The Life of a Newspaper (The New York Times/USA)


By SERGE SCHMEMANN

This is the last time you will be reading the International Herald Tribune; as of tomorrow, it is the International New  York Times. But weep not:

This is not the first name change for what was popularly known in its early years as the ‘‘Paris Herald,’’ and if the genealogy of a newspaper is reflected in its name (the original parent, The New York Herald, at one point the most profitable and popular paper in all the United States, ended its days as The New York World Journal Tribune), the DNA of a great paper is defined by evolution of the complex and intimate interplay of reader and editor, owner and technology.

And that is best discovered in the figurative basement of the paper, in those stacks of brown, brittle copies of old newspapers that trace the ever-changing interests, dramas, world views and pleasures   —  all that we call ‘‘news.’’

Mining these vintage broadsheets is a pleasure that may be lost to future generations if the ‘‘paper’’ goes out of newspapering.  The real gems buried in these stacks are not necessarily the ‘‘first rough drafts of history’’ that reporters like to claim as their product   —  these are easier to access in footnotes and online   —  but rather the obscure little story on an inside page (‘‘Is London Hairdresser Really a German Spy?’’) alongside an ad for a forgotten product at a forgotten price (‘‘Take Carter’s Little Liver Pills … The stomach, liver and bowels will be cleansed of poison …’’) or the society news from a time when everybody knew who everybody was (‘‘Mr. Irving  Marks, an American resident of Paris, has moved from the George V to  the Plaza Athénée, where he plans to remain indefinitely’’).

Many a brief item leaves us craving for more: An 1897 dispatch from Kronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg,  describes the arrival of President Félix Faure of France: ‘‘Ladies faint and utter strangers embrace affectionately.’’ Why?

The paper of Feb. 20, 1898, described how it took 12 Parisian policemen aided by two victims to get two muggers to the station house. Even then, one of the suspects would have escaped ‘‘had it not been for the appearance of a gigantic policeman, who goes by the name of Napoleon and who is kept on the premises specially to overpower disorderly prisoners.’’

This was the daily cafe fare of the gilded generation of ‘‘An American in Paris,’’ of the Lost Generation (‘‘America is my country and Paris is my hometown,’’  Gertrude Stein declared), of doughboys and tourists. The Paris Herald flourished at a time when the goings-on at England’s Downton Abbeys were still news even as a new social era was fast rising: A cartoon I found from 1896 shows two women resting in front of their modern bicycles. Bell: ‘‘Why did old novels all end with ‘And they lived happily for ever after?’’’ Nell: ‘‘Because the New Woman was not known then.’’

The paper evolved with the times. The European edition founded in 1887 by the wild and wealthy owner of The New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett Jr., for his fellow American expatriates in Paris spread first to London (‘‘In order to ensure an extremely rapid delivery of the New York Herald in London, the airplanes of the Air Union Company carry it over every morning’’   —  1932), then across Europe, and finally to Asia.

Its names and owners changed from time to time   —  it became the European Edition of The New York Herald Tribune in 1924; then, in 1967, the International Herald Tribune,  under the joint ownership of The Herald Tribune, The New York Times and The Washington Post. This troika was reduced in 1991 to The Washington Post and The New York Times and then in 2003 to only The Times. And thus, as of tomorrow, it will be The International New York Times.

Whatever the name, the connection between the paper and its audience has long been clear. Already in 1911, an art magazine of the time called Lotus noted, ‘‘As all American travelers in Europe know, or should know, the ‘N.Y. Herald’ publishes in Paris a European edition that usually is spoken of as ‘The Paris Herald.’’’ (The Herald had reported a claim by the Prado Museum in Madrid that its ‘‘Mona Lisa’’ was the real one, not the Louvre’s.) And by its 100th anniversary   —  a birthday marked by a memorable feast at the Trocadéro, with the Eiffel Tower across the Seine recruited as a spectacular birthday candle   —  the Trib, aka the IHT, had become ‘‘the first global newspaper,’’ the trusted daily fare of Americans and other English-speaking travelers, businesspeople, diplomats, expatriates and journalists across Europe and Asia.

I became a regular user, and contributor, when I went abroad as a foreign correspondent 35 years ago. In my years as a New York Times correspondent in the Soviet Union, we would get the Trib in stacks, the freshest never less than four days old. But we would still devour them all   —  not so much for the news, which by then we’d learned, but   —  as with those musty stacks of Gilded Age and Jazz Age Paris Heralds   —  for a taste of the life in the world out there.

Of course, a lot of people will lament the latest name change, just as they do any change. Among the letters to the editor I read in the papers of yore, one railed against ‘‘the loud-speaker radio’’ and the ‘‘croaking and screeching of unseen tenors and sopranos’’ filling Parisian apartment houses; another ranted against central heating   —  ‘‘What can beat a good coal fire for comfort and health?’’ And newspapers, I have learned, are notoriously habit-forming   —  loyal readers resist any alteration of their daily fix.

But even back in the day, lurking among those who lamented change were always a few who welcomed it. The paper itself devoted an entire page in 1896 to advising ladies how to ride a bicycle and what to wear (and eat   —  this was France) when cycling. In 1932, one James J. Montague submitted a poem (something we don’t see much any more, alas) addressed to an infant growing up in an era of rapid technological advances: ‘‘The progress of science foretells/ That when you grow up all your work will be done/ By photo-electrical cells.’’

The fact is that the Herald/IHT/INYT (will that be the next nickname?) was itself from its inception a child of revolutionary technological advances. According to the history of the paper by Charles L. Robertson, it was industrialization and the rapid development of steamship travel after 1850 that created a new class of wealthy, Atlantic-hopping Americans. And it was the trans-Atlantic telegraph cables, first laid in 1858, that made it possible to keep them in close touch with their country, their businesses and the world. Bennett, in fact, was instrumental in lowering the cost of trans-Atlantic communications   —  and thus making a European edition of his paper economically feasible   —  by partnering with another magnate to break the monopoly of Western Union in laying trans-Atlantic cables.

The world has not ceased shrinking since. The first trans-Atlantic transmission by cable moved 98 words in 16 hours. Today, suppliers fight to shave milliseconds off the speed of transmission via fiber optic cables. But Mr. Montague’s prophecy of photo-electric everything, including eyes, has not come to pass, and it takes us as long to read those 98 words as it did in 1858. So long as that doesn’t change, we will still need trusted reporters and editors to sort out the vast waves of information sweeping this chaotic world of ours. We need those first rough drafts, the smart commentary, the impartial news, to function in these times. And we should hope that our grandchildren will delight in finding telling tidbits about our era when they find this newspaper in your attic.

 

Serge Schmemann is the editorial page editor of the International Herald Tribune and a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.

 

 

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