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Media Mogul and a New Sun Rise in N.Y.

After months of buzz, a daily broadsheet is launched with backing from Conrad Black.

April 16, 2002|LAUREN SANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This morning, in the predawn hours, millions of pages were sorted, tied, trucked and heaved to the pavement beside thousands of newsstands and apartments buildings in New York City. There was the usual trio of papers that divide the city demographically: the tabs--the Daily News and New York Post--that litter the subways by 9, and the broadsheet New York Times that doormen deposit along rows of high-rise corridors. But this morning, for the first time in years, there is a new addition, a second broadsheet, stacked at newsstands alongside the long-standing rivals. Today, the New York Sun debuts after months of buzz in media columns in its own city and around the world, which have speculated not only about the paper itself, but also about one of its backers, a controversial Canadian media mogul named Lord Conrad Black.

Some might say the Sun is part debut, part resurrection. The Sun was New York's first penny paper and published from 1833 through its demise in 1950. It's mentioned in passing most Decembers, when nostalgic editors trot out its most famous column--an 1897 letter to the editor from a girl named Virginia who wanted to know if there was in fact a Santa Claus.

Today's Sun has many Santas--a board of magnate mega-millionaires who pay the rent on the lofty modern newsroom a block from where the Sun originally rose. The old Sun offered a view of City Hall over the clatter of carts and the bustle of barristers. The new one overlooks a comestibles establishment called Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits and a haberdashery shop called Hip-Hip Fashion.

But nostalgia reigns at the Sun, where editor Seth Lipsky hovers like the kind of wire-rimmed, suited man Dickens would have created had he written a novel about the news racket. Lipsky, a former Wall Street Journal star (he launched the Asian edition) and editor-in-chief of the Jewish daily the Forward, envisions the Sun as a New York-centric, big-business-wooing outlet for the conservative sensibilities he has said go unexpressed and unsatisfied in the city's dominant broadsheet.

The paper's regular roster of contributors is a veritable who's who of free market-hailing, big government-damning writers, including Reagan biographer Peggy Noonan and columnist R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., one of the founders of the right-wing American Spectator. In what some would say is ripe irony, their writing will run under the original Sun motto, "It Shines for All," which spoke to the original paper's cheerleading for labor unions, immigration and the rights of its predominantly working-class readership.

Lipsky's views and ambitions are matched by those of the backer he calls a "classical news baron"--Lord Black, whose involvement has received more column space in papers around the world than the 20 pages that make up the New York Sun. Black's media empire is the third-largest worldwide--after Rupert Murdoch's and Gannett's--and stretches from the American Midwest to Canada, England and Israel. But with all that international capital, it's his involvement within the Sun--$2 million bought him a 12% stake--that gives him his first toehold in the media capital of the world.

It's rare that one rich man's relatively small investment has attracted such attention. But Black's move is a long-expected one, gained after years of vain attempts to buy a variety of New York publications, including the weekly Observer and the Daily News.

And it's Black custom to cultivate gossip and speculation as readily as he does newspapers. He is famous for buying up entire regions of dailies--until recently he owned every newspaper in three Canadian provinces--to fund his empire, and then sinking massive amounts of his stockholders' money into papers that showcase his own political views.

This has led many critics to categorize his holdings as either business projects or money pits stamped with his neoconservative agenda, which includes his unabashed support of corporate interest and his vitriolic disdain for government regulation, welfare and what he has described as the "featherbedding greed" of organized labor.

"There's no path to New York media domination through being one of the people at the New York Sun," says media critic and Black biographer Richard Siklos. "But it is an interesting and admirable addition to the New York media scene. "People are intrigued by the paper, and by Black, by the idea ideas of a Victorian Fleet Street press baron type in the era of USA Today and 24-hour news channels."

Black's company has issued a press release "clarifying" that Black's role in the Sun would be a "passive and minority" one. But Lipsky says Black will certainly play a role in the development of the paper, both ideologically and journalistically. Their politics are aligned, he says--"that's why I wooed him"--and adds that what "Conrad says is listened to with exceptional attentiveness because he knows so much about newspapers."

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