As I have done every weekday morning for the past few years, I opened the door of my apartment yesterday to pick up my copy of the New York Sun. Immediately, I spotted the headline above the fold announcing the paper’s demise. No surprise, of course. All of us who counted ourselves as the Sun’s friends knew this day was coming. Still, the paper’s demise is a profoundly sad moment for the city. It feels as if a cherished and inspirational colleague has passed away and, moreover, that our democracy and civic life are diminished.
Before the Sun published its first issue on April 16, 2002, I had conversations with media wags of every political persuasion who predicted that it just couldn’t be done. After all, the newspaper business as a whole was already contracting under the challenge of the Internet, and all of New York’s other city dailies were struggling. The conventional wisdom was that starting a conservative-oriented daily broadsheet with a limited circulation base, in the most liberal city in the nation, was a fool’s mission. Founding editor Seth Lipsky seemed like one of those romantic, ink-stained newspaper wretches, a throwback to the era of Ben Hecht’s Front Page.
The fiscal realists were eventually proven right, of course, about the balance sheets. But what a romance in political and cultural journalism we have experienced over the last six and a half years. The Sun proved in the field of newspapers something I learned again and again in covering education: there are lots of talented people out there in every community with none of the traditional credentials for entry into the professional guild, but who nevertheless can become great contributors.
Lipsky was able to recruit lots of bright kids out of the best colleges by dangling the lure of instant entry into the world of big-city newspapers. With a little on-the-job training, many of those young people became beat reporters who soon ran rings around their competitors. Elizabeth Green came to the Sun a year out of Harvard and quickly become the best education reporter in the city, breaking story after story that revealed the gap between what City Hall and the state were saying about student academic achievement and the reality in the schools. Lipsky also had a knack for discovering talent off the beaten track right here in the city. Andrew Wolf was an unknown publisher of two small community newspapers in the Riverdale section of the Bronx when serendipity brought him to the Sun’s attention. Wolf’s reporting on education, the sleazy world of Bronx Democratic Party politics, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s misguided initiatives on food, became must reading for political and education junkies. Plus, his columns were often hilariously funny.
Lipsky counts Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as friends; some of the paper’s financial backers were also Bloomberg and Klein confidants. So it’s even more admirable that Lipsky steadfastly stood by writers like Green and Wolf, even when their work drew angry complaints from the education department. After Mayor Bloomberg publicly criticized Green at a press conference for questioning the city’s data on graduation rates, Lipsky responded with an editorial backing his reporter and chastising his friend, the mayor. If only more publishers showed such courage.
Though a paper with a sharp political agenda, the Sun nevertheless provided its readers with a treasure of delightful adornments, including some of the best arts coverage and book reviews in the city; an excellent sports section, topped by Tim Marchman’s prescient analysis of why our local baseball heroes were just not up to the job this year; John Hollinger’s peerless basketball columns, and the city’s only regular soccer column; Peter Hellman’ regular wine column; and superb coverage of photography by William Meyers. I even found myself reading Amanda Gordon’s society column every morning, with its photos revealing who was out with whom at the best social events of the previous evening.
But the single greatest void left by the death of the Sun will likely be its principled commitment to telling the unvarnished truth about the great struggle of our times—the battle between democratic civilization and the forces of worldwide jihad. In some respects, the Sun was a Jewish paper in its editorial management, its financial backing, and its staff. And it didn’t try to hide its passions or equivocate about the moral imperative of defending Israel. It was openly Zionist at a time when that label has become a term of disdain in the sophisticated world of liberal opinion. It refused to be deterred by the bogus charge of “dual loyalty” hurled by academics like Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and nervous Jewish journalists like Time magazine’s Joe Klein. Almost every week for the past six-plus years, the Sun ran a column by the brilliant Israeli (originally American) writer Hillel Halkin that invited readers to see Israeli democracy and society, warts and all, from the inside. More than any other daily newspaper of our time, the Sun helped its readers understand that in standing up for the defense of Israel, they were also standing up for the defense of America.