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Let them eat bagels
Grumpy Trib swallowed whole by The New York Times
Matt Welch
National Post
CREDIT: Udo Breger
U.S. writer William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, reads the International Herald-Tribune in Paris in 1989.
CREDIT: Mahmoud Tawil, The Associated Press
A man in Beirut, Lebanon, buys a copy of the Herald-Tribune. People around the world -- backpackers, soldiers, diplomats, businessmen -- find common ground in the same morning paper.

LOS ANGELES - Jan. 2 was a sad day for me, and not because of any hangover. On that date, my favourite newspaper in the world -- the International Herald Tribune --changed its ownership structure, an awkward and peculiarly satisfying 50-50 stalemate between The New York Times and The Washington Post, and with it altered the fundamental personality that has attracted tens of thousands of intensely loyal readers over the past several decades.

The Herald-Tribune I have known, for those who haven't had the pleasure, was a wonderful six-day-a-week combination (literally) of the Times's and Washington Post's foreign and domestic coverage, administered since 1966 by a grumpy and mostly autonomous expatriate staff in Paris.

The corporate parents, rivals back home, never figured out exactly how to be partners, so the paper was left to chart its own weirdly compelling course. Now the Times owns the title outright, dictating the content of the storied 116-year-old daily straight from Manhattan, where it is positioning the Trib as the vanguard for the New York Times Co.'s global ambitions.

The IHT, during the time I've read it, has been one of those rare print publications that actually make you excited about walking to the newsstand in the morning. In 24 pages or less, it made you feel smart and engaged with the world. The op-ed pages convulsed with endless and provocative back-and-forth over America's global role; the back page had reliably top-notch arts features, gossip and Dave Barry columns; and the Paris staff was always sneaking in "medical" stories about the virtues of drinking red wine by the barrel.

In expatriate life, where backpackers, soldiers, multinational professionals and diplomats seldom mix, all these tribes (and others) found common ground every day over the same morning paper. The thing managed to feel and smell like Europe, which is something only a handful of U.S. papers can honestly say about their own hometown. Now, the familiar smell of croissants and rickety trains is giving way to the foreign whiff of bagels and loud cabbies.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Just this week, Peter Goldmark, the outgoing chairman and CEO of the Tribune, declared in a bitter staff memo that the move marks no less than "the end of the IHT as an independent newspaper," and "the end of an era in international journalism."

"This is a great loss," Goldmark wrote. "The world needs more independent voices, not fewer."

Ironically, The New York Times's international power play comes at a time when people around the globe seem, anecdotally at least, to be recoiling against global brands, and embracing any media, entertainment and other goods that reflect specific local experience.

On the same Herald-Tribune front page that announced the Times's hostile takeover, there was a news story that may have contained the seed of the Times's folly. "American TV losing out in global ratings war," ran the headline.

"Given the choice, foreign viewers often prefer homegrown shows that better reflected local tastes, cultures and historical events to American programs," the article stated.

"The shift counters a long-standing assumption that dramas and sitcoms produced in the United States would continue to overshadow locally produced shows from Singapore to Sicily."

This "long-standing assumption" the Times speaks of, despite its logical problems (who wouldn't rather watch a sitcom in their native tongue?), has been held particularly dear by European Yankee-bashers and North American lefties, who are ever on the alert for signs that nothing can be done in the face of the American hyper-capitalist juggernaut. You can recite the villains in your sleep: Hollywood, shopping malls, McDonald's....

But these golems of globalism are actually on the run, especially from whence they came. McDonald's, which has proven unable to respond to the popularity of "fast-casual" dining (i.e., healthier fast food in cleaner restaurants), just posted its first loss in 47 years, and announced franchise closings worldwide. In southern California, birthplace of the shopping mall (as well as the fast-food restaurant), mammoth enclosed retail complexes are going the way of the dinosaur -- the Sherman Oaks Galleria, immortalized in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, closed in 1999, while a half-dozen open-air, European-style pedestrian retail areas have opened since then. Hollywood, of course, has out-sourced its cheaper productions to such countries as Canada and New Zealand in order to stay competitive.

These kinds of standardized consumer experiences suddenly seem as impersonal and anachronistic as the tenement high-rises you see on the outskirts of most European cities, or the cookie-cutter 1970s concrete-and-artificial-turf baseball stadiums and domes that have been destroyed, one by one, in favour of one-of-a-kind grass palaces in such cities as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the hunger for local specificity has become ravenous. Historical societies are springing up like mushrooms in famously ahistorical places like southern California, and books on prominent local figures are flying off the shelves. At my neighbourhood bookstore, which is frequently judged among the best in Los Angeles, the demand for local history is so insatiable that one of the top sellers of the last few years has been a reprint of a history of a nearby homeowners association.

"In the last 10 years, there's been an incredible interest," said Los Angeles/Hollywood historian and author Marc Wanamaker. "But it's not just L.A. -- it seems like it's national."

On the surface, this seems almost redundantly logical -- why do we bother visiting far-flung countries, if not for the local differentiating flavours? We treasure Paris for the booksellers along the Seine, not the hive-like apartments in the outlying suburbs. Thousands of tourists visit raggedy Hollywood Boulevard every day, because no matter how disappointing it may be, it just doesn't exist where they come from. We all put a premium on the unique, and rightly so.

In the United States, as usual, the newspaper industry is the last to notice this trend. Unlike baseball, in which every team has a unique owner (with the lamentable exception of the Montreal Expos), 90% of daily newspapers are concentrated in the hands of fewer than a dozen companies, who find it easier to push local content through the same basic mould.

"I spent 11 years in newspapers and had a city editor who once told me we were doing a good job if a stranger stayed in our town for a week and got a good feel for the city from reading our rag," Doug Thompson of the political Web site Capitol Hill Blue told me a few years back. "I spend a lot of time on the road nowadays and can't get a feel from any place I stay from reading the papers."

Travelling software salesman Brian Brown became so fed up with encountering the same Associated Press stories in similar-looking newspapers across the country that he decided to create his own daily, the Nashville City Paper, in 2000. "It's no wonder that circulation is declining," Brown told me, "given the fact that most of what is in newspapers today is the same info available via radio, TV or the Web on a much more timely basis."

Ironically, the homogenization of newspapers is linked, inextricably, to The New York Times itself. For decades, the Times has been the industry's gold standard, spawning a thousand emulators who share the Grey Lady's belief in long think-pieces, plentiful foreign bureaus and sombre gravity.

These values are mostly salutary, especially in a paper (such as the Times) that can choose to woo the most sophisticated and globally curious readers in an extremely competitive newspaper market. Unfortunately, most of the Times' imitators are monopolist dailies, which means the cookie-cutter newspaper ethics most Americans experience are biased toward chin-stroking, 12-part series on "Race in America," and against hard daily coverage of legitimate news events such as crime and basic governance.

The New York Times has come under a barrage of criticism for partisanship since the appointment of Executive Editor Howell Raines in September, 2001; I'm not interested in adding fuel to that fire. The paper is still remarkable, and still tastes like New York, as do its worthy local competitors.

But in swallowing the Herald Tribune, the Times has tempted the fickle gods of newspaperdom. The indefinable voodoo that made the Herald Tribune work had something to do with dislocation, with regarding one's country from 5,600 kilometres away, as opposed to vomiting wisdom to the world from Times Square. Great newspapers, like the Times and the pre-Times Herald Tribune, are products of their home cities, not formulas spat out from a central location.

There are such few dailies worth holding on to, it is important to mark their demise ... while hoping that more iconoclasts, like Nashville's Brian Brown, create new newspapers that we might lament several decades from now.

"The men and women who worked on the paper made a real effort to mould it into something it could not become," wrote former Paris Herald editor Al Laney, in his classic 1947 memoir Paris Herald: The Incredible Newspaper. "They did not fully accomplish their purpose, but their efforts, together with the peculiar nature of the times, made it one of the most interesting newspapers ever published. And later they found in themselves a nostalgia for the paper and for the city whose charm would work in them as long as they should live. For never in the history of journalism have so many men had such a wonderful time on so little money."

Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright  2003 National Post



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