Art dumps Don.

Media criticism.
Oct. 23 2002 7:11 PM

Art Dumps Don

The Times moves the Post out of their Paris flat.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

When Arthur Sulzberger Jr. finally decided to divorce his Paris spouse, Donald E. Graham, he treated Don like a lady. In months-long negotiations, Sulzberger's people were adamant about wanting to end the 35-year, fifty-fifty International Herald Tribune partnership between his New York Times and Graham's Washington Post. No, Art wasn't seeing anybody else, didn't want to see anybody else. He just wanted to go his own way.

Like any rejected spouse, Graham fought to preserve the union. Reading between the lines in the news coverage, you can almost hear him sobbing, "Art, why won't we always have Paris?" But the Times blocked Post entreaties at every turn, threatening to start its own independent international edition of the Times if the Post refused to sell its International Herald Tribune share. What's more, the Times was prepared to starve the existing joint venture of new capital if the Post wouldn't deal.  The Times also rebuffed the Post's bid to buy the paper on the terms the Times was dictating. At one point—perhaps to save Post face—the Times suggested an arrangement in which the Post would take a minority stake in the new operation for 15 years, but with the Times calling all the shots. With the Times demanding the house, the vacation home, the art collection, and custody of the kids with visitation only at Christmas, the Post finally got the message and took the Times' $70 million.

Why did the House of Graham fight so furiously to save this marriage? The International Herald Tribune lost money in 2001 and 2002, making it more of a philanthropic enterprise for American expatriates than a going newspaper concern. USA Today owns the tourist market in Europe and savvy business readers seek out the Financial Times and the regional editions of the Wall Street Journal. As James Ledbetter reported in Slate over the summer, in Europe the International Herald Tribune generally serves the news a day late and at a steeper price ($1.75 for 16 to 20 pages) than its English-language competition. The Post should be grateful about the no-fault split-up, stop smashing up the china, and count its money.

But $70 million doesn't go as far as it once did to assuage hurt feelings. For the Post, the International Herald Tribune partnership was as much a personal bond between the two newspapers and the two family dynasties as it was a business deal. The arrangement, which gave the Post shared billing below the International Herald Tribune logo, implied parity between the Post and the Times, and all the bragging rights that go with imagined parity. (Surely it was Times luster that Katharine Graham sought when she welcomed the New York Times as her International Herald Tribune partner in 1967, when her paper was just another title.) The co-venture camouflaged the Post's inferiority complex, which manifests itself every time a Postie brags that he beat the Times. New York Times people never brag about beating the Post. They'd sooner measure their performance against Highlights for Children. Partnering with a company they didn't even consider competition must have rankled the Times.

Now, this doesn't mean the Post isn't a fine paper. Under Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. the Post has collected nearly as many Pulitzer Prizes for news as did the previous regime (what was that guy's name?). But it doesn't have the Times' manpower, the Times' national distribution, or the Times' international throw-weight. For anybody living in Europe or even outside of Washington, D.C., the Post is a lesser journalistic product.

Until now, the Graham and Sulzberger dynasties have gotten on like royalty from neighboring countries. We've go so much in common! Family-controlled empires, a tradition of quality journalism, and, hey! look! we're both luminously rich. The ugly International Herald Tribune divorce ends the air-kiss romance between the two families and signals the Times' disdain for the Post with all the velocity of a mud pie. We don't need your pitiful copy, the Times is saying. If you were Donald Graham, you'd cry, too.

The split signals, as did the New York Times' previous acquisition of the Boston Globe and the $100 million investment in the cable space with the Discovery Channel, the House of Sulzberger's reconception of itself as a born-again news company. No great newspaper was ever published by a committee, so with the Post out of the way, the Times is on solid footing to produce a great international newspaper the world needs. Surely its readers are the winners in this deal.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, we can only hope that as Donald Graham's bruises turn from blue to green, he'll abandon his clubby good-natured relationship with the Sulzbergers and begin to think of them as not friends, but enemies. For starters, he could apply his $70 million windfall to a "beat the New York Times"fund at the Post. Surely readers would be the winners if he declared newspaper war on his ex.

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