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September 4, 2008

Lean Times at The New York Sun

They've always done things differently at the New York Sun. The very act of opening a print-centric newspaper in the new millennium is anachronistic, not unlike designing a new horse carriage at the dawn of the automotive age—albeit one that has a tendency to veer to the right. Now, in its most desperate hour, the paper may have to consider its non-traditional roots and try something drastic to help keep it afloat.

New York Sun
In a recent editorial by editor Seth Lipsky, the Sun announced that its perpetual financial troubles could spell the end of the paper as soon as the start of October. Ostensibly, the editorial was written to keep readers informed of the paper's precarious situation, yet it served another purpose as well. The Sun was acting as what many of its readers would call a schnorrer, not so subtly hinting that if it wouldn’t kill you, and you had a little something to spare, it could really use the help because you know, you wouldn't want the pro-Israel counterweight to the New York Times to just sit back and die, would you? Of course, they couldn't actually write the editorial in your bubbe's voice, so they adopted the language of Wall Street instead:
"Our losses, which are substantial, have been covered so far by a group of investors whom we would call heroic. And they are prepared to continue to back the enterprise with new capital. But as costs rise and the advertising market for newspapers generally tightens, keeping the Sun alive and moving it toward self-sufficiency will require broadening the base of investors beyond the original group."

The paper's original investors are labeled "heroic" because they were willing to sink money into a losing project for several years. Now, the paper admits that rising print costs and dwindling ad prices are only going to make matters worse. Clearly, this is not a sound financial investment.

But the truth is that the paper isn't looking for investors; it's looking for benefactors. So why hide it? Actual investors would rather burn their money themselves than put it behind a fledgling newspaper—unless it were some sort of vanity project. On the other hand, the Sun's readers, generally speaking, are a wealthy and passionate group that might respond well to a pledge-drive or other charity gimmick usually seen on public television or radio. Were they to make the transition to become a full-fledged charity, they wouldn't be alone as a not-for-profit newspaper. Thousands of college and high-school newspapers around the country are subsidized products. The St. Petersburg Times is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute. ProPublica, while not actually a newspaper, is a news service providing investigative journalism in the public's interest, and has actually partnered with the Sun in the past.

It's a trying time for newspapers—something the Sun knew from the day it was launched—and if a paper can't actually turn a profit, admitting that they're not really looking to turn one would be a service to themselves, their readers, and their, ahem, investors.

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