September 30, 2008, was a sad day for readers in New York. That day, the last issue of The New York Sun, the sprightly broadsheet started by Seth Lipsky, the publisher, and Ira Stoll, the managing editor, in April of 2002, landed on the doorsteps of subscribers. Starting a major metropolitan newspaper is always an audacious enterprise. But it turned out to have been especially audacious in the early part of this decade when newspapers as a genre began an accelerating circulation and advertising decline in the face of competition from the internet and the public’s more general retreat from print.
But if the Sun labored within an ever-more-daunting business environment, it nevertheless instantly established itself as a must-read newspaper for New Yorkers interested in culture, local politics, and a view of world affairs untainted by the imperatives of political correctness. The Sun was brash, independent, intellectually omnivorous, and unashamedly pro-American. The paper was often described as “right-leaning,” but what that really meant was that it was not programmatically, reflexively left-wing. The Sun bristled with energy and reportorial curiosity. In the paper’s valedictory issue, Mr. Lipsky reprinted an excerpt of some remarks he had made to the paper’s staff. The Sun’s backers were a doughty bunch—they had expended tens of millions on this worthy adventure—and they had, as Mr. Lipsky notes,
invested in the ideal of the scoop, the notion that news is the spirit of democracy, and in the principles for which we have stood in our editorial pages—limited and honest government, equality under our Constitution and the law, free markets, sound money, and a strong foreign policy in support of freedom and democracy.
It is not an auspicious augury that praise of “limited and honest government, equality under our Constitution and the law, free markets, sound money, and a strong foreign policy in support of freedom and democracy” has an almost antique ring to it. The Sun came into being partly to resuscitate and remind us of the preciousness of those threatened civic virtues.
The Sun never completely realized its ultimate ambition—to provide The New York Times with a rival and competitor as a “paper of record.” It would have had to become much, much larger to do that. Launched at a moment when newspapers everywhere were contracting, fulfilling that ambition was just not in the cards. But on a number of fronts it not only rivaled but easily surpassed the Times. Its articles on local politics were superb, as were the pages it devoted to legal affairs. Its editorials were tough-minded, articulate, and unsentimental. Of particular interest to us at The New Criterion was the Sun’s coverage of books, culture, and the arts. The Sun’s founding culture editor was Robert Messenger, lately our Associate Editor, and he and his colleagues put together and oversaw the most vibrant and intelligent culture pages of any newspaper we know. In their range, sophistication, and freedom from the disfiguring addiction to the merely trendy, they quickly eclipsed the sclerotic coverage emitted by the Times. The Sun treated its readers as adults. It wasn’t in thrall to the publicity machines of big publishers or the city’s large cultural institutions. It published criticism, not rewritten press releases, and it intervened on an astonishing variety of topics with authority, vivid writing, and historical insight. For its cultural coverage alone, the Sun will be sorely missed.
But the loss of the Sun is troubling on other scores as well. We often have occasion to animadvert about The New York Times in this space—it’s adolescent cultural coverage and books page, its deliberate blurring of opinion and reporting, its increasingly parochial view of the world. Underwriting those specific deformations is not only a menu of political commitments but also the dangerous luxury of having lived for more than forty years without serious competition. Ever since The New York Herald-Tribune closed up shop, in 1966, the Times has been the only game in town. That has bred a culture of extraordinary arrogance, intellectual sloth, and journalistic self-entitlement. New technologies—above all the internet—did not provide the tonic of direct competition so much as they instituted a whole new game. The Sun was the first serious, if incomplete, challenge in a generation to the Times’s lumbering dominance as a daily source of news and cultural reportage. As such, the Sun provided an alternative to the echo-chamber of left-liberal elite opinion that The New York Times has increasingly mistaken for a description of reality.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 3, on page 1
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