Opinion: Game on in New York


NEW YORK – "Teacher Absences Plague City Schools!" "Who’s the Greatest Yankee?" "Schnitzel Travails in Midtown!"

No, these are not the screaming headlines of Mort Zuckerman’s Daily News, nor Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. They’re torn from the pages of the new “Greater New York” section of Murdoch’s other New York paper, the Wall Street Journal, now wrapping up week one of its latest campaign to destroy The New York Times.

For those of us steeped in this city’s journalism — full disclosure, I’ve been published in every one of the aforementioned papers — the idea of the first broadsheet circulation war since the demise of the New York Herald-Tribune in the early 1960s is thrilling.

Murdoch’s disdain for the Sulzberger family Times empire uptown is legendary. At the launch of the New York section Monday, Robert Thompson, the British editor Murdoch installed in the top job at the Journal after he acquired it last year, decried the Times as “social activist journalism.”

"If you want to be a social activist, join Amnesty International,” Thompson suggested.

Well, I’m on a Human Rights Watch committee, so we know the kind of trash I am. But I have to admit, even in a city already covered by three major newspapers, room exists for a fourth pack of watchdogs nipping at the heels of local politicians and generally enlivening coverage of regional politics.

What worries me are the implications for foreign coverage. The Journal and Times represent two-thirds of the remnants of the American newspaper industry’s once deep cadre of foreign news correspondents.

For after the past decade of cutbacks, business model collapses, foreign bureau closings and outright newspaper bankruptcies, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal represent two of the three remaining American dailies willing to sustain serious foreign news coverage — the other being the Washington Post. (Here at GlobalPost, much as we'd love to rule the waves, we know diversity of sources matters.)

Now, inevitably, some of the talent and resources these two giants would have based abroad will be pulled back to defend the home front. That’s been the recipe for “refocusing on core competencies” in cities from Baltimore to Philadelphia to San Francisco in the past decade. Why would New York be immune?

As much as I enjoy seeing City Hall covered by top flight reporters, I can’t help but worry that the cost will be paid in Nairobi or Jakarta or Johannesburg. Denuding foreign coverage has become a stock strategy as newspaper profit margins have fallen and shareholders have demanded action from management.

(Read another perspective on how many popular news outlets in the U.S. are global information powerhouses.)

Once deep foreign desks at places like the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune have been shuttered or reduced to token efforts. The Los Angeles Times, once a leader in this category, recently found its latest owner (the moribund Tribune Co. of Chicago) in talks to get the Washington Post’s 23 foreign correspondents to cover the world for them.

Both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have bucked the trend. The Times maintains 26 foreign bureaus — some of them larger than the entire staffs of mid-sized newspapers. Additionally, the Times owns the International Herald-Tribune, published in Paris and employing its own foreign correspondents.

The Journal, meanwhile, doesn’t publicize the size of its constellation of bureaus, but insiders put brick-and-mortar offices at 20, not including those associated with the Asian and European editions of the paper. Further muddying the waters is Murdoch’s vast News Corp. network of broadcast and newspaper properties. Ultimately, if one of Murdoch’s Australian or British papers is already on the case, why send a Journal reporter? Just because he or she is American?

In reality, newspaper industry analysts think both of these behemoths will survive, and no one seems to be pushing News Corp. stock on the theory that the New York section will vanquish the Times, or even that it will make a profit.

Murdoch often seems quite happy to lose money — the New York Post, which he’s owned since 1993, is thought to lose about $20 million a year (a drop in News Corp.’s profitable budget). He owns the paper for other reasons, clearly. Martin Dunn, a former Post editor who jumped to the rival tabloid, the Daily News, told BusinessWeek: "I've been on the other side. I know that when News Corp. sets out to destroy someone, they go all out to do it."

Yes, well, good luck to Arthur Sulzberger. But most of all, let’s all hope that, in the process, Murdoch doesn’t destroy what’s left of American newspaper foreign coverage, too.

Michael Moran is Foreign Affairs columnist for GlobalPost, covering global economics, politics and U.S. foreign policy from New York.