What's wrong with the International Herald Tribune?

Commentary about business and finance.
June 4 2002 12:46 PM

The Trouble With the Trib

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

You can buy a copy of the Wall Street Journal or USA Today at almost any newsstand in a large European city. But just try to find a copy of the New York Times. Instead of the Times, Americans abroad and non-Americans seeking English-language news must rely on the International Herald Tribune, the daily jointly owned by the Times and Washington Post that reprints stories from each. The Trib is a strange, archaic animal, the duck-billed platypus of the newspaper world. For starters, it's not timely: Although the Trib claims to be distributed in 180 countries, it's only available day-of-publication in a few dozen markets. Even in that best-case scenario, many of its stories—including front-pagers—are a day stale.

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The Trib's bigger problem is not that it's a day stale but that it's decades stale. Color photos have run in the Times' news pages for nearly 10 years, but despite a redesign earlier this year, the Trib still publishes in grainy black and white. The op-ed page looks like a retirement home: Until her death last week, Flora Lewis was writing a Trib column, more than a decade after she left the Times op-ed page. Art Buchwald is still churning out shopworn shtick, and the Trib still prints it.

The half-page of comics is light just now hitting the Earth from long-extinct stars: It features old-timers Blondie, Dennis the Menace, and The Wizard of Id, none of which are still drawn by their creators. The Trib doesn't care if a strip is still being drawn at all: A typical day also includes a Calvin & Hobbes from 1992 and a Peanuts from 1990.

The Trib's circulation, just under 265,000 worldwide, is actually growing. The paper got a boost from post-Sept. 11 coverage, and its CEO, Peter Goldmark, argues that intense interest in stories such as the Kashmir standoff and Jean-Marie Le Pen's campaign have increased the appetite for authoritative, independent news.

But the Trib seems increasingly marginal in such an information-rich world. When the Trib's modern era began in 1966, following the strike-induced death of the old New YorkHerald Tribune, part of its mission was to provide American expatriates with high-quality news and—perhaps most important—sports scores in nations where there was no other source for American news. But CNN and the Internet have obliterated that need, raising doubts about the paper's raison d'être. (Trib executives insist that a majority of its readers are national citizens of the countries where it's bought. But the paper is clearly edited for expats; American baseball and basketball dominate the sports section, for example.)

The Trib has not made a profit since 1999, and so far, 2002 has been particularly gloomy. In January it announced a price hike, citing a 20 percent rise in the cost of newsprint in Europe and falling advertising revenue. On a per-page basis, the Trib—which costs about $1.75 in London for a 16- or 20-page paper—is almost certainly the world's most expensive daily. In April, the Trib announced that it was killing the two-year-old English-language daily it has been publishing with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—one of Germany's most prestigious papers—again citing a lack of ads. The same month, the New York Times began publishing a weekly, English-language supplement in Le Monde. This suggests that if the Times establishes itself in France, it might decide to start publishing its own edition there—and then who needs the Trib?

The Times brand is strong enough worldwide to damage the Trib. The Times claims that 18 percent of its Web traffic comes from outside the United States. (Not surprisingly, Canada and the U.K. have the largest non-U.S. audiences, although Japan is fourth and Germany fifth.) That means approximately a million people across the globe are in the habit of reading the New York Times online at least once a month. Obviously, many of those Web readers would not be willing to pay for a paper Times, but there's little reason to think that Trib readers would refuse to switch to a regionally available New York Times. (Goldmark argues that the Times is too "American in outlook" to appeal to an international audience, but obviously any international editions could be regionally tailored).

Of course, an international version of the New York Times would inherit the Trib's logistical problems: To get it on newsstands in all its significant markets, it would be forced to print multiple, costly local editions. And time zone differences mean it would still have trouble publishing same-day New York Times stories.

Times Vice Chairman Michael Golden insists that the Times stands firmly behind the Trib. But at the same time, he acknowledges that if the Le Monde supplement is successful, the Times has its eyes on other international markets.

Golden argues that the appetite for the New York Times is large and varied enough that its foreign supplements don't threaten the Trib, any more than the Times' Web site threatens the daily domestic New York Times. That might be true, but if the Times' foreign supplements end up making money, and the Trib continues to lose it, that logic will not endure.

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