Tribune Buyout, Last Year’s Coup, A Times Headache

It’s been nearly a year since The New York Times took total control of the International Herald Tribune , America’s broadsheet voice abroad, ending a gentlemanly partnership between The Times ‘ dynastic family, the Sulzbergers, and the Grahamsof The Washington Post to run the paper.

TheTimes was sufficiently sanguine about its prospects abroad that it put $65 million into the deal to take the paper over. But since then, The Times ‘ plans for the paper have been scaled back. New sections originally planned for the paper will not roll out; expansions of the paper’s page count have been more modest than originally planned. Some insiders estimate losses on IHT to have reached $10 million this year. The introduction of color to the front page will take till spring of 2004. And it’s only now-as of Monday, in fact-that the Times Company finally decided to give the paper a new publisher: Michael Golden, the 54-year-old cousin of Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

For a long time, the IHT served as the gentlemanly buffer zone between the otherwise competitive Grahams and Sulzbergers. It’s a measure of how much the IHT meant to The Times that the latter took it over.

“The IHT is of great importance to The New York Times ,” said Alex S. Jones, co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times . “They alienated the Graham family in order to get total access to it, to allow them unfettered access to grow The Times brand worldwide.

“Michael is an experienced guy, and he has the mantle of the family and the support of the family,” Mr. Jones said. Mr. Golden became vice chairman of the New York Times Company when Arthur Sulzberger Jr. became Times Company Chairman in 1997. The IHT , which is viewed by many inside the paper as a kind of Elba, Mr. Jones argues, is in fact a troubled but important part of the company’s ongoing strategy.

The problem is, how does an American broadsheet that is winning against its U.S. competitors abroad win the international war as well by running a competing paper with a different name and a different identity?

Speculation began early that the name of the paper would be changed to something more resembling The Times in order to globalize the brand. That hasn’t happened.

Such a seemingly cosmetic move actually would have great importance both for the paper and for the Times Company. It would finally make The Times a global brand, not just a holding company for papers dotted around the world. And for the Sulzbergers, globalizing the business has always been a goal.

“[The IHT ] has its own identity that’s very powerful,” Mr. Jones said. “The challenge is whether you try and make the IHT a success as a stand-alone publication, or if you succeed by turning it into The New York Times abroad, the international New York Times .”

It may be more of a challenge than the Times brass is willing to admit. When Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis told Newsday on Nov. 24 that “considerable research” supported keeping the Herald Tribune moniker, the revelation was less that the IHT name would stick than that “considerable research” was needed to rule out a name change.

Speaking from Paris on Nov. 25, Mr. Golden preferred to stay out of the name-change fracas.

“It’s a brand that carries a great deal of respect and value,” he said of the IHT . “We’re proud to have it.”

When asked if there were plans to change the name in the near future, Mr. Golden said simply: “It’s the International Herald Tribune .”

To be fair, there have been some changes. The paper has extended deadlines to accommodate more breaking news and added three more printing facilities across the world.

Making much more headway than that may not be a matter of choice for the Sulzbergers. According to sources, the paper’s $10 million in losses this year is roughly double its losses in the preceding year.

To be certain, this isn’t a company-or a family-that moves very fast. It deliberates. It plods. It took nearly a decade to change The Times ‘ typefaces, for God’s sake.

Which is why the recent announcement of Mr. Golden’s ascension as publisher of the IHT seemed like so much bathos. It was accompanied by announcements that the IHT would increase pages devoted to technology and to the European stock markets, and that the paper would bring color photography to the front page.

Mr. Golden said the paper would increase the number of pages in the IHT by 10 percent and would introduce color by March 2004.

However, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, The Times ‘ plans mark a much more measured approach than was originally planned. According to sources, Times executives had discussed increasing the average size of the paper almost 50 percent to 36 pages, up from its current page count of 20 to 22. Also discussed was a second section meant to be an international version of The Times’ Arts and Leisure page, and a third section devoted exclusively to business. According to one source, any plans to add another section to the IHT have been pushed back to 2005 at the earliest.

“When we as editors began putting together the paper we wanted the IHT to be, it was obviously a more ambitious project than could be realized immediately,” said IHT executive editor Walter Wells. “What we are doing now is putting together a project that can be realized now, but will make a significant difference to the paper’s readers.”

“We looked at lots of alternatives on how to develop the IHT ,” Mr. Golden said. “Multiple sections were one of them. [But] we think it’s best now to increase the paging.” Mr. Golden declined to comment on the Herald Tribune ‘s operating losses this year, but he did acknowledge the “challenges.”

“Advertising right now is in a serious downturn worldwide,” Mr. Golden said. “Some say it’s the most significant downturn since World War II. [The IHT 's] in a competitive marketplace, and it publishes daily from around the globe. That’s a challenge.”

But for The Times , the move wasn’t about feelings, nor about business: It was about the company’s increasing belief that The Times was poised to compete on the international market and, given time, run roughshod over the Financial Times es of the world. Fortified by a single owner and enhanced backing, it was reasoned, the International Herald Tribune would help complete the grander, global plan begun with the success of The Times ‘ national editions.

They’ve done it before, albeit on a smaller scale. There was a time when the New York broadsheet’s national edition was something of a joke. No more. Now, 90 percent of the national edition’s advertising and nearly half its circulation comes from outside the New York metropolitan area.

One almost wonders whether the IHT can compete with The New York Times itself.

“[The IHT ] serves a terrific audience across the globe. It has the full news report of the New York Times Company and a great set of editors here. It has a great brand, a great history,” Mr. Golden said.

And as if to emphasize that the IHT was here to stay, Mr. Wells put it succinctly:

“The idea really is to reinvigorate the paper.”

It’s going to be a long holiday season for the staff at New York .

If staffers were hoping for a quick sale of the magazine following the submission of initial bids on Nov. 7 and subsequent executive presentations by Primedia to potential buyers, then Christmas isn’t coming early.

“At best,” said one person with knowledge of the bidding, “there’s not going to be a designated buyer until maybe just before Christmas.”

Tell that to poor Caroline Miller, the editor who has to keep her staff together and her product selling, even as she makes presentations to the parade of would-be buyers to sell them on the magazine itself.

Long sales like this make for long faces at magazines.

Witness the flurry of articles documenting staff migrations out of the magazine. Some, like Michael Tomasky’s exit to take over The American Prospect , clearly had little to do with the impending sale. But as the numbers mount (eight staffers have left the magazine in the last eight months), it’s hard not to see the magazine as a wounded soldier in desperate need of a wealthy doctor to come and patch things up.

Part of the holdup, the source acknowledged, is that “nobody knows just how much this damn thing is worth. This thing will keep going until Primedia decides they want to settle.”

“It’s a business worth less than half what they’re saying it’s worth,” said Mark Edmiston, managing director of the investment-banking firm AdMedia Partners. “They’re asking for a higher price because there’s only one New York magazine. They’re trying to make it that, because it’s a scarce commodity, they can set the price at an exceptionally high multiple. Financially, it makes no sense.”

But in a city where people can spend $45 million to $50 million (Primedia’s price for the magazine) on their summer cabins, surely someone can afford to step up and stick the magazine in his stocking. Right?

Even Mr. Edmiston admits that “strategically,” it may make sense.

Setting aside for a moment the term “vanity buyers,” potential bidders-including Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, American Media’s David Pecker and the team of billionaire ad man Danny Deutsch and New York media scribe Michael Wolff-would likely have to wade through plenty of red tape before any impending sale, and the finalization of the deal could drag into the new year. The rest-the ones who don’t have $45 million lining their mattresses-have a lot of work to do just to get a winning bid together.

Following his departure from the Daily News , former political columnist Michael Kramer signed up as a pro bono adviser to the Presidential campaign of dreamy retired Gen. Wesley Clark. His assignment would include traveling with the candidate and helping Mr. Clark with debate preparation for those oily, sweaty bouts with Howard Dean and John Kerry.

He quit in less than a week.

“It just isn’t what I do,” Mr. Kramer said, having just tuned into the Democratic Presidential debate on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 24. “I’ve never worked for a campaign before. I didn’t know that working on a campaign would be entirely different than covering one. It’s something I don’t do and didn’t feel comfortable with.”

Mr. Kramer, who left the News with columnist Pete Hamill and News editor in chief Ed Kosner in October, said he would devote his attention to finishing a play he’s currently writing and completing the three books he owes publishers.

And yes, he’s still bullish on Candidate Clark’s prospects.

“I think he’s coming along and doing really well,” Mr. Kramer said.

A band of reporters at The Wall Street Journal is girding its loins for a battle with parent company Dow Jones, if a recent tentative agreement between the company and its union is finalized.

On Nov. 20, after months of tense negotiations, Dow Jones reached a tentative agreement with IAPE 1096, which represents Journal employees, on a three-year contract.

An e-mail sent around the newsroom on Nov. 25 and signed by 20 reporters read: “Many of us in the newsroom are deeply disappointed at the draft contract the union is considering, which we feel would gut our health plan and lead to salary cuts of between 1% and 5% in real dollars, and likely much worse.

“We want to try to persuade the union board to reject the contract and continue bargaining. But it will require your support in what could be a long faceoff ….

“It won’t be easy, but if you are willing to back us in this effort to win a better deal, please hit the reply button, type yes and send your reply immediately. If we are going to do this, we need to act now.”

One of the e-mail’s signers, senior Journal reporter E.S. Browning (who’s been with the paper since 1979), said it was “possible some union representatives were not aware how strongly members feel about this. All the responses we’re getting are saying yes, they all want a better contract.”

By 7 p.m., Mr. Browning said, he’d received 150 responses supporting pushing negotiations further, and four against. Union officials did not respond to a request seeking comment at deadline. When reached, Dow Jones spokeswoman Brigitte Trafford said: “We have reached a tentative agreement with the union, which is being submitted to its board for approval and thereafter to its membership for ratification. We hope and expect the agreement to be ratified.”