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Nikki Usher: The IHT wasn’t just a brand or a history — it was an alternate editorial lens

The International Herald Tribune will soon be a newspaper for the history books, but its de-Americanizing frame may prove useful in a globalized world.
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The New York Times marked the end of an era Monday with its announcement that The International Herald Tribune would be losing its name. The newspaper will now be named The International New York Times. The masthead, seen on newsstands from Pakistan to Paris, will change too.

This has been a long time coming if you’ve watched at the words and actions of the Times Company. In 2007, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. noted his flagship newspaper’s international presence:

It’s an international paper now. I mean, important. Important. Between The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, which carries New York Times journalism — right? — in print and on the Web, we are an international paper.

But The International Herald Tribune is not the International New York Times in culture, practice or personality, nor do its journalists particularly want it to be. I can tell you this based on my time spent in 2010 gathering data from both the IHT’s Paris and Hong Kong bureaus. Then, IHT executive editor Alison Smale explained to me what she saw as the identity of the IHT’s European edition:

James Gordon Bennet established the International Herald Tribune in 1887 for Americans coming over here to buy paintings and nice clothes and to enjoy the finer points of European life. Slowly Americans needed news from home…and about the whole world in language they could understand. That’s the founding principle.

We are never ashamed that we are are a newspaper for the elite. In putting together The International Herald Tribune, we like to think of it as a conversational menu for the global dinner party.

And then she laughed and noted that all New York thought Paris did was sit and have two-hour lunches over wine.

Philip McClellan, the IHT’s deputy managing editor for Asia, saw his paper as the “hometown newspaper” for expats, or for people like himself who happened to be from everywhere. It was distinctly global in nature and not American-focused.

In Paris, journalists would sit around a conference table trying to get a meager staff to cover stories that The New York Times foreign desk was likely to find insignificant: tales of movers and shakers in the British Parliament, protests in Italy, European privacy concerns on the web. As IHT journalist David Jolly put it: “We have a distinctly European point of view. We write things differently. We cater to a different audience.”

McClellan noted that the IHT practiced a de-Americanizing of Times-generated content:

We take out whole paragraphs and often go to a reporter and say, “We love your story, but we don’t want it to sound like it’s American.” We edit and report stories in global context…If it were an ideal world, we would add some sort of local interest to every story.

One wonders whether the end to the print branding of The International Herald Tribune will be a death knell to this distinct way of approaching news coverage. Already by 2009, The International Herald Tribune was being stripped of its identity, with its website IHT.com (once considered an innovator in news design online) redirected to global.nyt.com. The loss of this branding hit both Paris and Hong Kong in the gut. As one top editor noted:

I don’t think it serves our needs. The website is not the International Herald Tribune — it is the global website for New York Times foreign correspondents. It is the foreign page with an International Herald Tribune banner.

We used to do special things — slide shows, sometimes. Now it takes a long time to get anything special done. You have to go through layers of bureaucracy.

Watching the IHT in operation, particularly from Paris, made it abundantly clear how the newspaper had gradually lost its autonomy to New York. The IHT staff was small, and Times foreign correspondents got first dibs on the big story. Editor Lauren Cabell compared it to a “staff at a college newspaper.” New York wouldn’t cater to issues IHT journalists thought their readers might want to read about.

In fact, when I was there, the Paris operation had only recently been invited to Page One meetings (whose scheduled time had recently been changed, in part to accomodate the IHT) via teleconference. And all Smale could do to state her interest in a story she’d like to get finished in time for European IHT deadlines was simply pipe up over the teleconference that she was particularly interested in a story. Generally, there was little communication about whether this story would actually be ready on time, as it was often of secondary interest to The New York Times.

Deadlines in Paris had gotten shorter and shorter due to New York dictates — creeping backwards from midnight to 9 p.m. That meant that, given the time difference with New York and the lack of original IHT content, that Paris journalists simply had to hope that Times writers were done with their copy in time for the print edition.

IHT writers got extra kudos if their stories made the Times’ front page, with the working assumption that IHT stories were less significant (and less well written) than Times stories. Reporter Nicola Clark told me what a big deal it had been for her to be on the front page of The Times when the Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajokull interrupted European air traffic in 2010.

In New York, I would walk by or listen to editors who would snipe at the quality of IHT coverage; they might laugh at the layout of the newspaper, question the quality of quotes or the conception of a lede, or otherwise deride the produce as inferior material worthy of sticking into a slot on the web during the morning hours before better material came in — or on the inside of the print paper.

Managing editor Tom Redburn was viewed as legitimate because he had previously been at the Times, so the Times’ business desk had an amicable working relationship. Working at the mothership — even for just a little bit — was viewed by International Herald Tribune employees as a sign that they were valued and noticed by the Times Company. (Redburn returned to New York last year.)

The International Herald Tribune has been a brand for 40 years, but the idea of an expat paper written for the leisure/elite business class seems distinctly at odds with the hard-charging vision of The New York Times. Perhaps in a globalizing digital world, stopping to sip coffee and read an American newspaper in Paris is a luxury two centuries old. But the death of a brand is also a signal of a change in mission — with equally the potential for reinvention as well as the potential for loss. With the end of The International Herald Tribune, I can’t help but see the loss of a particular identity for journalists and readers abroad.

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Her dissertation research, which she is currently turning into a book, included ethnographic research at The New York Times.

Still from Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1960), featuring New York Herald Tribune vendor Patricia (Jean Seberg) wandering the streets of Paris with Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

                                   
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  • maryhui

    Very interesting – thank you for a most insightful post.

  • Robb Montgomery

    This is a nice peek into the backshop details of insecure newsroom egos, but failing to mention or even recognize that the loss of The Washington’s Post’s partnership in producing the IHT is a detail that should have not been excluded a report like this. I am an American journalist living in Berlin

  • http://www.ofstrangersensibilities.com/ Joy Of Stranger Sensibilities

    Fascinating insight into a change reported by many but is not discussed in detail.

  • Catherine Hope Keller

    I worked at the IHT for four years in the ’90s, editing the editorial and op-ed pages. It was a wonderful experience, especially so because it was the IHT that inspired me to become a journalist in the first place. Jettisoning the name is an act of hubris that I think will backfire. On verra.

  • Catherine Hope Keller

    P.S. That’s not my picture with my post!