Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The End of the International Herald Tribune

The International Herald Tribune is dead, the victim of the hubris of the New York Times

Of course, we are told, this is just a change of name, a re-branding for a paper which had already become simply the International Edition of the New York Times. That is true. Ever since the Times acquired 100 percent ownership of the International Herald Tribune, known universally by its initials IHT, in 2003, the future had been set for what was at its best a paper which was both truly American and truly international.

Ownership was never enough. New York Times brand identity was what mattered. It had acquired control by threatening the Washington Post, the then co-owner, that otherwise it would start an international edition of the NYT and kill the IHT that way. The Post management caved in and collected a few million dollars for its stake rather than inject more money into the title and retain it as a separate paper with its own identity.

Originally the Times had intended to move quickly to end its separate status, but opposition came from readers and advertiser alike. So the process of “integration” became a series of steps over the next 10 years.

It doesn’t require great insight to realize that a paper, however good, written for a very large domestic audience, is not necessarily what is needed for a niche international audience very approximately divided between Americans and non-Americans and between Europe and Asia. 

The IHT had come a long way from the days when the Herald Tribune was sold on the streets of Paris by cute girls, their main targets visiting American tourists and businessmen. In its heyday – the 25 years before the NYT putsch –it combined the best of the Times and the Post plus a large amount of its own mater

I am biased, as one fortunate enough to have written for it between 1992 and 2011, primarily but not exclusively for the Opinion pages. But even before that I was enthused by its desire to become a global newspaper. Then working for the Financial Times out of Hong Kong, I went to Paris to interview the IHT’s then publisher, Lee Huebner, about the start of its Asian (in Hong Kong) printing operation.

I hoped that writing about a rival’s ambitions would spur the FT into a similar adventure – it was not to do so until several years later. At that time the IHT had the added advantage of three owners – the third until 1991 was Whitney Communications, which supplied the former White House aide Huebner as publisher. The mild-mannered but forward-looking Huebner drove the IHT’s international development in Europe and Asia.

I watched the global growth of the paper with admiration, and when in 1992 I came to be a regular contributor, to have great respect for several of those who ran it. The editor for 10 years from 1986 to 1996, John Vinocur, was a difficult man with sometimes rigid opinions, but he did more than anyone to give the paper its own identity.

He believed it had its own soul. It was not just a compilation of the Times and the Post. He hired good correspondents, not a few of whom were clearly superior to those of the WP and NYT covering similar patches. Coverage of Asia in the late 1990s was superb, must reading through the Asian crisis at a time when the Asian Wall Street Journal was cutting back and the Financial Times had yet to make the impact it has today.

The Opinion pages were run by an ex-agency man, Bob Donahue, who was a fixture in Paris but who had a mind which was always on the lookout for views from diverse and truly international sources. Donahue’s demise in the first days of NYT control told the future. He believed that as editor of the Opinion pages he decided what was interesting enough to run.

Omitting some piece by a noted NYT columnist which he deemed of less interest to his readers than alternatives, he was told it was not his decision to make. New York always knew best – even though its own Opinion page editor was notoriously parochial in her interests. Donahue quit. And so it was that over time New York thinking and personnel came to play an ever larger role in a paper still nominally Paris-based.

For sure, the paper’s ambitions prior to the Times acquisition had been too costly and red ink was the result, leaving it open to strains between the two owners, one with deeper pockets than the other. But the takeover did more than supply cash and more pages. Over time it changed the tone of the paper. The news pages, once very tightly edited, fell prey to the prolixity of the Times and the Opinion pages became less and less international as the Times “stars” and US issues took an ever increasing share of space.

Of course the Times is a great paper and its international readership may be little affected by the end of the IHT name, given the trend of the preceding decade. But the paper which was a symbol of American internationalism at its best is finally dead. Written by Philip Bowring

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