For the past 35 years, two of the great engines of daily American journalism -- the New York Times and The Washington Post -- have combined their resources to produce a third newspaper, one that hundreds of thousands of readers around the world view as one of the world's great newspapers -- the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.
The Times and The Post, intensely competitive in every way, were always an odd couple. Yet the marriage worked, at least for readers. That is, until last Tuesday, when the Times started divorce proceedings. Both companies announced that the Times was buying out The Post's share. For Post reporters and correspondents, whose work will soon no longer appear in the pages of whatever newspaper the IHT becomes, there is undoubtedly more than a little sadness in this breakup. For Post owners and managers, there were unmistakable signs of anger and bitterness as well. A statement by Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham and top executives said the decision was made "with great reluctance and sadness -- and little choice."
There was also a touch of irony for those with long memories. In 1966, the owner of the venerable New York Herald Tribune, John Hay Whitney, began to shut that paper down but sought to keep alive its Paris edition, which had been started in 1887. The Washington Post's Katharine Graham joined Whitney as a partner that year and the Paris Tribune had another life. By 1967, an earlier six-year effort by the New York Times to produce an international edition was failing financially, and Whitney and The Post welcomed the Times into a new three-way partnership that gave birth to the International Herald Tribune. The two papers have owned the IHT 50-50 since 1991.
The Times' statement to its staff Tuesday said that it has "no plans to change the IHT's operations and management." Still, it would not be surprising to see the Times relaunch, in some fashion, an international edition that seeks to build on the IHT. The Times is a big, excellent and expansive newspaper, and it has a big head of steam; it has the next generation of its family ownership in place, new presses, a new editor, seven Pulitzer Prizes last year, a national edition pretty well established around the country, gains in circulation where others are slipping, and a new headquarters in the works.
It can also, however, have a big head. A book by Charles L. Robertson about the Tribune's first hundred years recalls the caution of a former Times executive about the sagging competitive prospects in the 1960s for the earlier international edition, stating that in New York, it is assumed that anything with the name "Times" on it is better.
Before I started this job two years ago, I was the executive editor of the IHT from mid-1996 to mid-2000. It is one of the great blessings journalism has to bestow, not because it's Paris, which is nice, but because it is a joy to be able to choose from the best work of the Times and The Post every day, as well as the occasional Los Angeles Times piece through its joint news service with The Post. The editors can produce a newspaper that simply does not exist anywhere else. The parent papers are different, with different personalities, but with combined resources that simply cannot be matched. As good as the Times is, The Post produces scores of exclusive stories, angles and insights, and it frequently leads the field on many stories. Readers won't get that anymore. The sum of the Tribune always seemed greater than its parts to readers abroad.
The Tribune is a paper with an extraordinary history. There is a romance, mystique and quirkiness about it that has drawn readers to it for more than a century. The Post was a vital part of its modern chemistry. Even though it is a "local" newspaper, The Post always seemed to be as well known and respected abroad as the Times, maybe even more well known because of its Watergate fame. When I was a correspondent for The Post in Central Europe from 1975 to 1980, for example, I was struck by how much The Post, because of Watergate, had become a symbol to dissidents in Eastern Europe struggling against communist regimes.
One of the things I did in Paris regularly was read the comments on the subscription renewals to remind me how much English-speaking people around the world depended on that paper and how much of a lifeline it was to Americans, in particular. The paper will soon speak with one voice instead of two. The Times says, "Over the long term the IHT will benefit significantly from having a single owner." It will be the readers, and the advertisers, who will be the judge of that.