Last week’s launch of the International New York Times—which brought an end to the International Herald Tribune brand—offers an opportunity to put today’s changing world of news in historical perspective. As Serge Schmemann put it in his reflection that appeared in the Times last week, “the DNA of a great paper is defined by evolution of the complex and intimate interplay of reader and editor, owner and technology.”
The U.S. news industry—and the roles that the Times and the Herald have played within it since the nineteenth century—offer an instructive vantage point from which to observe that complex relationship, as well as the ways in which the idea of news continues to change along with it.
This is certainly not the first time that either the Times or the Herald has responded to a changing media industry. Both papers got their start as part of the so-called “penny paper” revolution of the early nineteenth century in the United States, when print and paper technologies that helped to make the production of newspapers faster and cheaper converged with the ambitions of newspaper entrepreneurs, including James Gordon Bennett, who founded the Herald in 1835, and Henry Jarvis Raymond, who founded the Times (then the New-York Daily Times) in 1851. (The first of these papers was Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, introduced in 1833.) Although the term “penny paper” refers to the reduced price at which these papers were sold, their significance within the history of news also comes from a shift that they enacted in the idea of news—from a focus on topics relevant to a particular type of business or political party to the idea that newspapers could attract audiences with stories that had broader appeal. What that new kind of news looked like differed according to each penny paper. The Herald explored the use of narratives that incorporated greater emphasis on the writer’s observations and on interviews. The Times represented the interests of the Republican party in a way that, Raymond believed, offered an alternative to the heated rhetoric of partisan papers that preceded it.
By the late nineteenth century, it was the Herald that appeared to be outpacing the Times. The Herald became a leader in exploring the potential of the telegraph for news making, starting with coverage of the Mexican-American War and political speeches. Its expansion to Paris in 1887 was an extension of this experimentation, enabled by the transatlantic telegraph cable (and also an enabler itself of further development and investment in telegraphic technology.) While the Herald added a new international dimension to its brand through the publication of the Paris Herald (it became the International Herald Tribune in 1967), the Times struggled for readership as it transitioned to an independent paper in the 1880s.
It was not until Alfred Ochs purchased the Times in 1896 and began to reinvent the paper’s brand of news, yet again, that the Times began to build the reputation that made it a leading institution of U.S. news in the last century. This time, Ochs presented the paper’s news as a measured, dispassionate alternative to the “freak journalism” of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. This was Ochs’s way of characterizing the sensationalism of what came to be known as the “yellow journalism” of the World and the Journal in the 1890s. It was in that context that Ochs developed the familiar motto for the Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
These twists and turns in the history of both papers (which are the subject of many books and can only be treated cursorily here) offer a reminder that news-industry changes in the use of technology and business models that are evident in the Times’s new identity as the International New York Times accompany changes in the very idea of what qualifies as news. From Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.’s announcement last week:
“It is our belief that The International New York Times will help you experience the world, while connecting and engaging with a global community of politically and culturally passionate people.”
This choice of words is revealing. Since its campaign against the World and the Journal in the 1890s, the Times has built its reputation on the strength of the professional perspective provided by its reporters and the balanced, dispassionate view that they provide of the news. Although Sulzberger’s description does not contradict these elements, they are not what he chooses to highlight in his description of what the International New York Times has to offer. His emphasis on “you,” the reader, as well as the alignment of the paper with a community of “politically and culturally passionate people,” suggests that the Times may be building a different kind of value proposition from the one that it has developed over the past century–or at least adding new elements to it.
These subtle clues from last week’s launch of the International New York Times align with others that have appeared in various experiments in which the Times has engaged as it has adapted to the digital world of news. From its recently closed exploration of hyperlocal news, The Local East Village (which it supported in partnership with NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, from 2010 until earlier this year), to its OpDocs project that brings documentaries to the digital paper’s editorial pages, the Times is working on a variety of fronts to research and develop what will become the future of news. As it does so, the company is straddling its identity as the paper that prints “all the news that’s fit to print” and a new, emerging identity that encompasses new values, such as the representation of local community voices and the ability to provide readers with methods of connecting with communities representing their own interests and passions.
For those of us interested in media change past and present, it will be revealing to watch how a leading institution of the news industry of the last century endeavors to shape the direction of news in the next. Most likely, the Times–in its new global, digital form(s)–will attempt to tackle this challenge in ways that diverge from the efforts of some new organizations seeking to make their own mark on the news industry. I am thinking, in particular, of the other big news story in the world of news from last week: the partnership between Glenn Greenwald and Pierre Omidyar reported by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. While the model for that news organization is still in development, Greenwald’s and Omidyar’s interest in building an organization that provides support and a great deal of autonomy to reporters who have already established a readership may provide another, competing avenue for the future of news.