Bag it, Tag it: A post-mortem for the New York Sun

You learn lots of interesting things about people when you have a grocery eye view of their world. In the space of two tightly packed paper bags, you can tell who’s vegan, who’s only able to buy groceries with government assistance, who’s getting government assistance for groceries but can still afford an iPhone and Chanel bag, whose kids need an extra boost of protein, the number and appetite of people’s cats, etc.

Today I learned that one of the last things the New York Sun did was to give very nice, sturdy and easy to carry tote bags to its employees. Then it ceased publication and laid nearly everybody off.

This I found out from the woman at my register today who brought the bag to fill with her groceries. She used to cover music for the Sun until it shuttered in September of last year.

Do you still write at all? I asked

“Yes, if I can find anyone who will actually pay me to do it.”

The Sun was an interesting and worthwhile (despite reportedly hemorraghing $1 million a month) experiment in big-city journalism that launched in 2002. Interesting because it attempted to land a massive, fully armed battle helicopter right on the crumbling ledge of the cliff the rest of the print world was digging into with cracking fingernails. Worthwhile because it highlighted smart writing, intelligent coverage and tried to inject the kind of sensible, academic conservative dialogue that William F. Buckley advocated into the New York City liberal gestalt. Worthwhile also because the introduction of a new newspaper in New York City in 2002 was a big, steaming middle finger to the prevailing trends at the time that even that frozen bag of edamame I put in the woman’s bag could have seen was a ridiculous time to invest money in a new print publication with a staff of 110 full-timers.

The Sun’s closure last fall was immenent and anticlimactic, because it didn’t have the cultural tenure of The New York Times or the Daily News, or the intensely important niche coverage of the Wall Street Journal and because it was appreciated more in concept than in practice.

I told the woman that I am also a former newspaper reporter, that I still cover music for the paper down South (though that is gradually and predictably fading away) and had some stuff run on Billboard at my peak (though I haven’t heard a word from them since my one connection left to be the music director for Jimmy Fallon’s show).

“Have you tried blogs?” the lady asked, a question which I couldn’t immediately determine whether it was borne out of hopeful sincerity or sarcastically sadism.

Yes, I said. And the truth is, I said, I’m more interested in just being involved in important writing than I am in getting paid for it, but it would be nice to make a living off it again some day.

Her advice: A friend of hers, Michael Azerrad, wanted to be a music writer. He started writing dozens and dozens of back-of-the-book reviews for Rolling Stone for barely any pay. Then, finally, he became a top writer for the magazine before writing Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, probably the definitive biography of the band published just a few months before Kurt (or Courtney … OH NO HE DIDN’T) shot himself.

“Sometimes you just have to write for low pay or free or whatever until you get to that level of name recognition before you can move on to something better,” she said. “Of course, that was in the 80s.”

She talked about how she writes for some blogs herself for not much pay nowadays. “Everyone’s having trouble,” she said, which made me feel slightly better about my situation, just like when I read the tweet (still don’t care for that word) from Susan Orlean the other day about her fellow Nieman fellows being out of work.

No, I didn’t get her name. I was about to ask but then she ran off, not even opting to fill out the raffle ticket you get when you bring your own bag, even if it is for a defunct media enterprise.

The history of journalism is littered with the empty shells of worthy competitors who held their own against the big city titans but were ultimately plowed under by financial problems or natural selection. The Raleigh Times lost out to the N&O eventually. The Washington Star is the prime example — a paper that probably at times hit harder and faster than The Washington Post, with a scrappier attitude that certainly kept the editors and reporters at the bigger Post on their toes, always wary of what the competition was up to. The Star was lousy with talented journalists who went on to do great things: Howie Kurtz, MoDo, Fred Barnes, Jack Germond, Mary McGrory and many others (including like 10 of my J school profs at Maryland) worked there before it shut down in 1981, a month before I was born [shotgun on the book idea about the Washington Star, fyi, you idea-grubbing hounds]. The Sun stood toe-to-toe with the Times on some of its cultural reporting, but just couldn’t make ends meet in this print-purging environment.

It reminded me of another transaction at the register about two weeks ago. The woman fumbled with her purse and pulled aside a few loose bills and change.

“Oops, that’s my newspaper money,” she said.

You seem a bit old for a paper route, I said.

“No, I use it to buy papers with,” she said. “Three papers a day, ever since I was a kid. The Times, the Post and the Daily News.”

Wow, good for you, I said, not revealing my ink-stained background.

She went on an unprovoked rant about how important newspapers were as grease in the wheels of democracy, how blogs will never replace the in-depth reporting of newspapers, how she doesn’t even look at ads online but will sometimes actually seek them out in the print paper (you’re looking at them online, even if you don’t realize it, I thought, and it’s a marketer’s dream that lives in your subconscious).

Good for you, I said with sincerity. I told her I worked for newspapers for a few years before being effectively chased out.

“You should get back into it,”  she said. “Don’t give up on it!”

Uh, yeah. If only it were that simple.

Then today I came across this bit of info from the Nieman J Lab web site (see how deliciously circular these posts are?) a few weeks ago talking about how the New York Sun web site is threatening resurgence. The site still grabs about 100,000 hits per month even in its defunct state (by comparison, this site has reached about 3,500/month at its peak), and is showing signs of life with new blog posts and a resumption of the Out and About column online.

As I was writing this, my roommate and I had a brief conversation about how solid the writing in The Sun was particularly in its arts-and-culture side, and how interesting it was for the right-of-center publication to try to stake out a place in New York City.

Maybe The ethos of the Sun still has a place in New York City. Maybe the enthusiasm of the customer who sets aside her money for three papers every day will spread wide and far.

But before she left, the lady with the New York Sun bag said this:

“Well, maybe I’ll end up working at Trader Joe’s some day.”

Hell, I said, that’s how I ended up here. Another employee, James, used to work at the now-shuttered Ann Arbor News and the Detroit Free Press before landing in TJ’s BK.

But we’re not hiring right now, lady, so just get in line, OK?

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2 responses to “Bag it, Tag it: A post-mortem for the New York Sun

  1. Ah, the Sun. I have only vague memories, and even though they got manic over the city’s Arabic public school, they had a secret weapon that kept bringing me back: Tim Marchman. Dude was the best baseball writer in NYC, hands down. It’s a damn shame none of the locals picked him up after the Sun folded.

  2. But of course you’ll tell me first if TJ’s is hiring, right?

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