got new mail.
But more frustrating, sources said, are all the things it actually does. It will crash your computer. It will erase your e-mails without warning. In response, said one source, people have begun printing e-mails out and taping them around the desk.
“I’ll be watching my screen, and new messages will disappear before I even get a chance to read them,” one source said. “I’ve just spent the last hour and a half with the guys from tech.”
More ominously, some sources said that some people within Time Inc. have stopped e-mailing altogether. People are choosing to leave voice-mails rather than typing messages. So much for new media synergy, huh? As one source put it, “At least you know your message will make it.”
Mr. Pearlstine, for his part, acknowledged the mass frustration. But, he told Off the Record, the old e-mail delivery, developed by I.B.M., was outdated and could no longer be serviced. Furthermore, he said, Warner Bros. and Warner Music have been using the system with good results. The problems, Mr. Pearlstine said, would soon be resolved by “the smartest people I know.”
“Thirty-three million people use e-mail systems from AOL,” Mr. Pearlstine said. “AOL is not stupid about e-mail.”
When asked if he was happy with the new system, Mr. Pearlstine said: “I will be. I’m not now.”
A spokesperson for AOL said the company was working hard to fix the problems but acknowledged: “Change isn’t easy. People, particularly reporters, are attached to their e-mail. The process hasn’t been seamless.”
Since last week, a television satellite truck has been parked on Sixth Avenue outside one of the The Wall Street Journal ‘s temporary newsrooms. Like everyone inside The Journal , the occupants of the satellite truck are waiting for a resolution to the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, The Journal ‘s Southeast Asia bureau chief, who was abducted in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 23.
Mr. Pearl’s ordeal continues to be an emotional and frustrating experience for The Journal ‘s staff. Just a week ago, there again appeared to be a break in the case, when Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh–the man considered to be the mastermind behind the kidnapping–was arrested. Pakistani authorities, in published reports, said that Mr. Saeed had told them, “He’s O.K.” But two days later, in court, Mr. Saeed told a Pakistani judge: “As far as I understand, he’s dead.”
Authorities dismissed Mr. Saeed’s comments, however, and shifted their focus to Amjad Hussain, the man who supposedly captured Mr. Pearl. But as of Feb. 19, authorities seem no closer to locating Mr. Pearl.
“What it makes us realize,” said a Journal source, “is that none of us know anything. Police say one suspect is captured and it gets our hopes up, and the next day you fear for the worst. Until we see Danny, it’s hard to believe anything.”
Of course, this internal ignorance is partially due to the paper’s own strategy of keeping any company decisions related to Mr. Pearl very close to the vest. To date, there have been no meetings with reporters in the New York offices to talk about Mr. Pearl, no group discussions to air things out. The last official memo sent was on Friday, Feb. 8, by Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and Dow Jones chief executive Peter Kann.
As one WSJ source put it: “It’s frustrating because none of us know anything, and we wish we did. People ask you about Danny Pearl all the time–your friends, your family–and no one has anything to say. We’re all a little scared and not informed, and wish we were. But you won’t find any second-guessing.”
Meanwhile, according to sources, frustration among the paper’s staff has grown as Mr. Pearl’s plight becomes overshadowed in the national news cycle by figure-skating controversies and the like.
“It’s hard to watch his name disappear from the news,” said a WSJ source. “He’s not the top story anymore. For the family of Chandra Levy, their daughter’s still missing, but everyone’s moved on to the next thing. We’re like family here. Life moves on for everyone else but the family in question. The story can move from the headlines, but not for us.”
Meanwhile, the company has continued to hold its cards close: It has limited access to both Mr. Steiger–slated to accept an award on Thursday, Feb. 21, for “Editor of the Year” by the National Press Foundation in Washington, D.C.–and Ms. Pearl, who released her last statement on Thursday, Feb. 14. Steve Goldstein, a vice president for Dow Jones, the parent company of The Journal , said the paper remained “hopeful and confident Danny is alive.” Mr. Goldstein said the paper had no plans to deviate from its present media strategy. The story, he maintained, was still “major news in Pakistan and in France, where Mariane Pearl is from. That it’s not the lead story in America is not something we understand.
“Are we scared people are going to forget about it?” Mr. Goldstein continued. “No–we don’t think anyone will forget about it. This is a story that impacts everyone. But each news organization has to make decisions based on the events of that day.”