Can the smart, insouciant
When the trumpeter and singer Chet Baker plunged to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988, John Vinocur, who was then the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, heard alarms ringing in his head. An American jazz legend dying mysteriously in Europe—here was a story made to order for his newspaper. "The Trib has a terrific jazz writer, Mike Zwerin," says Vinocur, who now writes foreign-policy analysis for the paper. "Chet Baker was an incredibly romantic figure. When he fell out of that window, I said, 'Send Zwerin to Amsterdam.' I don't think if there had been a SALT treaty signing in Geneva, I would have cared—The [New York] Times and The [Washington] Post would cover it. But Chet Baker falling out a window in Amsterdam was our story."
More than a century after its founding, an aura of romance and glamour still clings to the paper now known as the International Herald Tribune. To many, the newspaper's image is incarnated in the slim figure of Jean Seberg, hawking copies on the Champs-Elysées in Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 New Wave film. Seberg was playing one of the so-called golden girls (foreign students mainly, because young French women found the work demeaning) who, in yellow sweaters branded with a black logo (of The New York Herald Tribune), advertised the paper by peddling it. Young, sexy, insouciant, Parisian: that was the profile of the Herald Trib. It's no wonder that many Americans fell in love with it. And while the paper has changed over the years, the love affair endures. "Some of the subscription renewals—I have never seen such affection for a newspaper," says Michael Getler, who succeeded Vinocur as executive editor in 1996 and left the paper in August of 2000. "People find it in godforsaken places, and once you do, you become cemented to it. Or you're on your honeymoon in the Via Veneto, in bed with crumbs on your lap, and you pick up the Herald Trib." From such crumbs lifelong relationships are made.
But these are tumultuous days at the International Herald Tribune. Although Americans abroad still think of it as their hometown paper, the newspaper's executives see things very differently. Today's Herald Trib is no longer aimed at those honeymooning Americans. Only a little more than a third of its 242,000 readers are American at all, and they tend to be businessmen living abroad, not tourists on holiday. "We're going after what I call the global class of international decision-makers and opinion leaders," says Peter C. Goldmark Jr., the newspaper's chairman and CEO. "The old distinction between an expat and a non-expat doesn't really hold up. The French head of a Swiss division of a multinational—is he an expat?" The relevant demographics now are not nationality and residence, but income and job description. The target reader of the Trib is an affluent business executive eager for a source of international news. That reader is someone whom advertisers find very appealing. However, the Trib is not the only smart missile aimed at this lucrative target. In the world of English-language international newspapers, a ferocious battle is raging. The Wall Street Journal, based in New York, and the Financial Times of London have both invested heavily in overseas editions. They are losing money, but they appear prepared to go on losing it, in a long-term plan to extend their global brands.
The Herald Tribune, in contrast, is its own brand, owned jointly by The New York Times and The Washington Post. The New York Herald Tribune, its progenitor, has been dead for decades. For years, while the Herald Trib hovered on either side of the line of profitability, its corporate parents paid little attention. Last year, however, the paper lost $3 million, and this year the board wants to see it make a profit. Tellingly, the paper announced last spring that it would begin running an advertisement on the front page, a European custom that it had eschewed. At the International Herald Tribune, the bean counters are counting every bean. "There was a time when the IHT was like the Times' and the Post's Marshall Plan, an outreach to the rest of the world," says David Ignatius, the paper's current executive editor, who arrived late in 2000. "It was a mission. But it's a business now, and I don't chafe at that. If we can't produce a global newspaper that is profitable, then it probably shouldn't survive."
Ignatius—who at 51 has had a distinguished career at the Post as an investigative journalist, foreign correspondent, and columnist—announced on his arrival that he would place a greater emphasis on technology stories and investigative reporting, and he himself wrote several scoops on shady international business dealings. "Corruption is the best unwritten story in the world, and it's a great story for our newspaper," he says. "The reason people buy newspapers is because they have news in them. If we were just a reprint job for the Post and the Times, people would have no compelling reason to pick it up."
The question is whether a newspaper that has been well-loved for its breeziness and quirkiness will still be so charming when it is dressed up in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase. Once both whimsical and reliable, the Trib is showing signs of becoming serious. For instance, its travel reporting, which used to search out little-known museums devoted to the work of 19th-century painters or a bistro in the ninth that is renowned for its saucisson a l'ail, is now more likely to offer advice on how to upgrade your airline ticket. "The paper is doing less of the traditional travel coverage—what I call 'turn left at the fountain' pieces," says Walter Wells, the longtime managing editor, who retired last spring. "What sells is what is of interest to business travelers. The classic examples for me are, 'Where do you get your laptop repaired in another country?' 'Is Malpensa really as terrible as people suggest, and how do you deal with it?' 'How do you benefit maximally from frequent flyer miles?' The Trib has moved travel coverage much more in that direction." But in addition to being increasingly service-oriented, the travel pieces are more advertiser-friendly, praising hotels and resorts, and some editors are very unhappy about it. "What I see is the firewall between advertising and editorial breaking down," says Elisabeth Hopkins, the manager of editorial services. "The travel section now departs from being literature, and the 'destinations' pieces could be advertising copy."
The Herald Trib boasts a roster of distinguished writers, including fashion editor Suzy Menkes, art critic Souren Melikian, and restaurant critic Patricia Wells. The lifeblood of the newspaper, however, is pumped by reporters for the Times and Post. The editors in Paris take roughly 33 percent of their editorial material from their parent papers, with the luxury of choosing the better version of a significant story (or, for a major story, running the news report from one paper, the analysis from the other). "The combination of the two newspapers gives the Herald Trib its power," Getler says.
The Tribune is essentially an editor's newspaper. In conversations with the paper's current and former staff, when I asked about a great reporting coup or investigative series or critical analysis that had originated in the Trib, I'd invariably get blank looks, or examples that had not rippled very wide in the pond. In a reversal of the usual proportions, the staff consists of a dozen writers and 69 editors, and the offbeat, erudite copy editors rule the roost. "As a reporter, it's one of the few places I've worked where I have no complaints about the editing," says reporter and feature writer Barry James. As they strip away the fat from the copy that lands on their desks, the editors keep in mind their ideal cosmopolitan reader. "We had a Times story that came in the other day, a bombing in Israel, which quoted two people from Brooklyn who were in the country at the time," copy editor David Preston says wryly. "There must have been some Israelis around somewhere." By the time the copy editors in Paris have done their work, the Brooklynites—artifacts of the hometown eye—have been filtered out.
Former managing editor Walter Wells says that in his two decades at the paper, its finest moment was its coverage of the break-up of Communist Europe. However, he couldn't think of any uniquely Trib piece on the subject. "The quintessential Herald Trib story is the play it gave the day the Wall fell," he says. "I thought we did a superb job in covering it through the reporting we got from the Times and the Post." As for the biggest home-generated splash that readers could remember, I heard most about the outraged reaction from Karl Lagerfeld to Suzy Menkes' piece announcing that the Chanel bag was passé. Tart-tongued fashion coverage is what readers expect from the Trib; hard-nosed reporting is not. Under editor Ignatius, this could change—but that will require a rewiring of the paper's DNA.
James G. Bennett Jr., who inaugurated the Paris edition of the New York Herald in 1887, lived in Paris for reasons that provide some insight into his character—and into the tradition of the Herald Tribune. What newspaper has a founding story that can compare to this one? At a New Year's Day party at his fiancée's home in New York, Bennett, the son of the founder of the New York Herald, urinated into the fireplace (one version has a piano as the inappropriate receptacle, but that seems less likely). The resulting uproar was so intense and so lasting that he relocated permanently to France (the engagement, needless to say, was off). A decade later, he started a Paris edition of the Herald, which catered to wealthy Americans abroad and to his own personal interests (there was a healthy overlap). Yachting, aviation, bicycling, automobiles, horse racing, dogs, sporting events, the weather—all received ample coverage. To attract socially attuned women who loved to read about themselves and their friends, he published expansive reports from the fashionable resorts. "There is no waltz that takes place in the depths of the Engadine in a villa of St. Moritz at 1,800 meters' altitude of which the Herald does not give the first names of the dancers," went a contemporary French assessment, which is cited in Charles L. Robertson's history, The International Herald Tribune: The First Hundred Years. At the same time, Bennett engaged many of the best French writers of the day, such as Anatole France, Pierre Loti, and Paul Bourget. And he made sure to include plenty of international news, much of it gathered from other journals. That particular mix—of reprinted hard news, idiosyncratic fluff, and distinguished commentary—continues to define the Trib style.
However, just as "Herald" is only part of the newspaper's name today, so Bennett's quirkiness forms only a portion of its legacy. "Tribune" comes from the Chicago Tribune, which had its own Paris edition until 1933; while the "international" edition of The New York Times was published briefly out of the same city until 1967. Where there were three papers, now there is one. Along with Bennett's irreverence, that dire legacy of publishing mortality is deeply ingrained in the IHT corporate culture. The anxiety that tomorrow the curtain may drop has been in the air at least since the 1950s, the newspaper's golden age, when Art Buchwald, on a salary of $25 a week, was making his reputation by writing his wry back-page column on an American's view of Paris. "The floors weren't straight, they were crooked," Buchwald says. "The editorial room was a real mess. All of the chairs were falling apart. I once broke all the chairs one morning—so they had to replace them."
In 1966 the Post bought 45 percent of the paper from New York Herald Tribune publisher Jock Whitney, and the next year the Times abandoned its six-year-old international edition and purchased the same stake in the rechristened International Herald Tribune. After Whitney's death, in 1982, his remaining ten percent share was divided to give the Post and the Times 50-50 control. The new ownership, however, did not change the old frugality. When Walter Wells came to the paper 21 years ago, he found to his amazement that the entire company shared one photocopying machine. Menkes, who had been fashion editor at The Times of London, got a similar education when she arrived in Paris to step into the pumps of Hebe Dorsey, a doyenne of fashion reporting. "Hebe Dorsey had always gone about with a very expansive style," Menkes says with a laugh. "I thought that she had a fleet of chauffeurs and assistants. So I was a little surprised to find when I came that I was on my own."
Producing a newspaper that relies more on verve than cash is part of the Herald Trib tradition. What alarms many on the staff is that belts are being tightened and editorial space reduced—"managing down," Getler called it—at a time when the Journal and the FT are expanding. "It's a bit like David trying to stave off Goliath in the sandbox," says copy editor Preston. "It would help if our corporate parents gave us a few rocks."
The Herald Trib's strategy is to expand circulation by forging partnerships with foreign papers, which provide local English-language inserts and share in the printing and distribution costs. When the newspaper inaugurated such an arrangement this spring with the Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, the need to meet an earlier deadline required the hiring of an additional 11 copy editors, who would work a morning shift. It is a costly commitment, at a time when the paper has been losing money. To stanch the flow of red ink, management has been searching for ways to cut costs. Employees must now take the bus, not a taxi, to the airport. Low-level employees who are accustomed to a year-end profit-sharing allocation did not receive one at the end of 2000. When they complained, griping that times could not be so hard if there was enough money for a Christmas party, Goldmark canceled the Christmas party—exacerbating the bad feelings.
The most divisive money-saving edict came during the last year and a half of Getler's four-year tenure. Over the executive editor's heated and protracted objections, Goldmark ordered a shrinkage of the editorial space in the paper by about three-quarters of a page of copy a day. Goldmark says that the newspaper had crept up in size, and he was merely restoring it to its previous proportions—for an annual savings of $700,000 to $800,000. "It didn't hurt the paper," he says. "There was no reaction outside." Inside, however, the cut demoralized many of the staff members. "People felt squeezed," Getler says. Even though they are being paid salaries comparable to what they would be earning in New York or Washington, in addition to enjoying the government-prescribed 35-hour workweek with seven and a half weeks of vacation, they are not, under the best of circumstances, a cheerful bunch. "The paper's news department is essentially a big copy desk, and copy editors are people that you pay to find fault," says Walter Wells. "It carries over to other areas of life than just copy."
Since 1978, when the paper sold its building on Rue de Berri, near the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées, the International Herald Tribune offices have been located in the bland commercial precincts of Neuilly, on the edge of Paris. Instead of the atmospheric watering holes on Rue de Berri, editors and writers seeking a glass of post-deadline Beaujolais must repair to two soulless modern brasseries, Le Bouquet and Le Village. Not surprisingly, quite a lot less after-hours drinking goes on. "It's not a congenial place," says Vinocur, as he looks out of his office window onto the barren interior courtyard of the low-slung concrete building. "Oh, it's congenial enough, but it could be in Hackensack, in that respect."
Hackensack? In fact, the paper's executives periodically issue threats to relocate out of Paris as a way of cutting costs, with New Jersey a prime candidate; but everyone recognizes that the Herald Trib as we know it might not survive such transplantation. "If they moved to the United States, they would—maybe not in the first six months—but they would very quickly lose the overall international point of view and become another American paper," says Flora Lewis, who lives in Paris and writes a weekly syndicated foreign-affairs column. "Only being published by Americans who are living outside the United States can you get that sense of news judgment, the distance you need to balance everything out." Not simply being located outside the U.S., but, more specifically, being in Paris, allows for a detached perspective. "Paris is a great international crossroads, it's a very sophisticated city, but it's not a place that influences your journalism," says Getler. "You're not dominated by French thinking. That's great. If you moved the paper to New York or Washington or London, those places have overwhelming press cultures, and it would be hard not to be influenced by their thinking."
For the time being, management appears to be committed to staying in Paris. Even without changing location, however, the Herald Trib runs the risk of repositioning itself into unrecognizability. Perhaps, as Goldmark believes, the Journal and the FT will bloody each other until only one prevails. "I don't think there is room for two big global business newspapers," he says. "I think we and one of them will be really big and global." But it is also possible that the Herald Trib, in its attempt to appeal to international businessmen, will evolve into a form closer to that of its rivals. In that case, there will be three global business papers; and no matter who wins the war, the fans of the spiky, irreverent Herald Trib will lament the loss.
In targeting the global executive as its ideal reader, the International Herald Tribune finds itself in the middle of a brawl between the world's two leading business newspapers: The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Both are investing heavily, with brand extension the immediate aim, world hegemony the ultimate goal, and Continental Europe the major battleground.
Boasting two million readers worldwide, the Journal is almost four times the size of the FT, which recently broke the half-million circulation mark. The Journal dominates its American homeland, while the FT flexes its muscles with comparable cockiness in its native Britain. The Journal still holds a commanding advantage in the Far East, having founded an Asian edition 25 years ago. The Continent, however, is a toss-up. Although the FT leads with 157,000 (not counting the 73,000 readers of FT Deutschland, a German-language joint venture with Gruner + Jahr), the Journal is a fast-rising runner-up at 100,000. (The Herald Tribune's European circulation is 170,000.)
When the Journal launched its European edition from Brussels in 1983, the product was unabashedly American. Responding to negative feedback, the parent Dow Jones & Company undertook a concerted effort at Europeanization, tweaking the design to include more white space and color photography and revamping the editorial content to focus on European concerns. In June 1999, the paper began hiring extensively to enhance its European coverage. On its side of the fence, the Financial Times in 1979 introduced its international edition, printed in Frankfurt (it's now published from 18 printing sites). These days the FT comes out in three versions: one for the U.K., one for the Continent, and one for the Americas and Asia.
However, there is a fundamental difference in the way the Journal and the FT define a separate edition. The Journal editors run different stories in their three editions, so that the editorial content in the United States, Asia, and Europe on any day will be markedly distinct; in contrast, the editors of the FT editions essentially run the same stories in each, shuffling their placement according to the interests of the local readership. While the FT likes to think, as a spokeswoman expressed it, that "one overarching editorial philosophy" can provide a better "global perspective," it seems to me that, at least until the far-off day when all national interests evaporate, the globe will continue to appear quite different depending on where you are. Recognizing that reality gives the Journal an edge.
Despite their emphasis on business, both papers cover softer news, especially in the weekend editions, which regularly demonstrate the capacity to provide sharp, lively cultural reporting. Indeed, should they ever decide that their industrious readers deserve such frivolity midweek, the Herald Tribune would run the risk of being knocked out of its niche.
Arthur Lubow, a contributing editor, wrote about the restaurant Le Grand Véfour in the September 2001 issue of Departures.