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October 21, 2008

Why the New York Sun Failed, and How A Conservative Daily Newspaper Can Succeed

Several problems with the Sun:

1) It was a New York based newspaper. I can't really think of a more ridiculously difficult market to crack. For one thing, the paper has two conservative-leaning papers already, the New York Post (which doesn't make money) and the WSJ (which is really liberal-leaning, but the editorial page is conservative).

So right there: You have a blue-collar tabloid and a tony broadsheet serving the financial industry basically providing a conservative alternative to the Times (and the liberal Newsday, for those who want their liberalism in tabloid format).


2) The model was all wrong. The Sun sought to emulate the Times in style. It was a good paper. Don't get me wrong. But it wasn't punchy. They had a lot of great reporting -- they were in the lead on the UN scandals, and, if I'm remembering right, they were also in the lead on Norman Hsu -- but they emulated the Times' stuffy, self-important tone.

The paper was quite obviously a labor of love, and an idiosyncratic one. It was the New York Times for educated capital-class urban professional New Yorkers who didn't like the Times' liberalism.

That's a pretty small demographic. In fact, I'd say that that particular demographic was largely restricted to the investors in and editors of The Sun. In other words, they created the sort of paper they themselves would love to read in an ideal world... without much concern about whether the market for that particular paper extended much beyond them and some of their Wall Street friends who used to be Young Republicans at Yale.

Did I like the Sun? Yes I did. Did I like the Sun as much as I wanted to like the Sun? No, not nearly. In fact, after buying the paper at a newsstand for a week, I stopped. I had an idea to subscribe just to support them... but as I merely liked the paper, I decided against it, mostly due to apathy and cheapskatedness.

Two recommendations for those with a mind to try this sort of thing again:


Think Bigger. 90% of liberalism in reportage creeps in at the national level. Okay, that's not true-- local issues are also covered with a liberal bias. But 90% of the liberalism that angers people comes from the national news outlets -- AP, Reuters, NYT, all the networks, CNN.

It may sound like a daft idea to start a national conservative-tilting newspaper to compete directly with USAToday (as well as all the horribly liberal local papers). It may sound safer to start one's paper as a city paper.

It's not. The national audience for such a paper is enormous. The local audience for such a paper is much more restricted.

Dream big: Big is the way to go here.

So many markets are filled with conservatives angry about the city paper's egregious liberalism: Los Angeles, for example. They would jump at the chance for a conservative-tilting -- or at least liberal-neutral -- paper.

Local markets news can be handled reasonably well with an insert. Local news can be handled with lightly rewritten wire stories, removing the bias, changing the biased headlines. Local opinion on such news can be had from all sorts of sources-- conservative-titling columnists in such markets, bloggers, and local talk radio hosts, who basically only need to clean up and edit the transcripts from their daily shows to make them presentable as opinion pieces.

This is a fairly cheap option. Will local issues be covered as well as by the big liberal papers? No, they won't. Will the major issues be covered well? Yes. Will all other issues be covered reasonably well? Yes. Tiny local desks of 3-5 editors in, say, 30 select locations (to start) can convert the paper well enough into an adequate substitute for the local paper.

This part can always be skipped if the paper wants to start as a purely national paper. It's certainly less costly to do a single national issue. But when the national paper succeeds -- and it will succeed; selling the same paper all over the country is pretty much guaranteed to be profitable -- the local desks can be added to provide a compelling reason to dump subscriptions to local papers entirely.

And on the tone: The Republican Party is largely a blue-collar party. Not entirely, of course. But most Republicans who work in white collar industries aren't disgusted by the blue collar demographic the way that upscale urban liberals (see Obamabots) so obviously are.

For example: I'm a blue collar kid, but I suppose I'm "white collar" if you had to categorize my profession. (Kinda -- I don't know what this bullshit is, but no heavy lifting is required.) But I love the Post. I love its elevation of punch over pretension.

I think most Republicans are like this... except David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Christopher Buckley, etc. And they all work for the MSM already, and are so far up Obama's ass I doubt they have enough light to read a paper by anyhow.

I don't suggest a New York Post style in your face tabloid. But I do suggest a more populist and accessible tone, with a bit more punch than the Sun exhibited. A bit of USAToday's ease of reading with a bit of the Post's bite, and some of the snark and sarcasm so dominant on the Internet.

Not dumbed down -- but also not attempting to emulate the Times' undeserved reputation as a "prestige" paper.

I do realize that there already is a national paper that tilts sort of conservative as far as editorial impulses -- the WSJ. But that is primarily an industry paper, or regarded as such anyway, and serves a fairly small demographic (the investment class).

Anyway, I've been thinking this since the New York Sun launched, what now?, three years ago? I always thought it was a terrible mistake to orient the paper at all to New York.

The history of commerce is largely the history of companies going national, starting with Nabisco, I believe. (They got the idea to buy up a lot of local cracker distributors and turn them all into a united national brand.) And it seems to have worked out for most who try this. Newspapers are largely an exception, but then, 80-90% of their actual content comes from the national outlet the AP.

And we've seen this work where people swore it couldn't before-- look at Rush Limbaugh. I'm sure when he began syndicating his show, there were a lot of claims that it wouldn't work, that people preferred local hosts who were mindful of local concerns. Howard Stern was always told the same thing; he'd never succeed in Philadelphia or LA, he was told, because those cities hated New York and would insist on getting their Morning Zoo crap from local talent. Even if the local talent wasn't as funny as he was.

Turns out-- not so much. Local concerns are important but a national, entirely non-local venture can succeed like gangbusters if it's a compelling product.

And, once again, 90% of the bias that pisses people off, that they want to see contested, is of a national-issues variety.

Television news isn't locally oriented -- at least not on the network and cable level. People watch that, despite the fact that there is rarely a mention of their local political scandals and police blotters and mayoral races. Is there some reason people demand a newspaper, and no other form of media, must be attached directly to a city?

Anyway. I'd like to see this finally happen.

And, of course, I'd like to be involved.

But involved or not, I'd subscribe.

Print is Dead: Readers note I'm being stupid to suggest a print paper when print papers are dying.

Fair enough.

Very well-- then an online-only paper.

But it has to look like a newspaper. It has to be a newspaper. Not just a portal.

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posted by Ace at 04:50 PM

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