The New York Sun — yes, it's still around — isn't doing so well, and it would seem that deputy managing editor Robert Messenger is on the case. According to a tragic email sent our way, Messenger wants to refocus the paper: it's time to confess that the Sun is no general-interest publication and restructure accordingly. Of course, he might not really care, because we also hear he's trying to move to The Atlantic.
Before he potentially jumps ship, however, Messenger has lots of thoughts as to why the paper is "floundering" and which high-paid staffers should be immediately cut. After the jump, Messenger's alleged emails and the faint smell of pink slips and shitstorms.
——Begin Forwarded Message——
To: Seth Lipsky, Ira Stoll
From: Robert Messenger
Dear Seth and Ira,
We all know that we are overbudget and need to spend less money. This is perfectly possible, but it is essential that we set out our strategic goals and then act upon them within our budget constraints.
I've returned to a newsroom full of depressed people, wondering what is going on and if the paper is failing. Morale is low and I think we have no idea where we are headed.
Holding the page count down is fine and essential but that means we need to make strategic decisions about what we should be emphasizing in the paper. Right now we are just killing off editorial [...] which means we are paying for editors, reporters at work for no reason [...] but don't need it.
We need to immediately settle on a strategic plan for the paper going forward. The staff keeps wandering through my office asking me questions I can't answer and no one knows how to plan their sections and their coverage.
Can it please be a priority that we decide how we are going to balance our budget and what the paper is going to emphasize over the next six months so that we can figure who should be working here and what they should be doing.
We are floundering and if it continues, we will watch our most valuable employees move on to other companies over the course of the summer.
I don't mean to paint a grim picture, but most of the questions we need to answer have been hanging around since November. They are beyond pressing.
Thank you, Robert
Deputy Managing Editor
The New York Sun
To: Seth Lipsky, Ira Stoll
From: Robert Messenger, Stephen Hastings
Date: May 10, 2005
Subject: Strategic Positioning
The current model has the newspaper positioned in the NYC market as a conservative general interest newspaper. I have over the last several weeks and months come to the conclusion that this, given the market, competitive environment and available resources is a fundamental error. One of the hurdles the Sun has encountered in the past is that we have tried to sell ads in the newspaper as if it was another general interest daily paper. This belies a lack of understanding about both audience and product. The Sun offers many of the features of a general interest daily; however it is, in fact, more of niche product catering to a specific audience with equally specific features and benefits.
The newspapers outward appearance suggests it is not a niche product, however, closer inspection reveals several differences between us and the other general interest newspapers in the market.
1. We are generally a politically conservative paper in an overwhelmingly liberal urban market.
2. We focus very heavily on the Arts.
3. We attract a much more affluent, well educated core audience than general interest newspapers do.
4. For a newspaper our size we offer significantly more original content; in part to differentiate ourselves from competitors.
Unlike a general interest paper we need to sell demographics not audience size.
1. We cannot, and likely never will be able to sell numbers the way other papers do in this market. Therefore we need to sell quality and not quantity. While it sounds painfully simple, it is not the traditional newspaper sell.
2. We need to learn lessons from other publications which have started and successfully carved out a niche for themselves in the market and have grown through a thoughtful and focused exploitation of that niche. Two prime examples are Metro in Europe, Canada and the US and the Jewish Chronicle in London.
3. While radically different products, they have both defined their niche and have taken advertising dollars from other newspapers by offering a different approach while selling a unique and targeted audience.
If we accept the niche strategy, which was the initial premise of the Sun, we need to determine what the focus of the paper will be. Over time the Sun has moved from the initial niche strategy and has expanded it coverage and focus. We have added Travel, parenting, dining and other pages designed to attract both advertisers and readers.
Unfortunately the size of the Sun, its resources and scope have resulted have prevented these strategies from succeeding. In most papers these sections have long lead time, as an example it is not uncommon for the schedule of travel features to be set 6 to 9 Rather than deciding what we don't want in the paper, we should look at what we want, what are the anchors of the product that we can build a core audience around.
In my view the elements should include the following:
1. Local News
New York City focused dealing with politics, government, and real estate.
2. The Arts
Our Arts section is first class; it is one of the staples of our brand and must be continued and built.
3. Opinion and & Editorial
As a conservative newspaper this is section which should be increased, we should offer more columns and not less. Money from areas of the paper that are not continued should be funneled here.
However, opinion and should not simply be focused on politics or government
4. New York City focused dealing with politics, government, real estate
These sections contain the majority of the best writing and opinion. Each can be improved, but they are what we are being read for. I believe we should continue to focus on these sections as well as renewed focus on expanding our movie, food, and real estate coverage.
We should consider adding a third page and modeling our design more on the Guardian's comment section. We couldn't go wrong adding more opinion and it plays well nationally on the web, too.
This section and our coverage is a true success story for the newspaper. It would be nice to get more reported pieces in and to do two-sections each day, but the one thing that absolutely needs work is our ad sales against this section.
We simply aren't selling the city's best arts coverage enough. It needs a second dedicated sales rep who can, along with the current rep, focus exclusively on this category. Sales are interviewing candidates now.
We can get a great deal more advertising out of our reputation in this area.
A generally great section, but under appreciated section. Strategically we need to make decision with respect to both sports and business. In essence we do not have the resources or cash to maintain both sections in a viable and quality format. One will have to take the priority.
Given the competition in both sections this is not an easy call. There is a case to be made for both. In Robert's view sports should prevail. has done a magnificent job. They've taking the bit between their teeth and have a real following. Marchman and Hollinger are the best at their trade and what the section needs is a bit more space to build on what they've started. It also needs to be relentlessly marketed. Day in and day out we publish the best sports-writing around and no one knows. From a PR standpoint we have started, and need to continue to have both pushed to Sports Radio and TV on a daily basis.
There may be questions of whether we should have sports content in a small paper. If we are essentially a writerly paper and people have an insatiable appetite for sports writing then there is a place.
We have distinguished ourselves from the coverage in the Post and Times, and are developing a serious, although unquantified, readership. We have a really good section that could quite easily be much better and have a huge marketing bump for us if we tried to get our best commentators on radio and TV.
Metro / Local
This is a critical section for the Sun. However, we need to put more into it, in terms of reporters and pages. Adding two or three cheap young reporters and a deputy editor will put this section on a solid footing. We should be cutting elsewhere to make this section a major player in the city.
In keeping with the return of the paper to a niche strategy we need to move away from the general interest topics which are distracting the newspaper and skewing its focus and positioning.
We should cut back heavily on the features and business sections. We can also cut a fair number of columns that are expensive. The following are staff cuts which can be made immediately to the paper.
[redacted to protect the ignorant] $100,500
[similarly redacted] $75,000
[similarly redacted] $80,000
[similarly redacted] $62,000
Features ([similarly redacted]) $111,000
[similarly redacted] $70,000
We should also be able to reduce the number of editors who work in the news side, or at least reconfigure. I see no reason why we can't cut $40,000 - $100,000 out the budget from those who close the paper.
This section is un-ambitious and generally off the map in the topics and pieces it runs. We should kill the daily section and move forward in a different way. In addition it lacks the planning which allows the lead time needed to sell ads in this category.
Home, parenting, health should become occasional special sections.
Eugenia Klopsis should move to the news section.
Food and Wine should continue as a weekly section with a much greater emphasis on the things our readers want in NY dining. Food, like real estate, dominates the social discourse among our ideal audience. We should devote four pages a week to this for six months and see how the ads follow from a better package with ratings and recommendations for NYC dining. Pia Catton would be the ideal editor.
Travel should become a bimonthly and eventually monthly supplemental section with a focus on selling ads.
We should maintain our regular fashion week coverage, which is excellent and cost-effective.
Freelance saving: $130,000 (food&wine costs are a separate $120,000)
Page count savings: 5 pages per week
Our business section has not hit the mark under a half-dozen editors. We have spent money and gotten little, if nothing in return. Given the traditional coverage in the Times, WSJ, FT, IBD and flair of the Post, this is clearly and area where we can't compete without spending more money, significantly more money.
One option is to cut the section down to a daily page that summarizes the biz news and includes a small number of the columnists - one column a day with the authors on a set sked? Peek and Dorfman will fill most of the slots. We are not getting value for money with our business pages,
which amount to 12 a week with little individuality.
Careers and Personal Finance should be killed.
Freelance Savings: $300,000 ([redacted] included)
Page count savings: 7 pages per week
Obits is another place where we don't get value for money. I (Robert) love reading obituaries, but we have access to the copy of the two finest obit sections around - the Telegraph and the LA Times - we can get out an obits page everyday without a full-time editor. [Redacted] has done some nice work, but this work can replaced with wires without impacting the overall quality or
uniqueness of the paper.
We can reduce the freelance budget by making specific decisions to cut certain columnists or features. We just need to set a number and stick by it. We should review every write who receives $500 or more per column and consider what they bring to the table:
[redacted] (arts), [redacted] (arts),
[redacted] (real estate),
This is a very important weekly section for us. We should move it to a different day and make sure that it has a smart editorial direction each week. It should, ideally, be 3-4 pages per week.
It is however the case study of advertising returns on space. We have recently cut it back in page count in an effort to make the papers profitable on a contribution basis. This is the right model. For the section to grow, the line rates and revenue per page also need to grow accordingly.
There should be a set sked that allows the ad dept to focus on features type material. Theses sections will need some sort of editor, to be determined. They will include regular travel sections and the fashion coverage.
Weather, Movies, Television are each a solid weekly expense. If we are trying to be a complete general-interest paper, we need these. If not, we may find savings here.
Are we a logical venue for classified advertising? I don't know much about this side of the business, but the daily pages represent a serious chunk of real estate. I know it makes some money. Does it have growth potential or should such resources go into marketing the print product and aiming for web ad/reader growth?
We need to hire an art director. This job will set us back close to $100,000. We should be prepared for that expense.